It's no hype: The beaches of the Turks and Caicos are some of the most beautiful on the planet, thanks in large part to one of the few remaining unspoiled coral reef ecosystems in the Caribbean -- or the world for that matter. This, the third-largest coral reef system on the planet, helps act as a breakwater against ocean surges for these islands, keeping the coastal waters calm and clear. It makes its presence known on land as well: Coral is literally the soft white sand beneath your feet.
The Caicos islands have some of the country's best beaches, including world-class Grace Bay -- and on many of them, yours will be the only footprints you'll see.
Note: All Turks and Caicos Island beaches are public, and even the most developed residential beaches are required to have public access points. These access routes are for public use; never cross private property to get to a beach.
Day Pass at Beaches -- Even if you're not staying there, you can treat yourself and your family to a day's worth of all the resort activities, meals and drinks, and encounters with Sesame Street characters you can possibly stand with a day pass to the all-inclusive Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort & Spa. The cost is $200 per adult ($130 per child) and lasts from 9am until 5pm. It's an especially fun option for the small kids in your party who are gaga for all things Elmo and Cookie Monster -- and not a bad day at the beach for older kids who have total access to Beaches' wealth of sports and watersports facilities -- including the new Pirates Island Waterpark, with seven water slides, a lazy river, a waterfall pool, and surf simulator -- and Xbox 360 Game Garage. For more information, call tel. 649/946-8000.
Spotting JoJo the Dolphin -- JoJo, a wild Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, is a local celebrity here and acts like one, showing off for visitors as he plays in the waters of Grace Bay. He's even a movie star, having appeared in Nature and In the Wild: Dolphins, both PBS specials, and the 2000 IMAX film Dolphins. He's so famous he's been named a Turks & Caicos National Treasure and as such enjoys protected status. He likes to trail boats, and sightings of JoJo in the clear Grace Bay sea happen almost daily. A whole cottage industry of all things JoJo has sprung up. You can learn more about JoJo and the JoJo Project on the website of the Marine Wildlife Foundation (www.marinewildlife.org), which is dedicated to the research and preservation of dolphins, whales, and all marine wildlife. A bell at Hemingway's on the Beach oceanfront restaurant at the Sands at Grace Bay resort is there for anyone to ring if they spot JoJo.
Starting at Leeward and running all the way to Thompson Cove, Grace Bay Beach is Provo's finest beach and, some say, one of the finest beaches on the planet. Alongside 19km (12 miles) of spectacular, powdery-soft white sand are gin-clear, blue-green seas that are extremely tranquil and free of rocks, making the beach ideal for young kids. Many resorts have developed along its edge, so you won't have these sands all to yourself. Though there are no public facilities on the beach, the hotels themselves come in handy, because all have restrooms and bars serving tropical drinks.
Smith's Reef, near the Turtle Cove Marina, and Bight Reef, directly in front of the Coral Gardens resort, are two excellent snorkeling spots right on Grace Bay.
Grace Bay Beach is so stunning that you might not want to venture anywhere else, but a few other beaches on the island are worth a look. In the east, Long Bay Beach lies on the opposite shore from Grace Bay, opening onto Long Bay itself. It begins around Juba Point and extends east to Stubbs Cove and is virtually free of hotels (but is a growing residential area). The shallow waters here are very sheltered and have virtually no waves, making it perfect for young children. Take a horseback ride on the beach here with Provo Ponies.
If you really crave privacy, seek out Malcolm Beach. The traditional way to see this charming cove (often referred to as Malcolm Roads Beach) is by 4*4 along twisting, bumpy Malcolm Roads. You can also access the beach by staying at Amanyara (the resort is adjacent to the beach) or by getting a tour-boat operator to take you there. Its waters are part of the Northwest Point Marine National Park. There's good snorkeling, though you'll have to bring your own gear -- unless, of course, you're a guest at Amanyara, which has excellent snorkeling and other watersports equipment. Be sure to lock valuables in the trunk of the car before you head to the beach.
Chalk Sound, a landlocked lagoon west of Five Cays Settlement, has been turned into a public park. The hamlet of Five Cays itself boasts a small harbor and a modern airport. Sapodilla Bay and Taylor Bay are part of Chalk Sound National Park. These beautiful, shallow bays along Provo's southwest coastline have soft, silty bottoms and warm water. Sapodilla Bay lies between two 9m (30-ft.) cliffs at Gussy Cove, stretching all the way west to Ocean Point. This is such a well-protected beach -- with fine sands and clear shallow water (even 30m/98 ft. out) -- that the locals often refer to it as "the children's beach."
Pine Cay's perfect crescent of pale white sand is a marketer's dream. This private island is home to the Meridian Club and a number of private homes. Parrot Cay is another gorgeous private island, this one with an eponymous resort with a celebrity clientele and fabulous spa.
You may touch down on one of the lovely uninhabited cays of the Caicos Cays with one of the many half- or full-day beach excursions offered by a number of watersports operators in the area. Many of these cays are part of TCI national parkland, and all have beautiful, fine-powder beaches. Among them: Little Water Cay, a nature reserve that is home to a population of native rock iguanas, and Fort George Cay, a National Historic Site. The high-rent development of Dellis Cay as a Mandarin Oriental hotel and upscale private homes was on hold at press time.
Up until now, only those in the know found their way to Sandy Point, a crescent of perfect beach within sight of the Parrot Cay resort. At press time, it was unclear whether construction on the resort and condo complex Royal Reef Resort would continue.
Just east of Sandy Point, the coves of Three Mary Cays (named for its three distinctive rocks) are prime snorkeling spots. In Whitby, step into the shallows of the palm-fringed Pelican Point beach (in front of Pelican Beach Hotel) and find conch shells of every size. Also in Whitby, lovely Horsestable Beach enjoyed its North Caicos seclusion for years (it's also a prime bird-watching spot).
The soft green cliffs overlooking the sea in Mudjin Harbor provide a dramatic departure from the dry, flat scrublands of Provo. Down below, Dragon Cay has coves set amid turquoise shallows that make for perfect snorkeling and swimming. Travel along the old Conch Bar on bluffs above the shoreline until you reach Bambarra Beach, where casuarina pines fringe a white-sand beach; at low tide a long sandbar stretches from the beach to Pelican Cay.