For Palo Alto couple Stephen and Debra Smith, the tale of their first trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands more than two decades ago is as much about their adventure getting to the island as about the luxury villa at Sailrock that they would eventually buy.
Back then, the tiny British Overseas Territory 500 miles south of Miami was still relatively undiscovered. In fact, Stephen says laughing, “There was only a one room shack of an airport to get to our destination, North Caicos. We actually had to find and then wake up the pilot.” For Debra’s part, she says she was shocked when they were dropped off on a tiny island with just their toddler and all their bags.
That shock, however, was accompanied by the pleasure of the isolation. Both Debra and Steve loved the idea of escaping their ordinary environment and experiencing something “foreign and silent.” In fact, they say, they first got wind of Turks and Caicos (TCI for short) from a book, Undiscovered Islands of the Caribbean. The book was right. At the time North Caicos (TCI’s second largest island and a mecca for sport fishing) was still under the radar and undeveloped for tourism. As Steve tells it, they looked at each other and said at the same time, “One day we are going to own a place down here.” Year after year, the couple and their growing family vacationed on the isolated island, eventually buying a condo and indulging their passion for snorkeling, diving and wandering the beach looking for shells. They never grew tired of their remote island adventure.
As their children became adults, however, and North Caicos became more developed, once again the couple began dreaming about discovering an even more remote area of the Turks and Caicos. “So we boarded another ‘puddle jumper,'” Steve says, chuckling. This time they were off to South Caicos, the old salt producing area, where tourism was so rare that there was only a single development: Sailrock.
Developers were just breaking ground on the new resort home complex, and there was only one villa built. Reef 3 stood on a bluff over the ocean and, as Steve puts it, when they saw the home perched on a hillside it was “love at first sight.” So smitten were they by the house and the land that they lingered too long, missed the last plane back to North Caicos and ended up staying overnight. What might have been an inconvenience became instead for the Smiths, part of the Reef 3 mystique. “We were stranded that night. We were happy.” And, he adds, “We were sold on Reef 3.”
Reef 3 was designed by Chicago’s award-winning John Ronan, who was not only a finalist for the Barack Obama Presidential Center design contest but also the architect of the jaw dropping Poetry Foundation Building. Ronan is inspired by influences as diverse as the music of John Coltrane and the light, space and balance of architect, Mies van der Rohe. He describes his structures as giving the impression that they “unfold space by space” and dissolve the line between inside and out. That aesthetic vision was perfect for the Smiths who, as they explain, “appreciate simple architectural lines and a serene, almost Zen-like feel.” The use of floor-to-ceiling glass across the front of Reef 3 helps defy the notion of interior and exterior space and the airy, light filled rooms seem at times to float into one another.
Reef 3’s interiors are the work of Michigan designer Christine Lilley. The stark white walls and pale cream travertine floors are a perfect backdrop for the hardwood rustic furniture and glossy thematic nature prints and stark metal sculptural pieces. The villa, which is perched high on a hill, takes advantage of striking views of the sea. Stephen says his favorite view is one that looks out over the Columbus Passage. It is from there in his living room he says, that he does some of his best relaxing and reading.
With such a beautiful environment, the temptation might be to just stay home to enjoy the views and the pool, but Sailrock Resort and South Caicos offer some exceptional alternatives to just chilling.
The Sailrock Resort property itself is over 700 acres so there are opportunities for birding and hiking (watch for flocks of flamingos and Stephen says laughing, groups of feral donkeys). And, of course, there are all kinds of water activities from sport fishing to kayaking. Most famously, South Caicos is home to beautiful coral reefs rich with sea life, everything from rays and octopus to tiny parrotfish and seahorses. There are so many graceful rays, Steve says, that as the small plane that takes them to the island lands, they often look down at the ocean and see rays playing in the water.
Although one could spend endless hours in nature, there is also the nearby fishing village, Cockburn Harbour, that Debra and Steve say is definitely worth a visit. They often go to the village’s local restaurants such as Sea View Inn, for fresh curried goat, oxtail and Steve’s favorite, grouper and rice and beans.
Turks and Caicos is conch crazy and so are the Smiths. The little edible sea creature is so much a national symbol that it is even featured on the flag. Every restaurant menu boasts four or five conch dishes, but Steve recommends the conch chowder and the cracked conch at Cleo Cox’s South Caicos Ocean and Beach Resort.
According to Steve, if there is one drawback to his and Debra’s Caribbean idyll, it is the distance from their home in California. He says that with their busy schedule (he’s a child psychologist; she is in real estate) they often “daydream about their island serenity.” For Debra’s part, she says, the island is about “exploring the simple rare pleasures that South Caicos has to offer — a slow and peaceful respite from the stresses of our busy lives.” Steve echoes those sentiments. “I go there and I just simply unplug. What do I think about? Nada,” he says, blissfully. “Just nothing.”