Finding the Salt of the Earth

Discovering the “Old Caribbean” on Salt Cay

Story & Photos By Mat Matlack

Providenciales is an amazing island. It has truly become one of the top vacation destinations for the Americas and the rest of the world. With its world-class beaches, restaurants and other amenities, it has everything one could desire in a beach location. But the Turks & Caicos Islands are much more than “Provo.” Many want to experience the “old” Caribbean, which is very hard to find on Providenciales but the very essence of Salt Cay (www.saltcay.org).

Getting to Salt Cay
Since hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 blasted across the Turks & Caicos, the outer islands have spent the past 18 months rebuilding. We heard that Salt Cay was ready for visitors again and we weren’t disappointed. The airport on Salt Cay is limited to smaller planes (a nine-seater to be exact) due to the number of fire trucks on the island. There isn’t direct service from Providenciales on interCaribbean Airways, so one flies through Grand Turk. It’s a 40-minute trip with some great views of East and South Caicos from the air. Once aboard the small Otter to Salt Cay, the flight took three minutes! Caicos Express Airways may start a direct flight from Providenciales to Salt Cay later this summer.


The Tradewinds Guest Suites are oceanfront, with amazing snorkeling a short walk from your front door.

We arranged accommodations through Debbie Manos to stay at Tradewinds Guest Suites (www.tradewinds.tc). Debbie, an expatriate from Tucson, AZ, picked us up at the airport and took us on a tour of Balfour Town, the village on Salt Cay. She is a wealth of knowledge since she began visiting in 1990 and eventually moved to the isle in 1996. Debbie was attracted to Salt Cay by the amazing SCUBA diving and world-renowned whale watching, but kept returning due to the friendly, welcoming nature of everyone on the cay.
Eventually she bought and ran local dive shop Salt Cay Divers for 23 years and also opened the Coral Reef Bar & Grill where local chef, Enye Guerreir, honed his skills (more about the amazing food in a bit).
Unfortunately, the Coral Reef’s building has been damaged by swells created by Nor’easters that made it past the harbor wall damaged during the 2017 hurricanes. Debbie ran us by one of the three island stores to pick up some supplies and then showed us to our home for two nights.
Tradewinds has a lot to offer Salt Cay travelers and one of the most important things is location. You are oceanfront! Literally, grab your snorkel and fins, walk 10 yards out your front door and you’re feet away from amazing snorkeling. Tradewinds is also walking distance to the dive shop, Netty’s Variety Store, and favorite island hangout, Oceanaire Bistro.
Our one-bedroom suite had what we needed to be comfortable. These suites are well equipped for divers with a large screened porch to store wet equipment, a foot bath to clean the sand from your feet and a nice seating area inside, along with a comfortable place to lay your head—until tomorrow morning’s adventure on the water! The suites offer a small kitchenette with fridge, toaster oven, microwave, toaster, coffeemaker (coffee included!) and plenty of dishes. The private bath is where you find the sink and large shower with toiletries. The bedroom had air conditioning available, but with the island breeze, we simply kept our windows open. We also enjoyed Wi-Fi to check emails, upload to Instagram and watch an episode or two of our favorite sailing vloggers before bed.

The eats
We ate most of our meals at Oceanaire Bistro (oceanairebistro.com). The restaurant is perfectly located in the center of town just a few hundred feet from the dock and dive shop. It offers open-air dining overlooking the historic salinas and the screened-in dining rooms enjoy beautiful ocean breezes too. There is a deck with tables under palm trees where you can enjoy a cold drink with breakfast, lunch or dinner and a rooftop viewing patio that provides views of the ocean and most of the island.
Remember Chef Enye? This gentleman’s cooking skills are only surpassed by his smile. Oceanaire Bistro offers some of the best dining we’ve had in the TCI. His red snapper with a tomato-based sauce was delightful and didn’t stand a chance to last on my plate very long. Shannon, my wife, had the cracked conch for our first meal and raved about how light and tasty the breading was. We, of course, had peas ‘n’ rice with our meals which also included a salad.
Great food is enough for any restaurant. Add good service and you’ll have a success. When you also include warm and welcoming personalities to the atmosphere—you are going to have a winner that lasts the test of time.
Owners Bob and Lynn Knobel were regular visitors to Salt Cay enjoying the diving by day and the community at night. Porter’s Island Thyme was the local restaurant and bar where all the divers would gather to exchange stories from the day and to plan tomorrow’s adventure. In a strange turn of events, Bob and Lynn purchased the closed Island Thyme restaurant to be used as their home. But, with the urging of Chef Enye and their own realization that Salt Cay’s beloved hangout was gone, the couple decided to reopen the space as Oceanaire Bistro. We are so happy they did.

The adventures

Salt Cay has the TCI’s best preserved salt industry remains. Every pond has the low stone walls that divided it into salinas, where the water was gradually evaporated to produce salt.

