Natural History

Off the Beaten Path

RS-S-Caicos-Church-0628Adventures in the TCI’s Salt Islands.

Story & Photos By Ramona Settle

Admit it. You arrive on Providenciales, get one breathtaking glimpse of Grace Bay Beach, and feel like you’ll stay put. You think it can’t get better than this. Other than an excursion to one of the cays, you won’t venture far.  I can tell you that’s a missed opportunity. For such a small archipelago, the Turks & Caicos offers much diversity; each island has a unique personality.

Why venture off the beaten path? You’ll be rewarded with stunning beaches that are truly secluded. You’ll view landscapes that take your breath away. You’ll meet local people that may become your friends for life. You’ll learn how creative people can be when they live in an isolated place.  And best of all, you’ll step back in time to a more laid back era with old Caribbean charm. Let the adventures begin!

Grand Turk, South Caicos and Salt Cay are often referred to as TCI’s “Salt Islands” because each was part of the country’s important salt industry. It is known that salt was collected from the Turks & Caicos Islands before the 17th century, on until the 1960s. The remnants of this industry are seen on these islands in the form of abandoned salinas, tattered windmills, historic Bermudian buildings and water-beaten docks, providing a “living history” lesson for visitors that is not found elsewhere.

Most of Turks & Caicos’ outer islands are easy to reach from Provo. Some do require some creativity; but all are worth exploring. Once you arrive, you’ll find some islands you can walk, some you can travel via golf cart, some require rental cars and some require boats. Sometimes part of the adventure is just getting there.

Numerous times I have organized my own day trip to Grand Turk. Cockburn Town is here, the country’s capital. Being only 8 miles long and about 1 mile wide, Grand Turk is much smaller than Provo, with a lower population. There are a number of scheduled daily flights on Air Turks & Caicos, so it’s easy to plan a day in Grand Turk and return in time for dinner.

My first trip to Grand Turk started off rather ominously. Already a nervous flyer, my palms grew even sweatier when the plane stopped at South Caicos to pick up a prisoner. He was on his way to court, but thankfully was well behaved during the 10 minute flight. I was picked up by Tony Clarke, who owns a local taxi service and car rental company, for a tour of the island. We visited the lighthouse, Her Majesty’s Prison, even “Nookie Hill” (which is exactly what you think it is). As we passed the airport, I saw a replica of Senator John Glenn’s space capsule, remembered for his landing in these waters after being the first American to orbit the earth. The astronaut noted from space that the Turks & Caicos waters looked like the most beautiful in the world.

RS-GT-IMG7737During the tour, Tony explained that on a small island, places often have “obvious” names, and sometimes multiple names. For instance, names make sense: Front Street is the first street that faces the ocean; Prison Folly is where the prison is located and Back Salina is the area behind the old salinas, natch. He showed me a restaurant that had an “official” name of Sap’s Fish Fry, but it commonly known as “Chubbies,” and that’s how everyone referred to it. Places and even beaches have names like this, and it finally made sense — with streets not always marked and multiple names for the same places — why it was always hard to get directions on an island.

Tony dropped me off at Front Street, which is quiet and colorful, with old colonial buildings painted many different colors, all faded by the sun. Most of the original buildings were built from pieces of timber from shipwrecked boats that had washed ashore. Grand Turk is like stepping back in time to an easier life, with no one hurrying or rushing from place to place.  Some folks travel by bike, and everyone must stop for chickens, donkeys, cows, horses and land crabs crossing the road. Everyone says “Hello” to passersby and seems to know each other. The churches open their doors and let organ music spill out to the street. Some of the buildings have bright red roofs of corrugated iron which contrast spectacularly with the turquoise sea. At the end of Front Street, I stopped at the Turks & Caicos National Museum, one of the Caribbean’s best. For such a small country, the museum contains many different types of artifacts, representing everything from pirates’ treasures, to the remains of Spanish galleons, souvenirs of visits from the Queen, a display about John Glenn’s space splashdown and a collection of “messages” from bottles that have washed up on these shores.

