Turks and Caicos-Provo
December 4th-11th, 2004
When I close my eyes I see fishes. This is a side effect often encountered by underwater enthusiasts after visiting a tropical paradise. It is not an unwanted side effect either, in fact it keeps me quite happy when the snow is falling outside my window. Much has been said about the beauty of the Caribbean, and deservingly so. But the beauty of the island chain of the Turks and Caicos is often overlooked by the average traveler, not because it lacks said beauty, but because it is off the beaten path. “Beautiful by Nature,” is actually the official motto of this stunning archipelago, and when you lay eyes on the sun, sand, and sea that bathes the islands you will see why the slogan is nothing short of the honest truth.
Located in the West Indies near the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos are a chain of about 48 islands of which only 8 are inhabited. The Turks Islands are comprised of Grand Turk and Salt Cay, and the Caicos Islands include South, Middle, and North Caicos, Parrot and Pine Cay, and the fast-developing island of Providenciales, known as Provo, and home to most of the tourist industry. Grace Bay, a beautiful stretch of sand, is located on Provo and is consistently in the top-ten list of the world’s most beautiful beaches. This truly sensational white-sand beach is only one of several located throughout the island chain, and they are what lure visitors from all around the world.
Provo was our destination for a winter getaway and we couldn’t wait to feel the sun on our faces. We left Ohio on a cold, snowy December morning, caught a connecting flight in Miami, and were basking in the tropical sun of the Turks and Caicos a mere three flight hours later. The flight from Miami is highly entertaining if you have a window view, because the flight path passes over the Bahamas, providing breath-taking aerial views. Looking down on all of that sparkling blue water and pristine reefs just builds up the anticipation even more, and when the plane lands you can hardly wait to explore all the island has to offer.
After a grueling wait in the queue from Hell at Declarations we were finally on our way to the Comfort Suites. We caught a taxi at the airport and made our way to the hotel. Bishop’s Taxi dropped us off at the hotel about ten minutes later for a cost of $20.00 (the local currency is the US Dollar so no worries over conversion factors). It was obvious taxis would not be our transportation of choice, because we could easily spend all of our money on fares. We decided that we would rent a car when we wanted to go exploring, but for now all we wanted was our room.
The Comfort Suites was clean and comfortable, and the staff was warm and friendly. The room was very nice, complete with a mini-fridge and an in-room safe. They offer a free continental breakfast which included juices, toast, spice bread, and coffee. We would definitely stay there again, especially since the price is so affordable compared to other resorts on the island. The only drawback is that the hotel is not on the beach. The walk to the beach is not that far at all though, and if you want a bargain stay this is a great choice. For all of you snorkelers out there, be aware that the famed Coral Gardens and Smith’s Reef are about a three and four mile walk, respectively, down the beach from the Comfort Suites Access. It is a beautiful walk, but it can get a little tiring when you are carrying all of your gear…just something to think about when you book your trip.
We settled into our room and then set out for Ports of Call, a shopping complex located right in front of the Comfort Suites. At Ports of Call you will find several restaurants such as Twenty-One North, Caicos Café, and the Barefoot Café. You can also grab some ice cream at Giggles and email home at the internet café. Also located within the complex is a convenience/liquor store, several gift shops, and Dive Provo. It was really nice to have all of this just steps from our room. After reviewing the menu boards at each of the restaurants we decided on burgers, fries, and salad at Twenty-One North. The meal was great and the service was fast and friendly. Our bill was $24.20, a coupon from Comfort Suites for free drinks helped the total a little, but it was a pretty affordable dinner. We ended our day with a walk on the beach at Grace Bay.
