Providenciales -- The 98-sq.-km (38-sq.-mile) island of Providenciales (Provo) and its splendid 19km (12-mile) Grace Bay beach were a tourist mecca waiting to happen. In the early 1980s, Club Med was the only game in town until the government opened the door to boutique resort development. Now Provo's tourist infrastructure far surpasses anything on Grand Turk, the TCI seat of government. This is where the action is, literally, with the bulk of the country's lodging, dining, tours, activities, and entertainment. Still, don't expect a bustling metropolis: Provo is a pretty laidback place to be -- and that's a big part of its charm. One of the larger islands of the Turks and Caicos, Provo is largely flat and arid, with miles of scrubland. Today, Provo is the entry point and main destination for most visitors to the TCI.

Caicos Cays -- Also called the Leeward Cays, these gorgeous little islands were once the haven of pirates. Many are still uninhabited except by day-trippers beachcombing and snorkeling the shallows, while others are private islands with secluded resorts. Little Water Cay is a National Trust nature reserve and home to the endangered rock iguana.

North Caicos -- Former TCI Premier Michael Misick once called North Caicos, his birthplace, "a tiger awakening." The projected site of the second big TCI boom remains a sleepy rural landscape, however. Roads are much improved, and a deepwater harbor built to accommodate freight-bearing ships (and a ferry btw. North and Provo) has been completed. But the beaches remain unspoiled and untrammeled, and lodgings and restaurants few and far between. Locals say this sparsely populated, 106-sq.-km (41-sq.-mile) island is a snapshot of Provo before the boom.

Middle Caicos -- The largest island in the Turks and Caicos (125 sq. km/48 sq. miles), Middle Caicos has a correspondingly small full-time population (300 people). It's a landscape of contrasts. Soft green slopes overlook beautiful Mudjin Harbor. Along the rise is Crossing Place Trail, a narrow 18th-century path so named because it leads to a place where people once crossed a sandbar at low tide to reach North Caicos. A massive aboveground limestone cave system used by Lucayan Indians some 600 years ago is here to be explored. At Bambarra Beach the sunlit aquamarine shallows stretch long into the horizon. Middle has little of Provo's tourism infrastructure; it attracts visitors who don't mind roughing it a bit amid a gorgeous seaside landscape. A causeway now links Middle to North Caicos -- an essential link that is delivering more traffic to the island.

South Caicos -- Hard hit by Hurricane Ike in 2008, this still-sleepy fishing community of some 1,200 people and 21 sq. km (8 sq. miles) is hearing faint rumblings of tourist development. Because the South Caicos tourist infrastructure is still in its infancy, this guide addresses the region only peripherally. But clearly, with its excellent diving and bonefishing opportunities and historic Bermudan-style architecture, "Big South" is an up-and-coming spot.

East Caicos -- This unspoiled, uninhabited 47-sq.-km (18-sq.-mile) island was once for the home of large sisal and cotton plantations and the East Caicos Cattle Company. Now it's largely swampland and savanna and a few wild donkeys.

West Caicos -- This lovely 29-sq.-km (11-sq.-mile) island (with a 202-hectare/500-acre nature preserve) is the site of some of the islands' best scuba diving. Still on hold at press time was a long-awaited five-star Ritz-Carlton resort, with the works: a 100-slip marina, villas, town houses, cottages, and a hotel.