On one of my many trips to Grand Turk I met Tim Dunn from Oasis Divers. He took me on an excursion to Gibbs Cay where I could feed and swim with stingrays. I was nervous, yet excited with the rays swimming around me in those crystal clear waters; I took many pictures that day. This adventure typically includes a BBQ lunch complete with conch salad made from conch freshly harvested from surrounding waters.

On another trip, I decided to stay for several days to better experience the Grand Turk vibe. I met many locals that I now consider friends. Jenny Smith from Osprey Beach Hotel told me tales of surviving hurricanes. Mitch Rolling, the veteran operator from Blue Water Divers, not only could tell stories of the sea, but at night was in a band that was the island’s entertainment.

This was part of my lesson in learning that Islanders are multi-talented, and often “jacks-of-all-trades.” Your taxi driver can also be the island’s best electrician; a restaurant owner can find you a boat to Salt Cay; a power company linesman was instrumental in starting a library. It’s always worth having a conversation to dig beneath the surface of first impressions.

During one of my visits, there was a cruise ship at the multi-million dollar Grand Turk Cruise Center and the shops and restaurant was open. Although only three miles from Cockburn Town, going to the cruise port terminal is like being in another world . . . Disney World, that is. You can buy duty free liquor, jewelry, watches and perfumes or search for tourist trinkets as places like Ron Jon’s Surf Shop and Piranha Joe’s. I sat by the pool at the world’s largest Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, where the people-watching was terrific and cruise-ship activities continued on land. I ended that day back in town at The Sand Bar, a friendly local watering hole. The two sisters that own it told me they had seen the elusive “Green Flash” just prior to sunset numerous times on Grand Turk. (I thought it was just a myth.) I had just enough time to go back to the airport and return on the 25 minute flight to Provo, where I enjoyed an elegant dinner overlooking Grace Bay Beach.

RS-AC-Airport-0019Another day, because I was researching for a guidebook, I was invited to visit Ambergris Cay. A private, upscale island southwest of Grand Turk, it is home to the Turks & Caicos Sporting Club, a millionaire escapist’s dream. This upscale residential community offers home sites ranging from $650,000 to $6.5 million with members enjoying world-class fishing, a deep water marina, environmental learning center, spa, and fine-dining. To get there, I was whisked away on a private plane, the kind with all leather seats and headphones that drown out airplane noise. The runway was totally unique and seemed to float over the shimmering blue-green ocean; I later learned it is the longest lighted paved private airstrip in the Caribbean. Not only is Ambergris Cay a sportsman’s paradise, but it has fields of Turks Head Cacti, a surprising sight. Ambergris Cay gets its name from the whale’s secretion ambergris, quantities of which frequently washed up on the cay. Years ago, it was a valuable substance for its use in perfume and medicines, and many a Bermudian made a small fortune from its discovery. During my day at the cay, we boated to uninhabited Little Ambergris Cay for the most superb bonefishing I could imagine. (At one point, the guide estimated there were about 200 bonefish in the water!)

Also in the guise of researching my guidebook, I traveled by boat to explore West Caicos. (Although development of the project is currently on hold, a portion of the island is set aside as the West Caicos Reserve, an exclusive retreat centering around a Ritz-Carlton boutique hotel and marina harbour town, with villas and custom homesites available.) The sheer, coral-encrusted underwater wall off West Caicos, separating the shallows from a dramatic 7,000 ft. drop into the ocean bottom, is a favorite site for dive trips from Provo. Although divers rave at the spectacular underwater scenery there, I love West Caicos’ topside, too. It’s fairly lush, with scores of native palms. Lake Catherine, in the middle of the island, has brilliant turquoise water and is home to even brighter pink flamingos. I was so excited to get closer to the flamingos that I tried to walk in the pond water; I didn’t know the underwater sand was more like quicksand. My feet buried quickly in it and I got stuck. It was just ankle deep, but the sand was wet and heavy, and I had to relinquish my favorite flip-flops to escape. Now barefooted, I saw the ruins of an old 1800s town, and learned that pirates used to frequent the island’s many rocky inlets. I also experienced the Turks & Caicos version of cliff diving!

