Off the Grid in Turks & Caicos
The direct flight from Atlanta to Turks & Caicos Islands steadily approached Providenciales, the largest island in the group. As the plane began its approach, we looked up from our paperback books to catch glimpses of the collection of islands below, stretching roughly east to west, surrounded by the purple-black of the “deep”, over 7,000 feet worth. The colors of the sea surrounding the islands reflected changes in the water’s depth – first royal blue, then cobalt blue, then robin’s-egg blue, and finally a brilliant turquoise over bright, shallow sandy bottom.
Viewing the familiar yet consistently stunning colors of the Caribbean Sea jump-started our excitement and anticipation of a long-awaited and hard-won week’s holiday. By the time we clanked our way down the metal steps from the plane to the tarmac and hiked the quarter mile or so to the terminal, we were hot, sweaty and grinning from ear-to-ear. We had arrived! Vacation could officially begin.
Clearing Customs and Immigration and securing our rental car was relatively painless and soon I was sitting on the wrong side of the car, driving on the wrong side of the road and hesitating at each of several roundabouts while my brain processed new rules of the road in Real Time. Robin, erstwhile Navigator, refrained politely from snickering as I repeatedly flipped on the windshield wipers instead of the turn indicator.
“Yield” yielded to “Give Way”. Posted speeds were in Kilometers, not Miles per Hour- as was the speedometer- a happy coincidence. Soon enough we arrived, unscathed, at the IGA Supermarket on Leeward highway, purchased necessaries for the first few days in our rental condo and tooled down the road to Turquoise Ridge, our home-away for the next 7 nights.
After checking out our spacious, new and completely comfy (privately owned- found on VRBO.com) digs and the view of Juba Point (a bright turquoise colored bay) from the screen porch overlooking the pool, we whipped up a favorite adult beverage to fortify us as we unpacked our roll-aboards and backpacks. Then, off to one of our rare visits to one of many resorts lining Grace Bay, where perfectly white sands kissed by crystal turquoise waters greet tourists (mostly American, Canadian, British) and the prices are, well, quite beyond what we routinely want to pay. But hey, it’s our first evening and we have a terrific view of the large patch reef right in front of our perch on the wind-blown upper deck of the restaurant at Coral Gardens resort.
Our drinks appear, soon accompanied by tasty meals and we’re just happy to be here, enjoying the fantastic view, the cool wind and the shade of the table umbrella. This is a treat, as we’ve agreed to go it “on the cheap” on this vacation, re-heating lunches for dinner or buying a half chicken with a side or two at the IGA and stretching it to 2 or more meals. Each day we prepare a light breakfast in the condo kitchen, pack our travel cooler with drinks and ice, tuck snacks we brought from home into our beach bags, grab the snorkel gear and off we go.
Next morning we were up bright and early, making our way to the north side of the island and Smith’s Reef, a lovely spot just off the beach, arrived at once one has made their way from the road and stomped along a hot, unmarked sand track through the scrub to the wind-swept beach. We donned snorkel gear and were soon finning against a wicked current, past a few isolated coral heads and finally over Smith’s Reef, approximately the distance of a football field from the rocky shore. Here, the water depths ranged from 5 feet on the lee side of the patch reef to over 20 feet at the northwestern-most point.
A school of juvenile barracuda hung over the reef, facing into the current. The usual fishy reef denizens patrolled, like trumpet fish, damsels, groupers, snappers, grunts and Parrot fish, busily snapping off bites of coral and pushing that lovely white beach sand out the other end in never-ending streams.
I floated above the deep, watching the curious behavior of a young Nassau grouper, which was pointing like a dog at a spot in the reef. The grouper would move a little, roll its eyes, turn this way and that and point. I decided to free dive down to see what had its undivided attention. At my approach an octopus with a head the size of a soccer ball suddenly darted out of its hole and danced across the sand, its mantle stretched out and tentacles flailing as it tried to find another hidey-hole while the grouper gamely pursued. In a blink, the octopus tucked its body into a handy crevice of the reef and, Poof, it changed its color and mottled pattern to perfectly mimic its surroundings. Even though I knew exactly where it was, I was hard-pressed to pick out its shape before I had to head for the surface. I watched for a few more moments, but clearly the grouper was as baffled as I was, and we each went our separate ways.
