Beyond the Beach

There’s more to be explored when you dig deeper.

By Rachel Craft

It’s no surprise that most visitors come to the Turks & Caicos Islands for the beaches. TCI’s powdery soft sand, crystal-clear waters, and abundant snorkeling sites have landed it on “world’s best beaches” lists for years. But visitors who venture outside their resort will find a plethora of other activities, from outdoor adventures and art classes to local history and cuisine. Here are some of the amazing experiences TCI has to offer “beyond the beach.”

Kayak through nature’s nursery

Clear-bottom kayaks offer both relaxing and adventurous options when you choose to spend some time away from the beach.

The mangrove swamps on Providenciales’ northeastern corner are sometimes called “nature’s nursery,” because their clear, shallow waters provide a safe haven for juvenile sharks and sea turtles before they’re ready to brave the open ocean. A clear kayak or paddleboard tour of the mangroves is a great way to see and learn about TCI’s wildlife—and squeeze a light workout into your vacation.

This was a highlight of my trip to Provo. Floating on foot-deep water in a mangrove forest is a peaceful, relaxing experience, but it’s also a fascinating window into TCI’s ecology. Our guide taught us about mangrove trees and the important role they play in protecting the coastline, as well as how their roots filter salt out of the seawater. (Did you know you can harvest salt from mangrove leaves?) We got up close and personal with Queen conch, kayaked alongside baby lemon and nurse sharks, and watched in awe as juvenile sea turtles swam beneath our transparent boats. 

Popular destinations for clear kayak and paddleboarding tours include Leeward Channel, Water Cay, and Half Moon Bay. My tour took us to Little Water Cay, (a.k.a. Iguana Island), home to the endangered Turks & Caicos rock iguana. There are many reputable tour operators to choose from, including Looking Glass Watersports and Rising Tide Tours. 

Take a class

Adding an art or cooking class to your vacation itinerary can be a fun change of pace—and a great way to connect with locals. Making Waves Art Studio on Provo hosts a variety of creative classes for adults and children, complete with instruction from professional local artists. Past offerings have included making beaded bracelets, painting Christmas ornaments with gouache, and coloring sweatshirts with the ice-dyeing technique. They also have “drop in and make” sessions (or “toddle in and make” for the younger crowd), where you get full access to their creative stations and art supplies and can let your imagination run wild. Check out makingwavesartstudio.com for their upcoming classes.

There’s also Island Mystique, a brand-new travel company based on Provo that’s preparing to launch in late 2023. Described as a “cultural immersive tour experience company,” Island Mystique plans to offer paint-and-sip classes, birdwatching treks, and cooking classes where you can whip up traditional dishes like pear bush buds and rice. Follow Island Mystique’s Facebook page to stay updated on their launch date and new offerings.

Go off-roading

With Twin E-bike Tours and Rentals you can explore the quiet, lush islands of North and Middle Caicos on E-bikes.

TCI may not have the lush rainforests or volcanic soils of some Caribbean nations, but its rugged interior is just as beautiful. A great way to explore the sandy scrubland of Provo or Grand Turk is on an ATV or dune buggy tour. Operators like Xhale Excursions and Island Adventure TCI offer tours of Provo’s western side, including Chalk Sound National Park, Northwest Point National Park, and West Harbour Bluff. You’ll find similar tours on Grand Turk, but instead of scrubland and mangrove swamps, you’ll explore abandoned salt ponds and other historic sites.

If, like me, you’d rather ride something a little slower and cuddlier, try a horseback ride instead. Provo Ponies, a stable in Long Bay, takes you on a gentle trek down the street to nearby Long Bay Beach and into the shallows. There’s nothing quite like soaking up the sun while a horse carries you waist-deep in the ocean—and if your horse is feeling adventurous, you might even go for a short swim together.

Heritage Tours and Horseback Riding is dedicated to sharing aspects of Island culture. Tours are based on historic industries such as fishing, sponging, and farming. You can follow a unique donkey trail ride to Sail Rock—a historical landmark for navigators. Based in Five Cays, you can experience an “off the beaten path” area of Provo, and top it off with a drink or meal at Boogaloo’s Restaurant or Omar’s Beach Hut. Experienced riders can sign up on a tour that allows them to canter or gallop!

Adopt a potcake puppy for a day

TCI’s street dogs are affectionately known as “potcakes” because people used to feed them the burned crust (“potcake”) from the bottom of their cooking pots. (Fun fact: The potcake is officially recognized as a breed by the Bahamas Kennel Club.) The charity Potcake Place has made it their mission to reduce the number of homeless dogs on the Islands by getting the potcake population under control and adopting as many potcakes as possible to loving homes. 