We really underestimated all there would be to do on the island. We aren’t certified divers (yet) and we didn’t have our snorkel gear with us—the water was probably too cold this time of year for Shannon, anyhow. So, what could we do with 36 hours on this tiny island?
After our morning coffee, we took our golf cart that Debbie had arranged for us all over the island. We had several must-see’s on our list and began knocking them out at a pace that allowed us to soak in the vibe of everywhere we went with intentionality.

Windmills Plantation hotel
We’re a sucker for a beautiful beach, so headed to the old Windmills Plantation hotel ruins on North Beach. The resort was destroyed in 2008 by Hurricane Ike. But, oh my, this beach is gorgeous. We could see a cruise ship across the channel docked on Grand Turk. (There are no signs of cruise ships on Salt Cay and as Debbie likes to say, “We have no C’s. No cruise ships, no crime, no crowds, no casinos.”) It was sad to see the devastation of this hotel. We found some pictures of it online during its heyday and it was beautiful.

Dunscombe Point

At Dunscombe Point there is good snorkeling offshore and a late 1700s cannon from the wreck of the HMS Endymion.

Dunscombe Point offers some great snorkeling right off the shore. There are rock formations and a nice area to picnic on the beach. Also at this location is a Haitian boat that wrecked on the island a few months ago. The incident made international news and created quite the surprise for local residents when dozens of new faces showed up on the island.

We understand there are about 36 different types of birds on the island. Birdwatching is a favorite thing to do for many Salt Cay travelers. The eastern side of the island is where the North Creek and South Creek converge into shallow waters. We passed by the 1795 Government House on our way to find dozens of flamingos at “the creek.” We loved watching the waves crash against the rocks protecting the inland waterways and viewing the beaches literally made of millions of seashells.

Taylor Hill
One of the highest points on the island is Taylor Hill. The road is a bit rough to get there, but our golf cart handled it well. The small hike up the hill was well worth it once we saw the views and the ruins were mysterious. It appears to have been some kind of plantation with hundreds of man-hours spent clearing the land and building bordering fences with the rocks. There are about a dozen rock mounds that are all the same size. Our inquiry of the locals revealed no concrete information on what the purpose of the mounds were. Burial mounds? Signal fires? Voodoo rituals? Alien communiques? These require more investigation.

Pirate Graves
There is a very nice home on the island that has built its property wall in a strange arch shape. This was done in order to go around some existing graves that are rumored to be of pirates. No one knows who is, in fact, buried there. The three graves are of different sizes and could be a man, a woman and possibly a child. You’ll pass by these above-ground graves on your way to the old lighthouse site on the northwest point.

The lighthouse is long gone and barely any ruins remain to mark its previous location. However, there is a newly installed wooden post on top of the hill which appears to be the highest point on the island. Nearby is a canon perched on the edge of the cliff. The ground isn’t very stable there and it was recommended not to get too close. This remains one of the spots on the island needing attention after the hurricane. We understand that the primary school and government buildings are earmarked to receive government assistance, along with the harbor which is vital to the community of Salt Cay. We were also told that Beaches Resorts may be providing support to get the community gathering space back in shape, but this has not been confirmed.

Salt Cay Days celebration
We left the morning that begins the annual Salt Cay Days celebration. This weekend event brings visitors from other islands to enjoy great music, wonderful eats and the charm of the old Caribbean.

Getting home

The donkeys that roam across Salt Cay are descendants of the animals that worked during the salt producing days.

Again, our fantastic host Debbie Manos gave us a ride to the airport, along with her dogs, including Zorro the potcake. Our only regret is not having more time. We wish we could have had a few hours of beach time on the North Beach and snorkeling on the reef. We wanted to stop by to meet the lady who still makes salt right from the salinas and we hoped to spend time with Tim, a descendent of some of the original salt plantation owners. He is currently renovating the family home (the White House). The entire bottom floor was where the salt was kept and the family lived on the upper floor.
So, break away from the norm for a few days to visit Salt Cay. (Unless you are a diver or whale watcher — then, you’re going to need at least a week.) Whale watching season is mid-January through mid-April and the island now boasts two companies providing tours to see the humpbacks. Dickenson’s store is well stocked where we found bottled water, almond milk and macaroon cookies! Bring a sack of carrots for the wild donkeys. They will love you for it, but don’t leave them unattended on your golf cart. We learned that the hard way.

Mat and Shannon Matlack hail from Columbia, Missouri. Avid world travelers and vloggers, the couple has focused on the Caribbean in recent years. They adopted two potcakes and have a love for island dogs plus a passion for protecting the ocean’s fragile, yet extremely important, ecosystem. Their five-year-old daughter sometimes joins them on the adventures. (Visit TheMatlacks.org).

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Gary James at Provo Pictures (www.provopictures.com) used a drone to photograph this bird’s-eye view of Dragon Cay off Middle Caicos. It perfectly captures the myriad of colors and textures that make God’s works of art in nature so captivating.

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