In many Caribbean ports, active excursions such as zip-lining, kayaking and hiking have replaced lazy days on the beach and the gridlock in shopping and sightseeing areas. But even though it's the capital of the island chain Turks and Caicos, Grand Turk maintains a slower pace of life.
Though Grand Turk is part of Eastern Caribbean itineraries, it is interesting to note that Turks and Caicos is not a part of the Caribbean at all. Each island is surrounded on all sides by the Atlantic Ocean, and though it's only about 30 miles south of the Bahamas, it's not a part of that chain of islands, either.
Shore excursions on Grand Turk run the gamut from horseback riding to fly fishing -- and one of the biggest draws is diving, with the islands -- technically in the Atlantic, not the Caribbean -- lying along one of the largest barrier reefs in the world. But traffic is sparse, and with a population of about 5,000, most people know one another's names. There are no fast food restaurants or chain hotels. You may even see a horse or donkey, once a means of transportation during the days of Grand Turk's salt industry, roaming along Governor's Beach or through the narrow alleys in historic Cockburn Town.
Though only smaller-ship and luxury cruise lines such as Crystal and Silversea once called at Grand Turk, Carnival Corporation has committed time -- and money -- to positioning the port as a mainstream cruise destination. Carnival Corp.'s cruise terminal is a destination in its own right, with retail shops, a recreation area on the beach and a huge pool. The pier can accommodate two mega-ships, theoretically from any of the many cruise lines under Carnival Corp.'s umbrella, including Princess, Carnival and Holland America. The company is also developing a new downtown welcome center.
In 1962, long before cruise lines were interested in this little island, John Glenn -- the first American to orbit Earth -- splashed down just a mile or two off the coast of Grand Turk and spent his first couple of days there after his historic space flight. Some reports quote Glenn as saying it "must be paradise" when he spotted the 40 coral islands from space. Whether viewing it from space or sea, we have to agree. In 2012, Grand Turk celebrated the 50th anniversary of the splashdown with new murals, monuments and additions to Splashdown Grand Turk, a 3,500-square-foot attraction explaining the space program and Friendship 7 mission, located at the cruise center. This exhibit is free and open to the public.
The port is located near a tourism village packed with restaurants, amenities and jewelry and trinket stores. One of the largest pools in the Caribbean is located conveniently outside of the Caribbean's largest Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville restaurant. You also have direct access to an 800-foot stretch of beach with cabanas and changing rooms. Not long after you disembark the ship and walk onto the beach, you'll see hammocks encouraging you to pass out there for a while (and it's tempting).
Turks and Caicos' major claim to fame, beyond its gorgeous white sandy beaches, is the fact that it sits on one of the world's largest coral reefs. Dive operators on the island, including Blue Water Divers and Grand Turk Diving, offer diving and snorkeling programs for everyone from novice snorkelers to the most advanced divers. Don't miss Columbus Landfall Marine National Park and the Grand Turk Wall, which leads from light blue shallow waters of about 40 feet to an azure expanse that indicates a sheer drop to 7,000 feet. The Wall is known for great views of coral and other marine life. If you prefer to stay (somewhat) dry, there's also excellent fishing. Tuna, wahoo and blue marlin inhabit these same rich waters.
Duke and Front Streets in Cockburn Town are lined with historic 18th- and 19th-century buildings that mirror the Bermudan-style architecture (pastel-painted wood) of the salt-raking era (salinas, or salt ponds, still run throughout the city, although production was shut down in the 1950s). The area along Front street is where the first homes on the island were settled, and the area remains mostly residential. Cockburn Town is the administrative capital, too, and a walking tour takes you past the governor's house, old churches, the public library and a small plaza containing the Columbus Monument, which claims that the explorer landed in Grand Turk in 1492.
Don't let its small stature fool you -- the two-floor Turks and Caicos National Museum outlines the history of the islands alongside various displays highlighting maritime history. A central display explores the history of the Molasses Reef Wreck, the oldest European shipwreck discovered in the Western Hemisphere (dated around 1513), which some historians believe could be Christopher Columbus' Pinta. Guided tours and exclusive behind-the-scenes showings are available.
