Turks and Caicos is a British territory only an hour and a half flight south of Miami but a million miles from winter.
Like the screensaver that mesmerizes you with its promise of impossibly turquoise water and white sand, Turks and Caicos too is hypnotic. Of course, the sunny collection of islands (TCI, as the old British crown colony is called) is a perfect place for total relaxation, but it is also ideal for those less sedentary visitors in pursuit of heart racing adventures and land and sea activities.
The unspoiled islands (an archipelago of forty with only eight of them inhabited) have a variety of terrains and, uniquely for the Caribbean, are still fairly undeveloped and sparsely populated. Most notably TCI boasts the third largest barrier reef system in the world and is surrounded with coral reef so abundant with sea life that the country is one of the world’s top dive spots. But the Turks and Caicos activities don’t stop there. Beaches are sheltered by reefs making the islands a mecca for swimmers, paddle and kiteboarders, and parasailers. Long stretches of sandy dunes and white beaches aren’t just for swimming, but for wind-in-your-hair horse riding. Pristine and remote mangrove forests offer serene watery trails for kayaks while rugged limestone cliffs and caves wait to be explored by hikers and spelunkers. Lie in that hammock if you choose, or get out and get active.
Dive and Snorkel
Of course, sea adventures are at the top of the list. TCI is probably best known internationally for diving. For the pro divers, there are undersea canyons, caves and wall dives that boast up to 6,000-foot vertical drop-offs. For those less seasoned, non-thrill seeker divers who don’t want to dive the deep-water trenches, there are near shore dives (even near shore night dives) where you can swim with sea turtles, squid, octopus, stingrays and reef sharks. There are uninhabited islands and wrecks to explore and from January through March, an ocean version of the Serengeti’s Great Migration. A deep passage between Turks Islands and the Caicos islands is the watery migration highway for fish, turtles dolphins, rays and even humpback whales. Diving or snorkeling during the migration might mean it is even possible to hear the whale song as creatures big and small make their way to their mating and calving grounds.
For beginner snorkelers, there are beach reefs with easy access such as Bight Reef. For those a little more comfortable with mask and flippers the more remote Malcolm’s Road Beach, a protected area of Northwest Point Marine National Park, holds eye-poppingly colorful reef fish, stingrays, nurse sharks and a rainbow of coral.
Kayak, Paddleboard and more
Those island visitors who prefer their adventures on the water, can kayak or paddleboard through the islands’ mangrove forests of winding trails and see wildlife such as cormorants, pelicans, and egrets as well as rays, turtles, and sharks. There are even opportunities to make that kayak event a camping trip for the wilderness types.
Less tranquil and noisier water activities include jet skiing, waterskiing, tubing and parasailing experiences. For those who prefer harnessing the power of wind to the power of the internal combustion engine, kiteboarders can freestyle and freeride through the air over Long Bay Beach with its perfectly flat, waist deep water and consistent winds (especially in the months November through May).
For just plain unencumbered swimming there are adventures here too. You can swim with stingrays just off the beach at Gibbs Cay or join “belongers” (slang for locals) in an annual series of swim races called the “Race for the Conch”, held in July. The swim competition means you can pit yourself against local residents or the many international swimmers who flock to TCI just for the 2.4-mile Ironman swim, one mile or half-mile swims.
Fun on Dry Land
Bold landlubbers will love the exhilaration of hiking on rocky outcrops of limestone cliffs or through paths of the thorny acacia trees, and stunningly red bougainvillea. There are not many official trails (though many places to hike), but most popular and interesting is Crossing Place Trail on Middle Caicos, This mainly deserted trail with views of limestone cliffs and tiny beaches was once used by slaves and settlers who worked the cotton and sisal plantations in the 18th century. The trail is hot and sometimes difficult but it is always possible to cool off at some of the small sheltered beaches along the way.
Visitors can also cool off inside the country’s network of caves. Spelunkers used to going deep into the earth for adventures can explore the non-submerged karst limestone caves on Middle Caicos, known as the Conch Bar Caves. The caves are believed to have been a possible religious site for Lucayan people, the earliest residents of the islands. Later those caves were the site of 19th-century guano mining. For today’s visitors, there are stalactites, stalagmites, tidal pools and four kinds of bats. The cave system is not developed for tourists so flashlights, guides, and sturdy shoes or boots are needed for this off-the-beaten-track adventure.
Play a Round of Golf
Something equally sportif that also involves a “hike” but has a significantly better-groomed environment is the stretch of vibrant green of the award-winning Provo Golf Club. Visitors can also see limestone rock formations and local plants, palms and even lakes, but all considerably more manicured than the wilds of Middle Caicos hiking. The club is open to residents and non-residents so it is a chance to meet your island hosts and learn more about the TCI way of life.
Other sports offer other ways to meet the locals who are reputed to be crazy for sports and sporting events. It is a Commonwealth country after all so there are always pick up soccer games to hunt down and cricket if you dare and have eight hours to spare for this marathon Commonwealth obsession. And for visitors who miss the snow and ice back home, check out Provo’s ice hockey league, started by homesick Canadian ex-pats. Finally, at the end of the day of feats of daring and adventures head to Danny Buoy’s Sports Bar for conch fritters, a Turks Head Lager and an evening TV soccer, cricket or field hockey with the regulars.
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Images: Brilliant studios; Turks and Caicos Tourism; Provo Golf Club