Concha Woncha Wow!

This fun tour is an introduction to the world of conch and culture.

By Kathy Borsuk ~ Photos By James Roy, Paradise Photography

There’s no doubt that conch is king in the Turks & Caicos Islands. This amazing gastropod has long been both a food source and trading item for the people of the Islands. These days, it is still harvested naturally by local fishermen and raised commercially at the world’s only conch farm here. Most restaurants serve the tasty meat in a wide variety of dishes, and the pearly-pink shell, along with products made from it, are popular souvenirs.
Concha Woncha Tours is a fascinating expedition that introduces visitors to the amazing world of the conch—adding an intriguing dose of island lore and culture to the mix. I took the tour this spring and wasn’t disappointed. It was as fun as the name implies!

Tours are conducted from a trolley.

Tours are conducted from a trolley.

I started the tour at Concha Woncha’s office, meeting company owner Teresa Brunner. Like me, Teresa’s been here “forever.” She came to Providenciales from her home in Calgary in 1999 to manage the fledgling Sands Resort, then help open sister property The Palms some years later. For the last ten years, she’s been running Tropical Destination Management, planning weddings, corporate gatherings, and other special events at many of Providenciales’ most upscale properties. Why Concha Woncha?
Teresa explains, “I could see that our clients were looking for a land-based tour of the island, something to do besides watersports. So I thought of some of the things I like to do when family and friends visit, and created a tour that no one else was doing. I saw a San Francisco-style trolley during a visit to Florida and knew that it would be perfect for this one-of-a-kind excursion.” After importing the rolling trolley and outfitting it with with air conditioning and a bar, Desmond Missick was recruited as partner and tour guide. Formerly working as the head of the pool and beach team at The Sands, and as a bartender at Ocean Club East and the Gansevoort resorts, Desmond has the personality and island know-how to be the perfect leader.
Since its inception three years ago, Concha Woncha Tours have been wildly popular, THE thing to do when visiting the island, receiving consistent four and five star ratings on TripAdvisor, never less. It is also the perfect pastime for a rare cloudy or rainy day, or for when you’ve simply had too much sun.
The air conditioned trolley also includes a bar.

The air conditioned trolley also includes a bar.

It was sunny and warm this late-April day, and our tour started by collecting the dozen guests from various resorts on Grace Bay. We ranged from late middle-aged to just-married to a three-generation family with young children. As driver Nardo maneuvered the bus with exquisite skill through the narrow resort driveways, Desmond brought us up to speed with information and lore about the various properties we passed. We learned that Seven Stars Resort (at seven stories) is the highest building in TCI; Club Med, Provo’s first tourism property opened in the 1980s, boasts the widest beach; and that the power lines in Grace Bay were put underground to protect them from hurricane damage. We also learned that the island’s limestone base and scanty soil fosters trees that grow wide but not tall, and that the surrounding reef is in the Atlantic Ocean, not the Caribbean Sea. Desmond was born and raised in North Caicos (or as he says, “born on a beach and raised in a bar”), which was quite primitive during his youth, when tourism was barely a passing thought. He encouraged all to take the time to visit the out-islands of North and Middle Caicos, noting that Mudjin Harbour is one of the country’s most spectacular sights.
Our group had lots of questions, too, all aptly answered. Why drive on the left but use American money? (TCI is a British Territory with a US-based economy.) Where does water come from if there are no freshwater lakes? (There are limited freshwater wells, many folks catch rainwater in cisterns, and a reverse osmosis plant provides “city water” in Provo.) What’s the best season for watersports? (The ocean water is typically like glass in June and July.) Where is the cruise ship port? (They dock in Grand Turk, as Provo lacks a deep water harbor.)
We soon reached the northeastern tip of the island, home to the Caicos Conch Farm. In business since the mid-1980s, the conch farm revolutionized the rearing of Queen conch. Natural stocks are depleted in most areas of the world, with quotas set on TCI harvesting as well, making the farm an increasingly important source of the high-protein conch meat, with future plans for fish farming. Joneice was our tour guide, starting with an information-packed overview of the process.
As we picked our way along the shorefront outbuildings, we learned that the conch farm includes 65 acres of sub-sea “pasture,” 80 inland ponds, and an on-site hatchery. Joneice explained that sexually mature conch are allowed to mate in the egg farm area, where the subsequent egg masses are harvested by divers, then incubated in the hatchery. The tiny veligers are fed a hops and barley mixture from Turks Head Brewery leftovers, then weaned onto conch chow at six months in the on-shore ponds until they are two years old and transferred to the pastures. The conch are harvested at four years old; twice as big as they would be in the wild. Nearly all of the meat is exported to the United States.
We also peeked into large tanks of swarming cobia, pompano, grouper, and snapper that would eventually move into deep water aquapods anchored 1 1/4 miles offshore, to be eventually harvested and sold.
I think everyone’s favorite part of the tour was meeting Sally and Jerry, the conch farm’s trained ambassadors. When lifted from their shallow-water container, the pair left the comfortable confines of their shells, letting us see a conch in its living glory. Yes, this part of the tour is slightly X-rated (think “verge” stretching a foot long). We learned how the valuable conch pearl is formed, and had a chance to browse in the conch farm’s gift shop.
Hear the sounds of a local rake 'n' scrape band.

