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Travel Articles by David Bear
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Unwinding in the Turks and Caicos


Article by David Bear 

TURKS AND CAICOS ISLANDS -- Kneeling with both of her legs on my back, the petite Thai masseuse, whose name was Air, probed her fingers skillfully into the thick muscles along the lower edge of my right shoulder blade.

After finding and unknotting a tight knot there, using the leverage of her body, she gently manipulated my right arm up and behind my head, achieving an acute angle I could never accomplish on my own. Then, she coaxed the tension until, with a tiny, chiropractic "crackle," she encouraged my shoulder joint to relax into a position approximating its designer's specifications.

Over the course of the hour, with deft, businesslike dexterity, Air worked the same magic on each of my body's other major limbs and joints, front and back. When she was finished, they could have used a spatula to move me from the mat. Pure bliss!

Of course, Air's massage at Shambala, the spa on Parrot Cay, a private island hideaway in the Turks and Caicos Islands, occurred on the seventh day of my visit to that archipelago of enjoyment in the South Atlantic.

I had been well prepared for relaxation.

No, these islands have nothing to do with Turkey.

Geographically, they are two clusters of low-lying, reef-ringed, sand cays in the deep South Atlantic some 600 miles from Miami. Situated south of the Bahamas and north of the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos have long been a British colony, which has been self-governing since 1976. Among other practicalities, this means most residents speak English and drive on the left, even though the U.S. dollar is the official currency.

The vast majority of the colony's 24,000 residents now live on the island of Providenciales. This island, along with North and Middle Caicos, comprise the primary population centers of the three dozen or so keys in the Caicos, the rest being only lightly peopled or totally uninhabited.

The five Turks Islands lie to the east, across a 22-mile-wide strait of ocean known as the Columbus Passage, a trench where the sea bottom plummets from 75 feet deep to almost 8,000 feet. The two principal sand masses are Salt Cay and Grand Turk, where the capital city, Cockburn Town, is situated.

The commonly accepted explanation credits the Turks name to the Turk's-head cactus found around the islands, which flowers in a red pillbox of a fruiting body that resembles a fez.

Though much smaller in total acreage compared to the Caicos Islands, these two sand spits have been the commercial center of the islands for centuries, first with colonial trade and later with the extraction of salt from seawater. In fact, during the 18th and 19th centuries, salt from Grand Turk and Salt Cay was shipped around the world.

But the salt enterprises gradually melted away in the 20th century, and, other than a flurry of activity around the early space program (both John Glenn and Scott Carpenter landed in nearby waters after their 1962 orbital missions), the Turks and Caicos drifted in relative obscurity.

Scuba divers favored their clear waters, colorful reef-life, abundant wrecks and deep walls that plunge to the bottom of the ocean, and broad tidal flats teeming with bonefish and big game fish lurking offshore brought fisherman from around the world. But since the islands lacked an adequate jetport and no cruise liners called on them, their 230 miles of fine, white sandy beaches ringed by perfect, turquoise Atlantic went largely undeveloped.

Then, in 1976, Turks and Caicos islanders (known as Belongers) won the right to govern themselves, and things began to change. To spur tourism, a modern jet terminal was constructed. But they build it not at the airport on Grand Turk but on Providenciales, to provide access to its superlative Grace Bay, a sweeping, unbroken stretch of beautiful oceanfront 12 miles long.

It proved a fortuitous decision.

Club Med led the tourism wave in 1982, opening its low-rise complex on the east end of Grace Bay. Like the first plum out of the jar, that set off a development boom that has been phenomenal. Also wise was a decision to make the islands something of a tax haven.

Almost overnight, bright strings of appealing beach resorts and condo complexes have sprouted from the sands along Grace Bay, and thick, glossy real estate catalogs brim with alluring ads for million-dollar mansions on baby bays hidden around Provo's perimeter.

I'd been curious about the Turks and Caicos for years but was never particularly inclined to brave the inconvenient air routing necessary to reach them from Pittsburgh, which, like many island destinations, involves inconvenient connections in either New York or Miami.

