Trip Report: Belonging in Turks & Caicos
by freelance Travel Writer, Michael Iachetta
They call themselves "The Belongers." As in they belong in the Turks & Caicos Islands because they were born and bred there, or have lived there long enough so that nowhere else is home. And they call the "they comin'" people "points of light." As in tourists coming in on planes seen in the distant sky as points of light approaching the "T&C" island chain that is a British territory in the British West Indies just beyond the southernmost Bahamas.
But to begin at the beginning, or close to it: Time was when very few people had ever heard of the British Crown Colony that is T&C. And the local tourist board's advertising slogan was: "Where on earth are the Turks & Caicos?!" That was then – and that then was around 25 years ago. When few people knew T&C sits at the southeastern end of the Bahamas archipelago.
In those days a quarter of a century ago, there were only a handful of simple inns dotting the island's unspoiled shoreline, along with several dozen private vacation homes and a few apartments available for rental. And no commercial airlines flew to T&C, the most common form of transport being a charter plane from Miami.
But slowly, ever so slowly, the cognoscenti began discovering T&C, as did the major airlines, as Columbus did over 400 years ago when he first set foot in the New World on what many believe is modern day Grand Turk. Gradually the true cognoscenti discovered that T&C may well have the most beautiful beaches in the world.
T&C may also arguably have the loveliest aquamarine seawater this side of a watercolor or oil painting. It also has the most extensive National Parks system in the Caribbean, with 33 protected areas covering 325 square miles.
And it is just slightly more than three hours from New York, and around one-and-a-half hours from Miami with major airlines now offering non-stop flights to Provo, which is what the real cognoscenti call Providenciales, the main port of entry.
All of which helps explain why T&C looms as the emerging "in" destination because of its proximity to the East Coast of the U.S., a perk many other Caribbean Islands cannot offer.
That "string" first attracted seagoing Europowers who wiped out the Amerindian population by the mid-16th century but never settled there because there wasn't much there to settle. Pirates plied T&C waters until the 1800s while Bermudian salt rakers prospered and were joined by Loyalist exiles fleeing the U.S. colonies. When the exiles tried and failed to grown cotton, they left their slaves behind to live off the sea.
Today T&C is a British crown colony of more than 40 islands and cays, only six of which are inhabited. But they offer a wide variety of accommodations for tourists, including world-class vacation villas such as those offered by WIMCO.
The most oft-visited T&C island is Providenciales, or Provo, as everybody calls it. In the mid-18th century, or so the story goes, a French ship was wrecked near here, and the survivors were washed ashore on an island they gratefully christened La Providentielle. The name was changed to Providenciales under the Spanish. And now all that history is condensed into simply Provo.
And what a history it is, dating back to the Arawak Indians, the original settlers, and displaced British expats who started coming in force in 1766 when Andrew Symmers settled here to hold the islands for England. The American Declaration of Independence left British loyalists from South Carolina and Georgia anxious to take advantage of British Crown land grants in the T&C.
Cotton plantations were established and prospered for nearly 25 years until the boll weevil, soil exhaustion and a terrible "Gone With the Wind" hurricane in 1813 devastated the land. The former slaves remained to shape the island's culture.