Monday, January 26, 2015

Everyday Things to do and See on Providenciales, Turks and Caicos

It's January or maybe February in the northern hemisphere. The holidays are over, and suddenly snow isn't quite so merry. The cold seems more biting than crisp. This is when I dream of beaches and tropical breezes to transport me to that summer siesta I crave without wishing months of my life away. That dream might take me to Grace Bay on Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos.

Providenciales, called Provo locally, was rated the best beach destination in the world by TripAdvisor in 2011. I have my own favorites elsewhere, but I won't hotly argue the point. The electric-blue waters surrounding the islands, technically part of the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Caribbean, are simply stunning. The Turks and Caicos are geographically part of the Bahamas Islands group (or vice versa), but--resorts aside--the T&C have an upscale, much less developed and tacky feel than many parts of their Disneyfied northern neighbor.

Let's start by assuming you've already identified the Turks and Caicos--specifically Providenciales-- as your next vacation spot and have identifed some options for accommodation. We stayed at (what was then) the Veranda all-inclusive resort on Grace Bay, now the new Key West Luxury Village at Beaches (since 2013). Providenciales International Airport is located seven miles southwest of the resort. The pros and cons of an all inclusive versus cruise ship, timeshare, or other type of accommodation is its own subject. Suffice it to say, we like all-inclusive resorts for what they provide--consistent quality of food and customer service, a fixed budget, hassle-free and a base from which to explore on our own or via an excursion package.

And you can safely explore on your own. Unlike many other places in the Caribbean, the residential areas outside the main resorts are clean and relatively prosperous. Crime is rare, especially serious crime. I've been in many dodgier places on mainland North America. We felt perfectly comfortable leaving the resort, and we encountered many families with small children doing the same thing; you won't be hassled. We did come across a couple who'd suffered an opportunistic snatch of a bag at a deserted beach, but keeping your eyes open and personal items close-at-hand is common sense anywhere.

Rent a Car
Providenciales hosts the full assortment of standard car rental carriers (Budget, Hetrz, Avis, etc.) and a list of local specialty outfits. We went with a compact car from Caicos Wheels, which also rents scooters and buggys. Gasoline averages about twice the cost as in the U.S. (as of 2014), but the low speed limits and restricted driving range mean you won't break the bank on fuel. A full tank lasted us nearly a week of hops from site to site on the island.

Turks and Caicos is an Overseas British Territory, and the Japanese or nearly anyone from the Commonwealth (except Canadians) will have no difficulty driving immediately. You can always recognize a fellow right-hand driver by their windshield wiper salute on a sunny day and inexplicable turn signals when it's raining. But if you hail from most of the rest of the world, the small-town roads of Providenciales and the island are perfect to master left-hand driving. We'd previously learned in urban Australia, which is a little more challenging during the morning rush. The quieter roads of the Turks and Caicos, and some vigilance at intersections, will have any sober driver quickly mastering the art.

Taking a short break on Doctor's Road. Notice what side the wheel is on?
For years, Canada and the islands have flirted with political union, but the movements have inevitably stalled. Perhaps Canadians are scared of the contradictory road rules? More likely, they realized it might distract from their plans to annex Florida. 

Take a Drive
The roads on the island, particularly the Leeward and Millennium Highways, are generally good paved surfaces. In a land without winter you're bound to come across fewer potholes. You can find a detailed road map of the island here.

Roads in the western, undeveloped half of Providenciales can be a little rougher, including this "improved" gem below. But they'll get you to some deserted beaches and limestone promontories on the rugged, rocky coastline locally known as the "iron shore." Take care, as some roads in the western barrens can require a 4-wheel drive in the best conditions. Protected areas include Pigeon Pond and Frenchman's Creek Nature Reserve. There is also Northwest Point Marine National Park, which extends to offshore reefs and saline ponds that attract and protect habitat for breeding and migrant waterfowl.

This is where we came across the couple who'd had an unattended bag snatched. The isolated location makes petty theft more prevalent.

I think I can, I think I can.

