Within just a few minutes of our beach launch, our small boat floats atop a glassy sea that gently caresses the reef pulsing with life just below us. There is no perceptible current and while I know there is a 7,000-foot (2,100 meter) deep drop off only a few fin-kicks away I can see the bright flash of parrot fish in15 feet of water beneath me. Other than my own excitement there is not a hint of urgency to rush things as our small group of four dons masks and snorkels. Smitty, our guide, gives a jovial thumbs-up and we slip into the sun-dappled waters and begin an easy glide towards a section of the Turks Island Wall that is covered in black coral. As I make a casual free dive, I notice a train of creole wrasse parade across the shallow portion of reef while a beautiful eagle ray suddenly appears from the azure depths beyond the wall. I watch the soaring ray disappear and I can’t help but grin at the abundance of easy, but spectacular, diving and snorkeling there is in this sleepy paradise.
The islands of Grand Turk and Salt Cay are as relaxing as it gets for most island-hopping yachtsmen and airline borne visitors. Uncrowded anchorages and beaches are a stone’s throw from awesome snorkeling, small restaurants and historical buildings. And then there is that blue… that mesmerizing shade of turquoise blue. It’s everywhere and positively breathtaking.
Turks n What?
Oddly for an island group relatively close to the U.S., many people have only a vague notion of the whereabouts of the Turks and Caicos. Even the early British flag makers entrusted with rendering the design to fabric mistakenly assumed the two white salt mounds they were to copy must have been the igloos of some snowy region, rather than the blazing tropics! The island’s name certainly offers little clues to location or origin, though legend has it that the Spanish explorers found an indigenous round cactus topped with a scarlet blossom that was somehow reminiscent of a Turkish Fez. Surely Columbus would have been more creative had he viewed these small spits of land through an airplane window from 35,000 feet (10,600 meters). From this perspective the watery scenes glow with ethereal dancing swirls of shifting sands and intense variations from the brilliant aqua shallows to velvety indigo depths. It’s enough to bring a sigh to even the most jaded traveler.
The Turks can be found along with the Caicos Island group at the southeastern tip of the Bahamas where these islands are situated in the tropical Atlantic Ocean. They are positioned roughly 575 miles (925 km) southeast of Miami and only 90 miles (145 km) from the island of Hispaniola. Together, these two island groups make up the British Colony known as the Turks and Caicos Islands or TCI. One of the marvels of these islands is the 22-mile (35 km) wide stretch of ocean, known as the Christopher Columbus Passage or Turks Island Passage, which exceeds 7,000 feet (2,100 meters) in depth and separates the Caicos to the west and Turks to the east. Of the many Cays within the Turks Island group, the only populated land is on the island of Grand Turk with roughly 4,000 residents and the largest of all the cays, Salt Cay, with only about 200 residents.
Most visitors will quickly notice that days in the Turks are bright, breezy and dry with annual rainfall only a meager 20 inches per year. The upside to this climate is almost guaranteed sunshine and beautiful weather. The daily heat index climbs to as much as 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) from June to October, but closer to 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 Celsius) from November to May. Regardless of the time of year, steady breezes and reasonable humidity help keep things pleasant.
At a mere 10.5 square miles (26 square km), Grand Turk is the smallest island (as opposed to “cay” which describes the even smaller islands) within the TCI’s. The island boasts a windswept north –south limestone ridge along the outer perimeter with breezy views of the Atlantic Ocean. A lighthouse brought in pieces from England looms over the North Creek; a narrow passage through tidal flats and mangrove stands that eventually enlarges to a good-sized tidal lake. This is the island’s best “hurricane hole” for boaters and yachtsman, though depths can be tricky at low tide. It is worth a trek along the creek towards the ocean, just to see the herons, ospreys, sand pipers, pelicans (the country’s national bird) and even flamingos in their native habitat. Along the gleaming white sands of Governor’s Beach is where the historical Governor’s residence, Waterloo, can be found. There are wonderful shade trees here; Australian pines, native oaks and coconut palms.