We visited Smith Reef again later in the week, early in the morning when the wind was quiet. The visibility was low due to so much suspended sand in the water caused by several days of high winds, but we spotted the same grouper, the same squad of barracudas, and had the added pleasure of watching a slipper lobster bumping its ungainly way across the reef. While hanging over the deep part of the reef, I kept looking out over the surrounding sand and turtle grass, hoping to spot a passing turtle like we had on our first visit. Suddenly, out of the gloom, a large spotted eagle ray appeared, swimming right toward us. I alerted Robin, who watched, google-eyed, while the ray came within 4 feet of us then gracefully turned and glided away on a 5-foot wing span. I followed, swimming alongside it (but keeping a safe distance from that 7 foot long tail!). A magical moment that ended as the ray quickly out-distanced me and disappeared at the edge of the visibility curtain.
The next day was still windy but we had reservations with Deep Blue to spend the day aboard their boat, snorkeling at various locations on the fringing reef around Provo and West Caicos, a relatively undeveloped outer island known for amazing corals and healthy fish populations on the nearby reef system.
A note about the reefs of T&C: The barrier reef system is the third largest in the world, behind the Great Barrier Reef and the system that runs down the western side of Mexico and Belize, extending into the Bay Islands of Honduras. Since the 1980s I’ve visited numerous locations in these areas, and have witnessed the steady degradation of reefs from Florida and the Bahamas to Ambergis Caye, the reefs off the coast of Tulum and Akumal Mexico, and Roatan. My “bucket list” consists of the search for pristine-as-possible, healthy coral structures in the Caribbean with lots of healthy reef fish.
Here, off the coast of West Caicos, I finally got to see large collections of amazingly colorful Elkhorn corals the likes of which I haven’t seen since my SCUBA check-out dive on Molasses Reef off Key Largo, Florida in 1972. What a breathtaking sight, to snorkel in clear water, the late morning rays penetrating the shallows to light up a scene perfectly sublime: a massive, rust-red Elkhorn coral in the center of a gracefully curving reef face festooned with large sea fans and other soft corals and gorgonians waving in the currents, many adorned with one or more cowrie shells. Each little cowrie shell appeared to be hand-painted a unique pattern of bright colors, and the play of light and shadow of the waves above gave the impression of the cowries dancing merrily as their hosts waved back and forth, back and forth with the current.
At one snorkel stop, the boat anchored in 50 feet of water right at the edge of the abyss. We jumped in the water and spotted a large school of horse-eyed jacks circled in a protective ball, enjoying the welcome shade beneath the boat. The dive master beckoned us to follow her over toward the edge of the drop-off and, as she had promised, we spotted 2 reef sharks, mom and youngster, slowly circling the top of the reef 50 feet below. At the edge of the “wall”, the water turned from a royal blue to almost purple, the visibility curtain closing down rapidly across such depths.
The day’s travels took us around the greater part of Provo and West Caicos, where we observed several resorts in various stages of development, apparently abandoned to the elements. Unpainted concrete buildings stood forlorn on the rocky shore, their window openings bruised eyes staring bleakly out to sea. Barren of any decorative trees or shrubs and surrounded by streets carved from the rock, the resorts were quiet testaments to the effects of the Great Recession, the closing of banks and the withdrawal of development funds. Combined with Britain’s 2009 suspension of Ts & Cs government over allegations of corruption, (the Premier and his fellow government ministers apparently sold off Crown land to property developers for their own personal gain), the effects of this Perfect Storm are still very much in evidence.
One day we caught an early morning ferry to explore the outer island of North Caicos, where we planned to secure a rental car for a day’s exploration of North Caicos and its rather more remote neighbor Middle Caicos.
Once on the island, we drove our rental car along the main highway toward the settlement of Whitby on the windward cost of “North” and weren’t surprised to run out of asphalt when we turned off to head toward the “Three Mary Cays”, our morning snorkel destination.
Getting to these scenic cays situated just offshore in a pristine setting required concentration and a tight grip on the steering wheel as we bumped slowly along narrow and exceedingly potholed limestone tracks festooned with sharp rocks just waiting to puncture the little tires on the poor tired rental car. At one point the track apparently disappeared in a wash-out caused from a hurricane in 2010, but we persevered and eventually ended up at our destination, on a wind-blown and rocky shore.
