Turks & Caicos Islands: It is a slip of a country that often falls through the cracks in the scheme of Caribbean things, where big-hitters such as neighboring Bahamas or Jamaica and now Cuba steal the spotlight. TCI, regardless its size and demure nature, claims some exclusives in the Caribbean and even the world.
Conch has many uses in the Turks & Caicos — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Only conch farm in the world
The main resort island of Providenciales, aka Provo, helps make islanders’ insatiable appetite for conch more sustainable, unlike the Bahamas. Caicos Conch Farm began operation in 1984 and remains the only of its kind. A tour of the facility teaches you everything you wanted to know about conch, whose meat and shell serve many purposes on the islands. The farm not only “grows” conch, it's also researching ways to bolster populations of grouper, snapper, pompano and cobia. The conch farm is a commercial operation, so don’t expect touristy stuff–or even a taste of conch for that matter.
TUCA Cultural Group
Created by David Bowen, former TCI director of culture, this performance arts group’s name “takes the ‘and’ out of Turks & Caicos to bring unity to the nation,” he says. Performers keep alive such traditional dances and music as the shay-shay and waltz-like shati at festivals and other special events.
Ripsaw man playing his saw at Fish Fry — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
In the Bahamas, rake-and-scrape bands commonly perform their grassroots form of music made with makeshift instruments. It’s a little known fact, however, that this folk music genre got its start in TCI with a “cutting edge” art form that involves a flexed carpenter saw and knife. You can see performances at Provo’s Friday Fish Fry, where the musician likes to get a little raunchy with his saw, and at local festivals throughout the islands, where an accordion, concertina, goat and cow skin drum, triangle, shakers (maracas), box guitar and conga drum may accompany.
Dried conch and grits
The “Belongers,” as Turks & Caicos citizens are known, have a way of drying their conch on clotheslines in the sun to preserve it. They reconstitute it for their national dish–unheard of elsewhere in the conch islands of the Caribbean–cooking it with pigeon peas and salt pork. You can sometimes find it on the menu in restaurants such as Daniel’s Café By the Sea on Middle Caicos.
Taking to the sea with Provo Ponies — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Horseback riding on the beach is nothing new to the Caribbean. Provo Ponies, however, is. Horses, you see, have been part of the TCI landscape for centuries, brought to these parts by UK colonials. Descendants have adapted to the environment through the years, growing smaller and fond of the beach. Provo Ponies has rescued some two dozen horses from the islands and created a business of letting riders fulfill their sea-horse fantasies.
Turk’s Head beer
Produced in Provo, the beer is named for a peculiar type of cactus that grows here and gives its name to half of the island’s chain. It’s light, breezy and perfect for sipping on the beach with a fresh conch salad.
A Turks & Caicos Rock iguana sunning on the beach — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Turks & Caicos Rock iguanas
Iguana species Cyclura carinata carinata–found only in the Turks & Caicos–inhabit Iguana Cay (aka Little Water Cay) offshore from Provo. Boating and kayaking excursions take you to this tyrannisaurish preserve where iguanas warily scurry along the beach and among the rocks, sometimes engaging in territorial battles, sometime overly interested in toenails painted red or pink and looking like berries.
Creative conch salad
Did someone say “conch salad?” We hate to keep comparing TCI’s superiority over the Bahamas, but let’s just say maybe it’s time to think outside of the traditional preparation. And that is exactly what the annual conch festival in Provo does. Examples and former winners: the conch salads at Ocean Club Resorts include an Asian-inspired and an extra spicy version.
Fenner grass baskets — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Fenner grass baskets
Basket weaving is a pan-Caribbean cottage industry, but only in TCI will you find them finely weaved out of this native grass and used to sift grits. The labor-intensive works of art are sold nationwide, but look to the source on Middle and North Caicos, where an artisan co-op sells the work of locals.
Turks & Caicos’ extensive underground limestone cave system in itself lends dimension to the destination’s superlative adventure. Add to that new species of cave fauna discovered in 2003–one a remipede known as “beautiful sea monster,” the other a crustacean named “tiny hunter,” both blind and albino–and you’ve arrived to the final TCI exclusive. When you visit the caves at Conch Bar on Middle Caicos, you’re unlikely to spot these deep-dwelling mini-creatures, but you may see sleeping bats hanging from the ceiling.
Incomparable Mudjin Harbour Beach — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Mudjin Harbour Beach
Surely unparalleled in its bluffy beauty with private cove beaches you can swim to, this Middle Caicos beach is located near Blue Horizons resort, a destination for humpback whale watchers in winter.
Caves of Middle Caicos — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Many islands claim their populous numbers of pink flamingos, and the jury is still out on which can claim the largest flock. Nonetheless, overlooking this pink flurried wetland on Middle Caicos certainly feels like hitting the jackpot.