This easily accessible island chain has come into its own as a destination with glorious beaches, deluxe resorts, and an indulgent lifestyle.
A couple of decades ago, most Caribbean know-it-alls probably couldn’t place the Turks and Caicos Islands on a map. Not today: The word is out about these British-linked archipelagos comprised of 40 low-lying and mostly undeveloped islands that loll between the southern Bahamas and Hispaniola, and just a 90-minute flight from Miami.
Credit some 230 miles of white powdery beaches, superb diving, a collection of top-drawer accommodations, gourmet restaurants and a steady stream of celebrity visits with the island chain’s newfound notoriety. The A-list comes for pleasures that are simple and straightforward; there’s not one iota of hustle-bustle.
A Split Personality
Partitioned by the 22-mile-long Columbus Passage – a mile-deep submarine canyon – the Caicos Islands on the west side of the channel is the larger group. Providenciales (known locally as Provo) is the hub for tourism. The island’s crowning glory is Grace Bay, a lustrous 12-mile stretch of velvety white sand. In the recent years, a cluster of upscale resort and private homes, and an 18-hole golf course, have sprouted along its length.
Just a dozen miles from Provo is North Caicos, perhaps the prettiest of the islands. It receives more rainfall than the other Turks and Caicos, making it notably greener, with tall trees and lush vegetation. It was once known as the Garden Island and attracted colonial planters who grew Sea Island cotton and vegetables. Wades Green Plantation offers an example of a once-thriving 18th-century Loyalist outpost.
The southern part of North Caicos is swampy, with broad estuaries that are home to a vast colony of West Indian flamingoes. North Caicos is also a popular destination for vacation-home buyers, especially around Whitby, with its stunning seven-mile beach and most of the island’s small hotels and rental villas.
Just 275 people live on Middle Caicos, where you can sign up with a local guide and head for a settlement called Conch Bar. Here, a labyrinth of caves dazzles visitors with beguiling limestone formations and resident bat populations. Ancient Lucayans would seek shelter in the caves when hurricanes passed through.
Recent archaeological excavations elsewhere on Middle Caicos have uncovered Lucayan ball courts and ceremonial grounds that date back more than 1,200 years. The Turks & Caicos National Trust has overseen the reopening of the Crossing Place Trail. The footpath, once used by Lucayans, and later by African slaves as they traveled between the island’s plantations, follows a 12-mile route along the north coast.
West Caicos and East Caicos are largely uninhabited but are lined with fine beaches enjoyed by those on visiting yachts. The Ritz-Carlton Molasses Reef Resort is close to completion on West Caicos. South Caicos was once a salt-producing island and today has a fishing port and a yachting center, along with miles of deserted beaches. Thousands of pounds of lobster and conch are exported from here annually.
The Grandest Turk
While Provo gets the lion’s share of the visitors, the center of government actually lies east of the Columbus Passage, on a sandbar known as Grand Turk, where Cockburn Town is the capital and financial center. The town has a few hotels and small inns, but it remains a low-key, traditional place notable primarily for its slow pace. Visitors can tour several restored churches and the Turks and Caicos National Museum, which has a variety of interesting exhibits about slavery, royalty and archaeology. You’ll see cannons, surgical tools and tailoring tools from a ship that sank in the early 1500s and remained undiscovered for 450 years.
A recent census of nearby Salt Cay offers this telling profile of the smallest populated island in the chain: 101 people, 63 cows, 27 donkeys, 12 automobiles and two iguanas. Day-to-day life was likely more lively back in the 17th century, when the two-mile-long island was home to a flourishing salt industry founded by the Bermudians who first settled here. They divided the island into parcels, each marked by its own windmill and salt pond, many of which still stand today. (The ruins of some homes still have piles of salt in their cellars.) From January to March, visitors flock to Salt Cay to spot humpback whales on their annual migration to the Silver Banks off Hispaniola.
Off the Beach
With no industry to pollute the fringing reefs, the underwater scene would be notable for its visibility alone. But more than 30 percent of the archipelago is protected by park or preserve status, ensuring a bounty of marine life including spotted eagle rays, turtles and huge schools of jacks. Much of the excitement is found off the Turks, where wall dives are outstanding, and more is along West Caicos and Provo. If you have time, the long trip to French Cay is rewarding. Plus, there’s the wreck of HMS Endymion, a 44-gun British frigate that fought during the Napoleonic Wars, which now lies 15 miles south of Salt Cay, just 20 feet below the surface.
Sport fishing is also a big draw, with international anglers seeking out the blue marlin, sailfish and wahoo that ply the deep blue waters. Mangrove salt flats offer a prime habitat for wily bonefish, especially along South Caicos. And on Provo, bird watchers enjoy acres of inland lakes frequented by white herons and pink flamingos.
Provo prides itself on a collection of fine restaurants that cater to every level of gourmand. While many are located in hotels, several others dot the main drag through the small downtown area. An increasing number of amenity-rich spas offer treatments in beachside cottages that catch the ocean breeze.