Bartender Annie May says I should get Suzette to do my daughter’s braids at Blessed Joyfulness Hair Salon, because the stylist is good and fast. When I pay my bar tab I realize I don’t have enough cash for a full head of braids, so hotel owner Jenny lends me $20. Later, Brian, another local who stops by the bar, gives me a ride to the bank so I can repay her.
InsertArt(2047587)I’VE BEEN ON Grand Turk Island just two days and already know about a dozen people and several dogs by name. I have met the Turks and Caicos Islands governor, appointed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, while eating at an outdoor burger joint. I’ve heard lots of local gossip about total strangers, including one I later happen to meet, and feel a little embarrassed to know what I know.
I even inadvertently spread a false rumor about a waitress who hadn’t left town for the weekend after all, as had been reported at the Courtyard Cafe.
I knew Turks and Caicos was going to be a friendly, laid-back place the minute I set eyes on it. Uptight people, after all, don’t paint their Supreme Court building pink. Maybe we citizens of the United States could all be a little less intense about the controversial issues of the day if we painted our highest court a whimsical pastel color. Make the justices wear polo shirts and straw hats.
Those are the kind of thoughts that cross your mind on this island of sandy white beaches, homes without addresses, wild braying donkeys and domesticated horses who wander around town until an owner wants a ride, and sends a kid to fetch one. Electricity didn’t reach Grand Turk until the late 1970s. Even today, the island has fewer than 100 rooms for guests in a handful of low-rise lodgings.
And to think that this is the capital of a group of nearly 40 islands and keys just 575 miles off the U.S. coast — a mere 80-minute plane ride from Miami. It’s a miracle — and some say a tribute to the benevolent incompetence of elected officials — that these coral-rich islands aren’t covered with high-rise hotels and time-shares.
Islanders, however, recently elected a set of college-educated officials to the highest offices for the first time, and developers are busy on Providenciales, the island that hosts flights from the United States. But even on Provo, as the island is known, buildings are limited to four stories.
Turks and Caicos is not the place to come for shopping and nightlife. Come for the pristine, powdery beaches, for clear turquoise water that suddenly turns deep blue offshore, where depths drop as much as 7,000 feet. Some of the islands are nearly deserted; some are riddled with caves. Queen conch, an endangered species, is abundant here, and even farmed.
Residents of Provo are awaiting a promised movie theater, but for the moment, the islands share one cinema — a 40-seat room with a DVD player on Grand Turk. So don’t come for entertainment, or to indulge in fast-paced modern life.
Come, instead, if you wish to see thousands of rare rock iguanas that have an entire island dedicated to their preservation, to snorkel or dive among the largest and finest coral reefs in the world, or best of all, to dance with stingrays.
CARIBBEAN BUT NOT
Two huge limestone mountains ringed by coral lie beneath the Atlantic, southeast of the Bahamas, in the British West Indies. Areas that rise above the sea create six major and numerous small islands and keys over 193 square miles. Together, they create the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British overseas territory. English is the primary language. The currency is the U.S. dollar, with prices for lodgings and meals comparable to what you’d pay in Washington.
The largest island, Middle Caicos — 48 square miles — is home to 275 people. Provo’s 38 square miles is both the population center, with more than 6,000 people, and the tourism center. My first reaction on seeing Provo from an airport taxi is one of disappointment. The dry, rocky land supports little more than scrub brush. The many skeletons of buildings surrounded by heaps of broken limestone are on their way to becoming hotels and shopping centers, but look like the bombed-out remains of a war-torn land. Make a left toward Grace Bay, however, and you’ll soon understand why at least one slick travel magazine has called that beach one of the world’s best.
Later, on a tour of nearby Little Water Cay, where the iguanas live, a guide takes us to the highest point of a wooden boardwalk and says that the water to the right is the Atlantic and to the left the Caribbean.
He’s wrong — the islands are surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. But it’s easy to see why these islands could be mistaken for the Caribbean. The water is calm and crystal clear, the beaches made of the finely ground remains of coral.
On my second day, I somewhat reluctantly tear myself away from the shore and rent a jeep, with plans to visit the marina, a conch farm and a huge inland lake, Chalk Sound, whose water is said to be an unearthly shade of bluish-green.
The jeep, however, is an old rattletrap with a cloth-and-metal roof stuck in the up position. I have no luck replacing it: The entire fleet is decrepit, and a hotel receptionist tells me that’s as good as it gets. Like most motor vehicles here, the jeep was built for the American market, with the steering wheel on the left. But islanders drive on the right. This means that I drive sitting next to the curb, hoping that the other side of the jeep is somewhere near where the center line would be, if the largely unkempt roads had center lines.
