Less than an hour after landing at Providenciales airport in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), I’m squeezing into my swimsuit in a hotel suite suitable for royalty. A “belonger”, as island residents are called, guides me across baking-powder sand, tucks a plush beach towel into my chaise lounge and I assume navashina—the corpse pose.
Just to make sure I’m still alive, the staffers at GraceBay’s West Bay Club regularly deliver all things chilled, from watermelon wedges to sorbet to Evian spritzers. And if the heat gets unbearable, I waddle a couple metres into a turquoise sea so translucent I can see tiny fish inspecting my calloused feet.
There ain’t much to do here besides R&R and dining, but that’s fine with me. Ah, the beach life. I’ve never been anywhere as swanky as the Turks and Caicos. And Provo—as islanders call Providenciales, the most populated island in the chain—is mainly an excursion-free zone.
If you can drag yourself off the beach, let it be for a day with Caicos Dream Tours. They can pick you up from your hotel’s beach and supply snorkeling gear so you can dive in shallow water for conch. And you’d better not come up short.
“No conch, no lunch,” says Captain ‘Pop’ grinning. No need to pack sandwiches, however. “When the fish aren’t biting, you can always get conch, mainly because the waters are shallow—they are easily accessible—and not overfished,” Pop explains. “And that’s why islanders have been able to live here for thousands of years.”
Before we dive in, Pop reminds us to obey a few rules: If you collect a piece of coral or stand on a reef in flippers, you’ll walk the gangplank. Islanders are serious about protecting the delicate coral reefs. We’re also instructed to first turn the conch upside down; if the shell is bright pink, it’s Queen Conch and the best eating. Then show it to Pop; he’ll determine whether it’s big enough (AKA legal). “Throw it back if you’re rocking the cradle,” he says.
The Queen conch can typically reach 20-30 years old. However, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, its population is declining due to overfishing and poaching. But conch is sustainable in several Caribbean countries including here, thanks to well-managed queen conch fisheries. And Pop shares another tidbit: Queen conch is right handed; if you look at the pointed crown of a shell the spirals coil to the right.
Our conch hunt becomes a competition—whoever finds the biggest gets to pilot the boat to our next destination. Jennifer Barr, from Seattle, takes the helm and we blast over to HalfMoonBay, drop anchor and stroll IguanaIsland, a nature preserve where the scaly critters scurry through the brush. Meanwhile, Pop and his first mate shell and clean our catch, then mince and marinate the white meat in lime. The best sushi bar in the world couldn’t top this delicacy.
Meanwhile, Pop fishes “island style”—just a line and hook—from the stern, with a piece of conch as bait. Almost on cue, he snags a 10-pound bonefish, earning him plenty of whooping and hollering. “Since I was a boy, we learned how to give the fish some slack, pull it in and reel it out, ‘til it’s time to bring it onto the beach’” says Pop, laughing.
Once the fish is buried in ice, we slowly head back, around mangrove islands surrounded by water so intensely blue that Benjamin Moore couldn’t do it justice. We plow into open water, rockin’ to reggae and bouncing around like rubber duckies, but Pop is cool as a cucumber so we figure there’s no need to worry about rogue waves. “Water is me,” says Pop. We all agree and down another rum punch.
As if Pop planned it—which he probably did—suddenly a wild Atlantic Bluenose dolphin is darting in our wake. We learn his name is JoJo and that he’s a bit of a local celebrity. “JoJo used to let people touch him but one lady put her hand over his blow-hole a while back and she got a few cracked ribs,” said Pop, flashing those pearly whites. Obviously undeterred by the event, JoJo swims closer and flips water at us—a fitting way to end the day.
Like most islands in the Caribbean, Provo has no shortage of beach bars. Thankfully, there are no tiny umbrellas in sight. Start with a muddled raspberry mojito at Grace Bay Club’s Anacaona, whose impressive infinity bar is a 90-foot (27 metre) oblong slab of black granite stretching forever. Just about all the resorts host a lively happy hour starting precisely at 5 p.m. and many have bars smack on the beach—you can wiggle your toes in the sand as the sun goes down and contemplate the biggest decision of the day—where to have dinner
Chances are, you’ll have a well-equipped kitchen in your room, and if you’re a foodie like me, will likely spend time at the gourmet grocery store. But if cooking isn’t on your itinerary, no problem—Provo has several world-class restaurants. And when you’re surrounded by ocean, it’s a no-brainer to eat seafood. Besides conch, locavores go for grouper, snapper, soft-shell crab and spiny lobster.