The next morning we were ready to hit the reef. We walked from our beach access to Coral Gardens, about a 3 mile walk, carrying our snorkel gear. Carrying all of that gear can be a little irritating, but the beauty of the beach made up for any muscle pains. Grace Bay, a 5-mile stretch of sand in Princess Alexandra National Park, is unbelievably beautiful with its blindingly white sand and its crystal clear turquoise waters. We couldn’t wait to get a look at the underwater world. It was a perfect day for snorkeling, the sun was shining in a clear blue sky, and the water was calm. We finally arrived at Coral Gardens, aka Whitehouse Reef, and prepared to hit the water. We knew we had found the reef because there were several buoys arranged in a circle marking a reef restoration site. We jumped into the cool clear water, put on our mask and fins and made our way out to the reef. We didn’t have to go far before we were wowed with the marine life. Excellent coral formations, including brain coral, sea fans, and sea rods provided protection for a myriad of fishes and sea creatures. Among the most stand out specimens were queen angelfish, queen triggerfish, starfish, filefish, parrotfish, trumpetfish, flamingo tongues, spiny lobster, cowfish, trunkfish, queen conch, sand dollars, squirrelfish, glasseye snapper, Nassau grouper, peacock flounder, and many others. Seeing all of that life would have been enough to make this a great snorkel spot, but they were all soon out done when a seven foot nurse shark came cruising by! It was exciting and intimidating all at the same time. He stayed in the area, swimming around with us for several minutes before disappearing into the deep blue, and then as if to not be shown up, a spotted eagle ray with a wing span of about 8 feet glided past on its graceful course. We were speechless, and not just because we had snorkels in our mouths! On our way back to the beach we were greeted with even more surprises as a green sea turtle and a school of squid were swimming among the sea grass. We rank this as one of our all time favorite snorkel spots. A+!
We continued our walk down the beach towards Smith’s Reef, but by the time we got there the water was getting a little choppy, so we opted to return another day. Besides we were really hungry and thirsty from our 4 mile walk and 2 hour snorkel excursion, so it was off to find some refreshments. We knew from our map that we were near Turtle Cove so we found a beach access and made our way towards the road. We soon found a nice little restaurant called the Sharkbite Bar and Grill. It sits right on the water at Turtle Cove and overlooks the marina. The food is fabulous, especially the chips and salsa! We had a hamburger, a grouper sandwich, fries, the chips and salsa, and 3 cokes for $45.00 (tip included). After lunch we walked the 4 miles back to the hotel for a total trek of 8 miles.
That night we had dinner at Calico Jack’s where we enjoyed another great meal. The wait staff was extremely friendly, as were all the people of Provo, and the atmosphere was really nice. We sat outside on the deck, and even though the night was a little cool and windy it was quite enjoyable. We had spaghetti dinners with salad and bread, free conch fritters (compliments of Comfort Suites), two cokes, and key lime pie for $40.00 including tip. On our way back to the room we noticed a large red insect that resembled a wasp, after a little research we discovered that it was one of two endemic moths found on the island. It is called an Oleander moth and is completely harmless despite its menacing appearance. The other endemic insect is the Erebus moth, which is a large chocolate colored moth that can have a wing span of 11 inches; we noticed one of these moths hanging around the hotel as well.
We awoke to a slightly overcast morning, but in just a few hours the bright sunny skies were back. We had arranged for a car rental for the rest of our stay, and a representative was due to drop of the car at 9:00am at our hotel. So we packed up our camera gear and headed down to the lobby for some breakfast and to await his arrival. He was right on time and he handled everything quickly and smoothly, we were very happy with the car and Budget’s service. We rented a 4 wheel drive Suzuki so that we could handle the gravel roads without issue. They drive on the left in the Turks and Caicos so that took a little getting used to, but the adjustment came easier than I thought it would. We were soon out exploring the island, but in our excitement we forgot to pack any food or beverages for the day. We were heading towards the northwest coast of the island in search of Malcolm’s Beach where it was said you could see the remains of old tiki huts, the remnants of a failed French reality TV program. But somehow we ended up on the wrong road, (I can’t imagine how that happened except for the fact that none of the roads are marked) and ended up in a completely different part of the island. This was to our liking, since the beach we found was a pristine and isolated paradise. It was also a blessing in disguise since we later found out that the tiki huts no longer exist.
