A Hidden Jewel

Discovering the treasure that is Salt Cay.

By Kelly Currington ~ Photos By Marta Morton

Vacation. The mere mention of the word brings a heightened sense of excitement to one’s soul.
People want different things for their vacations. Some want mountains and snow with skiing and fireplaces. Some want tropical waters with sandy beaches, reggae music, dancing and rum. Some want a place that’s been barely touched by modern technology and is raw in its beauty.
I’ve found that place! It’s hidden within the Turks & Caicos Islands. The smallest of those inhabited islands is a tiny hidden jewel whose beauty and unspoiled nature make it unique and rare.

I discovered Salt Cay in 2008, a few months after Hurricanes Ike and Hannah devastated the country. As I boarded the nine-seat Caicos Express Cessna island hopper, I had no idea what I was about to find, nor how it would affect me for the rest of my life.

The seas surrounding Salt Cay offer some of the most pristine snorkeling and diving opportunities in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

After we took off from Providenciales International Airport, the multitude of turquoise shades in the ocean below me were mesmerizing to someone who had never seen such beauty. As we approached the tiny triangular island, our pilot Ritchie sat the little plane down on the smallest of runways with ease. The airport was a simple one-room building, full of happy locals and expatriates waiting for their loved ones, or preparing to send them off. You could feel the hugs before they happened.
I have been back to Salt Cay dozens of times since that first visit and each time I’m reminded why it is my favorite place on Earth. This time, my trip to Salt Cay is particularly significant to me because I’m sharing it with my boyfriend, Josh, for the first time. He would experience a part of my life that is sacred to me and, this time, I would get to experience it through his eyes.
As we exited the plane, the smell of the salty, brackish air washed over us. I was immediately reminded that I’ve “arrived.” A feeling of peace takes over and island life begins again. We’re greeted by women who over the years have become dear friends.
Off we go in a rattly golf cart down the unpaved roads and past the salina, all of which are part of the wonderfulness that is Salt Cay. We pass countless donkeys who are meandering around or shading themselves where they can, and hear roosters crowing in the distance as the warm tropical breeze blows away the stresses of our lives, at the same time endowing us with “beach hair.”

The salt industry played a key role in Salt Cay’s development; the outlines of the salinas are a distinctive part of the landscape.

We pull up to our home for the week and it feels like I never left. Ten minutes after walking through the door, we threw our backpacks down and went exploring, followed by a visit to Coral Reef Café for Ribs Night!
Along the road we passed Uncle Lionel. This man is a staple of the Salt Cay experience. He’s been living and fishing here his whole life and has plenty of stories to tell. I call his name as we pass and he stops his buggy and reaches out to hug me as I introduce him to Josh, who has heard all about Uncle Lionel, including one of my favorite stories about the day the sea took him for the ride of his life. He was out fishing in his tiny homemade boat when the motor failed. He was at the mercy of Mother Nature and was carried all the way to South Caicos over a period of 24 hours. He had no idea of the intense emotion his disappearance caused and the search that was launched for him. Salt Cay Divers and a local man named Shyne went out in their boats looking for him and a Coast Guard helicopter was sent.
The next day he walked into town and was “thanking God” he was alive. I was on Salt Cay during this time and when I asked him if he was scared, he said, “Nothing to be scared of—the sea has given me life and it almost took it from me, but she saved me.” He is a real character!
At dinner we meet up with my dear friends Cathy and Ed. Everyone is happy, hugging and sitting in the same space sharing stories and memories of life on this bit of paradise. Friends and strangers alike mingle without hesitation, laughing and having drinks together. No fuss, no fluff, no fancy clothes and mostly no shoes. Debbie, the owner of Coral Reef, is busy with her staff of two cooking, making drinks, serving, and conversing with us all.
After dinner we walk back to our house, listening to the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. It’s a sound that soothes the soul. No street lights; only the glow of the moon lighting the way. It’s as if time has stood still for a hundred years. As we lay in our bed, windows open and the ocean sounds at our door, we talk about how blessed we are to be here. We also wonder what it must have been like when the salt industry was so active on Salt Cay.
What I’ve learned about those days is both amazing and sad. The industry sustained the people, but slavery and manual labour was a huge part of it—a hard life in tough conditions. According to information in history books, in the 1800s there were a little over 670 people living on Salt Cay, with 600 of those people being labourers/slaves who were sustaining the world’s largest production of salt. More than 100 vessels annually picked up their “white gold,” mostly used as a preservative.
You can still see the remnants of the salt industry on the island, including the White House where salt was stored and collected, the salinas and the renovated homes of the Bermudian salt rakers. The donkeys that roam the island are descendants of the donkeys that were used to pull the salt carts and are a iconic visual reminder of what used to be.

