Made up of more than 40 islands and cays, the island archipelago of Turks and Caicos' unique name comes from the native plants and people who first lived on the islands thousands of years ago.
Etymologically, the first portion of the name stems from the Melocactus, a variety of succulents commonly known as "Turk's Head" due to its rotund base and red top that resembles a fez. The term "Caicos", which translates to "string of islands", is a word from the native language of the islands' original inhabitants, the Lucayan people. Migrating to the island chain around 700 A.D., the Lucayans lived simply in huts and caves, sustaining on a diet of seafood and foraged and cultivated plants.
The arrival of Columbus in 1492 led to the rapid demise of the Lucayans, who succumbed to foreign diseases or were forced into slavery. With the native population wiped out, Turks and Caicos remained virtually uninhabited for more than two hundred years. During these years the islands were controlled by Spain, France, and eventually Britain, which retains Turks and Caicos as an Overseas Territory to this day.
Interest in Turks and Caicos was sparked when Bermudians began to sail to the islands to collect salt from its shallow coast and naturally occurring salt pans. The Bermudian's knack for salt harvesting proved to be a financial boon with hundreds of thousands of pounds being exported to the British colonies in North America towards the end of the 1700s.
Following the American Revolution, the British government granted land on the islands to loyalists unhappy with the outcome of the war. These newcomers to the islands built cotton plantations on the island of Providenciales, which lies in the northeast corner of the string of islands. The salt business was going strong but other industrial and agricultural endeavors didn't fare as well. The cotton plantations failed to thrive due to poor soil quality and attempts at commercial sponge harvesting never took off.
With a population of less than 500 people, Providenciales was without significant commercial development up until the 1960s. The island had no phone lines, waterworks, paved roads, or motorized vehicles.
The islands' economy stagnated until 1966 when developer Fritz Ludington struck a deal with the local government. Ludington bought 4000 acres of land to introduce an airport, dock, and hotel to Providenciales. An international airport was receiving flights by 1968 and in 1969, Ludington was welcoming guests to The Third Turtle Inn, and boats were docking at the nearby Turtle Cove Marina.
The three-mile stretch of white sand beaches known as Grace Bay beach was untouched until 1984 when Club Med opened Turquoise, the island's first all-inclusive resort. Over the next decade, more resorts were opened along Grace Bay Beach, and the island's only golf course was completed in 1992. In 2009, two high-end hotel groups debuted Providenciales properties, the chic Gansevoort on Grace Bay Beach and the exclusive Amanyara on the western end of the island, called the Northwest Point, which faces out to the Caicos Passage.
The emergence of a tourism industry was aided by the coral barrier reef which lies one mile or less in some places off the shores of Grace Bay beach. This barrier reef is the third largest in the world and is home to an estimated 60 species of coral which form the reef in the waters off TCI, including staghorn, elkhorn, pillar, brain, sea fans, and sea plumes. The well-preserved reef ecosystem is host to a wide range of aquatic creatures, including yellowtail snapper, Nassau groupers, lobsters, flamingo tongue snails, barracuda, and sea turtles. The reefs are all part of TCI's national park system and, therefore, remain pristine.
Today, Turks and Caicos is a paradise for beach-goers, with wide stretches of white sand beaches and calm, crystal clear seas. Providenciales remains refreshingly low key, with days spent relaxing in the sun and seaside dinner and drinks accounting for most of the island's nightlife.