The beach we found was near Osprey Rock, and it was truly amazing! There was not another soul to be found anywhere, and the beach was littered with beautiful conch shells and huge red sea stars lay just off the beach grazing in the shallows. It was unbelievable! It was as if we had walked right into a movie set, it was almost too perfect. An osprey sat perched in a tree near the water and we watched as she flew out over the ocean in search of a meal. The water was perfect for swimming and you could wade out almost 100 yards before the water was even waist deep, and it was as clear and as clean as bath water. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, we had failed to bring any refreshments with us and there were no services for miles so we had to cut the stay short. As we drove back down the rutted, bumpy, gravel road we vowed to return and stay longer. This place definitely deserved a second visit.
We drove back into town and ate lunch at Danny Buoys, an Irish pub right in the Caribbean. Pick had the potato soup, which was really good, and I ordered the pot pie which to me tasted like it had some kind of cheese in it that sort of ruined the flavor for me, I am sure many other people would find it quite tasty, it just wasn’t to my liking. When the waitress noticed that I didn’t eat my dinner she became very upset and wanted to know if it was okay. I told her it was fine, but that I just got full, (I didn’t want to be rude), but she insisted that I didn’t even eat two bites and that she was not going to make me pay for the meal. I protested, and said that wasn’t necessary, but she insisted. I couldn’t believe her commitment to customer service. It was very refreshing, and I give them a high rating.
After lunch we set out in search of Malcolm’s Beach once more, and we finally did find the road that leads down to the beach. Unfortunately, it was closed to the public and was open only to construction workers. I got out and walked past the sign in order to see how bad the road was and it was truly scary looking. It was rutted and steep and looked like something out of a jeep challenge. We had thought maybe we could walk to the beach, but even that looked unmanageable. When we got back to town we stopped in Dive Provo and asked about the tiki huts, which by the way are listed on all the maps of the island, and they informed us that they were torn down to make way for a resort that was being built, hence the construction. So much for one of the last remaining unspoiled beaches, this knowledge made our previous discovery even more rewarding. We couldn’t wait to go back!
Later that night we drove to a local Mexican place for dinner called Hey Jose! I had the fajitas and Pick had a tostada, both were served with refried beans, guacamole, and rice. The dinner was absolutely wonderful, it was some of the best Mexican food I have had anywhere. It was also very affordable, at around $30.00 for the two of us. After enjoying our meals, we went back to our hotel and prepared for our next day of exploring.
Our fourth day on Provo would be a little different, as we had set it aside for a guided snorkel trip. We chose Silver Deep’s BBQ on the Beach. On this trip you stop at several snorkel sites along the barrier reef where you float above the beautiful coral formations while the captain dives for lobster, which he will later grill for lunch on a secluded beach. You also stop at Little Water Cay, aka Iguana Island, where you follow a naturalist along a boardwalk among some of the only remaining endemic iguanas. For more info on this hike visit our website Natural Born Hikers.
While the tour withSilver Deep was enjoyable overall, it definitely had some serious flaws. First let me point out the positive things about the tour. One of the best aspects was the crew. Captain Pringle, and his mates Patricia and RJ were friendly and entertaining, and the captain was fluent in several languages which is very beneficial when you work in a worldwide destination. Regrettably, they failed to offer any natural history. They never described any of the reef sights, or identified any of the marine life. I have been on several guided snorkel tours and I can tell you this is not the norm. One major flaw that nearly made me sick was when they dropped anchor at one of the snorkel sites, they dropped it right on the living reef, breaking off a huge piece of elkhorn coral in the process (see picture in gallery). This is totally unacceptable, especially from a company who should be protecting the reef and promoting proper reef etiquette. For this reason alone I would not recommend this tour, but there are a few other issues I wish to address as well. The first is the fact that I feel the tour was way overbooked. The boat was extremely crowded, and the captain kept asking people to shuffle there seating so that the boat was not more heavily weighted on one side…a little creepy. There were 23 people on the boat, which meant that the captain had to feed 23 people a lobster lunch. This brings me to issue number two. Of course, capturing enough lobster to feed that many people takes time, and the captain did an amazing job at finding the lobster. But it seemed crazy to think he could get enough to feed that many people. On his last dive we were assured that he had caught enough to feed everyone, and there would have been enough if certain gluttons wouldn’t have grabbed more than their share. Needless to say, by the time I made it to the table there was no lobster left, leaving me with nothing to eat. All the captain could say was that several people must have taken two. I know it wasn’t his fault, but he should have had a better system in place to prevent that from happening. After all, I paid my $150.00 too. It would have been a very long day with no food, if it wouldn’t have been for the kindness of a stranger. The lady in front of me in line, Jan, saw what had happened and offered to give me her lobster, saying that she would share with her husband Lee. I couldn’t believe her generosity, and I thank them both for being so kind. Despite the food issue, the beach BBQ was quite nice. The beach was gorgeous, and it was great for beachcombing. There were lots of colorful shells to investigate, including conch shells.
