Island Time: Why Turks & Caicos Should be Your Next Beach Vacation
A short flight to worlds away, Turks and Caicos boasts endless stretches of secluded white sand beaches, world-class diving and a true islandlife demeanor. Visit Turks & Caicos Islands, and you’ll need to pack a color chart along with your swimsuit. How else to name the dozens of variations of blue that radiate out from the islands’ beaches? First, you’ll wade through inch-deep aquamarine. Then you’ll splash through cerulean, pale turquoise, light jade and cyan, before reaching a 7,000-foot-deep coral wall bathed in Prussian and cobalt blue. Out of the water, vast reaches of white sand beach, as fine as confectioner’s sugar, seduce visitors into long leisurely strolls. Whether you seek relaxation or ocean adventure, opportunity abounds—above and below the waves—in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Here is your guide to the best of this Caribbean jewel.
Twelve-mile-long Grace Bay Beach earns its fame for wide, white stretches that go on and on, but it’s hardly Turks & Caicos’ only option. You’ll want to rent a car to visit Providenciales’ less-frequented gems. Here’s our Provo beach primer.
Grace Bay Beach
Named for Lady Grace Hutchings, who honeymooned on the island in 1892 and reportedly charmed everyone she met, Grace Bay Beach is both the busiest part of the island and its most open and serene. Turtle Cove Marina gives the beach’s western end a more nautical feel, while the Leeward area on Grace Bay’s northeastern tip occasionally attracts a few scofflaw nude sunbathers.
Long Bay Beach
For isolation, there’s no better choice than this threemile stretch along Provo’s southeastern shore, which opens onto the glimmering Caicos Bank. Instead of sacking out on a towel, consider a horseback ride in the surf with Provo Ponies.
Chalk Sound Area Beaches
The small beaches at Sapodilla Bay and Sunset Bay (a.k.a. Taylor Bay) on Provo’s southern shore are mostly used by nearby villas. Just behind them, the road cuts through Chalk Sound National Park, a three-mile inland waterway, where locals like to say there’s a cay for each day of the year. Once you’re done driving, swimming or sunbathing, stop at the bottom of Sapodilla Hill on South Dock Road and follow the trail to the top to find rocks engraved by shipwrecked sailors, dating back to 1767.
This comparatively “short” two-mile beach is the hardest to reach on the island, but that’s how it stays pristine. To find it, take the nominally paved Blue Hills Road past Wheeland, and then follow signs for Northwest Point Marine National Park. Scuba divers visit daily for the coral, but the above-water beach is just as pretty. The chaises on the beach’s southern tip belong to the Amanyara resort, an ideal stopping point for lunch.
Blue Hills Beach
At 161 feet above sea level, Blue Hills isn’t just the oldest settlement in Provo, it’s the highest spot in all of Turks & Caicos. Take in vast views of the coast from Blue Hills Road, which runs along the coast, and enjoy a swim at any of the pocket beaches along the way. Stop for a tasty conch dish at any of the local shacks dotting the roadside to refuel.
Singin’ the Blues
The 40-island, 100-mile archipelago has 230 miles of white sand beaches. Visitors tend to stay on Providenciales (better known as “Provo”) and the legendary Grace Bay Beach (left). But all of the islands are equally accessible by air or ferry, each offering its own unique charms.
This morning, I’m on Big Blue Unlimited’s 40-foot Live & Direct, racing across the Caicos Bank, off Provo’s southern shore, to neighboring French Cay. Perhaps I’d be feeling more serene if the divemaster hadn’t just told us the island was once home to 17th-century pirate François L’Olonnois, who used it as a base for plundering passing Spanish ships. As the story goes, L’Olonnois was such an accomplished torturer that he wouldn’t just cut the hearts out of prisoners; he’d eat them, still beating, while others watched.
Of course, all of that washes away as we descend beside the boat. Beneath the water, 80 percent of French Cay is encrusted with coral. We start at a site called Double D (named for two large underwater humps), where we swim past three-foot groupers, four-foot barracudas and barrel sponges the size of cars. A trumpetfish cruises by, big as a bassoon, and the horse-eye jacks number in the thousands. Spiny lobsters and green moray eels lurk inside holes, while purple-and-yellow fairy basslets, blue chromis and bright red cardinalfish transform the water into a confetti of color. Our second dive is at G-Spot (this time named for the gorgonian corals, the size of garage doors), and we immediately descend upon a passing Caribbean reef shark, which graciously fins out of our way. Then a spotted eagle ray swims past us, followed by a pair of hawksbill turtles. Three more reef sharks glide over the wall; another ray trails behind, with a remora dangling from it. Yet back on-board the Live & Direct, no one is impressed. A “good” dive here, I’m told, starts with a dozen eagle rays or sharks.
