Famous for its salt production in the 1600s, now it’s the potcake-puppy culture, pirate shipwrecks, pink flamingos and Keith Richards that all thrive on the powdery white sands that make up the Turks and Caicos Island chain in the British West Indies.
The popular but uncrowded beach town of Providenciales, TCI’s largest city, where I stayed in December at the Ocean Club Resort, seemed to have the perfect ratio of condos, resorts, restaurants, and shopping venues, with just the right amount of nothing thrown in. Nobody tried to sell me anything on the beach once.
The original Turks and Caicos Islanders lived in peace for 700 years until the European arrival in the early 16th century eradicated the population through the introduction of disease and slave recruitment. After a vacant period of 150 years, the salt industry, and later cotton, demanded the use of slaves who, after being emancipated in 1834, really formed the basis of the population there today. Americans form the majority of tourism now, and many snowbirds from Canada and the East Coast spend substantial parts of the year or retire here. Tourism, offshore banking and fishing account for most of this British Overseas Territory’s industry.
Thanks largely to an extremely comprehensive talk and music demonstration at Ocean Club West by Turks and Caicos Islands Culture Director David Bowen, I felt like I understood for the first time some of the challenges associated with historically interrupted areas like TCI, when it comes to recognizing, defining and promoting its own culture. Bowen demonstrated “Ripsaw” music, indigenous to TCI, which is made from scraping a bent saw with a knife or screwdriver. He has personally collected poetry and stories from the Islands’ elders and can recite them at will, which was mesmerizing. I valued this immensely and believe it is this type of undertaking by native locals that will distinguish and elevate the travel experience in a part of the world that seems in danger of becoming too homogenized.
The night of my arrival I had an almond-crusted fried grouper with coconut sauce right on the beach at the resort that was phenomenal. A dinner at the resort’s signature restaurant Opus was also a culinary bull’s eye, where I gleefully inhaled the crudo fish tasting and coconut curried conch.
Since Ocean Club has two locations a mile apart on Grace Bay, both of whose amenities were available to guests, I had an extremely pleasant dinner at the Seaside Café West location as well. The resort was three for three in the kitchen department. The two-location set-up works well. The east spot was nice and quiet, while the west one was closer to downtown shops and good for my ADHD loud fixes.
Off-campus dining favorites included Da Conch Shack, an open-air compound devoted to showcasing the conch from the water to the table in every way possible, and the weekly Wednesday night Island fish fry. With at least 20 restaurants there hawking their chewables, I spent a small fortune wolfing down grilled spiny lobster, varieties of jerked chicken and pork, enough plantains to fill a Fiat, and some little red pepper things that were great. If you suddenly find yourself needing a hand-painted tin gecko of any size or a chiseled coconut face, this is the venue where your tchotchke thirst can be quenched. A TCI-style Junkanoo featuring “The Conch Man” was fun, while attempts at an open-mike type format served as a reminder why you went on vacation in the first place. The three dentists I golfed with swore that Coco Bistro was a landmark eating establishment not to be missed, but I did.
The Provo Golf club was an expensively watered oasis on the limestone island, and I ended up playing two rounds of golf here during my short stay. A first for me was a golf course that had pink flamingos on it that were there by choice. Conversations with club pro Dave Douglas were representative of the interactions I had with almost all activities management in Providenciales: friendly and story-abound, affirming of the small island’s obvious network of friendships. While it may be the only game in town, it was clear from talking to other golfers that it was a focal point activity for many of the repeat travelers and condo owners on the Island. A second first was the introduction of Moringa to me by Douglas. Moringa is the newest protein leaf on the rise that he swears will soon be in every North American supermarket. He and his sons have planted them on the course. I can’t tell if my glass of Moringa Tea helped me hit the ball any farther than usual, but it tasted good.
Jumping at the chance to go saltwater fly-fishing with the resort’s game-fishing partner Silver Deep, I was channeling Hemingway, while whipping line back and forth from the skiff’s bow, but the elusive bonefish remained elusive and I had to settle for a small barracuda in its place. Shark sightings in crystal clear water and the countless bird species abound were amazing. An afternoon sailboat excursion was beautiful and the snorkeling colorful. I spent a relaxing evening touring the mangrove flats with a knowledgeable tour guide who showed me how to pick up jellyfish at rest and told good glow worm stories. I had a locally hand-rolled cigar each evening on the porch, while I listened to the warm winds blow through the palm trees. I had a really good time.
More information about this resort can be found at www.oceanclubresorts.com. Maps and facts about the Turks and Caicos Islands can be found at www.gov.tc.