The cays were exceedingly scenic and beckoned, so we donned snorkel gear and, in spite of the high currents and heavy seas, we snorkeled out to the cays, which offered little in the way of reef structure or fish life around their undercut bases. A dangerous rip current threatened to sweep us out to sea, so we quickly returned to the relative safety of the razor-sharp ironstone shore, where we minced around, observing the beauty of this remote location. The bow of a large freighter poked up from just inside the barrier reef, approximately a mile from shore, serving as a reminder of treacherous potential awaiting the unwary.
Making our way gingerly along yet another track, we arrived at the highway again and headed toward the settlement of Kew and the nearby ruins of Wade’s Plantation, a Loyalist era cotton plantation founded in 1789. After an arduous drive and a great deal of dead-reckoning navigation, we arrived at a small parking area carved out of the surrounding scrub. We walked a quarter mile along a rough footpath between low stone walls to arrive at a padlocked hurricane fence. The guide books and web pages we had read described the ruins as open daily. We were disappointed but dang it, we came all this way to see the ruins!
After glancing around guiltily and reassuring each other that we might be able to talk the authorities into viewing our trespass as a minor offense if we were to be apprehended, we clambered over a broken section of wall and proceeded on a self-guided tour of the ruins. Our risky gambit paid off, as we thoroughly enjoyed discovering the main house, overseer’s house, kitchen building, a garden and the original well site, all situated on the top of a hill that, back In the Day, must have provided excellent breezes and a breathtaking 360 degree view. Although our view consisted of twisted, bulldozed trees and ruins of the plantation walls that disappeared into the overgrowth, it was not hard to imagine how busy and possibly scenic this now desolate setting must have appeared when the estate was in full swing.
After a lovely lunch at the quaint cottage housing the Silver Palm restaurant and bar (delicious pina colada!), we drove our rental car along the paved road that connects North Caicos and Middle Caicos, hardly surprised when we were faced with large sections that were washed out by the hurricane.
These outer islands are characterized by stretches of scrub and salt ponds dotted with flocks of Flamingoes in the distance. Small settlements came and went and we met few vehicles on the roads. But we did enjoy a visit to a limestone cave, part of the largest cave network in the northern Caribbean. We stopped off at Bamberra Beach, where a large cavern carved by huge waves over millennia overlooked a beautiful little bay protected by a high ironshore wall.
Soon it was time to return to the ferry dock, leave the keys in the rental car and catch the 30 minute excursion back to Provo which, after our day on North and Middle Cays, seemed terribly cosmopolitan and teeming with auto traffic.
Highlights of snorkel trips to the barrier reef just off Grace Bay included exploring the fairly robust and healthy reef, where some places were fishier than others. On two different stops we spotted a large puffer fish, each over 3 feet long. I always look for these comical and shy fish and consider them a talisman. During the day they seldom come out of their holes in the reef, so I was surprised and delighted to spot each one swimming out in the open—even if they were frantic to find another place to hide.
In another spot that featured deeply undercut ledges at 20 foot depths, I spotted the distinctive outline of a nurse shark’s tail in the gloom of a large overhang. I dove down and, sure enough, there it was, all 7 or more feet of it, resting comfortably on the almost-smooth ledge, hidden from casual view by the deep overhang. Robin managed to dive down to spot the critter and returned to the surface, grinning.
One place we visited on Provo was a history buff’s delight- “Pirate carvings”, reached after best-guess driving/navigation and carefully picking one’s way up an almost vertical, rocky and slippery goat-path to the top of wind-swept Sapodilla Hill, which overlooks the commercial port and the sea. Here carved into the bedrock and several large stones were dozens of rock carvings that featured dates and names of sailors who stopped by the island in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Some names appeared more than once, with almost a decade between dates, testifying to a steady commerce in sisal (rope for sailing vessels) and cotton during those periods.
Between balancing on boats, snorkeling in heavy surge and strong currents and hiking up and down precarious hills and goat-paths, we slept well each night and found ourselves thoroughly relaxed, if a bit worn out, after our week’s stay in TCI. Typically, we avoided the resorts and shopping and the high-end tourist scene, with the exception of Robin’s parasailing adventure over the reefs fringing the popular tourist destination of Grace Bay. So OK we did indulge, just a bit. After all, vacation should be about experiencing the new and different and the Ts and Cs did not disappoint!
Video panorama of one lovely, isolated snorkel spot: http://youtu.be/sSGVrhSKiow