However, when US Airways recently announced regular service between Charlotte and Providenciales, I decided it was time to check out the Turks and Caicos. And since I'd be away during our wedding anniversary, I thought it prudent to bring my wife, Sari, along.

Although most Turks and Caicos Island visitors these days don't get beyond the considerable charms of Providenciales, we planned to spend seven days seeing something of three other islands as well.

We sampled scuba diving, snorkeling and sailing, strolled some superb beaches, enjoyed several wonderful meals and world-class sunsets, and met a cast of interesting locals, expatriates, and even a movie star.

Grand Turk

We caught an 8:05 a.m. flight departure from Pittsburgh to Charlotte for an easy 40-minute connection to what was only the third US Airways' flight from Charlotte to the island of Providenciales. Service and the terminal in Charlotte were so new, no boarding signage was up yet, and the counter staff were still debating how to pronounce Providenciales.

As I quickly learned, all residents simply say "Provo."

At any rate, our journey was smooth sailing from take-off to touchdown at about 1:15 p.m., which, since the trip involved no time-zone changes, felt a very comfortable time to arrive.

However, the actual passage of time seemed to shift dramatically as soon as our feet touched the tarmac.

We were scheduled to make a 2:30 p.m. connection on Sky King Airways for a 20-minute flight to Grand Turk, but there was some confusion about when a plane would be available. It was almost 4:30 before one could be found. No matter. We spent one enjoyable hour dining on fried conch in Gilley's, the airport diner, and another observing the comings and goings of people and planes, wondering exactly when our flight would depart. Welcome to island time.

Still, I enjoyed the view on the flight across the wide, shallow Caicos Banks to Grand Turk. It was nearly 5:30 when we landed, just as darkness was settling. In these latitudes, dusk lasts only a minute or two.

Though for centuries Grand Turk has been the colony's commercial center and seat of power, it has fewer than 3,000 residents, the majority of whom work for the government. Cockburn Town, the capital and primary settlement, consists of several long streets that parallel the western shore, several hundred yards from the Columbus Passage.

We were booked for three nights at the Osprey Beach Hotel, at the southern end of town, maybe half a mile from the airport. It's the only hotel on the beach with a swimming pool, although since most guests are scuba divers and the beachfront and ocean are magnificent, I doubt the pool gets much use.

But pool side was certainly a pleasant place for a Wednesday night barbecue, during which we were entertained by Mitch Rolling, guitarist and owner of Blue Waters Dive Shop, and Jonny Dunn, his young, fiddle-fingering protege and assistant dive master.

That's how Grand Turk is, an everybody-gets-to-know-everybody kind of place, where most folks, both local and tourist, show up at the same bar on any given evening.

Our ground-floor room at the two-story Osprey was simple and island-elegant, accommodating and clean, with a small private porch that opened on the ocean, attributes that all pleased Sari. At about $100 a night per room, including breakfast, the Osprey was a great base from which to explore the island and its waters. The satellite TV provided all the familiar channels, the ocean sounds made for sound sleeping, and the rooster crowing across the street the following morning made an alarm clock unnecessary.

With 28 rooms, the Osprey is also the largest hotel on Grand Turk, which is certainly not overdeveloped. Donkeys and roosters roam the streets of Cockburn Town, and there are only 84 available guest rooms on the whole island, which means it can't accommodate many more than 200 overnight visitors at once.

We had made arrangements to try scuba diving the following morning, a first experience for both of us. After breakfast at the Court Yard Cafe, the coffee shop associated with the Osprey, we met the affable Jonnie Dunn, who drove us the mile to the Blue Water Dive shop. There he fitted us out with masks, flippers, air tanks and weight belts.

The "hotel" dive course he provided was simple and sufficient. After half an hour of learning how to use the regulators and clear our masks, we successfully tried the techniques in three feet of water. About the time we were beginning to feel confident, Brian arrived in the dive boat with four other divers and took us all out to a spot near the edge of the wall. The sandy bottom was clearly visible 50 feet under the boat, but several dozen yards farther out, the bottom took a precipitous plunge into eternity, 8,000 feet below.