Hear the sounds of a local rake ‘n’ scrape band.

Back on the bus, cold water and more lore keep us satisfied as we drove to the Cultural Center in Turtle Cove. We passed the lush and challenging Provo Golf Course and learned that the rock musician Prince owns a house with a purple driveway in the Turtle Tail neighborhood. Jet skiing is only allowed on Long Bay Beach, not Grace Bay. No, there are no fast food chains in TCI. Kentucky Fried Chicken lasted only two months and the local 7-11 is actually called “Grab ‘n’ Go.” Desmond encouraged us not to miss the weekly island fish fry held in The Bight every Thursday night. It’s the perfect chance to sample native dishes, including lobster when in-season from August to April, and hear live music island-style, including the popular Junkanoo band.
Turtle Cove is another of Provo’s original tourist areas, and is home to a marina, several condominium resorts, popular restaurants, and a small casino. Tucked into a corner of the venerable Turtle Cove Inn is the TCI Cultural Center. Our next stop was a presentation by David Bowen, Director of Culture (at the time of the tour). David is a gem. Born and raised on Grand Turk, he left home for many years performing as a professional dancer abroad. He returned in the early 1990s, determined to document and preserve the country’s culture, making it his mission to educate the populace on how valuable and fleeting it may be. He has succeeded, and it is due to his influence that traditions are now embraced and put into the spotlight by government, the people, and the tourist industry as a whole.
David set the stage by explaining that due to the rapid influx in technology and tourism to TCI (within the last 30 years), the ways of the elders were pushed aside. At the same time, an influx of foreigners from the Caribbean, North America, and around the world brought a plethora of new customs. His goal is to remind Islanders that they must define who they are as a people. He explained that in TCI, there has always been a smaller gap between the haves and have-nots than in other Caribbean countries. As a result, less visible culture survives, as fewer people make and sell local handicrafts or foods. He noted that the people of Middle and North Caicos and Salt Cay are still living authentic island lifestyles, and he has spent much time interviewing the elders there, to document the “old ways.”
Ironically, conch is a food fairly new to his culture, served only on special occasions when he was a child. Much of the wild conch harvested was removed from the shell, beaten, and dried for preservation and trade with Haiti, for foods and items not available in TCI. David demonstrated how fishermen “knock” a hole in the conch to release the suction, “jook” a knife in the hole to cut the connection, and “pull” the conch from the shell. The best fishermen could clean ten a minute! A conch “bruiser” made from the sturdy lignum vitae tree was used to tenderize the conch. It was tied with sisal rope on lines to naturally dry in the wind and sun. This preserved conch (“old conch”) was stored in the loft of houses, then soaked and rehydrated before cooking with grits.
Grits are another TCI staple, brought with the Loyalist slaves who came to the Caicos Islands to pick cotton. Many a Caicos Islander recalls grinding field corn in a hopper (the job of children!), then using a handmade “fanner basket” to sift the corn to make both grits and corn flour for porridge. The national dish of “peas ‘n’ grits” was commonly cooked over a coal stove. The graceful woven baskets, made from local grasses and palm fronds, are a popular craft item today.
Music is another mainstay of national pride and identity. Again, the Islands reflect a variety of songs and sounds from the Caribbean and North America, but ripsaw music is unique to the TCI. One by one, David demonstrated the handmade instruments that make up a ripsaw band: the gourd “shaker,” small goatskin drum, triangle or glass bottles, accordion (known as a “fre-fa” for the sound it made), box guitar, harmonica, and, of course, the carpenter’s saw and scraper. Everyone was tapping their feet to David and Desmond’s lively, but too-short band demonstration.
Local dance was the “shay shay” (do-your-own-thing) and folk songs were a musical rendition of local history and events. The conch horn is a conch shell with a cut-off tip, through which villagers would blow to create musical messages. In Grand Turk, David recalls, it served as a “shell phone” announcing everything from “fish for sale” to a storm warning when blown from a high hill. Each family had a unique signal to announce when their father or brother might be coming in from sailing. For the Bowens, it was 2 short, 1 long, repeated three times.
Conch shells were even incorporating into home building. Ground shells were burned, then mixed with quick lime, sand, and water to create the “cement” that built “tabby” houses. Found primarily in the Caicos Islands, they can be identified by their thick walls, small windows, and A-frame roofs.
The tour ends with lunch at Da Conch Shack.