The donkeys roaming the island are ancestors of the beasts that pulled the carts loaded with salt when the industry was booming.

Donkeys’ braying early the next morning wakes us, even before the roosters start. It’s a wonderful sound with which to start the day. We head back down to the café for breakfast to discuss where to explore next. Thanks to one of our hosts and friend Debbie, owner of Coral Reef Café, we acquire bicycles so we can head off to the most southern point of the island. It’s an easy ride at first down the dirt road, but as the sand gets deeper we get off and walk our bikes, stopping along the way to explore the various shore accesses. We stand, literally with our mouths open and eyes wide, to look out at the unlimited shades of turquoises and emeralds that stretch as far as our eyes can see, truly amazed at what beauty nature shows us.
We stop and look in all the little tide pools for any creatures we might see, and are never disappointed. Chitons seem to be in all of them, with little gobies darting about.
When we finally make it to the point at Salt Cay’s south tip, we are greeted by beauty that no human can create. Where two directions of waves join and meet, the wash forms a crest and rolls up to the beach. You can hear the power of the water and wind in the “silence” of man-made sound. No other humans, no boats, no building, no cars—nothing but the water, the white sand, the blue sky, and sounds that are created by nature. Josh exclaimed it felt like we were standing at the world’s end.
There’s always a nap after the morning adventure. It’s a necessity in a warm climate where everything is slowed down and at peace.
The next day we biked to North Beach, a stunning strip with rolling white sand dunes and turquoise water for as far as you can see. This is one of my favorite places on Salt Cay, and every time I visit the solitude and peacefulness remind me why I crave to be there.
At his first sight of this stunning beach, Josh declared it looked like the sand was melting into the ocean. Overlooking the view is the now-dilapidated Windmills Plantation resort. Destroyed by the 2008 hurricanes, it sits like an old man staring out to sea. We could feel the elegance that once existed here with views of the ocean at every window. There was definitely a sadness about the resort’s demise, but a feeling of gratefulness that we could still feel its glory. It is like the island had taken back the luxury and exchanged it for natural grandeur.
North Atlantic Humpback Whales pass very close to Salt Cay, to and from their migration to the Silver Banks, Mouchoir Banks, and the Navidad Bank off the coast of the Dominican Republic. Sightings of the whales, especially during the winter and early spring months, can be seen from shore and the many observation decks around the island. Under strict conservation guidelines, it is possible to go out with Salt Cay Divers to get close up and personal with them while being educated by marine biologists who visit every year to study their behavior and migration habits.
We were lucky enough to have a mother and calf with two escorts on the day we went out. There are no words to describe the feeling of being so close to a 40-foot, 40-ton animal whose intelligence rivals our own, and whose gentleness surpasses ours.
This was Josh’s first encounter with these cetaceans and he found it exhilarating. He was surprised as to how effortlessly the massive animals can move through the water, like giant ballet dancers, elegant and graceful.
Diving off Salt Cay is stunning. The topography is lush and healthy, and the selection of marine wildlife is abundant. Because of the island’s small size, there are never big groups diving on the reef.
As a fairly new diver, Josh has experienced the diving off Providenciales and West Caicos, but Salt Cay was completely different, in a wonderful way. Diving was from a small skiff, with back-roll entry into the water. Below is a world far removed from the impact of over-diving. An encounter with an octopus left him in awe as it peered at him without retreating, and didn’t appear to have the fear of divers, which is different from dive sites in more popular areas. Because it’s only a 5 to 10 minute ride to the sites, you can have breakfast, dive, and be back in time to have lunch before making a second dive.
Beachcombing happened daily as we looked for sea glass to add to our collection. Beauty is everywhere. Crabs scurry out of sight and bury themselves in the sand as we pass by; the spray of the sea spurts through a blowhole as the surge forges inward; little hermit crabs scrabble along on their daily journey.
The people of Salt Cay are gentle and welcoming. Whether they be TC Islanders or expatriates, the warm manner in which they relate to you is genuine and kind and you feel like you’ve known them for a lifetime. Whether on bicycles, golf carts or on foot, there are waves and “hellos” and random chit-chat as you go about your day. Everyone is at ease.
The isolation from the outside world, and even the other islands, creates a calmness in Salt Cay that makes you want to return as soon as you leave. I’ve known it for years, but for a first-timer, Josh described it perfectly, “This place has a disconnect that you can only get on an island that has not yet reaped the negative impact of commercialization; it has a naked feel to it.”
What Salt Cay offers is seclusion, rejuvenation of the soul, a place to re-set your mental health, and experience undescribable natural beauty. We have already planned our next trip.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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