After donning our gear, we rolled backward off the boat and slowly followed Jonnie down the rope that hung off the stern. At first, I had a bit of trouble getting the pressure in my ears to equalize, but other than that, our maiden dive went swimmingly.

We spent about 35 minutes exploring the floor of a section of generally sandy flats with coral heads clumped randomly toward the main buttress of the reef, beyond which loomed the wall and its rapid descent to the ocean bottom more than 1 1/4 miles below. Several large sting rays scudded over the sandy bottom, and schools of brightly colored fish flitted among the coral and seafans, tiny, tear-shaped fellows with brilliant blue backs and yellow bellies, grouper-like bullies, large, black tetras, camouflaged cods and the occasional conch.

Floating over the wall into the ocean's infinity of green was slightly unnerving, something akin to standing on the edge of a canyon, except with no anxiety about falling over. Later, we spent an informative hour checking out the Turks and Caicos National Museum in one of the island's oldest residences on Front Street, dating more than150 years. Its collections of local artifacts, however, are much older. They include evidence of the Lucayans, the Stone Age people who inhabited the islands before the arrival of Spanish explorers and were eradicated within a generation.

In the mid-17th century, inland ponds on Grand Turk were developed for the commercial production of sea salt, which in the absence of any large-scale agriculture, became the primary source of income for the islands, spawning a slow trade in slaves and significant fortunes.

Those early fortunes and the busy Caribbean sea trade also made the Turks and Caicos a haven for pirates, which, with the complicated currents around the islands, has resulted in more than 1,000 wrecks in its adjacent waters.

Salt Cay

We were up with the roosters the following morning on Grand Turk and were at the airport for a five-minute, relatively on-time InterIsland flight over to the landing strip on Salt Cay, an even tinier patch of sand eight miles south of Grand Turk. There, we met Debbie Been of Salt Cay Divers, who, as an official greeter, gave us a tour of what the island had to see and do. That didn't take long.

If Grand Turk is sleepy, Salt Cay is in suspended animation. With fewer than 100 residents, the island's dryland options are somewhat limited, but surprising nonetheless. There are a handful of inns and guest homes for serious divers and just enough in the way of dining opportunities restaurants to keep a visitor happily fed.

Although Salt Cay's primary attractions lay in the waters around it, where the snorkeling and diving are superb and humpback whales migrate past each year, there's history enough intact to get the whole of the six-square-mile island a rating as a World Heritage Site. Still evident is the broad grid of stone called salinas, which occupy the center of the island. These are the drying pools from which, for two centuries, salt was extracted from seawater.

We even got to peek inside the "White House," the island's original plantation mansion, still owned by the Dunn family, descendants of the Bermudan salt rakers who settled Salt Cay in the early 19th century. It turns out that our dive instructor, Jonnie Dunn, is a descendant of that line.

Everywhere we turned in the Turks and Caicos, it seemed there was a story.

Salt Cay's residents seem to appreciate an elementally simple life in a beautiful place with empty, powder sand beaches and world-class scuba diving.

But the island saved its best surprise for last.

We visited Windmills Plantation, a romantic little inn, with eight guest suites in elegant isolation on the island's North Beach, an otherwise undeveloped swath of sand nearly two miles long.

Sari and I enjoyed three delightful hours snorkeling among the coral heads and strolling along this totally private stretch of shoreline, followed by a quiet crab salad luncheon on the Windmills Plantation deck. It was quiet and thoroughly delightful, but all too soon, time came for us to head back for our return flight to Grand Turk, scheduled for 4:30.

Of course, the plane didn't actually show up until almost 5:20, by which time it was nearly dark, which was an issue because the landing strip had no lights.

