Travel Guide, Winter 1995-1996
Technically part of the Bahamas chain some 30 miles to the northwest, the Turks and Caicos are 30 dry, scrubby islands and keys scored by salt flats and arranged in the shape of a slightly distorted clock. Though Providenciales (known locally as Provo) is still a one-stoplight island, it's Miamilike compared with the rest of the group, with plenty of hotels, shops, and restaurants. But it's the reefs people come for, with their pristine walls and coral canyons that see more action than the bar at your hotel; mingle with colonies of purple tube sponges, sergeant majors, giant groupers, and assorted grunts, ballyhoos, and reef croakers.
Off Grace Bay, on the island's north shore, check out the spur and groove formations at Graceland, Aquarium, and other dive sites in Alexandra National Park. And just outside the north-shore reef, the wreck of a huge freighter called the W.E. rests between 95 and 165 feet, the home of tigerfish, eels, lobsters, and mobs of milling tropicals. Provo Turtle Divers (two-tank dive, $60; one-tank night dive, $45; 809-946-4232), located at nearby Turtle Cove Marina and at the Ocean Club in Grace Bay, takes divers to five areas of the island.
A sea kayak is the best way to hit the snorkeling sites, tool between beaches, or explore the mangroves and estuaries in Chalk Sound Marine Preserve, an inland saltwater lake in the less-developed southwestern corner of Provo that contains about 365 tiny cays. Rent your gear at Windsurfing Provo (single kayaks, $10 per hour; doubles, $15; 809-946-5040), located at the Turquoise Reef Resort and Casino on the north shore (doubles, $125-$195; 809-946-5555), which also rents sailboards ($20 per hour). Serious boardheads prefer Long Beach Bay, on the south shore, where you can cruise out as far as 60 miles and still be in six feet of sandy-bottomed water.
Fishing around Provo runs a close second to diving; use heavy tackle from a fighting chair to wrestle with marlin, tuna, and wahoo, or light tackle to spin-cast for bonefish. Book your trip with Bob Collins of Sakitumi Charters (half-day trips, around $400 for up to six people; full days, around $700; 809-946-4203) in Turtle Cove Marina.
The north shore's newest hotel is the Royal Bay Resort & Villas (doubles, $145-$295; 800-822-3900), scheduled as of press time to be open by October 1995, with dive and water-sport packages using the on-site Provo Aquatic Adventures. Guests arriving between October 1 and December 21 are charged the introductory rate of $99 per night.
If Provo isn't quiet enough, base yourself on Grand Turk, 75 miles to the east across the open-water Turks Island Passage. Donkeys and chickens wander the sleepy streets of the main village, Cockburn Town, and tiny restaurants operate out of boathouses along the water's edge. A quarter-mile offshore, a vertical reef wall begins in 35 feet of water and drops 7,000 feet into Turks Island Passage, which separates the Caicos from the Turks. Diving above it leaves you feeling as if you're parachuting above an endless, watery sky. Manta rays and batfish loiter around the wall like young toughs outside a convenience store. Book the live-aboard boat Turks and Caicos Aggressor ($1,295-$1,495 per week, all-inclusive; 504-385-2416). Or for daily trips around Grand Turk, call Sea Eye Diving (two-tank dive, $55; one-tank night dive, $35; 809-946-1407). On land, stay at the seven-room Turk's Head Inn (doubles $70- $85; 809-946-2466), a charming historic inn built in the 1840s that has done duty as the governor's guest house and the American consulate.
Even more remote is Pine Cay, a private island just north of Provo that's run as a nature preserve. The sole hotel is the environmentally sensitive Meridian Club (doubles, $425- $625, all inclusive; 800-331-9154), with 12 suites on a two-mile beach surrounded by nine miles of nature trails. Rates include all meals, use of sailboats, bicycles, and snorkeling gear, as well as boating excursions to neighboring islands. The Meridian has no dive operation, but you can access Pine Cay's prime dive sites (such as the Football Fields, a deep reef with spur and groove formations and underwater mountains) with dive operators on Provo.