Finally, I ventured to South Caicos, which in the 1960s was one of the busiest places in the country, due to the international airport’s status as a prime refuelling station for private aircraft and pleasure yachts. While tourism has slowed from those heydays, there are daily flights on Air Turks & Caicos, and South Caicos Ocean and Beach Resort is a comfortable place to stay. While further development has stalled over the years, plans for a new resort, with a clubhouse, casino and marina, are expected to come to fruition soon.

RS-GT-3865South Caicos can rightfully boast some of the best diving in the world. The consistent visibility of more than 200 feet is among the clearest water I’ve seen, and the dramatic wall drop-offs had dozens of creatures swimming around me, including whales in the winter months. Greg Wasik  from South Caicos Divers took me out on his boat to the outer reef with two other divers. The most amazing dive was a huge plane wreck, a Covair 29A, which ran out of gas when it was trying to land. The plane had been used for drug running in the 1970s, and the pilot actually survived. The main hull of the plane with the full wings is still intact, and the tail and nose are separate, making for three different dive spots. There is even a resident barracuda who accompanied me during the dive.

Later on, Greg set me up with Mr. Holton Lightbourne for a taxi tour of the island. We drove through the town of Cockburn Harbour, with its clapboard, pastel colored houses and bright red iron roofs. Unfortunately, since my visit, Hurricane Ike unleashed its fury on South Caicos, and the town is still in need of some repair. Fortunately, the reefs sustained no damage, and the waters are just as clear as ever. The waters are so pristine that South Caicos is the location for the School for Field Studies, a US-based institution which offers hands-on environmental studies abroad.

While I wasn’t able to attend, the South Caicos Regatta is held the last weekend in May every year since its beginning in 1967. Festivities include a sailing regatta, boat races, a beauty pageant, float parades, junkanoo, donkey races, May pole platting, gospel music and big name entertainment.

Also known as East Harbour, South Caicos can boast the country’s finest natural harbour. Once a bustling port for the thriving salt industry, divers can see the granite ballast that was thrown overboard to lighten the ships as they approached the harbour to pick up their loads. Today the once-famous port serves as the base for the island’s thriving conch and lobster fishery.

I highly recommend spending the night on South Caicos so you can take advantage of the diving, and not have  to worry about flying afterwards. Besides the resort, you can eat dinner at one of several restaurants based out of people’s houses, usually serving whatever the catch of the day happens to be. The restaurants’ names — Mama Love’s,  Darryl’s or Dolphin Pub — serve as a reminder that you are definitely far from cookie-cutter fast food establishments.

CactusI like to save the best for last. Salt Cay, with its epithet, “The Land that Time Forgot,” did seem that way. It took some effort to plan a day trip from Provo. In years past, either the water was too choppy to boat over from Grand Turk, or flights would be cancelled or changed with no warning.  In August 2008 (just prior to Hurricane Ike’s devastation) I learned that Friday is the best day to make the trip.

Salt Cay is really tiny, only three miles long and about one mile wide. From the air it looks like a giant salt pond, and, quite honestly, did not seem that appealing to me. Yet, after spending the day I completely changed my mind and fell in love.

I knew Salt Cay was small enough to walk around, but I also knew it would be a lot more fun renting a golf cart to explore. The “airport” is really a one room building, so small that there are no taxi drivers waiting for planes to land to take you anywhere. So I walked past the salt ponds with a parade of donkeys following me to the purple building with yellow and turquoise trim — Island Thyme Bistro. The owner, Porter Williams, was the first person I met. He, in turn, called Candy Herwin, the owner of Pirate’s Hideaway Guesthouse, for a golf cart rental. Island Thyme is one of THE places to hang out; Porter is the unofficial “everything Salt Cay” promoter. The bistro is a great place to start, decorated with Haitian art on the walls and colorful trinkets on the bar. I walked down to Pirate’s Hideaway to pick up the golf cart, and Candy showed me her guest house. Her brother Nick gave me a tour along the no-name, packed-sand side streets of Balfour Town. (It seemed that only Victoria Street, the main street, has an “official” name.) Of course, everyone knows where everything is — locations are “next to Pat’s house” or “past the old governor’s home” or “beside the purple shack” Pat’s, one of three places to eat on the island, only cooks what was caught fresh that day . . . and only if you call ahead and make reservations.