What makes diving in Turks & Caicos so stunning is the combination of clear water with visibility sometimes topping 150 feet, the planet’s third-largest reef system with 196 square miles of reef, and the fact that there are so many distinct marine parks and sites in the archipelago to explore. After French Cay, my favorite area to dive is Northwest Point Marine National Park, off Provo’s northwest tip, where getting caught in the eye of a few hundred spiraling jacks is fairly typical, and I’ve sometimes felt stuck inside a fish stampede. But there are also the dozen sites in West Caicos Marine National Park, chockablock with snappers, stingrays, hogfish and puffers, and Princess Alexandra Land and Sea National Park, which encompasses Grace Bay Beach, and is ideal for novice and night dives alike. The last time I dived there, after dusk, the trevally were so plentiful I could actually reach out and touch them.
And that’s just the western chain of islands. Heading east across the 22-mile-wide Turk Island Passage (you’ll want to go by plane), the archipelago’s capital of Grand Turk sits high atop many must-dive lists, while Salt Cay, eight miles south, is the archipelago’s best place to spot the North Atlantic herd of 2,500 humpback whales each year, from early January to mid-April. Turks & Caicos is one of the few places in the world where captains and snorkelers are legally allowed to approach the whales—and even if you don’t see them, you can’t miss hearing their songs underwater.
Beyond Provo, the other islands of Turks & Caicos are worth exploring, either as day trips or overnight. Here are some favorites.
Little Water Cay
Home to 2,000-plus endangered rock iguanas, many measuring two feet in length. The horned creatures mostly scurry across rocks, while visitors stick to a well-maintained boardwalk, five minutes by boat from Provo’s Leeward Marina.
A 12-minute flight from Provo or 25-minute ferry from the Leeward Marina, North Caicos is home to most of the archipelago’s farms. But you’ll also find a few thousand pink flamingos, outstanding snorkeling at Three Mary Cays, jawdropping Horsestable Beach and eerie plantation ruins at Wades Green; Big Blue Unlimited runs day trips on bikes.
Once the world’s leading salt producer, the 2.5-squaremile island today is a quiescent collection of salt ponds, 19th-century stone and stucco buildings, and wild donkeys and cows (which have the right of way). From midJanuary to early April, Salt Cay is also Turks & Caicos’ prime spot for watching whales.
The largest of the chain, 48-square-mile Middle Caicos is a 15-minute flight from Provo, or a half-hour drive from North Caicos’ ferry terminal. Hike the five-mile Crossing Place Trail, swim and snorkel in the natural lagoon at Mudjin Harbour, or explore threesquare-mile Conch Bar Caves, the largest above-ground cave system in Turks & Caicos or the Bahamas, with blind fish and shrimp, and several thousand flapping, squealing bats.
Big Sand Cay
Seven miles south of Salt Cay, this island’s beach is one of Turks & Caicos’ least visited and finest. Loll on the sand, and then explore the lighthouse ruins and two abandoned bunkers marked “Keep Out. U.S. Government Property.” Whether you do is strictly up to you. Trips leave from Salt Cay.
Scuba divers flock here and cruise ships dock here, but Grand Turk’s charms extend beyond both. Founded by Bermudian salt rakers in 1681, the island’s capital, Cockburn Town, is the archipelago’s historic, political and administrative center, with weathered colonial buildings and the national museum along its streets.
Beyond diving and snorkeling, Turks & Caicos is famous for other watersports, especially fishing. For light-tackle trolling, deep-sea-, fly-, bottom- or bone-fishing in Provo, try Silver Deep or Hook’em Fishing Adventures. Dedicated anglers should also consider spending a few days at North Caicos’ Bottle Creek Lodge. For wakeboarding, surfing, kiteboarding, waterskiing and tubing, try Nautique Sports. For sailing, Beluga Private Charters is ideal. Top dive center Big Blue Unlimited also offers stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking. Bred-in-the-bone extremists need look no further than Caicu Naniki for guided swim safaris and free-diving classes or excursions—as well as for Middle Caicos trail treks or runs. But if your goal is simply to relax, the open-air cabanas at Provo’s Thalasso Spa at Point Grace will keep you floating blissfully.