By Sharyn Alden
It’s a puzzle every traveler faces when they’re looking for a perfect place to plop. Where’s a piece of paradise with my name on it?
I was looking for a getaway that was all about that beach, and I found it on Providenciales, the westernmost island of the Turks and Caicos, on the miles of sugar-white, baby-soft sand of Grace Bay Beach.
Grace Bay is regularly ranked as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches; in February, Trip Advisor’s annual Traveler’s Choice poll ranked Grace Bay second on a list of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Grace Bay beat out more than 320 other beaches to get to No. 2. Trip Advisor also ranked Providenciales as the world’s No. 1 island, further cementing Grace Bay’s reputation.
If you want to see for yourself what the fuss is about – and you should – start your journey by learning where the islands are … and where they aren’t. The Turks and Caicos (TCI for short) are not located in the South Pacific or near the Seychelles, they’re not related to Trinidad and Tobago, and they’re nowhere near Turkey.
The islands are in the Caribbean, south of the Bahamas and northeast of the Dominican Republic. I keep things brief by telling people I’m heading to the prettiest group of 40 islands in the Caribbean. Only 10 of the islands are inhabited, but who needs more when you have Providenciales?
My plane from Miami arrived at Providenciales International Airport on a windy night as the moon’s rays swept across an eerie black ocean.
I had come to Provo (the generally accepted shorthand for the town and island of Providenciales), the most popular island in the TCI archipelago, to see if its world-famous beach could live up to its reputation.
The TCI is ringed by the third-largest coral reef system in the world. Calm, diamond-clear coastal waters and miles of white sand create a spectacular setting that draws divers and snorkelers from around the globe.
Grace Bay is a magnet for beach aficionados who know their sand. As a seasoned beach bum, I’ve combed the globe from Bali to Java to the Greek islands and most of the Caribbean seeking great beaches for swimming and watching the world go by. To me, it doesn’t get better than Grace Bay.
Not that long ago the Turks and Caicos Islands were a slumbering backwater, home to a smattering of “Belongers” and a few beach bums and deepsea divers.
“Belongers” have a special status linked by history to island lore. They are the direct descendants of 193 African slaves who were freed on the TCI in 1841. About half the TCI’s population is considered Belongers, connected by circumstance to slaves who swam ashore after the slave ship Trouvadore was shipwrecked on an East Caicos reef.
Over the past few years celebs and jet-setters have established homes on the TCI, threatening to crowd out the Belongers. Resort developers have built palatial retreats that line the beach like strings of jewels, setting off the sea’s intoxicating colors of seafoam green and cobalt blue.
There are many hotels to choose from in the Grace Bay area, including the award-winning Grace Bay Club (the original luxury resort in Turks and Caicos, built in the early 1990s), the Regent Palms, and Beaches by Sandals.
Looking for great beach access, I was delighted to discover the small 29-room Sibonne Beach Hotel, the first hotel built on Grace Bay Beach. Because Sibonne was first, it had dibs on the best position on the beach. Today, the boutique hotel is still the closest to the beach; only about four feet separates its guest apartment from the sand. And unlike other huge hotel complexes, this little gem holds fast to its traditional British West Indies charm.
Better yet, the rates are reasonable by TCI standards – in fact, some guests called them a steal. They range from $210-$245 per night (single or double occupancy), with a three-night minimum. The rates even include continental breakfast! Book early to get one of the two simple value rooms or the beachfront guest apartment, complete with four-poster bed; all three are usually reserved months in advance.
The hotel is also famous for Bay Bistro, its open-air, beachside restaurant that serves memorable meals from breakfast through late-night dinner.
My first day swimming I noticed several people standing in a circle in waist-deep water looking like something was on their minds. I swam over to say hello and ended up in a book-club discussion about The Silent Wife and The Girl on the Train.
What does that say about the effect of warm sand and clear water on one’s psyche? “A lot,” said New Jerseyite Ellen Borman, who added that back home people always wondered what she did on a TCI vacation. “Not much, but that’s the point.” Other than running an impromptu book-club meeting in waist-deep water, that is.
Polly Madigan, a marathon swimmer in the book group, said, “I can’t recall in all the oceans that I’ve swam, a calmer sea where you can literally swim for miles – without surf, big waves or currents.” I had to agree. The water is so calm and the dropoff so gentle you can stand and chat for a long time and, well, get things done. Like learn about books.
At the end of my swim, I walked over to Hemingway’s on the Beach at The Sands At Grace Bay for a lunch of conch chowder, Caribbean
jerk chicken and key-lime pie. You might also try the Conch Shack; as the name implies, you’ll get fresh conch – and even get to watch as they pull the conch out of the sea – conch salad and many other island-favorite dishes.
Don’t expect to find an array of fast-food restaurants or cheap prices here. Dining out can give you sticker shock because just about everything other than fish and bananas is flown in. But the tradeoff is a terrific lineup of restaurants that feature local seafood such as bonefish, reef fish and fresh conch.
Most of the nightlife at hotels and beachside restaurants is centered around a lively music scene.
“Ripsaw music” or “rake-and-scrape” is music most often associated with the Turks and Caicos. It is heard across the archipelago but primarily on Grand Turk Island. Brought here by the Loyalists of the American Revolution, the musicians use handsaws and long-handled screwdrivers or blades of old knives.
If you’re lucky you might hear Lovey Forbes, one of the islands’ top ripsaw musicians, playing near you, or you can buy his CD for when you get home and need a taste of good, raw island music to bring back a bounty of memories.
For more info, visit turksandcaicostourism.com.
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, based in Madison, Wis.
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