Another good boondoggle is to drive down Doctors Road (near Chalk Sound--see below) and the nearby Silly Creek Estates to see how the "other half" lives. You could imagine a lot of the residents here are indeed doctors.

Driving the length of good road on the spine of the island takes about 35-45 minutes depending on your adherence to limits. We used our rental car on Turks and Caicos almost like a local. It served for impromptu shopping trips when we were off the resort, and we even took it to Provo's "Lraye" cinema one night (we didn't want to wait to get back to the U.S. to see The Avengers).

Chalk Bay
The western half of Providenciales is virtually undeveloped. Chalk Sound National Park is a 5 kilometer- (3 miles-) long bay southwest of Provo's downtown. The uniformly-turquoise water is dotted throughout with whaleback-shaped islets, aligned like giant inverted footprints. 

Looking north-east from Chalk Sound Drive.
Be sure to stop on the other side of the road from the sound to visit the beach at Sapodilla bay, overlooking the Caicos Banks. The calm water in this sheltered area is less than waste deep far beyond the shoreline, making this the perfect beach for a family with small children.

The Caribbean side of Chalk Sound Drive, at Sapodilla Bay. On nearby Sapodilla Hill see rocks engraved by shipwrecked sailors dating to the 1700s.

Las Brisas Restaurant (part of Neptune Villas) is currently the only place that offers kayak rentals for Chalk Sound. Rates are by the hour. We didn't kayak the sound, but we identified it as a must for our next visit to the island. No motorized craft are permitted in Chalk Sound due to its national park status.

Snack on some Conch
The Turks and Caicos are the ground zero of conch cuisine. Fritters, soup, gumbo or raw in salad, there are  many ways to eat a snail, and they are all delicious for someone willing to give it a go. Fritters appear to be the most popular with tourists, but we most enjoyed the conch salad, sprinkled with lime and tossed with fresh herbs. It can have a bit of a kick if jalapeno peppers are added.

Then there's the pistol, a slippery, spaghetti-like organ that has the reputation as an aphrodisiac, being the male genitalia of the conch of course...except it isn't. The fact that it's actually part of the digestive system found in both sexes of the conch doesn't fit the mythology of "Bahamian Viagra." Curiously, however, a boatload of people perfectly willing to eat ceviche composed mainly of raw, diced invertebrate sprinkled with a little lime were afraid to eat a part that distinctively looked like a something. But I can say from experience, it doesn't taste like anything.

Bottoms Up.

Conch dishes can be found just about anywhere food is served, and likely your hotel. A particularly popular touristy spot on Providenciales is Da Conch Shack, beachside on Blue Hills Road northwest of Downtown.

Visit a Conch Farm
The Caicos Conch Farm, located on the extreme east end of Providenciales at the terminus of Leeward Highway, bills itself as the world's first and only commercial conch farm. For $12USD (adults, $8USD children--2014 prices), you'll get a 30 minute tour from a local Turk islander covering the biology and life cycle of the queen conch and the facilities and methods employed for farming.

The tour starts at the metamorphosis buildings and the post-larval tanks, and continues to circular onshore ponds that apparently contain a couple million yearling (to toddler) conch. I had a difficult time believing there is room for that many. After a couple seasons, the immature conch are moved to offshore pens, where they continue to grow until harvested. The tour concludes with "Sally "and "Jerry," the resident wild pair, and a titillating biology lesson. I strongly suspect these two are periodically replaced with doppelgängers, and several generations of Sally and Jerry have graduated into a Conch Shack salad.

Pens for the yearling conch. Offshore enclosures are for the older stock.

Our guide explains the "birds and bees" of large snails with Sally and Jerry.
The small gift shop offers an assortment of (overpriced) conch shell souvenirs, including jewelery and pearls. Mounds of ghostly conch shells are a reminder to keep your treasure out of direct sunlight for extended periods. The deep pink of the inner shell will fade over time.