Thursdays at West Bay Club, you can order a beach for two, including dinner—grilled grouper and lobster thermidor served surfside, complete with linens, silverware and your feet in the sand. And don’t miss Coyaba, where heavenly pillows of gnocchi and organic walnuts float in gorgonzola cream; the mahi-mahi and the banana-phyllo dessert with homemade ice cream ensure you’ll return. Get a table in the courtyard, where thousands of twinkle lights adorn the flora so you feel like you’re dining in Neverland (some tables allow diners complete privacy, making for a hot celeb spot).
For something less swanky, drive along the northwestern coastline for about 15 minutes into the Blue Hills and Da Conch Shack. Snag a picnic table, sip a cold brewski and decide how you want your conch—now matter how it’s served up, your conch can’t get any fresher: just a few metres from your table, staffers at the Shack are smashing open conch shells then dexterously cleaning and cutting up the tender meat. It’s stored in the shallow ocean till ordered. [SD2]
There’s so much more to this mollusk than slapping it against your ear and listening to the surf or using it as a dust collector in your bathroom. Scan most restaurant menus here and it’s obvious that conch is a major staple in the island diet. Sliced and diced ceviche-style? Curried or sauteed? Whatever you pick, start with a basket of fritters, the crack cocaine of conch cuisine. And you heard it here first—any day now, somebody’s sure to serve up conch carpaccio as an amuse-bouche.
Peter Soltesz, Da Conch Shack’s manager and a Canuck, demonstrates the aphrodisiac ritual, which requires that you eat the conch’s penis. It looks like a long silver thread and is apparently loaded with omega 3 fatty acids. It’s not for everyone. Soltesz suggests you visit during the conch festival, November 26 to 27, which he promises is “a crazy time.”
If you’re conched out, head over to the Lemon Café in the village at GraceBay for Mediterranean-Moroccan fare. The Casbah décor, from the tented ceiling to authentic Moroccan light fixtures, is a welcome change, especially for the locals. Go for the grilled calamari stuffed with harissa spiced beef and the stuffed pepper with goat cheese and pine nuts. A side of yoghurt sauce keeps the spiciness in check. [SD3]
I started to feel pangs of angst for lolling about so much, but I didn’t feel guilty enough to work off the previous night’s feast by pedalling around the island or kayaking GraceBay (likely the most exertion most visitors will do during their entire trip.) Instead, I called Pop and offered him a few bucks to tour me around the island. We drove to Blue Hills, stopped for some Kodak moments and met a couple from Boston shuffling down the road. Their rental car had broken down so we shared a basket of spicy chicken wings and drank local Bumbarra rum at Froggies beach bar [SD4] while Pop charged their battery. You’ll probably want to pick up a bottle of the 15-year-old spirit at the airport to stash in your checked luggage on the way home. The “Spirit of the Turks and Caicos” is so smooth, with hints of spice and an oaky finish, it’s almost sacrilege to mix it with anything—but I did drink some stellar rum punches and mojitos made with the eight-year-old premium stock…
If you don’t connect with someone like Pop, it’s a good idea to rent a car to cruise the island—just make sure you don’t drain the battery in the middle of nowhere. For the more adventurous, a guided tour around Blue Hills on an ATV from Froggy on the Beach will get you zipping along beach and brush trails, giving you a real feel for the island.
I returned home from the Turks and Caicos with a “don’t worry ‘bout a thing” attitude. Too bad you can’t buy that in bottles at the airport.
This charming bracelet of about 40 islands, only eight of them inhabited, gets its name from the native Turk’s Head cactus, which resembles the red fez worn in Turkey, and the Spanish word cayos, which means small islands.