The tour ends with lunch at Da Conch Shack.

With our heads filled to bursting with information about conch and culture, it was definitely time to tap into Desmond’s cold rum punch on the way to Chalk Sound National Park. We passed through downtown lunchtime “rush hour,” learned how to navigate round-abouts, and saw a bit of how island residents live and work. Desmond took our lunch orders (surprisingly, few ordered conch, maybe the result of too much inside information?) to relay to the cook at Da Conch Shack.
Chalk Sound is a large, shallow inland lake on the south side of Provo. Its mixture of fresh and salt water reflects an eerie, light blue glow no matter the time of day or weather. It is also dotted with a tiny cay for each day of the year. It makes a spectacular photo opportunity, and each family was treated to a souvenir photo taken at water’s edge.
On the way to lunch, guests queried, “Where do the local kids go for higher education?” (Many go to the UK or US on scholarships.) “What do they aspire to be?” (Run their own business or be doctors or lawyers.) “Are gas prices really this high?” (Yes, they’ve peaked at over $7/gallon.) “What is the highest spot on Provo?” (The hill overlooking Thompson’s Cove, at 163 feet above sea level).
Da Conch Shack is located on the beach in the settlement of Blue Hills, a quiet community sprawled along the sea. We sat at picnic tables on the sand and eagerly dug into the conch fritters offered as appetizers. It was easy to see why they were favorites at the annual Conch Festival in November. For lunch, we could choose from their specialties of jerk chicken, blackened grouper, or cracked conch, each served with the ubiquitous peas ‘n’ rice and cole slaw.
It was fun to get to know the folks in the group. That day, one couple was visiting from the UK, another were back for their second trip to Provo, and two couples were old friends who had been traveling together for nearly 20 years. The family, who had three young children, especially enjoyed the post-meal conch-knocking demonstration, which also involves “eating the conch worm” for brave and daring souls. (Don’t ask!) The tour ended with everyone being returned to their resort, souvenir photo and conch shell in hand. We were all a bit warm and weary by the end of the day. I think most folks planned to plunge into ocean or pool, or take a nap, no doubt dreaming of conch.

For more information, visit www.conchawonchatours.com or call 649 231 KONK.

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