When the tour was over I was starving, and we were ready to get cleaned up and eat dinner. We ate at theGecko Grill, and I have to say that this was my favorite restaurant! The ambience is spectacular, with outside seating amid trees decorated with white lights, and beautiful table settings. That combined with a warm and friendly staff make this place five star in my book. I had the blackened lobster linguini and Pick had the steak and lobster, both were superb. The dinner was about $98.00, but it was well worth the money. Thanks to Jan and Lee for recommending the restaurant.
The next morning we awoke early so that we could snorkel at Coral Gardens. Once again the site was incredible. The spotted eagle ray made another appearance, as did the sea turtles. This time we saw not only the green sea turtles, but some hawksbill turtles as well. All the queens were present again too, and by that I mean queen angelfish, queen triggerfish, and even a queen conch. When we were back on shore we saw a baby nurse shark cruising by in the shallows, perhaps our friend from the other day would show up again as well. But we didn’t see him the rest of our swim.
When we were done snorkeling we set out for the IGA grocery store to pick up some snacks, beverages, and a cooler for our drive around the island. In particular, we were headed back to Osprey Rock for the rest of the afternoon and we wanted to have everything we needed for a comfortable stay. But before we left “civilization” we grabbed lunch at the Sharkbite Café, which was once again top notch. After lunch we set out, armed with a cooler full of goodies to find the pristine beach. The gravel road that leads to the beach is about ten kilometers (6.24 miles) long and a bit rutted in places, but overall it is in pretty good shape. It is off of Millenium Highway and is the first dirt road when entering Millenium from the Leewood Highway, but it is unmarked (see photo of road entrance)...look for two wooden poles on either side of the road. Follow the road until it dead ends at a pile of dirt where you will see a path leading up and over the small hill. Once on top of the dirt pile you will be able to see the ocean, just follow the path all the way down to the shore and you will have found the “secret” beach. On this day there four other people enjoying the solitude, but they left after about 30 minutes and it was once again our private beach. We walked for miles along the beautiful coastline, taking in the pristine scenery of the Pigeon Pond and Frenchman’s Creek Nature Reserve. Once again the magnificent star fish made an appearance, bringing to the scene a most glorious tropical beauty. We walked all the way from Osprey Rock to Pelican Point, where our hike ended amid mangroves and seashells. It was a perfect Caribbean day.
To top the day off perfectly we drove into town for a pizza dinner. The pizza shop is appropriately named Pizza Pizza, and it offers up some really great pies. We split a 16 inch half pepperoni, half cheese pizza and two cokes for $23.00. There is limited seating at the establishment, as I think most people do carry-out, but we ate there and enjoyed the TV and conversation with who I assume was the owner. Whoever he was he was a really nice guy. If you visit Provo be sure to stop in and have a pizza, the food and conversation is great.
