EXCEPT FOR THOSE HEADED TO PARADISE ISLAND IN THE BAHAMAS, MOST TRAVELERS TO THE CARIBBEAN are seeking a little peace and quiet, a relaxing time on an uncrowded island.
Turks and Caicos has long been praised as a destination that fits this description. But as Home-Based Travel Agent followed the development on the islands over the last year, we found it hard to believe that they hadn't become spoiled. So, we decided to see for ourselves.
And after a three-day trip, we can say that Turks and Caicos has maintained the exotic, intimate feel that travelers crave from Caribbean islands, while offering an array of great hotels, restaurants and attractions.
First, here's a tip that will spare you some confusion. When you see "Providenciales" on your airplane ticket and not "Turks and Caicos," don't panic. The island Providenciales is the commercial center of Turks and Caicos. Commonly known as "Provo," it is on the west side of the Caicos archipelago and covers an area of about 38 square miles.
The southern part of the island faces the Caicos Bank, a shallow, pale-turquoise sea that is partly composed of swamp and tidal flats and is filled with conch and lobster. By the way, get used to conch. Slightly rubbery, but ever so tasty, it is seafood similar to calamari. Locals will fry it, grill it, or make it into chowder or soup. Any way it is prepared, it is delicious.
Turks and Caicos is nice for relaxation, but even the least adventurous travelers will be making a huge blunder if they don't take part in any of the soft adventure opportunities here.
A Diver's Dream
The Turks and Caicos islands are surrounded by coral reefs and tropical waters. Golfing, diving, snorkeling, fishing, tennis and horseback riding are all available, and scuba diving here has been rated among the world's best. Adventurous divers can experience spectacular jagged vertical walls that drop off into the deep blue sea. A tour guide pointed to Grace Bay and asked if I could see where the water turned from bright blue to dark blue. She said, "That's where the bottom drops about 900 feet."
In these waters live sharks, turtles, eagle rays and humpback whales (the latter in season). Along The Wall, the face of a 7,000-foot trench separating Grand Turk and Salt Cay from East Caicos and South Caicos, diving is especially intense. Those wall diving in South Caicos will see plenty of life in the sea, including eagle rays, Atlantic rays and black-tip sharks.
Salt Cay's best dive sites include Wanda Lust, known for its plankton-rich waters that attract whales and eagle rays; Kelly's Folly, a rolling coral garden; and HMS Endymion, a sunken 18th-century British warship.
In Gibbs Cay, you can free-dive into 25 feet of water to look for the infamous queen conch. Guides will instruct how to crack the conch and feed them to the many hungry sting rays prowling the shoreline and swimming between divers' legs.
Looking to see some terrestrial wildlife? With the most extensive national parks system in the Caribbean, Turks and Caicos has 33 protected areas, including national parks, nature reserves, sanctuaries and historical sites covering 325 square miles. These parks have vital wetlands, coral reefs, mangrove estuaries and important breeding and nesting grounds for birds and other wildlife.
Birdwatchers can spot osprey, sparrow hawks, barn owls, pelicans, frigate birds, flamingos and Cuban heron, among others. Little Water Cay, the famous iguana refuge, is one of the best places in the world to catch a glimpse of endangered rock iguanas in their natural habitat.
Turks and Caicos is also known for whale watching. You can spot humpbacks off South Caicos in January and February. The Mouchoit Bank, south of Grand Turk, has the only known breeding grounds for North Atlantic humpbacks.
At Mudjin Harbour, a half-moon lagoon, there are huge limestone caves with stalactites, stalagmites, bats, owls and salt lakes that link up with the sea. There are also remains of Lucayan Indian settlements.
As for a sport of another kind, most shopping is done at resort boutiques. However, a small craft store called Blue Hills Artisan Studio Outlet is worth seeking out. Pay close attention to the detail of the weaving; these items must take hours to make. To us, this craft says so much more about the destination than an article of clothing.