Down Blue Hills Way

blue-hills-boats-rs-copyBy Katya Brightwell

Photos By Ramona Settle

As you leave Leeward Highway behind you and round the bend onto Front Road, you’re welcomed by an awe-inspiring expanse of open sea, stretching as far as your eyes can reach, deep turquoise, and calming in its rugged beauty. For peaceful miles, only palm trees, swaying in the fresh breeze, are between you and the white sandy beach. Smart churches stand tall to your left, smells waft from restaurant shacks to your right, and life rolls by in between — a few folks sit slammin’ dominoes, chattering groups of kids return from their day at school, old salts chat about “back in the day” with laugh crinkles in their faces and a woman hangs her laundry up in the yard. You stop for a cool drink at a brightly coloured hut on the beach and the conch diver magically appears with your lunch, just as a pelican successfully swoops for his . . .

You’ve reached Blue Hills. Where island life is. Where it always was. And, we hope, where it always will be.

Somewhat forgotten over the last few years in lieu of the large-scale developments of Grace Bay, this spreading settlement hugging the northwest shore of Providenciales is undergoing a current investment revival, with local businesses and young entrepreneurs seizing the area’s previously unrealised potential. A newly elected, young and ambitious government representative is alive with ideas to empower the people of Blue Hills and is excited about making it the place to be. Restaurants, bars and craft shops are emerging on the long sandy beach, crowds flock to a popular annual festival celebrating the all-pervading conch and the once pot-holed bumpy road is now a smooth tarmac dream.

For those businesses setting up here, as well as for many old favourites already established, the vision for Blue Hills is as a visitor destination in distinct contrast to Providenciales’ popular tourist quarter of Grace Bay. Their visions for “Northside” are for the blending of tourism with a living, breathing local community, the one complementing the other to sustain island life.

Blue Hills was, not that many years ago, the commercial centre of the island we now know as Providenciales and, some say, the former name for the whole island. For many years it was home to the only primary school, the only government medical clinic, and, key to its spotlight as the “capital” of the island, the government dock. Before airports, gas stations and supermarkets arrived in the Turks & Caicos Islands, life centred on the sea, and Blue Hills was where trade routes started and finished — the gateway to the island’s rich maritime heritage.

“It used to be a little quiet town, a fishing centre — growing up that’s what it was,” remembers Sherlock Walkin, who was born in Blue Hills in 1958, when the population stood at roughly 1,500. “When you’d go down Blue Hills all you’d see was sailboats. All the way from High Rock, by the government jetty, up to where Smokeys on the Beach is now and past there, all the way up. Big sail sloops. All from here. That’s all you’d see.”

The sloops, with designs specific to the Turks & Caicos Islands, would sometimes reach 60 feet in length. Hand-built by crafted boat-builders from Blue Hills, often from hardwood flotsam, these sloops were the lifeblood of the island and, according to some, the whole archipelago. “We’d even supply Grand Turk (the nation’s capital) really because they didn’t have any big boats like here. Here was much more a provider for the rest of the Islands,” explains 77-year-old Hilly Ewing, himself a former boatbuilder, captain and a man synonymous with Blue Hills after almost 40 years as the area’s government representative.

Men would sail out of the harbour in their sloops, carrying smaller dinghies along to dive for conch, often to West Caicos and French Cay, sometimes staying away for weeks at a time. The conch they collected would be dried, they would return to the harbour, and then leave again with their wares on voyages to neighbouring island nations, such as Haiti and the Bahamas, to trade their island produce for other foodstuffs and materials.

When the sloops would return from their long voyages, the excitement, Sherlock Walkin reminisces, was tangible. “It would be like Christmas Day,” he smiles. “Everybody would be out when the sloops were coming in that day. Food was coming — mmm . . . I remember the mangoes, the pineapples, the bananas. They used to throw some of the stuff off the boat into the water and we little kids used to rush in and dive it up.”

Up to 25 years ago, scenes like this were still the norm. Kevin “Babar” Harvey, born in 1970, remembers fondly the days when his grandfather would return on one of the sloops from Haiti with fruit, livestock and even the odd live cow. “Say the boats was to come that night, we’d automatically know there was no school that day. The whole entire school would come out here on the beach, the whole entire island sometimes. Because we would’ve been out of sugar, flour, for like two months so everybody would come, even from the Bight and Five Cays, to get what comes on the boat for them,” he remembers.