On our last day with a car we decided to drive to Smith’s Reef to see what it had to offer. The water was much calmer than on our previous visit, which made entry much easier. The entry at Smith’s Reef can be a bit tricky since the shore is pretty rocky. Just look for the sandy channel between the rocks and you can wade in without too much trouble at all. Once underwater we were amazed at the great coral formations. There are numerous finger corals and sea rods and they are in relatively shallow waters allowing for up-close viewing of their intricate details. Be especially on the lookout for flamingo tongues, a coral predator that you will see clinging to the branches, which are extremely numerous in this location. There are also lots of juvenile fish hanging out in the shallow waters. As we made our way out to deeper waters we spotted yet another huge nurse shark! This one was at least 6 feet long, and he was just resting on the ocean floor. They are amazing to watch, and this particular species of shark is very docile so don’t be alarmed if you encounter one.
After working up an appetite swimming around with sharks, we decided to get cleaned up and head for the famous Bugaloos Conch Shack. At Bugaloos you can watch as they pluck your dinner from the ocean and prepare it to be cooked. They specialize in Conch, and offer conch fritters (something like a hush puppy), conch salad, and conch fingers. The conch fingers are delicious and can best be compared to fried calamari. I had the conch fingers and Pick had the grilled snapper. The dinners come served with rice, coleslaw, and plantains. We both ate for the low price of $27.00 total.
While waiting for our dinners we met a man from Jamaica named David. We got to talking and it turned out he went to school in Ohio very near where we live! Proving once again that is indeed a small world. He gave us some great tips on where to go hiking if we ever visit Jamaica, so thanks David for the advice.
We spent the rest of the day driving around the island taking photographs. In the evening we walked along Grace Bay to watch the sunset. Just before sun fall a shower broke out, creating the perfect conditions for a rainbow. We waited for the brief shower to end and then searched the skies, and sure enough a beautiful rainbow was arched across the sky.
We had heard great things about the restaurant Hemingway’s, so we decided that was where we would have dinner. The restaurant is beautiful, with outdoor seating right near the ocean and sparkling lights in the trees, but we were not impressed with the food. We both ordered the lobster tail and neither one of us liked it at all. It was so salty and bitter that I could hardly eat it. Maybe it was just an off night, but it was really disappointing. On the plus side the crab cake appetizer was delicious, and so was the mixed green salad. It figures this was our most expensive meal of the trip at $102.00.
The next day we drove our car to the drop off downtown. They offered to shuttle us back to our hotel but we requested that they drop us off at Coral Gardens, and they were happy to accommodate us. That made us really happy because we didn’t have to make that long walk out and back again, all we would have to do is walk the 3 miles back to the hotel.
The two of us spent the rest of the morning snorkeling in the clear blue waters, hoping to see one last nurse shark, and sure enough we spotted another, or maybe the same shark. The visibility on our last day was probably the best of the whole trip, and the water was nice and calm, which made for great underwater photography.
At about noon we decided to grab some lunch at theBeach Café, which is right along the beach at Coral Gardens. The setting was amazing, with the tables and chairs right in the sand and the sun shining down to warm your skin, it was a great place for a casual meal. They had yummy burgers, probably the best I had on the island, and delicious bread pudding for desert. It was so relaxing to sit with your toes in the sand, eating a good meal, and watching the ocean waves lapping the shore. I didn’t want the trip to end.
The rest of the day we snorkeled and drank pina coladas on the beach. The weather was perfect and we enjoyed every relaxing minute. Our shark friend visited us one more time while we were out snorkeling, and on our third time in we saw a southern stingray. We were extremely happy with the variety of marine life that we saw in the Turks and Caicos, and we will definitely visit again someday.
As the afternoon sun started to give way to evening we started our walk back to the hotel. It took us 45 minutes to walk from Coral Gardens to the Comfort Suites Beach access, not too bad at all. Now all we had to do was decide where to eat on our last night. We both agreed that we would return to the Gecko Grill for another great meal, and we were not disappointed. I would rank the Gecko Grill as the best restaurant on Provo.
Our trip to Provo was an amazing experience. We loved the beautiful beaches and the diversity of the marine life. We had hoped to do some island hopping, and fit in a hike of theCrossing Place Trail on Middle Caicos, but time got away from us. I am sure we will visit the Turks and Caicos again though, and then we will see more of what the other islands have to offer. But for now our memories of Providenciales will keep us warm through the cold Ohio winter.
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