The picture-perfect Turks and Caicos Islands in the British West Indies offer not only the world’s best beaches but also adventures, explorations, relaxation, and—of course—lots of conch cuisine.
PHOTOS: Mary Ann DeSantis+Ocean Club Resorts
“This will be your screen-saver shot,” my guide Michael Williams announced as we trekked up a rocky path, known as the King’s Road, on North Caicos, the second largest and lushest in the string of 40-plus islands in the Bahamas archipelago known as the Turks and Caicos.
A little while later, the native islander proudly proclaimed another potential screen saver picture as we stood on a cliff overlooking the turquoise blue waters surrounding Dragon Cay on Middle Caicos. Nearby, a memorial with praying hands facing upward completed the Zen moment where the waters shimmered over a tranquil horizon.
Indeed, almost every scene in the Turks and Caicos was a potential screen saver for my computer. I had seen others’ photos of these sparkling emerald-like waters and always wondered if they were a product of some Photoshop work. These islands, however, were perfect without any computer enhancements.
Even before my off-the-beaten path excursions to North and Middle Caicos, I found beautiful scenes right outside my door at Ocean Club Resorts. Located on the main island of Providenciales, Ocean Club Resorts is situated on Grace Bay, the 2016 Trip Advisor Travelers’ Choice for the No. 1 beach in the world. Coupled with this year’s Travel & Leisure’s Readers’ Choice award for the Caribbean’s top resort, Ocean Club Resorts was indeed paradise where the white sand was lined with pink umbrellas and lounge chairs. Ocean Club has two properties—Ocean Club and Ocean Club West—and guests can use restaurants, beach amenities, and swimming pools at either location.
Providenciales, called Provo by most locals, is the most inhabited island in the Turks and Caicos and home to the international airport. The road to Grace Bay, the area most populated with vacation resorts, gives visitors time to get accustomed to driving on the left side of the road, a nod to the British influence.
Diving, snorkeling, kayaking, kiteboarding, sailing, and horseback riding are among the most popular activities for tourists, and several companies offer charter fishing trips for anglers. Provo is also home to the Provo Golf Club, a challenging 18-hole course that looks like an oasis surrounded by natural flora and fauna.
Recreational activities can keep visitors busy for their entire vacation, but I recommend making time to explore the heart of the islands and learn about the uniqueness of this Caribbean paradise.
One of my first stops included a visit to the world’s only conch farm. Established in 1984 as a research facility to develop techniques to produce conchs commercially, the Caicos Conch Farm is open to visitors, who can even hold the gastropod mollusks (sea snails) that are known for their beautiful shells.
“The Caribbean Queen Conchs have been seriously overfished and are now endangered,” says Danver Fortune, a guide at the facility for 13 years. “The survival rate at the farm is 95 percent, and we’re able to harvest about a quarter of a million pounds annually.”
Conch is on almost every menu in the Turks and Caicos, but the most well-known place to try the local specialty is Da Conch Shack, an outdoor café on the beach side of Blue Hills Road. Our picnic table was loaded with conch fritters, cracked conch, conch chowder, fish, and shrimp—all caught locally. The requisite conch shells are sold in souvenir stands on the property, but I waded just off shore and found my own—albeit smelly—shell that restaurant proprietors tossed back into the ocean after cleaning out the meat.
Locals also recommend the Thursday Night Fish Fry, a cultural explosion in Bight Park, that was organized by former Mount Dora resident Dave Fennimore, who works with the Turks and Caicos Tourism Board. The family friendly event draws 3,000 people weekly and features local food vendors, handcrafted items, bands, folkloric storytelling, and skits. The finale happens about 9:30 p.m. when “Henry the Conch” parades through the crowd, dancing with locals and tourists.
“The Fish Fry brings everybody together—locals, expats, and tourists all come out to enjoy it,” says Dave, who attended Florida Central Academy in 1976-77 near Sorrento. “We wanted to retain more of a local feel and let the vendors feel the guests were coming to them versus them going to the tourist area around Grace Bay. The Fish Fry doesn’t feel touristy or hokey to guests because the locals stop by after work.”
Although the villas at Ocean Club Resorts have full kitchens, I found the Grace Bay restaurants hard to ignore. Two favorites—The Vix in Regents Village and Opus next door to Ocean Club—specialize in steaks and seafood and offer extensive wine lists.
After eating so much of the local cuisine, I was glad to have a day hiking and exploring the North and Middle Caicos Islands with Big Blue Unlimited, an eco-friendly adventure company that offers excursions to the other islands. The well-informed guides offered impromptu lessons in botany—pointing out plants that were medicinal as well as those that were poisonous—on our hike to Wade’s Green Plantation on North Caicos. Wade Stubbs, a Floridian loyalist, who lost his North American property after the Revolutionary War, once owned the former cotton plantation. He was rewarded with 800 acres in the islands for his loyalty to the British crown. Today the land is maintained by the Turks and Caicos National Trust as a heritage site in a rare and threatened habitat.
Middle Caicos is also home to the Conch Bar Caves, a 15-mile underground labyrinth that is open for exploration. Even if you are an experienced spelunker, it’s best to have a local guide for this adventure because the caves are dark, intricate, and filled with bats.
Exploring the Turks and Caicos must include a water adventure; sunset cruises are always spectacular, especially if they include snorkeling above a centuries-old shipwreck. The passengers aboard the Atabeyra schooner were treated to a glimpse of an old galleon just offshore from Water Cay. We dropped anchor again near Pine Cay so snorkelers could pick up a few sand dollars.
When it was time to head back to Ocean Club Resorts, a pink umbrella and lounge chair were waiting for me. I was ready to conk out in the sun and rejuvenate in time for another… you guessed it… conch fritter dinner.
Although the Turks and Caicos Islands are a British Crown Colony, the U.S. dollar is the currency used. Visitors are required to have a valid passport, and must have a return or ongoing ticket upon arrival.