Although the larger island of Providenciales (Provo) gets most of the Turks and Caicos tourism thanks to the overwhelming abundance of commercial resorts; Cockburn Town (pronounced Coburn) on quieter Grand Turk is the nation’s capital and the seat of Government. Front Street or the “downtown strip” is where the islands rustic charm comes to life as you stroll past the 18th and 19th century sun bleached wooden structures. A few of the original pastel colored buildings have been restored and now house small shops, a B&B and galleries. But most others that remain provide a special glimpse into a time when the streets where flourishing with a different focus than that of today.
A visit to the T & C National Museum is a fantastic experience if your interest lies in that direction. The engaging museum manager, Brian Riggs, will embark on a superb narrative chronicling the islands 500-year history including Bermudian salt rakers and American loyalist settlers.
For entertainment after hours things are pretty laid back, but a few times a week you can catch a local dive facility owner, Mitch Rolling, belting out your favorite “Marley” or “Buffet” tune. It seems the local residents or “belongers” make their way to charming venues like Salt Raker Inn or Osprey Beach Resort based on word-of-mouth that the band may be playing on any given night. Once on the scene, members (and the audience) join in add hock fashion, providing accompaniment with improvised instruments. Depending on the sobriety of both listeners and performers, the results range from entertaining to absolutely inspired!
Progress is slowly making its imprint on the island as exampled by a new hospital and the recently constructed cruise ship dock replete with Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant (thankfully well apart from the historic downtown). But on whole, the island offers old Caribbean escapism that is becoming ever rarer these days.
It should be noted that though calm seas are almost a given on the lee side of the island, there are only minimalist marina facilities on Grand Turk and Salt Cay. For those needing substantial facilities, fuel and provisioning, Providenciales offers a full service marina for large yachts and is generally only a day cruise away.
A ten-minute flight or fifty-minute boat ride southeast of Grand Turk will bring you to the smallest inhabited cay within the TCI’s. Triangular in shape and roughly 2.5 square miles (7.5square km), it is home to a friendly assortment of mostly proud Bermudian descendants and American expats. In Belfour Town at the island’s center, it is easy to rent a golf cart and get a taste of the old and the new. The Bermudian style architecture is well represented in the St John’s Anglican Church, built in the 1790’s or the “White House” who’s imposing structure dominates the shoreline and was built to withstood the test of time, hurricanes and tidal surges. Meander through the North or South districts, and you will discover stone walled alleys and streets surrounding brightly painted guesthouses. A few restaurants beckon and locals sprucing their quaint homes is a common sight. Glimpses of Turks Island Rock Iguanas scurrying across the road, donkeys feeding on sea pickle, or hungry belongers heading for lunch at local cafes (show up twice and you become a regular). Likewise, popular activities involve resting in a hammock, playing cards, reading a good book, diving or simply gazing across the endless sea. Salt Cay is true island life as many can only imagine it to be.
Water, Water, Everywhere…
With the aforementioned easygoing approach to snorkel and dive excursions - including beachfront (or even yacht-side) pick up service - there is a delightful sense of “island time” to this kind of adventure that only seems to enhance the readily available beauty around you.
Both Grand Turk and Salt Cay have enormous underwater walls for divers to explore, but shallow reefs and good snorkeling are often only a few fin kicks from shore. For slightly more skilled snorkelers, a quick skiff ride from one of the friendly dive operators over usually calm waters will bring you to numerous mooring sites that dot the western edge of the 7-mile (11 km) wall. While divers of every level will enjoy the distinctive highlights of the undulating wall, the tops of the ledges are filled with bright, healthy coral starting in depths of as little as 20 feet. With currents rarely present and stunningly clear water, snorkelers or free divers can enjoy the same sites as divers. One site in particular, the Library, is shallow and loaded with fish, including a resident Nassau Groper named “Gulp” who isn’t shy about attention.
The local boat operators provide you with a friendly island guide or dive master who will prepare your gear ahead of time, brief you about each site and join you on every plunge.