Babar is a one of the new entrepreneurs in Blue Hills and the creative spirit behind Sailing Paradise Restaurant & Lounge, located at the far end of Blue Hills, where the area called Wheeland starts. A family-owned and operated business, this collection of brightly coloured huts raised above the beach so far encompasses a restaurant and bar, craft shops, and an ice-cream parlour. It is the end result of a dream that began many years ago and is dedicated to Babar’s grandparents — Cecilia and David Smith — whom he grew up with, their faces featuring in a mural above the bar. It combines a skill (carpentry), a passion (sailing) and a vision (cultural tourism).

Babar and his father built the structure with their bare hands, Babar having learnt carpentry from his grandmother when he was only a little boy. “When I was nine years old my grandmother gave me my first plane, so I planed and planed, and we practically planed down all the tables, chairs and everything else in the house,” he laughs. He speaks of his grandmother Cecilia with immense fondness. She was an inimitable woman, and the only one known to have been actively involved in the local boat-building trade. “It was fun to see her bending the plank around,” says Babar’s aunt, Alice.

Babar has replicas of two boats built by Cecilia and her husband David moored in front of Sailing Paradise — DC (for David and Cecilia) Valley Stream Junior and DC Evergreen Junior. Valley Stream was a 28-foot sloop built by Cecilia Smith in the 1960s. It would travel to South Caicos and Grand Turk, taking fresh conch, sweet potatoes and corn grown on the family farm in Northwest Point and bringing back flour, sugar, shortening, salt beef and material for clothes-making. The larger sloop at 40 feet — Evergreen — would make the journey to Haiti to trade dried conch and dried fish.

img_6767-copyBabar launched the boats in 2006, having commissioned them to be built by two local boat-builders — James Dean and Reverend Goldston Williams. Although he enjoys racing and cruising when he has a chance, his plans for the boats were originally with tourism in mind. His vision is for tourists to visit Sailing Paradise for a full local cultural experience. “I want to have daily trip for tourists — go for a sail, maybe fish a little, then return for some local food, some conch fritters or conch salad,” he enthuses. “Then I want to have days where there is local interaction with tourists, to hear stories and learn about our history, play dominoes, relax.”

Babar also has plans to bring the local boatbuilding trade back into the forefront of the area. Although there are boats being built in Blue Hills today (and the trade is on the upturn courtesy of the Turks & Caicos Maritime Heritage Federation, a recently established charity), all of the work takes place in the builders’ yards, hidden. He plans to build workshops next to Sailing Paradise where visitors can see the few boat-builders left on the island showing off this diminishing craft, and children can learn this precious trade before it disappears. And, of course, he wants to see regular regattas, to see the sea full of sloops again.

A little way down the beach, the Middle Caicos Co-op, an arts and crafts centre, does bring sails out on the water occasionally — of the slightly smaller kind. Located in a picturesque building with purple flowering bougainvillaea and a white picket fence, this non-profit organisation holds a model boat club every Saturday, and encourages visitors to join in this traditional pastime. It also sells traditional high-quality straw-work made by the women of Middle Caicos. The co-op moved to Blue Hills recently from an outlet further inland, and the move, say those involved, has been a successful one.

Local businesswoman Arlene Jennings also made the decision to move to Blue Hills last year. She sold her former restaurant in Grace Bay and opened Horse-Eye Jack’s Bar & Grill on the wide beach at the eastern end of Blue Hills. Arlene says that moving to this area of Providenciales is “actually one of the best choices I’ve made in any business!”

Horse-Eye Jack’s is unique to Blue Hills in its use of palm-thatched open-air roofs, or “palapas” for cover. This traditional palm thatching was chosen, says Arlene, to enhance the concept of a laid back place “where you can come, meet people, kick off your shoes and relax with a cold drink and an amazing view of the ocean.” “Palapas represent the barefoot side of an island,” she says, “and we are conscious of the fact that we are in the local part of the island, and want to keep the island flavour. It’s how people used to build in the past.” The idea of Horse-Eye Jack’s is also to provide a fun open space in Blue Hills for children to play — to get them back on the beach and in the water.