Although secretly hoping we'd be stranded and forced to spend a night at Windmills Plantation, we passed the time watching the sun set over the salinas and chatting on the airstrip's front porch with the local doctor, who was also waiting, and the airport manager. The latter was Lionel, a Belonger who had colorful stories about his travels around the world, first as a merchant seaman and more recently in fishing tournaments, where he angled with his bare hands and a line, without rod or pole.

All in all, it turned out to be one of the more interesting airport delays I'd ever had.


In what now seems to be typical Turks time, our 9:30 a.m. Sky King flight the following morning from Grand Turk back to Providenciales didn't depart until 11:15. No problem. Sari and I knew the routine. We sat at the picnic bench outside and chatted with some of the other passengers waiting for the flight. The plane eventually arrived, and the 20-minute flight offered a splendid overview of the islands, especially as we glided in to the airport at Providenciales.

Because Providenciales was so lightly settled before the opening of its airport in 1978, there's nothing like a village or civic center. A pair of two-lane roads run east/west along the spine of the island, roughly paralleling the long grin of Grace Bay on the north. That's where most of the tourism development has been focused. South of these roads, various enclaves of grand homes and alluring condos have been erected in neat developments along the shoreline and inlets of the shallow, sand banks, mostly within the last decade.

One thing is immediately obvious about Providenciales -- nothing is very old.

We were booked to spend one night at Point Grace, a plush condominium resort in the middle of Grace Bay beach. With only 32 units in two buildings around a central pool, it is small and elegant, built and managed with Swiss precision and style. Yet as stupendous as our accommodations proved to be, a two-bedroom apartment with every imaginable convenience and an ocean facing verandah, they were overmatched by the scenery itself.

Because our time on Provo was to be short, we splashed happily in our little corner of the ocean for 45 minutes and then took a walk to one end of the beach, which incidentally is public, as are all the beaches in the Turks and Caicos.

Twelve miles of wide, unbroken white sand beach, flanked for its entire length by aquamarine waters and a reef a half-mile offshore, beyond which is deep Atlantic -- it's no surprise that Conde Nast Traveler magazine rated Grace Bay as the "Best Beach of All Tropical Islands in the World."

Even better, because development was closely regulated from the beginning, the beach-front property has been intelligently executed. A 55-foot height restriction on buildings and limitations on the number of units have kept the beach from being overwhelmed, even though much of its length is now occupied by a string of four-story resorts.

All those resorts must produce their own freshwater and process their own wastes, which, given recent technological developments, tends to keep everything neat and ecological.

Club Med Turkoise was the first large (300-unit) resort complex built in the early 1980s, and its buildings are barely visible from the beach. It's still Providenciales' largest resort. Some 20 other hotels, all-inclusive resorts and time-share condos have sprung up along this beach since then, offering a variety of differing styles and price ranges, from Treasure Beach Villas at the western end to Ocean Club Resorts in the middle and the Grace Bay Club at the eastern end. A brand-new resort, the Turks & Caicos Club, opened its doors for the first time last week.

A number of other small hotels have also been built along the road, for those who don't require an oceanfront facility, and several dozen restaurants and bars scattered around the island provide dining opportunities for those inclined to stray from home.

All in all, Grace Bay has so many aquatic bounties to offer, there's no need for any hotel or visitor to crowd or show off.

I like that in a beach.

Besides, no matter how exclusive some resorts may be, all guests to the island have access to the same ocean activities and all share a single golf course, the only one in the Turks and Caicos.

Parrot Cay

We had expected the final three days to be the high point of our Turks and Caicos experience. We were not disappointed.

A half-hour motor launch trip east inside the reef from Provo's Leeward Marina deposited us on the thousand-acre sand spit that until recently was known as Pirate Cay.

A long, low-lying comma, no more than half a mile at its widest, the island's topography rises from the sea to a 50-foot-high ridge blanketed by twining bush and stubby cactus, before sinking away into mangrove-covered wetlands on its leeward side. Despite its abundance of reef-fronted beaches of white sand, the island's absence of fresh water and fertile soil left it largely uninhabited over the centuries, save for Anne Bonnie, a female buccaneer said to have sought sanctuary on its sandy shores with her accomplice, Calico Jack.

