2003 Fall/Winter Islands Issue

Turks & Caicos: Don't Hurry, Be Happy

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2003

Bartender Annie May says I should get Suzette to do my daughter's braids at Blessed Joyfulness Hair Salon, because the stylist is good and fast. When I pay my bar tab I realize I don't have enough cash for a full head of braids, so hotel owner Jenny lends me $20. Later, Brian, another local who stops by the bar, gives me a ride to the bank so I can repay her.

I've been on Grand Turk Island just two days and already know about a dozen people and several dogs by name. I have met the Turks and Caicos Islands governor, appointed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, while eating at an outdoor burger joint. I've heard lots of local gossip about total strangers, including one I later happen to meet, and feel a little embarrassed to know what I know.

I even inadvertently spread a false rumor about a waitress who hadn't left town for the weekend after all, as had been reported at the Courtyard Cafe.

I knew Turks and Caicos was going to be a friendly, laid-back place the minute I set eyes on it. Uptight people, after all, don't paint their Supreme Court building pink. Maybe we citizens of the United States could all be a little less intense about the controversial issues of the day if we painted our highest court a whimsical pastel color. Make the justices wear polo shirts and straw hats.

Those are the kind of thoughts that cross your mind on this island of sandy white beaches, homes without addresses, wild braying donkeys and domesticated horses who wander around town until an owner wants a ride, and sends a kid to fetch one. Electricity didn't reach Grand Turk until the late 1970s. Even today, the island has fewer than 100 rooms for guests in a handful of low-rise lodgings.

And to think that this is the capital of a group of nearly 40 islands and keys just 575 miles off the U.S. coast -- a mere 80-minute plane ride from Miami. It's a miracle -- and some say a tribute to the benevolent incompetence of elected officials -- that these coral-rich islands aren't covered with high-rise hotels and time-shares.

Islanders, however, recently elected a set of college-educated officials to the highest offices for the first time, and developers are busy on Providenciales, the island that hosts flights from the United States. But even on Provo, as the island is known, buildings are limited to four stories.

Turks and Caicos is not the place to come for shopping and nightlife. Come for the pristine, powdery beaches, for clear turquoise water that suddenly turns deep blue offshore, where depths drop as much as 7,000 feet. Some of the islands are nearly deserted; some are riddled with caves. Queen conch, an endangered species, is abundant here, and even farmed.

Residents of Provo are awaiting a promised movie theater, but for the moment, the islands share one cinema -- a 40-seat room with a DVD player on Grand Turk. So don't come for entertainment, or to indulge in fast-paced modern life.

Come, instead, if you wish to see thousands of rare rock iguanas that have an entire island dedicated to their preservation, to snorkel or dive among the largest and finest coral reefs in the world, or best of all, to dance with stingrays.

Caribbean But Not

Two huge limestone mountains ringed by coral lie beneath the Atlantic, southeast of the Bahamas, in the British West Indies. Areas that rise above the sea create six major and numerous small islands and keys over 193 square miles. Together, they create the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British overseas territory. English is the primary language. The currency is the U.S. dollar, with prices for lodgings and meals comparable to what you'd pay in Washington.

The largest island, Middle Caicos -- 48 square miles -- is home to 275 people. Provo's 38 square miles is both the population center, with more than 6,000 people, and the tourism center. My first reaction on seeing Provo from an airport taxi is one of disappointment. The dry, rocky land supports little more than scrub brush. The many skeletons of buildings surrounded by heaps of broken limestone are on their way to becoming hotels and shopping centers, but look like the bombed-out remains of a war-torn land. Make a left toward Grace Bay, however, and you'll soon understand why at least one slick travel magazine has called that beach one of the world's best.

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