Those who grew up in Blue Hills “back in the day” remember spending most of their free time on the beach and in the water — fishing, beachcombing. “Them used to be fun days you know. Any chance I had I’d go out fishin’. We used to wait on weekends to use the little dinghy boats, to go out in the harbour, catch fish and conch. When I was 10 years old I could pick up an oar and scull a boat,” Sherlock Walkin remembers fondly. “And we used to go down the beach on Saturdays and find lots of little toys and stuff.”

Set off the road and boasting the largest deck and open-air space on the island, Horse-Eye Jack’s is an ideal space for children to be free again, and safe. Arlene is bringing in toys for kids to play with on the beach, and plans to set up a small crèche so parents will be able to relax too. Babar also has some smaller dinghies for sculling planned for Sailing Paradise.

A former Blue Hills institution is also due to return to the beach soon. Berlie “Bugaloo” Williams was the first to open a commercial conch shack in Blue Hills in 1994. It was a basic place, but word got around about the food and the personality and before long, the place was a popular tourist hangout. Bugaloo is pleased that Blue Hills’ potential is now being realised and is looking forward to being back as part of its revival. His restaurant concept has not changed. “The idea is finger food on cellophane paper. Island style,” he says. “We’ll have two or three people just diving conch by the shack. It’ll be like a show almost. Customers can have it cooked the way they like it. They can even do it themselves!”

Another established businessman in Blue Hills, Alden “Smokey” Smith, is taking advantage of the area’s current growth to expand his popular restaurant business to the beach. Smokeys on da Bay has been in its current location just past the jetty for almost ten years. With many loyal customers, they come, says one, “for good food, good conversation, to shoot the breeze.” Now Smokey has decided to open a second restaurant and bar directly on the beach, just past Sailing Paradise. Smokeys on the Beach II (in homage to the first-ever in pre-developed Grace Bay) will provide an alternative open-air dining experience with additional sports bar facilities. “The time is ripe to upgrade and give our customers more of a choice,” says Smokey.

Arlene is keen to point out that keeping variety in these new ventures is the key to Blue Hills’ continued revival. “The more different things there are to do and try and see in Blue Hills, the more tourists will come for the day, and return another day,” she explains. So one day you can experience some jerk chicken at Horse-Eye Jack’s, then move next door to Da Conch Shack (dedicated to this tasty mollusc) to relax right on the beach, the sand between your toes, then another day you can stop off at Smokeys on the Beach for his famous Bean Soup and listen to the folks talk politics, then go for a sail at Sailing Paradise and savour some fresh grilled fish, topping it all off with your own choice of conch dish courtesy of Bugaloo . . .

Blue Hills is coming into its own again, with its distinct character so far preserved as new businesses open along its shore. They are aware of where they are, and are serving the laidback island vibe with a spoonful of culture and a sprinkling of history.

Blue Hills’ recently elected representative, Gregory Lightbourne, is filled with energy about his appointment at a time of such burgeoning revival. He is pleased with the way development on the beachfront is progressing and sees the water as key to continued success, planning to promote watersports as one of the main attractions in the near future. There will be windsurfing, kitesurfing, sailing, and, of course, traditional sloop races — all in Blue Hills. With a clean-up plan and a little more organisation, business opportunities will be bountiful within the community, and Greg is impatient to see the people prosper, development continue and the tourists flow in.

Greg, born in 1976, is following in his grandfather’s footsteps. Gustarvus Lightbourne OBE, who raised Greg with his wife Kathleen, was a popular prominent local politician. Gustarvus played an integral role in the political and economic development of the island during his long life and was also a renowned boat-builder and avid sailor. Blue Hills, with its culture and history, is firmly in the Lightbourne blood. “What makes Blue Hills special is its location, its rich history and its welcoming community,” says Greg, proud of his home. His vision is big: “It’s going to become the capital again, become the breadwinner of Provo, you know.”

Perhaps it will be. The timing is right and nature has helped. The beach has widened on the north shore of Providenciales and, where you sit sipping your drink now, residents remember there was sea before. And when there was “grand sea,” the waves would come up over Front Road. Maybe this helps. Maybe this adds to the ambience of a community where the sea once was its survival, and where it is progressively becoming its focus again.

Arlene Jennings is confident. “Two years from now, Blue Hills will be the place that tourists want to visit as soon as they hit the island. Because it is real.”

The Gecko Bus connects Grace Bay and Blue Hills – call 649 232 7433 for current timetable.

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