Just 900 km (550 mi) south east of Miami, at the very bottom of the Bahamian Archipelago, lies a British Crown Colony which uses the US Dollar as its official currency. The Turks & Caicos (TCI) – 40 islands and cays, eight of them inhabited – are full of major contradictions.
They are set round the edge of two limestone plateaus, in shallow waters that merge into mangrove swamps and refresh the salt pans on which their prosperity has depended since the late 17th century. But at either end of the group, the surrounding coral reefs give way to seriously deep water channels, and the combination has given TCI the richest ecological variety of any island group in the area.
On land you can see iguanas, blue herons, osprey, pelicans, frigates, boobies and huge flocks of flamingoes. You can share the warm water, either fishing for tuna, wahoo, blue marlin or barracuda, or diving among the turtles, spotted eagle and manta rays, octopus, sharks and humpback whales for whom (from December to April) the offshore deeps are major transit points.
Underwater, the reefs of Northwest Point, the historic wrecks of Salt Cay, and the waving coral formations descending the legendary ‘walls’ (some 2,100 m, 7,000 ft) of Grand Turk and West Caicos are as staggeringly beautiful as the onshore natural world.
The contradiction is that TCI is much more famous for its pursuit of material rather than natural wealth. Providenciales (aka Provo), at the western end, is the most developed island, with the international airport, wall-to-wall hotels, resorts, condos and ‘entertainments’. To the east, Grand Turk, the TCI capital, is now a horrific service depot for the big cruise ships. Unless you come by yacht, you’ll have to pass through Provo or Grand Turk. Grin and bear it – paradise lies beyond.
Population: 30,000 (2007 estimate) – of which some 28,000 live in Provo and Grand Turk
When to go: Year round, but whale watching is only possible from December to April.
How to get there: By air to Providenciales or by cruise ship to Grand Turk; then by private boat or plane charter to the other islands.
Highlights: The 18th and 19th century architectural styles of TCl’s original Bermudan salt merchants, along Duke St and Font St in Cockburn Town, Grand Turk.
The Molasses Reef Wreck exhibit at the TCI National Museum – it tells of the oldest European shipwreck in the western hemisphere, in 1505.
Salt Cay, proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historic integrity.
Any of 33 protected island and marine sites totalling 842 sq km (325 sq mi).
You should know: Columbus first set foot on Grand Turk in 1492 – most of TCI has remained untouched since then.