For years, the Turks and Caicos Islands' stunning natural attributes were known to just a fortunate few travelers -- many of them divers and snorkelers exploring the coral reefs and dramatic drop-offs of the continental shelf wall. But the Turks and Caicos are undiscovered no more: Overnight, it seems, this sun-kissed archipelago has become synonymous with tropical island luxury. A building boom along the 19km (12 miles) of Grace Bay Beach has fashioned a sleek lineup of upscale resort hotels.

The Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) are a marine paradise. Even with the advent of real tourist development and the bustle of construction -- particularly on the main island of Providenciales (nicknamed "Provo") -- the beauty and tranquillity of this little island chain remain intact.

What has put Turks and Caicos on the map are the gorgeous beaches -- 362km (224 miles) of them, to be precise. Some stretches of soft white sand run extraordinary lengths; others are small, tucked into secluded coves. The islands are also home to magnificent underwater life. Countless varieties of brilliant coral and colorful fish thrive within TCI's nearly 800km (496-mile) coral reef system -- the world's third-largest.

For many years, this nation of low-lying coral islands just below the Bahamas was little more than a beautiful, slumbering backwater, home to a close-knit society of some 30,000 islanders called Belongers, descendants of black slaves brought to the island by British Loyalists escaping the American Revolution in the late 18th century. The islands were virtually uninhabited, since the native Lucayans who lived here during Columbus's time had been wiped out by disease. Salt-raking became the main industry, hot, brutal work overseen by Bermudian overlords. The salt pans were especially fruitful on Salt Cay, a tiny island to the east of the deepwater trench known as the Columbus Passage, the explorer's entry into the New World. Competition from the Bahamas and 20th-century mechanization killed the salt industry, leaving the islands to the Belongers and a sprinkling of beach bums, sailors, divers, and smugglers. But these beaches and marine wonders weren't going to stay unnoticed for long. A small airstrip was built in the 1960s, Club Med (the island's first resort) arrived in 1984, and in the 1990s development of the high-end variety was being actively encouraged. The islands -- especially Provo -- quickly became one of the fastest-growing resort destinations in the Caribbean.

In spite of the ramped-up development, this British Overseas Territory has managed to retain a laidback feel; even the upscale resorts have absorbed the warm, whimsical TCI outlook -- no attitude here, thank you. If you're looking for scintillating nightlife, however, you'll be sorely disappointed. On the TCI, the island beach-bar-and-barbecue-shack ethos still reigns.

This is not to say that visitors can't get their fill of high-adrenaline outdoor adventures. You can scuba-dive a vertical undersea wall where the continental shelf drops a heart-stopping mile deep (Scuba Diving magazine named the TCI one of the top 10 diving sites in the world), swim alongside humpback whales and velvety stingrays, cast a line for bonefish, or free-dive 20 feet to the sea bottom for fresh conch.

For many travelers, however, a visit to the TCI is as much about what you won't experience as what you do. You won't hear the constant roar of jet skis (the coral reef is part of a protected national park) or spend your beach time stepping over sunbathers packed like sardines. You don't see giant water parks rising up over the horizon. You aren't confronted by pushy hucksters roaming the beach.

And don't even bother coming if you're looking for a shopping spree. Chain retailers and superstores have yet to make serious inroads here (the government has a ban on chains of any kind). Mega T-shirt shops are few and far between found here. You can buy T-shirts, for sure, both of the generic tourist variety and more personalized versions, at boutique shops scattered about in the few retail clusters on Provo. Home furnishing shops are opening in ever-increasing numbers, and luxury brands are sold at upscale resort boutiques.

The lack of chains means no international fast-food outlets. But you can get more than acceptable nonchain burgers, pizzas, and any kind of Western-style grub you desire -- as well as some delicious classic island fare, especially in the Blue Hills area. We're talking conch, fish, curries, and peas 'n' rice. Expect to pay bruising big-city prices most everywhere you go, however; despite the growth of farms on lush North Caicos, and sustainable agricultural efforts on private islands like Parrot Cay, much of the terrain is dry and sandy. Most foodstuffs have to be flown in daily; local seafood is the happy exception. 

Indeed, if you like your Caribbean islands thrillingly lush and mountainous, the hot, flat, scrubland terrain of much of the TCI may underwhelm you. But if you dream of lying on a beautiful stretch of sugary sand lapped by dazzling bottle-green seas, this is the place for you.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.