Back in Time

Salt Cay is a remnant of the “Old Caribbean.”

By Debbie Manos

One side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a corporate nostalgia for the past. The global upheaval and massive changes of 2020 have many yearning for the “good old days.”

This aerial shot shows the shark-tooth shape of Salt Cay.

In the Turks & Caicos Islands, there is a place referred to as “the island time forgot.” Besides being the country’s smallest (2 1/2 by 3 miles) and southernmost island, Salt Cay is much like the “Old Caribbean” of 30 years ago. As well, its amazing beauty if one of the best-kept secrets in the region, with miles of white sandy beaches. Here, solitude and seclusion reign, with just enough activities available to pique your interest.

There are no paved roads, and the “wild life” of donkeys, cows and chickens roam the island freely. There are one-of-a-kind historical buildings with lovely (and practical) Bermudian persuasion in their design. The people have a reputation for being the friendliest people in the Islands, and each new guest becomes a friend whose return is eagerly anticipated.

With a population of only 75 (give or take a few), Salt Cay residents know the importance of helping each other in times of need. When COVID-19 reached pandemic levels in the Caribbean it was mid-March 2020. TCI Premier Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson, in conjunction with Governor HE Nigel Dakin quickly closed the domestic and international borders to protect the country’s most valuable resource—human lives. As a result, Salt Cay’s only industry these days—tourism—came to a halt, resulting in a huge impact on the small businesses, as is true in the rest of the world.

But Salt Cay resilient residents are familiar with challenges. Community members “circled the wagons” and did what they do best—help each other. We quickly learned to “make do” with what we have on hand and get very creative—especially with cooking!

Salt Cay’s donkeys are ancestors of donkeys who pulled carts of salt when the industry was booming.

Our community ferry was permitted to travel to Grand Turk to pick up supplies. A few people volunteered to order food for everyone who needed it and Jesrell from IGA packed up each individual order and delivered it to the ferry. Friends and family also dropped off supplies for their loved ones living seven miles across the ocean.  In an island version of Uber Eats, volunteers would deliver orders to the homes and leave the boxes on the wall. This way, no one had physical contact with each other and socially distancing was very easy.

This historic image shows the Salt Cay of yesteryear.

As of press time (mid-December 2020), Salt Cay remains COVID-19 free! People used to say we are an island of the four Cs—no crime, no cruise ships, no casinos and no crowds . . . now we can add no COVID-19! Community members continue to be extremely cautious by masking up, hand sanitizing and social distancing. The business owners have made safety their number one priority in welcoming tourists back to the Turks & Caicos when the Premier opened our borders on July 22, 2020.

In 2017, Salt Cay was hit by two Category 5 hurricanes—Irma and Maria. No lives were lost and no injuries sustained, as we believe in being well prepared. There was, however, substantial damage to buildings and infrastructure. Fortunately, in the last few years there has been a tremendous amount of money invested into Salt Cay.

The current government has provided funds to repair the Mary Robinson Primary School, the District Commissioner’s office, community shelters, cisterns, the salt shed, sea wall and numerous other projects. The latest improvment is the Salt Cay airport which recently opened and was officially named the Leon Wilson Airport. There was a ribbon cutting ceremony with the Premier and several cabinet members in attendance. It is a stunning new runway and apron, with space to park private planes and a newly fenced area, along with a remodeled airport terminal—still small and quaint. Herzog Construction completed the work and now we have a fresh new airport to greet all of our new and returning passengers.

People often ask me, “What is there to do on such a small island?” January 2021 is the beginning of our Humpback whale season—much anticipated every year. Salt Cay Divers and Salt Cay Whale Adventures have new boats and excellent captains to take you on an adventure of a lifetime. Salt Cay is considered the country’s “whale headquarters” because the 7,000-foot deep Columbus Passage is located directly in front of Salt Cay. This is where the whales migrate on their way to warmer waters to mate, give birth and carry their young. (There is some evidence to suggest that the shallower water around Salt Cay has become a birthing area for the whales.) This is one of the last places in the world you can still swim with these magnificent creatures.

Salt Cay’s beaches are among the country’s finest — and always deserted!

Salt Cay Divers will take you diving on some of the most pristine walls and reefs with brilliant sea fans, colorful corals and rocks teeming with fish. The island also offers snorkeling directly from its beaches or aboard a boat trip to several nearby uninhabited islands. Salt Cay is positioned perfectly to provide you with a variety of day trip opportunities, located just 7 miles from Grand Turk, 22 miles from South Caicos and 7 miles from the bird sanctuary at Great Sand Cay.

Speaking of which, Salt Cay’s bird population is another well-kept secret. We have over 36 species spotted here, including herons, egrets and ospreys. The flamingos have returned and are seen in the South Creek and South Pond area daily. They come over from Grand Turk to feed. (We say the food must be better here!)

The most common means of transportation on Salt Cay are bicycles and golf carts. You can walk or ride to most any of our spectacular beaches. Hiking, biking and relaxing are very popular, as well as deep-sea, hand-line or bonefishing in the South Creek. Going on a historical walking tour, hunting for clams in the sand flats (then having the local cafés cook them for you) or “hunting” for shots on a photographic safari are just a few of many activities that folks find to do on Salt Cay.

There are four bistros/cafés on-island, each with their own specialties. The island has four small stores for basics and most all of the 14 different accommodations available have some means of preparing your own meals when you’re not dining around tasting the local cuisine. We do not have any five-star hotels or fancy spas, but we DO have private one, two and three-bedroom villas or apartment-like options that are all quaint, clean, comfortable and offer you a safe place to relax and rejuvenate your mind, body and soul. 

Once you experience Salt Cay you might be like many others and want to move here or spend the winter months on island to be out of the cold. There are currently several oceanfront homes for sale at a fraction of the cost of the other islands, as well as lovely homes in our small neighborhoods. Or, find the perfect plot of vacant land and build. The TCI Government is offering purchases on Salt Cay to be charged only 6.5% stamp duty as a stimulus to boost our economy. Other islands in the country have to pay as high as 10.5% . (TCI’s stamp duty is a one-time transfer tax. After that, there are no property taxes.) So when you fall in love with Salt Cay, check with your local real estate agent to make Salt Cay your new home.

We are open and ready for tourists to come and visit our magical little island. Hope to see you in Salt Cay soon.

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On the Cover

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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