Destination of the week: Turks and Caicos
Check out this British territory for outstanding diving and wildlife.
Mon, Feb 14, 2011 at 05:31 AM
Photo: ZUMA Press
The Turks and Caicos Islands sit in the Caribbean Sea, south and east of the Bahamas and north of the Dominican Republic. Despite the fact that most former British colonies (including neighboring Bahamas and Jamaica) in the Caribbean now operate as independent countries, Turks and Caicos remains an overseas territory of Great Britain.
Like many Caribbean destinations, Turks and Caicos relies heavily on tourism for income. Visiting cruise ship passengers and upscale tourists are a major boon to the islands’ economy. The development of luxury resorts is an important part of a seemingly successful tourism strategy. All-inclusive resorts are an unmistakable part of the landscape. The island of Providenciales (shortened to Provo by locals), the most populous island in the territory, hosts a lively nightlife scene and has a high-season concert series featuring some of pop music’s biggest names. The Indy Racing League holds an open-wheel race at the Blue Hills course on Provo each year. If you use these events as a measuring stick, Turks and Caicos is doing quite well compared to its Caribbean peers.
With all these buzzed-about attractions and events, it’s easy to forget that this small corner of the West Indies is home to coral reefs that act as a backdrop for some of the Caribbean’s best diving. Also, T&C’s smaller, remote islands are perfect for trekking, kayaking and other eco-adventure activities — such as whale watching and even tropical camping trips.
The Meridian Club on the island of Pine Cay is one of the Caribbean’s original earth-friendly resorts. They have been using electric vehicles (golf carts) to traverse the cay for more than three decades. The club’s lodgings are built using strict guidelines. Features like rainwater collection and storage and solar-powered water heaters add to the island’s overall eco-friendliness. Island-goers have easy access to bicycles and environmentally friendly motorboats. The Blue Horizon Resort on Middle Caicos (the largest island of the territory) offers an eco-tourism-centered vacation with sea kayaking, bird-watching and nature hikes. The Turks and Caicos location of the popular Beaches all-inclusive resort franchise has recently made some green steps, adding solar panels and taking extra precautions to preserve the fragile coral and marine eco-systems in the waters near the resort.
On the other end of the price and comfort spectrums is camping. There are national parks, nature preserves and animal sanctuaries on many islands and also protected marine coastal areas. Camping is possible in some of these areas, although campfires are not permitted in national parks.
Many people choose to rent cars while on the islands. For those who stay on Provo and Grand Turk, walking and taxis should be sufficient. Bikes and motorcycles are available for rent, although traffic in these more populated areas can make two-wheel trips a bit harrowing. Bikes can be rented from most hotels on any of the islands. Scooter rentals are another green option.
Ferries operate between the main islands of the territory, although most visitors rely on commuter-style flights to travel between islands. For those who want to go completely gas free, many Turks and Caicos ports are equipped to handle yachts and sailboats. It is possible to charter a sailboat for travel between the islands, although this can be pricy.
There are several decent options for vegetarian dining in Providenciales. The Gecko Grille is a standout. It features local ingredients and has a decent vegetarian section on its menu. This is one of the better places to eat local specialties cooked with island spices.
Unfortunately, most food must be imported, so finding locally grown and caught products can take some work. Popular seafood like conch is locally caught and there are rules in place to ensure that overfishing of this shellfish does not occur. Smaller towns on places like North Caicos and South Caicos have locally sourced food.
Turks and Caicos has an impressive list of national parks, nature preserves and animal sanctuaries on all of its major islands. Middle Caicos, the largest and most undeveloped of the islands, features hiking trails used by early natives and settlers along rugged cliffs and a large network of caves that are part of Conch Bar Caves National Park.
Rock Iguana Preserve on Little Water Cay is home to about 50,000 endangered Turks and Caicos rock iguanas. The large (over two feet long) herbivorous lizards survived on Little Water Cay, unlike on most of the other islands in the Turks and Caicos, because predators such as dogs and cats are not allowed there. To ensure their safety, rock iguanas have been relocated from other islands to the preserve.
There are mangroves along the coastline of many of T&C’s cays. These trees thrive in tidal wetlands and are a haven for birds and marine wildlife. Outfitters like Big Blue Unlimited offer kayak tours of these watery forests. Bird watching is also possible in other ecosystems around the territory.
During the late winter, which is the high season for tourism, humpback whales pass through to the waters off Turks and Caicos. Several whale watching tours leave regularly from Salt Cay during this season. Whale watching tours also leave from Grand Turk Island.
Some of the best reef diving in North America is found in the waters surrounding the islands of Turks and Caicos. Boats are not allowed to anchor above the fragile expanses of coral, but they can moor at specially built stations, allowing divers the time for serious underwater exploration. The clear, relatively shallow waters give divers great visibility and increase the chances of encounters with marine wildlife as well as colorful coral formations.
The islands of the Turks and Caicos are mainly known for their upscale resorts. Even though some of these resorts have been turning into environmentally friendly venues, the highlight of a green themed vacation will be the nature found both on the islands and in the warm waters of the West Indies.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
MNN homepage photo: cdorobek/Flickr