We fell in love even before touchdown. The clouds that had blocked our view during the flight to Turks and Caicos mercifully dispersed right before we landed, and we caught our first glimpse of the radiant sea. We watched as the little snail-shaped island of Providenciales materialized in the middle of the ocean, dazzled by the turquoise, aquamarine and emerald hues of the water surrounding it.
Throughout our stay, my husband and I made a point of never letting that water out of our sight. We found it a force so relaxing that it quickly canceled out the noise of daily life.
Up to that point, 2013 had been a frantic year. Work and family had taken us all over the world, including to such taxing destinations as Afghanistan and Syria. When not traveling, we'd been drowned in paperwork buying a condo.
So we'd shopped for a nearby holiday destination where we could just lie back and enjoy nature's show for a while. A couple of friends who'd just returned from a vacation there recommended the still relatively unknown Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI). It was the perfect place, they assured us, to escape the grind.
This British Overseas Territory about 500 miles southeast of Miami consists of 40 islands and cays, only eight of which are inhabited, home to a grand total of 30,000 year-round residents. As the name suggests, TCI is made up of two archipelagos: To the east are the Turks islands, named after the native Turk's head cactus, and to the west are the Caicos, a word derived from “caya hico,” which, in the language of the indigenous Lucayan Indians, means “string of islands.”
Providenciales, one of the Caicos, boasts the islands' largest airport and is the only real tourist hub, although it's a far cry from such overdeveloped destinations as Jamaica's Montego Bay. Provo, as the locals call it, is only 38 square miles, and while much of its development has happened in just the past decade, today its infrastructure is much improved, and scattered low-rise strip malls have sprouted in the interior. There is even a small casino. The magnificent coast has a growing but still limited number of handsome resorts and villas, along with good restaurants and bars. These are concentrated on the north shore, overlooking the beautiful and aptly named Grace Bay.
During our nine-day stay, my husband and I took countless strolls along Grace Bay Beach's 12-mile stretch of uncontaminated, sparkling white sand. Sometimes we walked more than an hour each way to reach some faraway waterfront cafe, returning to our hotel in complete darkness, our steps illuminated only by the stars and the moon. We always made sure that sunset would find us somewhere sipping local Turk's Head beer or Bambarra rum with a front-row seat on the ocean and that dipping orange ball of fire.
Because we can be lazy and bookwormy, a good chunk of our time on TCI was spent swimming in the calm, pool-like ocean water or planted on beach chairs with our heads buried in crime novels, our true holiday obsession. But Grace Bay's gleaming sea also spurred us onto a Hobie Cat, a toy catamaran that our hotel, like most others, made available to guests for free. It's supposedly a craft that anybody can sail, so light and safe that it's practically impossible to sink. We, however, managed to capsize the thing about 15 minutes into our ride and, unable to right it, we had to be rescued, to my husband's chagrin, by a lifeguard on a motorboat.
So we moved on to parasailing as a more rewarding way of feeding our obsession with the color of the water and of observing its many shades — easily a half-dozen — from above. We'd never done anything like this before, so we voiced our concerns about the rope breaking and us flying away to Capt. Conrad Brown, who picked us up in his motorboat right in front of our hotel.
“You guys just made it through the hardest part of the trip,” Brown told us the moment we climbed onto his boat. Hand in hand, roped to a parachute and swinging from side to side with each gust of wind, we marveled at the sweeping views all the way out to the other coast and down to the bottom of the sea floor. I could swear that we saw a giant stingray trawling the seabed 100 feet below us.
Grace Bay isn't the only extraordinary beach on Provo. So we rented a scooter to explore the island further. Riding along the back roads, with little traffic and the hot Caribbean breeze pressing against our skin, was a liberating experience. It took us both back to our youth, to days of riding scooters through the streets of Italy and India. Although this time we were wearing helmets.
Our first stop was Long Bay Beach. “It's a win-win,” Larry Dworetsky of Paradise Scooters told us while giving us his very own “unguided guided tour” of the island. “If there's wind, the kite surfers are out and you can watch them jump 30 feet in the air. If there's no wind, that's the most beautiful beach here and you have it all to yourselves.”
