The color blue is inherently soothing. It is as though Mother Earth took note of this fact and enrobed in azul shades just to soften the stresses of her inhabitants. Humans are particularly adept at making life more difficult than it should be. Thankfully, frazzled nerves stand little chance in Turks and Caicos, a Caribbean paradise where crystal clear skies melt seamlessly into impossibly topaz waters.
After a year that can be only described as relentless, to traverse to the British overseas territory’s remote refuge is akin to being transported to another dimension – a place where days are always sunny, the people are carefree, and you’d be considered crazy to not defy gravity via parasail.
Composed of more than 40 tiny islands, the Turks and Caicos are flush with cays, powdery beaches, and other natural wonders to explore. Grand Turk was one of many stops on Christopher Columbus’s famous 1492 discovery tour, when on his hunt for spices he met indigenous people – the Lucayan and Taino Indians – who roamed the island for centuries before the European settlers staked claim.
After their civilization was diminished, others came to reap the rewards of the comparably empty islands. Salt raking became the livelihood du jour, with neighbors from Bermuda arriving to capture crystals which were used for both food flavoring and preservation. The crop was, for hundreds of years, referred to as the region’s “white gold,” and the natives and Western transplants thrived off this export well into the 1960s when the salt trade collapsed.
Now, the leading industry is tourism, which accounts for approximately 70 percent of the country’s GDP. Last spring, lockdowns that followed the rise of the global COVID-19 pandemic landed a heavy blow to Turks and Caicos. It was not until July 2020 when the country reopened with carefully considered guidelines, that the path to recovery began.
“The safety and well-being of the local population and international guests were our top priorities,” says Pamela Ewing, Director of Tourism for Turks and Caicos. “To ensure this, we introduced new entry requirements and protocols through our newly implemented TCI Assured quality assurance portal.”
The trip requires careful planning, but the first taste of fresh caught wahoo makes it all worthwhile. Prior to departure visitors must submit to the online portal a negative PCR-Test (taken within five days of arrival), proof of medical insurance and a completed health questionnaire. Tourists are asked to patronize resorts, restaurants and spas that boast a TCI Assured stamp. These businesses have been certified to follow instructions set forth by local health authorities to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Providenciales, which is considered the heart of the Turks and Caicos, is plastered with these stamps and the precautionary measures taken by its residents are in plain view. Upon landing at the international airport, expect an employee to sanitize your hands, take your temperature and inquire about your health. You will need to lather up again before entering a taxi, too. The safety protocols do not at all detract from the inviting qualities of the destination – it’s quite the opposite, really. Employees who staff the palatial resorts and open-air restaurants are masked, but the smiles that beam across their faces are unmistakable.
“In addition to the warm weather and hospitable people, the Turks and Caicos Islands is home to Grace Bay Beach which has been awarded the world’s best beach,” Ewing offers to first-time visitors (which we are). Sandwiched between Leeward Beach and Bight Beach, this calm, three-mile stretch possesses a beauty that is otherworldly. We sit at Villa Del Mar’s covered daybeds each afternoon, sipping on crisp bottles of I-SOON-REACH lagers from nearby Turk’s Head Brewery. Minutes fade into hours while we watch windsurfers and boats skim over turquoise waves. While this is undoubtedly time well-wasted, it’s clever to make a few plans before the second bucket of beer starts flowing and the island vibes blur our perception of time.
“The destination has several sister islands to explore and is inherently safe for travel in this new paradigm of physical distancing, given its expansiveness, stunning outdoor environment, privacy, spacious resort accommodations and unique portfolio of extraordinary private villas and private island vacations,” she adds.
These luxury estates really add to the vista when we take our morning snorkel excursion with Caicos Dream Tours. Captain Kwee is our guide, and he is like a character from a storybook. His long dreads, friendly chuckle and lilting accent are a joy to behold.
The waters are unusually choppy, but he is an expert navigator, so we quickly find an appropriate spot to anchor the two-level boat along the Barrier Reef – the third largest reef in the world. It is a popular mecca for divers who suit up to swim the 14-mile expanse, navigate forgotten shipwrecks and peer upon a breathtaking wall, all alongside sea turtles and other local wildlife. A quick dip above pastel corals opens our pathway to an underwater world, teeming with colorful schools of parrotfish, grouper, stingrays, and other magnificent aquatic creatures.
“You know what we say in Turks and Caicos, the more you drink the more you see,” Captain Kwee says with a laugh while handing off rum punches on the lower deck. In that case, we’ll have another.
After we’ve “enhanced our vision” we set off on a trek toward Iguana Island where we are greeted by dozens of miniature prehistoric beasts. A passing rain cloud sends the little dinosaurs scurrying for shelter, but we slip off our shoes and wade through a shallow cove that connects two distinct parts of the landform.
On the way back to Grace Bay the sky clears and Kwee makes a pit stop for a local delicacy – conch. You can’t get them any fresher than right out of the water. He shows us how to remove the crustacean from its shell, and we help ourselves to a nibble right off the knife.
“If someone would like to take the shell, just know you conch bring it on board the plane,” Kwee explains with a smirk. “It’s considered a conch-cealable weapon.” Having worked with the tour company for more than a decade he’s amassed enough silly shellfish puns to make any dad joke aficionado jealous. We wash down the briny treat with a few more cocktails before concluding our seafaring adventure.
Back on land, it is always a good time to eat. Set inside the island’s largest palm grove is Coco Bistro, where we reprise the day’s adventure with a dish of the beloved shellfish served two ways – fried in tempura with a spicy dipping sauce and in a bright citrus bath as ceviche. A resident cat who shares the restaurant’s namesake is quick to request a taste. Those who prefer a more casual dining experience can swing by the adjacent Cocovan, an outfitted airstream with duck tacos, truffled mac and cheese balls and other finger foods that pair well with tequila cocktails.
Just around the corner is another spot for award winning cuisine called Coyaba Restaurant, helmed by Chef Paul Newman. The aesthetic is Alice in Wonderland meets isle hideaway, and the food is just as enchanting. Petite teapots of chilled gazpacho give way to succulent lamb shanks and pillowy seafood ravioli drizzled in a fiery cream sauce. The restaurant is quiet the night we dine-in, so a group of kittens assume the role of audience for our three-hour dive into new world flavors. Apparently, you’re never alone in Turks and Caicos.
A goal to see the sunrise is achieved on our last morning, and the colors are spectacular. The crowing of nearby roosters is the soundtrack as splotches of indigo and neon pink paint the sky. We savor our final flavors of Turks and Caicos at The Grill, the oceanfront eatery at Grace Bay Resort. They offer a savory local breakfast made from stewed corned beef and creamy grits. It’s a hearty meal that sticks to the bones and is major key before our nonstop flight back to the states.
Back in New Jersey it is business as usual: mask up, social distance, stay-at-home. But in our minds, we are still waltzing among expertly landscaped floral gardens and biking through the pristine streets of “Provo.” Until we can return, flipping through cell phone photos is a gentle reminder that a glimpse at a life less panicked does exist.
Plan your escape to Turks and Caicos Islands: www.visittci.com.
PHOTO CREDIT (landscapes/animals/fisherman): “Visit Turks and Caicos Islands”
PHOTO CREDIT (food): Lobster Bisque, Deconstructed Beef Wellington, Scallop Ceviche Courtesy of Coyaba Restaurant
Last modified: March 20, 2021