When visiting TCI, you can help the cause by visiting Potcake Place in Saltmills Plaza to play with the puppies or adopt one for the day. This benefits the dogs by helping them build crucial social skills—and it gives tourists their cuteness fix while on vacation. If you get attached to your new friend and decide to adopt them, Potcake Place will help arrange transportation back home with you.

Sample local libations

You can see how the various Turk’s Head beers are brewed during a tour of the brewery, with samples available afterwards.

Turk’s Head Brewery, named after the iconic Turk’s Head cactus, offers TCI’s only home-brewed beer. Their brews have playful names based on local colloquialisms: I-AIN-GA-LIE lager, GON-TA-NORT amber ale, DOWN-DA-ROAD IPA, and I-SOON-REACH light lager, as well as the seasonal specials GONE-TA-SOUT stout and TA-RECT-LEY wheat. 

You can sample all of them—and learn the meanings behind the names—on a visit to Turk’s Head Brewery in Cooper Jack Bay Settlement (on “short cut” road between Leeward Highway and Five Cays) on Provo. Monday through Saturday, they offer tastings and tours where you can meet the people behind the brews and learn how they make the best beer in TCI. You’ll also get to sample some experimental new flavors (including, recently, a cider) that aren’t sold in the IGA grocery stores.

Go spelunking

Middle Caicos may be less visited than Provo and Grand Turk, but that just means it’s refreshingly uncrowded and filled with untouched natural beauty. It’s also home to one of the largest limestone cave systems in the Caribbean: the Conch Bar Caves. These caves were once mined for bat guano (an ingredient in fertilizer and gunpowder), but they’re now unused and open to visitors. You’ll see a variety of stalactites, stalagmites, sinkholes, and graffiti left by guano miners. If you’re lucky, you’ll also spot some of the caves’ many bats.

The Conch Bar Cave system is mostly flat, with no major ascents or descents, so you need only basic physical fitness to enjoy this natural wonder. However, because the caves are largely undeveloped, a guide is required. This is a strict rule designed to keep visitors safe and prevent damage to the cave and its occupants. Tour operators offer a variety of options—from a half-hour cave tour with a National Trust guide to a stop at the caves on a full-day tour of North and Middle Caicos. 

While you’re on Middle Caicos, don’t miss Indian Cave, a single-gallery cave that’s easy and free to visit (no guide required). Holes in the cave ceiling provide natural skylights, and ficus roots stretching down to the cave floor create an eerie, otherworldly backdrop. Indian Cave is home to a variety of flora and fauna, including birds, bats, and the giant blue land crab. It has also served as a shelter for humans over the centuries; recent archaeological digs have uncovered ancient pottery shards, as well as fossils of now-extinct animal species.

Middle Caicos’ ruggedness is part of what makes this hidden gem so special—but it also makes it a little more challenging to get here. You’ll have to take a flight or ferry to North Caicos, then rent a car or hire a taxi and take the causeway to Middle Caicos.

Dig into history 

Tour Cheshire Hall plantation on Providenciales.

Like other islands in the Caribbean, TCI has a rich history spanning the native Taíno and Lucayan peoples, European colonization, and African slaves. There are many opportunities across the Islands to learn about the various time periods and cultural influences in TCI’s history.

If you’re staying on Provo, it’s easy to get to Cheshire Hall Plantation, which served as a cotton plantation in the late 1700s and is now a prime spot for history buffs. For the $15 admission fee, you can explore the plantation’s stone paths to see the remains of buildings such as slave quarters and cotton press bases. Cheshire Hall is near downtown Provo, a short drive down Leeward Highway from Grace Bay.

The smaller, less touristed island of Grand Turk offers several more historical sites. Cockburn Town, the capital of TCI, is the Islands’ oldest, still-existing settlement and a showcase of the British Colonial/Bermudian architectural style. The Turks & Caicos National Museum houses artifacts of the native Taínos, European shipwrecks, and the Islands’ salt and sisal industries. There’s also the Colonial-era Her Majesty’s Prison, which operated from the 1830s until 1994 and now serves as a small museum. The Grand Turk Lighthouse offers a dose of history as well as a gorgeous backdrop for photos—and a herd of wild (but friendly) donkeys who live in the area.

As you can see, there’s plenty more to do in TCI than just swimming and sunbathing. So finish your daiquiri, peel off that snorkel mask, and spend some time getting to know the rest of the Turks & Caicos; you won’t be disappointed.

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography (myparadisephoto.com) created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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