A dozen years ago, a Kuwaiti investment group purchased the whole of Pirate Cay from the government, intending to transform its eastern end into an intimate (58-unit) and exclusive enclave for those who could afford it. The plan envisioned a handsome but undistinguished main building set on the ridge, on the ocean side by nine two-story buildings, each having four neat guest rooms with a private balcony facing the sea.

The Persian Gulf War scuttled those plans, but not until most of the original construction had been completed.

The project languished for several years before being purchased in 1996 by the Ong family of Singapore, owners of the Como Group of Hotels. The original plan was completed and then augmented with nine private Balinese-style "villas" strung discretely along the beachfront. Much of the management and staff were brought from the Far East and South Pacific to provide an instantly high level of service, something that can be difficult to achieve in the Caribbean.

Four years ago this month, Pirate Cay became Parrot Cay, an oasis of pure, simple pleasure, an Eden of eastern elegance set on a superb stretch of South Atlantic strand.

Anne Bonnie's former haunt is now a place where more modern marauders can find the solace of nature's oceanic beauty and understated sophistication. The list of glitterati who have already found their way to Parrot Cay is impressive, ranging from Paul McCartney to Jerry Seinfield, Barbra Streisand to Britney Spears. The main attraction is always private access to the ocean's beauties. These stars come here less to be seen, than to be not seen.

After spending three days there myself, I am confident even Mick Jagger could find Satisfaction on Parrot Cay.

The original architectural style is called modern Colonial: simple rectangles with white plaster exteriors and terra cotta roofs; interiors tile-floored with white walls, lime bleached wooden ceilings and wide glass doors that open onto railed porches. Room furnishings follow this theme of white elegance, with king-sized four-poster beds canopied with soft gauze for guests who favor sleeping with windows open to ocean sounds.

The resort's other facilities are limited in number but excellent in quality. There's a small, well-equipped gym for workouts and several tennis courts. Other than the nearly 2-mile-long beachfront, the center of activity is the 5,500-square-foot "infinity edge" swimming pool, which shares its horizon with the ocean. A pool side bar and the open-air Lotus restaurant provide food and drink.

The aforementioned Shambala spa, a holistic retreat featuring a variety of exotic massages, body treatments and yoga, is 100 yards from the main reception building, which, in addition to a small boutique and library, houses the Terrace Restaurant and Bar. That's where we enjoyed dinner that first night, an excellent meal served simply in the relaxed, elegant setting overlooking the postcard panorama.

Other than a full range of cable TV channels, a complimentary collection of water sports equipment and menu of scuba, snorkeling and fishing excursions, that's about it for Parrot Cay activities.

Guests are free to do as much or little as they care to.

That first morning we had a tray delivered to our room. We sat on the verandah, sipped coffee, nibbled pastries and fresh fruit and got lost in the ocean view. The private moments continued with a walk down the beach, during which we saw only three other people. It was easy to imagine being stranded together alone on a beautiful desert isle.

Who says I'm no romantic? Later, a dive boat whisked seven of us 20 minutes away to a section of reef in a shallow bank several miles off the leeward side of the islands. We floated and flippered for nearly an hour among the coral heads, following the progress of schools of iridescent fish before returning to the glories of the resort's infinity pool and the beach beyond.

We were just in time to catch the last act of a glorious sunset and resolved to make it back for the next day's performance. Once again, we had the beach and the sunset to ourselves. One definition of privileged luxury these days is the combination of natural beauty, creature comforts and not having to share it with anyone else.

Of course, as soon as the sun was down, the mosquitoes came out, despite the resort's twice-daily mistings of natural repellents made from the essence of crushed African chrysanthemums, if you please.

After all, Parrot Cay is not paradise, only paradise on earth.

We had dinner reservations at the Lotus restaurant down by the pool, which instantly became our favored place to eat. Twenty-four wooden tables set simply under a slat-roofed pavilion open to the sea, it is the epitome of informal tropical elegance, where creative pan-Asian cuisine is served by a gracious staff.