The first people to inhabit the Turks and Caicos were Arawak-Lucayan Indians who, according to some local historians, were the first natives Columbus encountered when he first made landfall at Grand Turk. (Columbus’s flagship, Santa Maria, sank in local waters just to the south of the island group on Christmas night in 1492.) Pirates followed, and they found the islands’ hidden coves and bays the perfect spots to hide in after they had pillaged and plundered—only those in the know could find safe passage across the barrier reef, more than 200 miles long and 65 miles wide.
One band of pirates, the Brothers of the Coast, preyed upon Spanish treasure ships that plied the waters between Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Spain. Meanwhile the Spaniards, believing they owned everything west of Portugal, enslaved the Arawaks in the Spanish silver and gold mines on Hispaniola, where the race died out.
Next up, Bermudian salt rakers duked it out with the Spaniards and claimed the islands, harvesting and taking home with them “white gold.” From 1848 to 1962, the islands became part of Jamaica, and eventually landed in Great Britain’s treasure trove. In 1972, the Queen of England appointed a governor for the Turks and Caicos, and they are now an independent crown colony, but their currency is the U.S. dollar.
Compared to neighbouring islands, not a lot of natives— primarily descendants of African slaves brought to work on cotton plantations and salt ponds—live here, mainly because development came later. But Turks and Caicos tourism is catching up, and hotels and condos are popping up everywhere. Developers adhere to the eco-rule, which dictates that no building is higher than seven stories. And cruise ships aren’t here yet, so Provo’s beaches are pristine—you can still walk miles and be utterly alone.
“You can be naked here and nobody will notice,” said Bostonian Dianne Tanner, a regular to Provo. “I walk down the beach, see a few conch shells and I’m in la-la land. But I also love being around people and hanging out with the islanders; they are so friendly, so helpful.”
Islanders welcome outsiders, especially Canucks and celebrities. I brought a copy of Keith Richards’ book, Life, with me, hoping to get my idol’s autograph. Alas, he was nowhere to be found, likely off playing a few riffs with neighbour Sir Paul McCartney. So I had to settle for seeing JoJo the dolphin, arguably the most famous celeb in Provo.
The Canuck Connection
Canadians contribute to a good chunk of the economy in Provo, more than to any other islands in the Caribbean. Back in 1962 Canada established diplomatic relations with TCI and increasingly, Canadians-- from retirees to professionals--call Provo their home. For instance, Canucks Todd Foss at GraceBay car rentals and John Esper at Dream Boat tours have made TCI home.
According to the Canadian Parliamentary Review from 1988, “Canadians continue flowing into the Islands in record numbers, buying property, building retirement homes, establishing businesses and making investments. The economy of the Turks & Caicos clearly is benefiting even from the idea of the proposed partnership.” The idea was squashed, but a poll conducted in the 1990s showed that 90 percent of Canadians and 60 percent of TCI residents were in favour of the Turks and Caicos to become the “11th province”…
Natalie Zaidan, co-owner at the Lemon Café, who is originally from Oakville, ON, said the Turks and Caicos is so enticing to Canadians because of the direct flights and the tax-free lifestyle, and everyone speaks the same lingo. “It's like living in a British colony.”
(Apparently islanders are fed up with being a British Overseas territory and see Canada as a major boost in tourism and investment. In June 2010, the Turks and Caicos signed a tax information exchange agreement with Canada.) Heck, even Monarch butterflies flock here, where they can be spotted flitting amongst the palm trees.
TCI is all about the water and most resorts supply all the gear you need to snorkel. The ocean is typically shallow and calm—ideal for novices. Or consider getting scuba certified: deep water walls and healthy coral reefs are teeming with action. If you don’t want to take the scuba plunge, try Snuba—part snorkeling and part scuba diving. An air tank is carried on a floating raft, which gives you the freedom to explore the reef without a tank on your back.
Although all the beaches around Provo are pristine, GraceBayBeach is considered Provo’s finest. If you have kids in tow, check out SapodillaBayBeach or LongBayBeach; both have well-protected, clear waters and the shallows extend outward from the sandy shore more than 100 feet.
Seven Stars Resort
Todd Foss, Grace Bay Car Rentals
Da Conch Shack
Anacaona at the Grace Bay Club