Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

The Turks and Caicos Islands, a haven of seaside splendor and ease

Grace Bay Beach is a 12-mile stretch of sparkling white sand on Providenciales, in the Turks and Caicos islands.
Grace Bay Beach is a 12-mile stretch of sparkling white sand on Providenciales, in the Turks and Caicos islands.

We fell in love even before touchdown. The clouds that had blocked our view during the flight to Turks and Caicos dispersed right before we landed, and we caught our first glimpse of the radiant sea. We watched as the little snail-shaped island of Providenciales materialized in the middle of the ocean, dazzled by the turquoise, aquamarine, and emerald hues of the water surrounding it.

Throughout our stay, my husband and I made a point of never letting that water out of our sight. We found it a force so relaxing that it quickly canceled out the noise of daily life.

Up to that point, 2013 had been a frantic year. Work and family had taken us all over the world, including to such taxing destinations as Afghanistan and Syria. When not traveling, we'd been drowned in paperwork buying a condo.

So, we'd shopped for a nearby holiday destination where we could just lie back and enjoy nature's show for a while. A couple of friends who had just returned from a vacation there recommended the still relatively unknown Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI). It was the perfect place, they assured us, to escape the grind.

This British Overseas Territory about 500 miles southeast of Miami consists of 40 islands and cays, only eight of which are inhabited, home to a grand total of 30,000 year-round residents. As the name suggests, TCI is made up of two archipelagos: To the east are the Turks islands, named after the native Turk's head cactus, and to the west are the Caicos, a word derived from caya hico, which, in the language of the indigenous Lucayan Indians, means "string of islands."

Providenciales, one of the Caicos, boasts the islands' largest airport and is the only real tourist hub, although it's a far cry from such overdeveloped destinations as Jamaica's Montego Bay. Provo, as the locals call it, is only 38 square miles, and while much of its development has happened in the last decade, its infrastructure is much improved, and scattered, low-rise strip malls have sprouted in the interior. There is even a small casino.

The magnificent coast has a growing but still-limited number of handsome resorts and villas, along with good restaurants and bars. These are concentrated on the north shore, overlooking the beautiful and aptly named Grace Bay.

During our nine-day stay, my husband and I took countless strolls along Grace Bay Beach's 12-mile stretch of uncontaminated, sparkling white sand. Sometimes, we walked more than an hour each way to reach some faraway waterfront cafe, returning to our hotel in complete darkness, our steps illuminated only by the stars and the moon. We always made sure that sunset would find us somewhere sipping local Turk's Head beer or Bambarra rum with a front-row seat on the ocean and that dipping orange ball of fire.

Because we can be lazy and bookwormy, a good chunk of our time on TCI was spent swimming in the calm, pool-like ocean water or planted on beach chairs with our heads buried in crime novels, our true holiday obsession. But Grace Bay's gleaming sea also spurred us onto a Hobie Cat, a toy catamaran that our hotel, like most others, made available to guests for free. It's supposedly a craft that anybody can sail, so light and safe that it's practically impossible to sink. We, however, managed to capsize the thing about 15 minutes into our ride and, unable to right it, we had to be rescued, to my husband's chagrin, by a lifeguard on a motorboat.

So we moved on to parasailing as a more rewarding way of feeding our obsession with the color of the water and of observing its many shades from above. We'd never done anything like this before, so we voiced our concerns about the rope breaking and us flying away to Capt. Conrad Brown, who picked us up in his motorboat in front of our hotel.

"You guys just made it through the hardest part of the trip," Brown told us the moment we climbed onto his boat. Hand in hand, roped to a parachute, and swinging from side to side with each gust of wind, we marveled at the sweeping views all the way out to the other coast and down to the bottom of the sea floor. I could swear that we saw a giant stingray prowling the seabed 100 feet below us.

Grace Bay isn't the only extraordinary beach on Provo. So, we rented a scooter to explore the island further. Riding along the back roads, with little traffic and the hot Caribbean breeze pressing against our skin, was a liberating experience. It took us both back to our youth, to days of riding scooters through the streets of Italy and India. Although this time we were wearing helmets.

Our first stop was Long Bay Beach. "It's a win-win," Larry Dworetsky of Paradise Scooters told us while giving us his very own "unguided guided tour" of the island. "If there's wind, the kite surfers are out, and you can watch them jump 30 feet in the air. If there's no wind, that's the most beautiful beach here, and you have it all to yourselves."

We were lucky enough to have a bit of both: The wind was blowing, and a couple of kite surfers filled the sky with their acrobatics, but there was barely anyone else around.

Five Cays Beach has the same white sand and turquoise water as every place on Providenciales, but it's more of a food and entertainment destination. The main feature is Bugaloo's, a beach shack that everybody raves about. We went, sat with our feet buried in the sand, and drank rum punch to the sound of live music.

"You guys are great," the lead singer of the Island Boys, a Bob Marley cover band, shouted to the crowd of tourists and locals. "Just as good as the weather!"

We also had our first taste of conch, a large sea snail that's TCI's premier food group. Bugaloo's spicy fritters are not to be missed.

Provo, with its shimmering beaches and waters and its abundant seafood, went a long way toward fulfilling our need for tranquillity. But we wanted to see whether we could get even farther from civilization.

North Caicos and Middle Caicos are the two largest islands. With a combined population of about 2,500, they're also a vast expanse of lush and partially impenetrable vegetation. Calling them quaint and slow-paced would be an understatement.

Take the village of Kew, on North Caicos. Kew is so small and unassuming that we rode through it twice before realizing that was it.

Driving down the only two-lane highway in our beat-up rental car, we stopped at a number of beaches, where we were the only two people in sight. It was an exhilarating feeling that I'd never experienced.

Mudjin Harbour, on Middle Caicos, is one of the better-known beaches, and a highlight. It comprises a sequence of coves carved into the coastline and hidden from view by imposing limestone cliffs. But even more exquisite was Three Marys Cays Beach in the northwestern corner of North Caicos. It's barely marked on the map, and there are no signs to guide travelers.

Sparsely inhabited and still somewhat wild, North Caicos and Middle Caicos are lands of truly outsize fantasies, where we allowed ourselves to dream of buying a shack on the beach and retiring to write to the sound of crashing waves.

 

Valentina Pasquali Washington Post
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