We were lucky enough to have a bit of both: The wind was blowing, and a couple of kite surfers filled the sky with their acrobatics, but there was barely anyone else around.
Five Cays Beach has the same white sand and turquoise water as every place on Providenciales, but it's more of a food and entertainment destination. The main feature is Bugaloo's, a beach shack that everybody raves about. We went, sat with our feet buried in the sand and drank rum punch to the sound of live music.
“You guys are great,” the lead singer of the Island Boys, a Bob Marley cover band, shouted to the crowd of tourists and locals. “Just as good as the weather!”
We also had our first taste of conch, a large sea snail that's TCI's premier food group. Bugaloo's spicy fritters are not to be missed, and the 35-year-old cook, Manno, makes sure to use nothing but the freshest conch. Day in and day out, he stands beneath a green beach umbrella and bends over a large wooden chest filled with ice and conch. He patiently pulls the meat out of the big flashy shell and cleans it. Whenever the chest empties, he walks a short distance into the water — shoes, shorts, T-shirt and all — dragging a large raft behind him and taking an occasional dive to refill it with conch.
While describing this process to me on a Sunday afternoon, Manno suddenly extracted a gooey, transparent string of something from a shell and ate it avidly. It was the snail's reproductive organ, he told me with some pride, supposedly a boon to a man's sexual prowess.
Local aphrodisiacs aside, Provo, with its shimmering beaches and waters and its abundant seafood, went a long way toward fulfilling our need for tranquillity. But we wanted to see whether we could get even farther away from civilization.
North Caicos and Middle Caicos are the two largest islands. With a combined population of only about 2,500, they're also a vast expanse of lush and partially impenetrable vegetation. Calling them quaint and slow-paced would be an understatement.
Take the village of Kew, on North Caicos. Famous for a donkey named Liza that's known to roam the streets (alas, we never saw her), Kew is so small and unassuming that we rode right through it twice before realizing that was it.
Driving down the only two-lane highway in our beat-up rental car, we stopped at a number of beaches where we were the only two people in sight. It was an exhilarating feeling that I'd never experienced before, even though I've traveled to other Caribbean destinations.
Mudjin Harbour, on Middle Caicos, is one of the better-known beaches, and a highlight. Its name is a distortion of “Bermudian Harbor,” and it comprises a sequence of coves carved into the coastline and hidden from view by imposing limestone cliffs. But even more exquisite was Three Marys Cays Beach in the northwestern corner of North Caicos. It's barely marked on the map, and there are no signs to guide travelers to it. We bumped along on dirt roads for a good half-hour and nearly got lost a few times. A trio of small, mushroom-like islets seemingly floats above the water just off the beach and provided my husband with a serendipitous snorkeling haven.
Sparsely inhabited and still somewhat wild, we found North Caicos and Middle Caicos to be lands of truly outsize fantasies, where we could even allow ourselves to dream of buying a shack on the beach one day and retiring there to write to the sound of crashing waves.
Back on Provo, we had one last mission before leaving: a trip to the coral reef. Anthony, a.k.a. Capt. Blue, who has guided trips to the reef for more than 15 years, showed us around what's now practically his home, a water so full of life — some fish electric blue and yellow , others the colors of a rainbow — that we found it hard to believe that it wasn't an aquarium. A nurse shark, long and dark, swam unhurriedly a few feet below us.
Capt. Blue also took us cay-hopping. Cays are small, sandy islands that sit above the reef. They lie in a nearly continuous line north of Providenciales, almost forming a natural bridge to North Caicos. Some are uninhabited, while others house lavish resorts and the mansions of celebrities such as Alec Baldwin, Donna Karan and Bruce Willis.
A cay named Little Water is home to a nature reserve and to several thousand iguanas, which walk around undisturbed and are happy to check out any tourists up close and personal, edging remarkably near their feet. (Careful, ladies: They're attracted to red toenails!)
As we stood beneath a bright blue sky, surrounded by lush vegetation, white sand and crystal-clear water, I told Anthony that in my next life, I wouldn't mind being born an iguana on Little Water Cay.
He laughed. “I ain't coming back here next time,” he said. “All my life I've watched things from sea level. I wouldn't mind being an eagle for a change.”
Good for him, I thought. But as for me, I couldn't imagine ever getting tired of TCI.