The Turks and Caicos Islands are an overseas territory that belongs to the United Kingdom and situated in the Atlantic Ocean 550 miles from Florida, just below the Bahamas chain and to the east of Cuba and the island of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti). The islands are 37 miles long and comprise 40 islands and cays including the two main islands of Grand Turk and Providenciales; only eight of the islands are inhabited. Each island offers visitors something different but they have in common a year round great climate, fantastic beaches and underwater activities.
Providenciales, known as Provo, is the main tourist centre of the islands and as the location of the main international airport it is the gateway for most visitors to reach the other islands by air or boat. The island has a wide range of hotels, restaurants, facilities and attractions.
Grand Turk and Salt Cay offer the best glimpse into Caribbean history; both islands have great Bermudian architecture and a rustic charm and offer great diving plus time and space to relax. Grand Turk is the location of the Turks and Caicos Islands Cruise Centre.
Middle Caicos has the biggest network of caves on the island, while North Caicos has cottage pond and flamingo pond and a vast range of plant life and wildlife; the two islands offer visitors the best of the environment of TCI and have lush green woodlands.
South Caicos is the centre of fishing in TCI, exporting lobster and conch. Visitors to the island will find Cockburn Harbour, the natural phenomenon of the boiling hole and many secluded beaches with beautiful turquoise waters and views of surrounding islands.
Parrot Cay, Pine Cay and Ambergris are privately owned islands and home to the most exclusive resorts and private accommodation. The Caribbean region’s longest private air strip is located on Ambergris.
The official currency of the islands is the US Dollar. Most hotels, restaurants and taxi services will accept travellers’ cheques, which can also be cashed at local banks. Major credit cards are widely accepted and banks offer ATM services as well as cash advances on credit cards.
In an average year the Turks and Caicos Islands experience 350 days of sunshine; Grand Turk and South Caicos have an annual rainfall of around 21 inches, this increases to 40 inches further west. June to November is hurricane season.
Native Turks and Caicos Islanders are mostly descendents of Africans who were brought in to work the salt pan and cotton plantations; the expatriate population originate consists of British, Canadians, Americans, French, Bahamians, people from Hispaniola and from almost everywhere in the world.
Most commonly referred to as Provo, Providenciales, which covers an area of 38 miles, is the most developed of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Most international visitors to the islands arrive on Provo at Providenciales International Airport (PLS).
Provo is located at the western end of the Turks and Caicos island chain. It’s the most developed of the islands and offers visitors all modern conveniences including luxury hotels, villas and condos; restaurants, spas and shopping facilities; a championship golf course and full service grocery store; however it is also surrounded by beautiful white sand beaches and still provides a perfect destination for those who want to escape their busy lives and just relax.
Grace Bay on the north shore of Provo is home to many of the island’s major resorts and tourism services; it has beautiful beaches and a long coral reef, rich in aquatic life. Chalk Sound, towards the south of the island, is a large lake with turquoise water and an array of small cays; along the south side of the island many private villas are available to rent in areas such as Sapodilla Bay, Copper Jack, Discovery Bay, Turtle Tail and Long Bay. Provo’s commercial port, South Dock, is just east of Sapodilla Bay.
The unspoiled Malcolm’s Beach is found at the western end of the island, adjacent to the Amanyara resort, and at the eastern end visitors will find the Leeward marina and development.
Bight and Blue Hills are the two main and oldest settlements on the island, both built around fresh water supplies; both give a real feeling of Caribbean villages. Turtle Cove and Grace Bay both offer a good range of boutiques. The Downtown area in the centre of the island, close to the airport, is where retail shops, business offices and banks can be found.
Many of the activities for tourists can be found at Grace Bay including the Princess Alexandra Marine Park; the Caicos Conch Farm and many water activities including diving and deep sea fishing.
Visitors are attracted to South Caicos, an 8.5 square mile island, for its fishing, birdlife, history, fresh seafood dishes and diving.
South Caicos, sometimes known as the Big South, is the fishing capital of the Turks and Caicos Islands, boasting the best natural harbour and several fishing plants. Most of the nation’s harvest of lobster, conch and fish for export and local consumption are processed on the island.
Cockburn Harbour, now a sleepy little harbour town, was once the most active commercial community in the Turks and Caicos Islands. It has a rich history and has hosted both rogues and royalty, including Queen Elizabeth II who visited in 1966 when she stayed at the 18th century Commissioner’s House. The town reflects both its Bermudian and British heritage with many examples of classic architectural design, quaint stone walls, narrow streets and friendly, helpful people.
