For many years, the islands of the Turks and Caicos have remained a faint blip on most North Americans’ tourism radar-despite the fact that these islands lie just below the Bahamas, hours closer to the mainland than the majority of more familiar Caribbean destinations. And proximity isn’t the only attraction. The varied islands of this British Overseas Territory offer spectacular beaches and a range of vacation experiences from the posh and exclusive to the simple and reclusive. If you aren’t familiar with the T&C, it’s time to discover what awaits.
1 Water World
The most stunning asset, and the one your fellow visitors won’t stop talking about, is the water. These may be the most geographically fortunate islands in the region. The Caicos Bank, Turks Bank and nearby Mouchoir and Silver banks butt up to vertiginous cliffs that plunge more than a mile below the surface. This interface of shallow and deep has created an aquatic wonderland below and a feast for the eyes above. The mottled tourmaline and laser-like jade of the shallows fades to ultramarine and then deepest cobalt just offshore. There are many islands with beautiful water, but the colors here are unique and unequalled.
2 Grace Bay
Rimming the north shore of Providenciales island is one of the best beaches in the region. Period. The sand is soft, the beach is wide, and the water that licks at the toes of the joggers, walkers and sunbathers is bathtub warm and gin clear. It’s hard to believe that a few short decades back, there were zero resorts on this beach. The beach itself is public, so you can walk it end to end and check out the many styles and varieties of accommodations along the way. Many have pools overlooking the beach and most have loungers set up for their guests, with territorial boundaries marked by different colors of umbrellas— one resort all pink, another all white. If you make the seven-mile hike along the full length, you’ll find plenty of rest stops where one can relax on a shaded deck and enjoy a nosh and an ultra-cold Turks Head lager.
3 Short Hop
Despite its emphatically off-the-beaten-track atmosphere, it’s very easy to get to the Turks and Caicos from the eastern United States. There are direct flights from Miami, Atlanta and New York. Flying time is 90 minutes from Miami, three hours from Atlanta and four hours from New York. The proximity, access and atmosphere have attracted New York’s glitterati class, who’ve discovered a place in the sun they can get to—and reliably get back from—over a long weekend.
4 Hip & Chic
The spillover of high expectations from celebrity and high-power corporate visitors has created a demand for chic on Providenciales and raised the bar for restaurants and other services across the board. The dusty days of undersupplied general stores is long gone, and, while there aren’t any Lilly Pulitzer stores as of yet, the boutiques at the more expensive resorts do offer exceptionally stylish and appropriately pricey clothing and accessories. Parrot Cay and Amanyara resorts cater to the trend conscious, and the general tone on Provo is genteel and well- heeled.
5 Gone Troppo
While the power players concentrate at the priciest places, plenty of accommodations throughout the country cater to those placed otherwise on the economic scale. There are high-value (though not necessarily inexpensive) accommodations on Provo in the condo-tel vein and even more located in private homes and apartments around the island. Once away from Provo’s population center, you’ll find guesthouses, B&Bs and small boutique hotels of all stripes. It’s possible to go completely troppo, rent a small room for a month and barely feel it in your bank account. Instead of perusing an extensive wine list, you can spend your time chowing down on fresh conch ceviche, snorkeling untrammeled reefs and exploring uninhabited islets.
6 Conched Out
The competition among restaurants, especially on Provo, has created a surprising and robust culinary culture. Food on the island is well above average for the region, and the best is on par with the swank eateries of South Beach or SoHo. The secret? Seafood—ultra fresh and lots of it. Provo has the world’s only conch farm, and the national dish is conch and grits (yes, grits—the island was colonized by planters from the American South). You may have fallen in love with conch fritters in the Bahamas or Key West, but the chefs here have taken them to a whole new plane of existence. In addition to tender, juicy conch served ceviche, Creole and cracked, there’s grouper, snapper, mahimahi, tuna and more caught in the morning and served to you by lunch. Most menus offer them in relatively simple dishes, but that just lets the incredible flavor shine more.
7 Submersible Behavior
Midway between the beaches and the ocean depths are shallow coral reefs that provide hours of exploration and underwater cliff faces that tempt scuba-equipped divers to delve a little deeper. On a number of islands, access to these coral gardens requires nothing more than a short swim from shore, while tour services deliver passengers to more distant reefs in a flotilla of craft that range from sleek speedboats to relaxed sailing catamarans. Operators offer a range of half-day adventures, but some of the best sites are reserved for all-day trips that include stops on deserted beaches.
If you’re looking for uncrowded, this is it. The mid-winter holidays will bring out a crowd in some parts of Grace Bay as snowbirds descend on the loungers, but even on comparatively bustling Provo, if you want your own private stretch of sand, you can find it. Head around the corner past Northwest Point and you’ll have your pick of empty beaches. If you’re staying on one of the other islands, merely heading a few hundred yards away from the resort’s beach will get you all the elbow room you could want and, often, your own private reef to snorkel.
The dearth of population also means no Disney-esque lines at the few well-known tourist sites or any of the scores of cool, but lesser-known, attractions: There are caves on Middle Caicos, 200-year-old graffiti atop Sapodilla Hill, salt pans on South Caicos and Salt Cay, a tidal estuary on Grand Turk plus hundreds of rocky islets all wrapped in a mantle of unfathomable depths.
10 The People
The majority of Turks Islanders are descended from Bermudian salt rakers, brought here to gather and bag salt deposits evaporated from seawater. They’re gracious hosts, only too happy to welcome visitors to the islands. The tourist economy means that just about anyone who wants a job can have one, which also means that crime is very infrequent. You’ll meet people who are genuinely glad you’re there and are anxious to help you have a good time.