The beach is often so close, the little dive boats can run back to the beach for a relaxed respite on the sand in between time in the water. It just doesn’t get any easier. At times a visit is offered to peek beneath the municipal pier on Grand Turk. Yes, this conjures up images of broken bottles and assorted pier rubbish, but mix in three different varieties of frogfish, prolific scorpion fish, a few sea horses and picture starts to brighten. It may not be the wall, but the critters make it worth a look.
Since the islands are relatively close, most operators are willing to take you snorkeling on both islands. If the weather permits, you might begin with an early plunge off Grand Turk and during the surface interval, make a leisurely ride to Salt Cay. While at Salt Cay, we aimed for a site called Kelly’s Follies , a fun reef full of contours and peaks to explore with roving bands of schooling fish. To add a little excitement to all this festive color, there were at least six nurse sharks nestled in ledges enjoying their mid-day nap.
On return to the boat, we geared down and dried off while the dive master dropped us off for a delicious meal at Island Thyme restaurant and an informal island tour via golf cart. This kind of offbeat schedule becomes addictive after awhile! As a matter of fact, if schedules had allowed we would have been tempted to indulge in one of the many charming tiny island havens. With evocative names like Mt. Pleasant, Pirate's Hideaway, Sunset House and even Tradewinds...these cottages, quaint hotels and luxury inn's dot the island for a truly intimate island get-a-way.
Also a short boat ride from Grand Turk is lovely little Gibbs Cay that has a must-do snorkel with the friendly Southern Stingrays. Imagine doing a snorkel on an uninhabited island with rays cavorting right up to a beautiful pristine beach. Picture Grand Cayman’s famous Stingray City, minus about 300 cruise ship guests. If you tire of the rays attention, there are lots of conch to discover in the shallows and the island is ruggedly beautiful and virtually yours to explore. It’s great fun in an amazing setting.
Different seasons sometimes bring the opportunity for unique marine life encounters of other kinds. For instance, during spring or summer, manta ray sightings tend to be more frequent. While during the late winter you might just catch the annual humpback whale migration and get lucky enough to see these goliaths up close or at least hear the distant echoes of their hypnotic songs.
These waters offer amazing opportunities for encountering marine-life in the most stress free and pleasant fashion possible. Just remember that when you land in the Turks Islands, you have to set your watch to island time.
Getting There: American Airlines offers daily flights from Miami to Providenciales. Air Jamaica and Bahamas air offer regular flights. From Providenciales you will need to catch a smaller plane to Grand Turk or Salt Cay via Interisland Airways or Sky King.
Entry Requirements: A passport and valid onward or return ticket are required. Visitors from North America may enter with birth certificate and one piece of photo identification.
Time Zone: Eastern Standard Time
Water Temps: Temperatures range from 84 degrees Fahrenheit (29 Celsius) in summer to 74 degrees Fahrenheit (23 Celsius) during the winter months.
Currency: The legal tender in the TCI is the US Dollar. Credit Cards are widely accepted.
Blue Water Divers
Phone: 649-946-2432 Web: www.grandturkscuba.com Email: email@example.com
Phone: 800-892-3995 Web: www.oasisdivers.com Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sea Eye Diving
Phone: 800-513-5823 Web: www.seaeyediving.com Email: email@example.com
Accommodations with Dive Packages:
Arawak Inn & Beach Club
Phone: 649-946-2277 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Osprey Beach Hotel
Phone: 649-946-1453 Web: www.ospreybeachhotel.com Email:
Salt Cay Divers
Phone: 649-946-6906 Web: www.saltcaydivers.tc Email: email@example.com
Accommodations with Dive/Snorkel Packages:
Mt. Pleasant Guest House
Phone: 649-946-6901 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pirate’s hideaway Bed & Breakfast
Phone: 649-946-6909 Web: www.saltcay.tc Email: email@example.com
Phone: 649-946-6906 Web: www.tradewinds.tc Email: firstname.lastname@example.org