But again, the water soon makes up for everything. At the neat and tidy marina that includes a restaurant and bar, I rent a two-person kayak for my daughter and me and head for Little Water Cay. We land on the sandy beach and find that, except for a guide in a wooden shack, we are the only humans on the island.
The guide comes with us as we walk the boardwalk, which is meant to protect the thousands of rock iguanas that race about on the sand below. Some scamper to the edge of the boardwalk and stop. They cock their heads, watching us watching them. The dry vegetation crackles with the sounds of iguanas going about their mating and berry-eating business. At a foot or more in length, they are the largest native land animals on the islands, and this particular species exists nowhere else on earth. The 116 acres of this sanctuary belongs to them. If they wish to sun themselves on the boardwalk, you stop and wait until they’re ready to move. I’m glad to hear they are vegetarians, and don’t bite.
After returning to the marina, we head east, stopping for lunch but giving up the driving tour before finding Chalk Sound. We’re not the only tourists confused by right-hand steering wheel, left-hand driving. After witnessing a near head-on collision, we decide we’re perfectly satisfied to spend our time touring between our hotel’s beach and freshwater pool.
FRIENDS OF GRAND TURK
This is what flying was meant to be: You awaken and realize you don’t feel like getting up for an 8 a.m. flight, so you call and book for 10 a.m., without penalty. You mosey out to the airport about 10 minutes before scheduled takeoff, check a couple of locked bags, walk onto the tarmac to board and buckle up for takeoff.
Less than an hour after leaving Provo, we arrive on Grand Turk. Five minutes after landing, we’re at our hotel and have our shoes off.
Over a Coke, we meet some of the locals at the Osprey Beach Hotel’s open-air bar, then walk a few steps to the beach. There we meet Cortney and Louie, two island boys who hang out with us on the beach the rest of our trip. During our three days here, the four of us are the only people using the small strip of beach.
The beaches of Grand Turk are not as grand as those of Provo, and the lodgings are modest. But Grand Turk is immediately the island I love. There is almost no traffic, making walking and biking a joy. The lack of development seems a plus, not a minus.
At the Courtyard Cafe, which everyone calls Phyllis’s after its owner, we chat with the few other customers, all of them transplanted Europeans or Americans.
One of these is Brian Riggs, an American who came here to volunteer on an archaeology dig nearly 30 years ago and decided to make Grand Turk his home. Until recently, he was curator of the two-story National Museum, whose most prized possessions are artifacts from the oldest European shipwreck so far discovered in the Americas. Archaeologists believe that the ship, found 20 feet under the sea on Molasses Reef, sank in about 1515.
Riggs is about to start a new job at an ecology museum that will open in Provo next year, but he agrees to take us on a tour of the National Museum during our stay. First, though, my daughter and I are eager to make arrangements to take our first-ever scuba dives. I’d been unable to reach any of the several dive companies on Grand Turk before leaving home, but my worries that it would be too late to book on arrival were misplaced. I stop by Sea Eye Dive, across the street from the Osprey. Master dive instructor Algrove “Smitty” Smith asks, “When do you want to go? Now?”
So my daughter and I spend the remainder of the afternoon learning the surprisingly simple first steps: using a mouthpiece called a regulator and retrieving it if it pops out or gets tangled; putting on a mask underwater and clearing it without surfacing; releasing and pumping air to regulate buoyancy; falling backward off a boat with heavy tanks that drag you down, believing against all logic that you will be able to resurface.
SWIMMING WITH STINGRAYS
Snorkeling along a coral reef, I once believed, was the ultimate water experience. Why adulterate such a pure activity, I thought, with tanks and suits and hoses?
I was wrong.
The morning after our hour or so of training, Smitty takes us by speedboat to the edge of a coral reef 30 feet beneath the ocean. The heavy diving tanks seem weightless underwater; I soon forget that I am breathing through artificial means. I might as well have gills, I feel so at one with the colorful fish, weaving among massive boulders and delicate, waving sea fans.
After an hour-long dive, the three of us speed across the water and pull up to the dilapidated Poop Deck. Although I didn’t find dining to be a particular strength of Turks and Caicos, we manage to get an outstanding lunch of chicken, rice, black beans and fried plantains to go. We take off again on the speedboat to picnic at uninhabited Gibbs Cay.
We’re the only humans moored beside the little island, which is rimmed with a broad, sandy beach. Soon, however, we’re joined by two stingrays that glide around and beneath the boat. We get out to swim with them.
One soon gets bored with us and heads to deeper water. The other, however, continues to play.
Smitty is more at home in the water than any man I’ve ever seen. I don a mask to watch him and the ray interact, the man nearly as graceful as the creature, as the two of them glide and turn and frolic.