For starters that evening, I had a superb vegetarian spring roll, and Sari had the seared scallops over sprouty garnish. Her main course was crispy duck, lightly oranged and served with pineapple and bok choy. I had a Pandang of beef, sort of a spicy sweet curry. We shared a dessert of light custard sprinkled with crushed pomegranate seeds.

But they can also make a killer hamburger at Lotus, for breakfast if that's your desire.

Later, we had coffee with the stars around the dark pool -- the celestial ones. It was at Lotus the following afternoon when we had our star sighting of the Hollywood variety.

We'd occupied ourselves independently that morning. While Sari had a pedicure, I got some quick pointers on how to sail a Hobie Cat and spent an hour happily following breezes around the aquatic playground inside the reef.

About noon, we took a tour of the rest of Parrot Cay, a half-hour drive in an ATV down the unpaved road that follows the island's spine to a several-hundred-acre area on the western shore, where three luxurious private villas were under construction. One was for Bruce Willis, who happened to be on the island to meet with his architect, contractor and landscaper.

We encountered him that afternoon as we were walking up the steps to lunch. Dressed casually in shorts, T-shirt, bandanna and dark shades, he had a quick exchange with Sari about how lucky we all were to be at Parrot Cay, and he followed up with another comment a few minutes later, as he passed the table where Sari and I were seated.

As it turned out, Bruce was to be our regular companion for our final four meals. Well, not at the same table, perhaps, but showing up every time we did at Lotus. I can report that no one bothered him in this safe harbor for celebrities.

If possible, our final day on Parrot Cay was even more relaxed. That afternoon, I enjoyed that Thai massage, the positive effects of which lingered for days. Sari and I later wandered down to the beach for the evening's extravaganza.

There we were bobbing in the warm, waist-high water, again with the entire beach to ourselves. As the sun settled into the horizon, it backlit the vast South Atlantic seascape, turning the high clouds into fingers of golden orange and jade. I turned to my wife and found her chuckling with pure pleasure. Then I looked back to where the sun was setting, just in time to see my first "green flash."

It was an anniversary moment we'll long remember.

And when time came the following day to catch the boat back to reality, neither of us were ready to leave.

In fact, we're already saving our money to go back Parrot Cay.


If you go . . . 
Turks and Caicos Islands LE


 FORMALITIES: No visa or tourist cards are needed for short visits. In addition to a return airline ticket, U.S. citizens need either a current or recently expired passport to enter the country or a notarized birth certificate and government-issued photo ID, such as a driver's license. The departure tax of $23 per person is usually included with the airline ticket.

 TEMPERATURE: The Turks and Caicos islands offer a tropical climate with average annual temperatures ranging from the low 80s to mid 90s. August and September are the hottest months. There's no rainy season and only about 22 inches of rain a year. The last hurricane was in the 1960s. Water temperatures range from about 82 degrees year-round.

 MONEY: The official currency is the U.S. dollar. There are no sales property or employment taxes. Standard tips of 15 to 20 percent are not generally automatically added to restaurant checks, although they may be added to hotel bills.

 TRANSPORTATION: Driving is on the left, and a valid driver's license is required to rent a car. Scooters and bicycles are available for rent, and taxis are readily available on Providenciales and Grand Turk.



Blue Water Divers: 1-649-946-1225 or

Salt Cay Divers: 1-649-946-6906 or

Turks and Caicos National Museum:


Osprey Beach Hotel: Nightly rates at Osprey Beach Hotel in the summer and fall begin at $100 per room and include full English breakfast; 1-649-946-1453 or

Windmills Plantation: Nightly rates at Windmills Plantation begin at $325 per room. 1-649-946-6962 or

Point Grace Club: Nightly rates at Point Grace in the summer and fall begin at $395 for a one bedroom suite. 1-888-682-3705 or

Parrot Cay: Nightly rates at Parrot Cay in the spring and fall begin at $450 per room and include full English breakfast. 1-877-754-0726 or





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