The TCI topography is pretty prosaic. The islands are low lying, with sandy soil and a low scrub cover, but each one has its own unique look and feel. North Caicos, the so-called garden island, is a sprawling rural landscape rimmed by blue-green seas. Middle Caicos has soft emerald cliffs overlooking rocky coves, beaches fringed by casuarina trees, and the occasional cotton or sisal plant left over from plantation days. Grand Turk, Salt Cay, and South Caicos are low-key charmers that hold quaint architectural remnants of the islands' colonial past, while much in Provo (Providenciales) is as bright and shiny as a new penny. All have stupendous soft-sand beaches lapped by tranquil azure seas.
In an interesting twist, the boom that hit Provo has drawn people to tourist-industry jobs away from their homes -- and traditional livelihoods -- on the other islands. In Middle Caicos in particular, you'll see homes abandoned to the underbrush, and once-thriving communities reduced nearly to ghost towns. To ensure that the traditional cultures and way of life on the islands aren't lost forever, the Turks & Caicos National Trust has made it its mission to "safeguard the natural, historical and cultural heritage of the Turks and Caicos Islands." To find out more about the National Trust's latest projects, go to the website www.nationaltrust.tc.
The Caicos Islands
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.
The Turks Islands
Grand Turk -- People who only visit Provo miss out on experiencing the country's rich heritage. Enchanting Grand Turk, just 11*3km (7*2 miles), has colorful 19th-century Bermudian architecture, abandoned salinas where the business of salt-raking was conducted from the late 17th century until the 1960s, a 19th-century lighthouse, and a first-rate museum housed in the Guinep House, believed to be around 180 years old. Grand Turk is still recovering from the devastation brought by hurricanes Hanna and Ike in 2008. The small-town atmosphere of Cockburn Town belies the fact that this Grand Turk village is the capital of the TCI. The diving here along the continental shelf wall is stupendous, traditionally the big draw for most visitors. That certainly was the case until 2006, when Carnival Cruise Lines opened a theme-park-style cruise terminal at the southwest end of the island to welcome the arrival of 2,000-passenger ships. Now a ship is in port 4 to 6 days a week. It's been a boon for local tour operators, taxi drivers, and entrepreneurs. (One casualty: the island's charming feral donkeys, which don't obey traffic signs or caravans of cruise-ship dune buggies. The donkeys are being shipped to the Dominican Republic, for their own safety, it's said.) Still, Grand Turk remains relatively undeveloped, with just a scattering of inns and restaurants. A new Conch Farm, a sister project to Provo's Conch Farm, has opened on the island's east coast. Among the uninhabited cays in the Grand Turk Cays Land and Sea National Park is Gibbs Cay, where you can swim in clear, shallow water with stingrays.
Salt Cay -- Salt Cay (pop. 60) is the kind of place where you can paste salvaged flip-flops onto your neighbor's boat while he's away, and everyone (including your neighbor) thinks it's a hoot. It's the kind of place where a hermit crab race is the talk of the town. It's also the kind of place where people come from around the world to partake in world-class watersports activities (snorkeling, diving, whale-watching), swim in the luminescent green sea, and comb the secluded beaches for flotsam and jetsam. Salt Cay is admittedly small (6.5 sq. km/2 1/2 sq. miles) and missing many of the basic accoutrements of 21st-century civilization (one ATM, just a handful of cars), but it is also the site of significant colonial-era buildings and at press time was under consideration for World Heritage Site status.