Welcome back! Last time around, we had just embarked upon the ms Eurodam ship from Holland America Line for an Eastern Caribbean adventure, departing from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to our first port–Turks and Caicos.
A Jewel in the Caribbean
The Turks and Caicos Islands archipelago, which consists of 40 islands, is located just 30 miles south of the Bahamas and approximately 575 miles southeast of Miami. Here you will find the larger Caicos Island–with the major areas of Providenciales, North Caicos, Middle Caicos, East Caicos and South Caicos, the smaller Turks Islands, which include Grand Turk and a smattering of smaller Cays (pronounced “keys”).
The capital of the Turks and Caicos is Grand Turk, located on the east side of the archipelago. This stunning island is approximately seven miles long and one and a half miles wide–and is the place to come to get away from it all.
Our day in Grand Turk began with our arrival at the cruise port, one of the most unique in the Caribbean. And if your goal was to get to the beach–the finest, tawny-hued sand and crystal-clear water you have ever seen–as fast as possible, it was only a few hundred feet from the ship along an 18-acre landscaped beachfront area.
Those who love to shop only have to walk a few steps further to enter the Grand Turk Cruise Center, which offers everything from locally crafted souvenirs and gifts to beach wear and other apparel, wine and spirits, artwork and the like (a great deal of it found inside the 10,000-square-foot Dufry duty-free shop), and probably the biggest draw, the jewelry, offering every kind of bling your heart desires.
The Center also features an enormous swimming pool with an expansive, meandering design chock full of free chaise lounges just waiting to be enjoyed by all. And if a little peace and quiet is your island penchant, you have the option of renting a private poolside (or beach) cabana.
There is a lot to see and do in Grand Turk, and the Cruise Center offers a wide range of island excursion options, including 4×4 and dune buggy offroad adventures, kayaking, snorkeling, catamaran sails, land and beach horseback riding, beach excursions and historic homes tours.
A handful of us embarked upon a tour with Patsy of Patsy’s Taxi & Tour Services. A long-time island resident, Patsy is a treasure trove of information, regaling us along the way with the history of the island, pointing out noteworthy stops and historical structures, giving us insight into the year-round denizens (approximately 4,500), as well as those who have come here, fallen in love with the island and built vacation homes, and more.
To really understand and appreciate Grand Turk and the Turks and Caicos, you have to go back to the late 1400s, when Christopher Columbus discovered the area–although some historical accounts say that Ponce de Leon arrived first. Nevertheless, what is known is that the islands were originally inhabited by the Taino and Lucayan Indian tribes, the name of the islands, “Turks,” referring to the indigenous Turk’s head cactus, and “Caicos” from “caya hico,” meaning “string of islands,” a Lucayan term from the Arawak language.
The big draw for the Spaniards to stay here was the plethora of plant life, fishing–namely conch (pronounced “konk”)–and salt, the latter widely used and highly prized as a preservative and culinary flavor enhancement. Today, both conch fishing (you can visit the Caicos Conch Farm here) and salt-raking remain as two of the area’s biggest industries.
In addition to the Spanish, Turks and Caicos was ruled by the French, British, the Bermudians (under British rule) and as a dependency/colony of the Bahamas and Jamaica. However, they have been their own British Crown colony since the early 1960s (and they drive on the left side of the road) with the U.S. dollar as their currency. English is the primary language, although Spanish and Creole are also spoken among the islanders.
One of the most popular excursions in Grand Turk is scuba diving, particularly among its vast coral reefs to explore many of the over 1,000 shipwrecks that occurred here dating back to the mid-1800s.
As spectacular as the reefs in this area were back in the day and remain today, they were treacherous for ships, which is why even today, instead of docking on the larger island of Providenciales, the ships come into Grand Turk. The ships, devoid of modern navigational instrumentation, met their doom when approaching the shore. But it is just those reefs, which drop to an astounding 7,000 feet just a few minutes boat-ride from shore, that attract scuba divers from all over the world.
Because Grand Turk is such a boutique island, visitors can take in several sites and attractions in only a few hours time. One of the stops we made was at the Jags McCartney International Airport, where we saw the replica of the space capsule Friendship 7, in which John Glenn splashed down here in 1962.
A must in Cockburn Town, the main town on Grand Turk, is the Turks and Caicos National Museum, located in the center of town inside the Guinep House, one of the island’s historic buildings. Features here include a wide range of exhibits about the island’s shipwreck history, major industries, involvement in the U.S. space program, historic structures and landmarks and more. It also hosts a museum archive and museum library, research facilities and a museum shop.
St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral Anglican Episcopal Church, established in 1899, is a delightful stark-white church with vivid scarlet shutters and lines. Inside, you’ll find a very peaceful sanctuary with expressive arched windows on both sides, inspiring architectural detailing and beautiful stained glass windows. St. Thomas Anglican Church, which features the same customary island white-and-scarlet facade, was built in the early 1820s by Bermudian settlers. It was the first church built on the island and the second church built in the Bahamas archipelago.
Built in London in 1852 and shipped to Grand Turk, the Grand Turk Historic Lighthouse is still in use today. Standing some 60 feet tall, it is one of the island’s most recognizable landmarks on land and sea, particularly for travelers along the latter, who have used it as a beacon to indicate the shallow reef located on the northern coast of the island.
Although we had a short and sweet time in Grand Turk, we made sure to enjoy some of the island flavor at the Sandbar Restaurant, situated right on the water just across the street from its sister entity, the Manta House B&B. This little laid-back, all al-fresco sand-and-surf, come-as-you-are joint serves delicious island fare, including fresh fish and seafood, ribs, chicken, burgers, sandwiches and some of the best peas and rice in the Caribbean, plus a wide array of island cocktails.
There is such much more we could say about Grand Turk, but alas, time to get back on the ship!
Up next: Puerto Rico and St. Thomas.
- CAICOS CONCH FARM: 649-946-5643, www.caicosconchfarm.com
- GRAND TURK CRUISE CENTER: www.grandturkcc.com
- HOLLAND AMERICA LINE: 877-932-4259, www.hollandamerica.com
- PATSY’S TAXI & TOUR SERVICES: 649-341-1504, 649-241-6713
- THE SANDBAR RESTAURANT: 649-946-1111, 649-243-2666, www.grandturk-mantahouse.com/sandbar.htm
- TURKS AND CAICOS NATIONAL MUSEUM: 649-946-2160, www.tcmuseum.org
- TURKS AND CAICOS TOURIST BOARD: 646-375-8830 (USA), 649-946-2321 (Grand Turk), www.turksandcaicostourism.com
Lysa Allman-Baldwin writes for numerous online and print publications, including as the cultural travel writer for www.Examiner.com and as a senior travel writer for SoulOfAmerica.com, an Afrocentric travel website. Lysa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.