Birdwatchers will be delighted with the number of species that have made the island’s abandoned salt pans their home, including flocks of flamingos, and scuba divers will find breath taking walls, vast varieties of coral and marine life including sharks, eagle rays, loggerhead turtles, spotted rays, octopus and barracudas. The seas that surround the island are an underwater photographer’s dream and the island is home to the marine research arm of the School for Field Studies.
Each May South Caicos is home to the Big South Regatta.
North Caicos is often known as the Emerald Isle, it is the lushest of all the islands because of the abundant rainfall.
Situated 12 miles north east of Providenciales the island is easily accessible with daily connecting flights and boat charters available. Once on the island car and bicycle rental is available as well as taxis and guided tours.
North Caicos has undergone something of a development transformation in recent years with several luxury resort properties now located on the island, it is becoming a ‘getaway’ from the more developed Provo.
Visitors will find Loyalist plantation ruins, the grandest of which is Wade’s Green; caves where Lucayan artefacts have been found and an abundance of wildlife including flocks of flamingos, ospreys and iguanas.
Crafts such as straw-work are practiced on the island and although the extensive farming of the past has now been reduced the Government farm at Kew still produces tomatoes and cucumbers.
Middle Caicos is the largest of the Turks and Caicos Islands at 48 square miles. The coastline of Middle Caicos is more dramatic than that of the other islands in the chain, particularly on the north shore which has limestone cliffs and long sandy beaches; the south is dominated by swampland and tidal flats which cover almost half of the island.
Middle Caicos is very green and ideal for agriculture; there are three settlements, at Conch Bar, Bambarra and Lorimers. Conch Bar is the location of the largest cave network in the Bahamian Archipelago; the limestone caves feature stalagmites, stalactites, bats, owls and salt lakes that link up with the sea.
The island contains the remains of Lucayan Indian settlements including a ball court which was excavated in 1978 near Armstrong Pond. There are also ruins of Loyalist plantations such as the Haulover Plantation which has the remains of chimneys and homes and a well shaped like a horse with steps running down the sides.
Middle Caicos is a haven for birdlife, a Frigate bird colony resides on the south side of the island and Flamingoes, Egrets and Sand Pipers are also common. The island’s Northwest Point with its combination of inlets, marshes, mangroves and ponds is another area where many species of birds can be found. Just offshore a large blue hole in shallow water is home to an abundant variety of marine life.
At low tide it is possible to walk from Middle Caicos to North Caicos along a trail that links the two islands.
East Caicos is the fourth largest of the Turks and Caicos Islands, at 18 square miles; it has been uninhabited since the 1900s.
Swamps and mangroves cover much of the island which in the past was once home to a large sisal plantation and cattle industry but is now deserted. Ruins of the abandoned town of Jacksonville, railroad tracks and cave artwork are the only testaments to its former life.
A 17 mile beach on the north coast of East Caicos is used by sea turtles to lay their eggs; a large mosquito population deters other visitors.
Flamingo Hill at 48 metres high is the highest point in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The nine square mile island of West Caicos is said to have the most beautiful diving spots in the Turks and Caicos Islands; it is currently uninhabited but is being developed as the future home of the most exclusive Ritz Carlton community in the world.
In the 1890s the island was cleared for salinas and for the cultivation of sisal, a major crop of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Yankee Town was the centre for these industries and its ruins, including the sisal press, railroad and steam engine are evidence of the small civilisation that once existed on the island.
The islands unique environmental features include Lake Catherine, a nature reserve that is home to a variety of bird species. The developers have taken great care to protect this and the historical aspects of the island.
West Caicos is currently a favourite place for picnics and with dive operators as it has sandy coves and beautiful waters.
The island of Grand Turk is an attraction in itself. Rich in TCI culture, the buildings and ruins resemble ancient Bermudian architecture. Today, there is still a strong presence felt in the ponds that once produced salt. Grand Turk is a familiar name throughout history; Christopher Columbus and astronaut John Glenn made landfall here.
Home to the Turks and Caicos National Museum; here you will see remnants of our African slave ancestry. The Lighthouse is last, but certainly not least. Over a century old, it was used to guide ships to the islands during the historic days on the Plantations. We’re told that late at night a bride dressed in white circles the lighthouse looking for her long lost husband. Let’s hope it’s not you.
In my next article: The best beaches of Turks and Caicos
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