The Turks and Caicos Islands (or TCI) are the third largest British Overseas Territory by population and consist of the larger Caicos Islands and smaller Turks Islands. These are two groups of tropical islands (40 altogether) in the Lucayan Archipelago (the other part is the Bahamas) in the Northern West Indies. So, strictly, they lie in the North West Atlantic Ocean and not the Caribbean. Their value is in tourism (and wow what beaches, 230 miles of them) - and acting as an offshore financial centre. They're also handy for naval bases and missile tracking systems.
Every day is different when you’re travelling. I chance my arm on a Caribbean airline from Port au Prince today to avoid going back to Miami. Inter Caribbean do a hop direct to Providenciales in Caicos. I am a bit wary after LIAT (Leave Island Any Time) last year.
Check-in isn’t reassuring. I have to wait an hour while they tape up a pile of cardboard boxes one group of passengers is carrying. Then I am, humiliatingly, weighed in full public view. And everything is written by hand on the back of some old A4 sheets.
No departure gate. We are rounded up by the check-in-clerk in her pink aertex shirt and have to follow her, in a queue, round all the airport buildings, to the little prop plane. The PA system won’t work and my window keeps clattering shut. The pilot is completely silent - I assume there is one. But we take off early and here I am.
An hour on a plane from Haiti and the planet is completely different. Providenciales (known as Provo locally) in the Caicos Islands is pristine. Providenciales is the largest island in Turks and Caicos by population and the third largest in area. The name Caico[s] is from the Lucayan caya hico, meaning 'string of islands'.
Grace Bay here currently holds the position of World Travel Awards’ World’s Leading Beach Destination, and took second place in Trip Advisor’s World’s Best Beaches. The PR boasts that Grace Bay has taken first or second place in these two ratings 19 times and I'm not going to argue with that too fiercely. It's similar to the beaches in the Bahamas, with the same deep turquoise sea and soft white sand, but much wider. No rocks, no seaweed. No pollution.
Its about three miles long, but segues into other beaches each side and is part of the Princess Alexandra National Park. Grace Bay Beach was named after Grace Jane Hutchings, the wife of a Commissioner of the Turks and Caicos in the 1930s. For me, it's less picturesque than the Bahamian beaches, as it is lined with four storey (and more) high-end hotels, sunbeds and bars. The compensation is that the food and service are great – though the prices are high-end to match.
I decide to venture out to explore, but in my excitement, I walk into the plate glass door on my balcony. So the afternoon is spent lying on a sunbed, with ice on my nose instead. Dazed I fall asleep, completely forgetting the sun cream. So now I'm bruised and red. It’s hard to tell which is which.
Another day, another island and journey’s end - Grand Turk is reached, the largest island in the Turks group. The name possibly comes from a species of cactus on the island, the Turk's Cap Cactus, which has a distinctive cap, like a Turkish fez. but apparently it's more likely to refer to the bands of pirates who used to maraud around here. Grand Turk contains the capital of Turks and Caicos, Cockburn Town (American pronunciation rules). It is seven miles long and has a population of almost 4,000.
More idyllic beaches, but here all is shabby chic colonial clapboard. The land is almost flat except for a lighthouse holding sway up a little hill. There are countless little salt lagoons joined by causeways. The odd pink flamingo stretches his neck to search for shrimp and donkeys wander the streets.
It cries out for a bike tour, so off I go. It’s the bike without brakes scenario again, though it probably wasn’t wise of me to tell a policeman that was the reason that I didn’t stop at the cross roads. A zip round town, past an old prison and a clocktower and alongside dunes running by the sea and down to the airport. It’s still relaxing pedalling as the sun goes down (until I get lost anyway). The beaches are quiet except for the occasional rum shack, cacti and more donkeys; it’s so laid back it’s horizontal.
Back at the ranch there's good snorkelling in the ultra clear water, when I can summon up the energy. Except for when the cruise ships hit town; today my quiet little beach is heaving with day trippers all swilling as much rum punch as they can hold in their plastic ship’s bottles. I retreat to my room but a hammer drill is being employed to repair the suite next door.
There’s always a fly in the ointment. Talking of our six legged friends, I eat breakfast everyday with a tiny grey lizard who creeps onto the toast basket and obligingly hoovers up all the flies that are threatening to settle there. When he’s feeling bold he also samples the scrambled egg.
Evenings are delightful, and could be romantic, the breeze is as balmy as they come. The sea is at is best for evening swims and I join a ray frolicking with a parrot fish. The sunsets are delightful. At night the braying of the donkeys is at least a change from the barking of dogs.
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