by Robin McKelvie, The Telegraph, October 9, 2019
The local tourist office gushes about the ‘Paradise Effect’ and Grand Turk certainly boasts paradisiacal qualities with its epic sunsets, sandy beaches and turquoise waters. This bijou island of fewer than 5,000 inhabitants is much more low-key than the larger and more populated Caribbean islands, suiting cruise ship passengers seeking a more laidback experience.
Cruise port location
The US$50 million Grand Turk Cruise Center, the only cruise port in the Turks and Caicos, is a purpose-built wonder, stretching across 18 acres on the island’s southern end. It boasts not only shops and restaurants, but also a white-sand beach and swimming pool. This is the departure point for excursions too.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
As both the island airport and a military facility interrupt the three-mile walk north to the island capital of Cockburn Town, walking there is not recommended. The excellent Grand Turk Cruise Center lies right down the gangplank. There is a beach there, but a better and less crowded stretch of sand lies to the north within walking distance, or a short taxi ride away, at Governor’s Beach.
Grand Turk is a tiny island, seven miles long by just over a mile wide, so walking around works. Taxis also await at the Grand Turk Cruise Center, with car hire available here too. Booking a car in advance is recommended as they can be in short supply.
What to see and do
"Lotus eating" or taking it easy is the main pastime and some passengers never make it beyond the Grand Turk Cruise Center. Push further and good beaches await, as well as the old world historic charms of the laidback island capital of Cockburn Town. A fun way of exploring is to engage a local taxi driver for a highly personal and colourful tour.
What can I do in four hours or less?
Given the island’s bijou size you really don’t need an excursion on a short visit. The Grand Turk Cruise Center easily swallows up a half day with its myriad facilities. You can swim, sunbathe, hire a cabana, dine, shop in a 45,000 sq ft shopping centre, sip cocktails and even surf in the state-of-the-art FlowRider pool.
If you are seeking more peace and quiet break off to Governor’s Beach to the north or Boaby Rock Point Beach to the south, which offers excellent shore-based snorkelling. On a self-guided tour of Cockburn Town savour the old Bermudan architecture – Bermudans first settled Grand Turk – on the bougainvillea-kissed Duke Street and Front Street.
The Turks and Caicos National Museum is the place to learn about how the isles came to be inhabited by Bermudans and the relationships with the European colonial powers and the USA. As by far the most regular visitor to Grand Turk, Carnival offers myriad excursions, from island tours through to adrenaline-pumping ATV trips. A two-hour Coast to Coast Grand Turk Safari covers the island’s highlights on an off-road adventure in an open-top truck. Cockburn Town is covered, as is Salinas with its salt industry history. There is time for a relaxed stroll through the mangroves before culminating with the Friendship Capsule, a replica of the capsule that in 1962 splashed down off Grand Turk with famous astronaut John Glenn aboard.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
An excellent way of filling a day in Grand Turk is to take a taxi for an hour-long tour to key points, such as the Grand Turk Lighthouse, a famous landmark built in 1852, and then get the driver to drop you off in Cockburn Town for a few hours over lunch. As well as checking out the Bermudan architecture you can spend time at the National Museum and visit Her Majesty’s Prison, a sobering reminder of both rough justice and the slave trade.
If you want some beach time, take a taxi from Cockburn Town to Governor's Beach, and arrange for it to pick you up later. Or walk the last leg from Governor's Beach to the cruise terminal, just over two kms.
Princess Cruises’ Gibb's Cay Stingray & Coral Reef Snorkel Adventure takes you out to the famous sand cay to swim with the wild stingrays who congregate here in large numbers. Grand Turk also offers superb snorkelling – an ocean wall drops 8,000ft just off the coast at Pillory Beach.
Marella Cruises and Carnival both offer a Snuba excursion, a good option for competent swimmers who may be too timid to go the whole hog with scuba diving. It adds a little power to the snorkelling experience, as you breathe underwater with a regulator, but no tank. After a half-hour safety briefing you enter the sea and are able to dive down to a depth of 15ft where you may well chance upon a barracuda or a nurse shark.
Eat and drink
Seafood is the staple. Highlights include the deliciously sweet spiny lobster, plus snapper and grouper, with fish often spiced with jerk seasoning. The Turks and Caicos Islands are also renowned for conch, with the world’s only conch farm in the isles so give that a go too. You will find restaurants at the Grand Turk Cruise Center and also in Cockburn Town.
Don’t leave without...
Shopping is not Grand Turk’s strongest suit, though there are plenty of opportunities for retail therapy at the Grand Turk Cruise Center. As well as the usual Caribbean nik-naks, more characterful souvenirs include those sculpted out of driftwood and seashells.
Need to know
There are no direct flights from London to Grand Turk. Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic can arrange travel with two stops (Miami and Providenciales) with a fastest journey time of around fifteen hours.
Most visits are trouble free on one of the safer islands in the Caribbean. The only real danger of pickpockets tends to be in Cockburn Town. Be wary of swimming or snorkelling alone on secluded beaches, especially on the eastern Atlantic Ocean side.
Best time to go
The Caribbean cruise season runs from December to April during the driest and sunniest season. Crucially it is usually hurricane free. The wetter months from May-November are much less popular. The best decent weather bargains tend to be found in the few weeks before and after the main season.
Unsurprisingly many shops and other businesses frame their opening hours around the comings and goings of cruise liners so you will find most open when you are here.