I would have thought I could never tire of swimming with a stingray. But after an hour, with the skin of my hands puckered like an old woman’s, I’m ready to head home. The ray, however, keeps circling even after we get back on the boat, eemingly beckoning us to return.
“Why?” I ask Smitty. “What does the ray get out of it?’
He gives a terse, Yeats-like reply:
“It’s the dance.”
Details: Turks and Caicos
GETTING THERE: All flights from the United States to Turks and Caicos land first on Providenciales (Provo), the most developed of the islands. US Airways and American offer one-stop flights to Provo from all Washington area airports. US Airways connects through Charlotte, N.C., American through Miami. Jamaica Air flies from BWI to Provo via Montego Bay. Round-trip fares range from $450 to $800. Watch for sales or packages: Web searches of US Airways and American last week yielded January fares as low as $450, a high-season bargain.
GETTING AROUND: Two inter-island airlines operate numerous flights daily between Provo and Grand Turk, and less frequently among several other islands.
(649-941-5481) is slightly cheaper ($120) but uses even smaller planes. There is no regularly scheduled ferry service among the islands, but tour operators offer packages to visit other islands and keys.
There are no public buses, but taxi service is available on Provo and Grand Turk. Fares from Provo’s airport to most hotels run under $20, and on smaller Grand Turk, under $10.
You can rent jeeps, cars and scooters on both islands. A rickety jeep cost me $40 a day. Vehicles are American-style, with steering wheels on the left, but are driven British-style, on the right. Many roads are potholed, lumpy and bumpy.
WHERE TO STAY:
On Provo: The most developed of the sparsely settled islands has 30 hotels; I’d narrow my choices to those along the gorgeous 12-mile sweep of Grace Bay Beach. Most of the properties are fairly new, and none is more than four stories high. Most hotels on all the islands have dive packages.
I stayed at the Alexandra Resort (649-946-5807) on Grace Bay Beach. The modern four-story offers studios and apartments and a large pool around a small outdoor restaurant. Rooms on various Internet travel sites were advertised at $129; by contacting the hotel directly, I got an off-season price of $85. Rates between Nov. 15 and May 1 jump to $225 for a studio, but check the hotel for sales.
I was most enamored with the Sibonne Hotel next door (649-946-5547). The two-story building with 26 rooms and an apartment has a graceful, old-Caribbean feel, with an open-air restaurant overlooking the beach. Doubles start at $145 in the off-season, $175 in winter. Only drawback: a tiny pool.
On Grand Turk: There are fewer than 100 rooms on the entire island. The low-key, low-rise Osprey Beach Hotel (649-946-2666) isn’t fancy, but it has large rooms with kitchens and doors opening onto the beach, a friendly bar and nightly dinners around a pool facing the ocean. Doubles, all oceanfront, begin at $138 between June 30 and Dec. 21, and $158 in the height of winter.
The Manta House (649-946-1111), across the road from the ocean and just down the street from the Osprey Beach Hotel, is a good budget option. Doubles at the B-and-B begin at $67 in summer and $75 in winter. Two bungalows on the property rent from $700 to $1,300 a week.
WHERE TO EAT: On Provo, the Sibonne Hotel’s Bay Bistro Restaurant on Grace Bay Beach offers steak and fish with a gourmet flair. Most dinner entrees exceed $20. For more casual fare, try Bugaloo, a local beach hangout where curried conch and other local dishes cost about $7. Open for lunch only, unless there happens to be a special occasion, like lobster night. The Tiki Hut, overlooking the bay, has a broad Caribbean and American menu, with entrees beginning at about $15. I wish Cuba Bella (Grace Bay Plaza) hadn’t taken a short holiday while I was there; the Cuban menu looked enticing.
On Grand Turk, hotels tend to offer barbeques or local Caribbean specials on any given night. The Osprey Beach Hotel (Duke Street) grilled fish, lobster, chicken and ribs one night during my visit, with prices for most choices in the $20 range.
The best meal I ate on either island came from a shabby lunch joint called the
Poop Deck on Front Street in downtown Grand Turk. Platters of chicken, yellow rice, beans and plantains go for $6.
WATER SPORTS: Diving, fishing, boating, snorkeling and all other manner of water sports abound on both Provo and Grand Turk. The tourism board (see below) lists providers at its Web site and in a free brochure. I was impressed with both my dive instruction and boat trip to Gibbs Cay with Sea Eye Diving (800-786-0669). A resort course for beginners, including a dive, costs $110; a one-tank boat dive is $35. A boat trip to Gibbs Cay, and a good chance of swimming with stingrays, is $50.
INFORMATION: Turks and Caicos Islands Tourist Board, 800-241-0824.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company