RS-S-Caicos-0538Nick showed me the White House, a stately salt proprietor’s manor built in 1835 with ballast stone and from the ship’s timbers that brought the family to Salt Cay. The salt house is an example of classic Bermudan architecture with the living quarters on the upper level and salt storage underneath. In the 1800s, salt was as valuable as gold and at one point, Salt Cay provided 90% of the world’s salt. In its heyday, over 100 vessels a year left the island with their cargo of “white gold,” a valuable trade commodity, important in food preservation to the colonies in the north. I followed Nick through paths along the salt ponds, and we went further down Victoria Street, past the colorful library and government building. At the other end of the street were two (rumored to be) pirate’s graves. What was surprising was how small the rock “caskets” seemed.

Because Nick had the golf cart equivalent of an SUV, I hopped on his and we visited a section of North Beach that most people don’t venture to. It was breathtaking. You could see a shark swim by the shoreline and the water was so turquoise it glowed.

Back on my own cart, I went to another stretch of North Beach on which two donkeys were hanging out — what a sight! I walked the length of the beach, which I had all to myself most of the day. It was one of the most stunning strands of sand on which I have ever laid eyes. I was hypnotized by the different hues of blues and the bright white, powder-soft sand. Across the way, Grand Turk was in sight and I could see a cruise ship parked at the port. I walked down to the Windmills Plantation; closed to make way for a proposed golf course/resort development. I regretted never having stayed at this Salt Cay gem. The colors of its roofs — bright turquoise, yellow and red —represented its magical atmosphere, with a touch of whimsy. The owner, Guy Lovelace, wrote The Carnival Never Got Started, a tale of the trials and tribulations of building a resort in paradise. I read the book after returning to Provo, and could picture everything he wrote about. (Note: Hurricane Ike destroyed the Windmills and, due to its sale, there are no plans to rebuild this fantastical paradise.)

Eventually breaking away from the beach’s beauty, I made my way to the Coral Reef Bar and Grill for a beer and to chat with locals. There I met Willingham and Stedman, divers by day, musicians by night. I really wanted to meet Debbie Manos, owner of Salt Cay Divers, after speaking to her many times by phone over the years. Of course I picked the day she decided to go shopping to Grand Turk. Everyone said, “Don’t worry; you can meet her when she gets off the plane and when you get on, unless they cancel the flight.” Funny! The beachfront Green Flash Café was another colorful place to have a drink and catch up on gossip. (Unfortunately, it was destroyed by Hurricane Ike.)

I decided to end my day back where I started, at Island Thyme Bistro, this time with my new friends.  Walking back, I was approached by numerous locals that had to say “Hi” to the new visitor with the big camera. Porter told me nights are lively here, with pizza specials and karaoke. He could even set up pedicures, massages and cooking classes. I know I’d return soon, with whale sightings in the Columbus Passage during the winter season being some of the best in the world.

As promised, I met Debbie coming off the plane as I was boarding. What I discovered about my day on Salt Cay is that the place gets under your skin and into your blood. It has character, and seems full of characters. It was special to see how people get along with the quirks of island life, and I feel that I made friends for life.

I constantly revel that a small archipelago can be so upscale and modern, yet rustic and charming. I found ambience and tranquility, things to do or nothing to do, gorgeous beaches and wonderful people. I’ve become a Turks & Caicos devotee for life and I am so glad I decided to explore the variety it has to offer. The more I see, the more I love.


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Feb 3, 2011 7:14


Many thanks for a wonderful insight into the geography, people and culture of the Turks and Caicos islands of which there really isn’t much information anywhere else on the web.

The reason I came across your article was that I was searching specifically for information about Grand Turk. There may be an opportunity of employment there in the near future and whilst I can find lots of information about property rental for those going on holiday for a few weeks, I cannot find any information about what to expect in terms of long term property rental.

I would be most grateful, if you do have any knowledge, broadly, about what I may expect if I was to rent a property on Grand Turk.

Any information would be greatly appreciated.

kind regards


Movin Cool
Jul 14, 2011 6:49


Fantastic seen. I like it.


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