Walk on the Beach (or Have a Swim)
If world-class snorkeling (or diving) appeals to you, try Coral Gardens Reef (also called the Bight Reef) or Smiths Reef a couple kilometers to the west. The reefs are protected as part of the Princess Alexandra National Park, both accessed from several points along Lower Bight Road, on Grace Bay Beach, the north side of Providenciales.

If you have your own snorkel gear, neither site is a particularly long beach walk from any of the main Grace Bay resorts. Coral Gardens is clearly demarcated by a rope line extending into the water. Underwater signage at both locations provides a self-guided natural history of the reefs. Best conditions are in the morning, before 10 am.

The best way to get a day started.

Don't tread on me.
Little Waters Cay (Iguana Island) and Half Moon Bay
There are many recreation options on the island common to beach resorts worldwide. Most big hotels offer the usual assortment of water sports and fishing charters, and there are the typical scattered stands of independent operators on the beach. We only went on one excursion, a half-day snorkel and conch cruise offered by Caicos Dream Tours, based at the Alexandra resort. The excursion came highly recommended by TripAdvisor, and several sources identified it as the one must-do Provo excursion.

Our good ship, the Stargazer, took us on a half-day tour that included snorkeling along the barrier reef, snorkeling in the Caicos Bank for conch shells and a beachside luncheon stop off turquoise waters of the southern, lagoon side of idyllic Half Moon Bay

Prices are $89USD for adults and $44.50 per child under 10 (2014 prices), including cold beverages (beer, rum punch, bottled water, and soft drinks) and a delicious conch salad prepared by the boat's skipper from fresh vegetables and fresh conch--perhaps one you harvested yourself. Four-hour tours depart daily 9:00 am and 1:30 pm.

Stacey found this Caribbean queen conch (Strombus gigas) in the "Leeward Going Through," immediately east of Providenciales. It was later served as part of lunch, officially confirming my wife as a "hunter gatherer."

After excellent snorkeling on the ocean-side reef north of Provo, we moved to sheltered waters east of the island to try our hand at searching for conch in the knee-deep Caicos Bank, between Providenciales and North Caicos. There were many conch in the grassy shallows, but it took us nearly 45 minutes to find three of sufficient size for harvesting. I turned up hundreds that were too small. My wife Stacey was one of the lucky hunters, and she got to keep the shell after its occupant was evicted.

Red cushion sea star (Oreaster reticulatus). These fellows grow up to 50 cm across. This particular specimen came on board for a quick photo-op before returning to its natural environment off Little Waters Cay. 

Half Moon Bay is an unspoiled 110 meter- (350 foot-) wide, 1200 meter- (three quarter mile-) long sand bar connecting Little Water Cay and Water Cay, making them essentially one island. On the south side is a shallow, sandy-bottomed lagoon with shimmering crystal water, where we stopped for luncheon of conch, including Stacey's.

Those more adventurous can kayak or paddle board from the Leeward area of Providenciales to get here, but the Stargazer was a relaxing transport after a couple hours of intensive snorkeling. While the captain prepared the salad, we explored our surroundings.

The (mostly) vegetarian Turks and Caicos Rock Iguanas are the natural highlight of the tour. Due to being directly connected to their main home on Little Water Cay (Iguana Island), Turks and Caicos Rock Iguanas lazily sun amongst or on the low bushes of the sandbar at Half Moon Bay. The iguanas are critically endangered, ravaged by feral or domesticated animals on the larger islands, and foot traffic on Little Waters Cay is strictly via boardwalk. However, respectful visitors can get a little closer at the southern, lagoon side of Half Moon Bay.

Turks and Caicos rock iguanas (Cyclura carinata).

Iguanas aren't the only prominent reptile of the islands. You can't miss the ubiquitous Turks and Caicos curly tailed lizard. They are all over Providenciales, and they are so common I never thought to take a picture.

After you've studied the iguanas, take a moment to walk to the other (northern) side of the sandbar at Half Moon Bay. You'll be treated to one of the most beautiful beaches you'll see anywhere (see the picture at the top of this story).

Another beautiful seaward view from the beach at Half Moon Bay.
This is what you came for.

Need I say more?