There's also an exhibit dedicated to U.S. astronaut John Glenn, whose Friendship 7 spacecraft splashed down off the coast, making Grand Turk the spot where the first American to orbit Earth returned to the planet. The museum is located inside the historic Guinep House (one of the oldest buildings on Grand Turk, named for the large guinep tree that stands out front). The museum is open "one hour after the ship arrives and closes one hour before the ship departs."
Check out Gibbs Cay, located on the Atlantic side of Grand Turk and just a short boat ride away. Snorkel, indulge in a barbecue lunch or feed and play with the friendly stingrays that swim right up to the shore.
The Grand Turk Lighthouse is more than 150 years old and stands on the northern tip of the island, opposite the cruise terminal. It was built in the U.K. and transported piece by piece with hopes that it would bring a halt to the many shipwrecks on Grand Turk's reefs. In its earliest years, wrecks continued -- legend has it that enterprising thieves would douse the whale oil lamps in hopes of new bounty, though written history chalks it up to the light being dim or simply going out. In 1943, kerosene light took its place; the lighthouse went electric in 1971. The old lens is on display in the museum; informative plaques surround the lighthouse, and the spot offers a breathtaking view of the ocean. A $5 entrance fee is required and gains you access to the grounds, a small shop and a clean bathroom. Tours inside the lighthouse can be obtained through Caribbean tour operator Chukka.
By Rental Car: Tony's Car Rental (649-231-1806) offers car, scooter and bicycle rentals. Car rentals start at $70 per day; open-back Jeep rentals start at $95 per day. Golf carts can also be rented on the island.
By Taxi: Taxi fares are set in advance -- look for posted signs; a ride from the cruise terminal to the downtown area should be around $7. The walk into town is approximately three miles, but the tourism board warns it's a very hot walk with no sidewalks, so your best bet is to take transportation.
By Bus: Grand Turk does not have an organized public bus system; bus stops seen around the island are, for the most part, spots for students to grab shuttles. Plan an organized excursion, or expect to rent a car or grab a taxi.
By Island Tram: Tram tours have a set route circling the island, but you can hop on or off at any juncture. Tickets are $25 per person, but the trams run on an irregular schedule, so be sure to catch one closest to when your ship docks. If you miss a morning tour, another might not run for two hours.
Best for Seclusion: Governor's Beach is a crescent of soft sand and calm, turquoise ocean waters that fronts the official British governor's residence. On a clear day, this is the best spot on the island for off-shore snorkeling -- just a few minutes out, you'll find views of fish and coral. This also the spot where locals come on a Sunday to have a casual get-together. A shipwreck can be seen just off the beach.
Low, cliff-edged Bluff Point Beach is located just west of the lighthouse; in the spring and summer, you might even spot flamingos.
Best for Divers: Pillory Beach is regarded as Christopher Columbus' first landfall in the New World. The sheer reef wall, located 400 yards off the shore, makes this one of the most popular departure points for divers. The Bohio Dive Resort, on the beach, features its own dive shop.
Most restaurants you will encounter in port cater to tourists and provide Americanized versions of bar food and pub grub: burgers, quesadillas and mixed salads, with some fresh seafood on the menu. But the name of the game is conch for Caribbean cuisine, and Grand Turk is no different.
John's Ocean View Bar, a more-local-than-local joint located along Front Street, provides native brews, conch and drinks at cheap prices. Get the grilled conch and ask for homemade hot sauce (it comes in a water bottle). John's doesn't have an exact address, but as a testament to the times, it has its own Facebook page. (649-243-7157)
Editor's Note: Because the island is so laid back, addresses and hours are often flexible or unlisted; unless otherwise noted, lunching suggestions are located on the main drag in Cockburn Town.
Outside of the immediate cruise center, Jack's Shack is where most cruisers seemed to flock for a day of drinks, local food and relaxation. Owned by Jack and Janet (the listed phone numbers are their cellphones), their website encourages you to "Follow the crew away from the crowds for a real island experience." A menu prepared by a Caribbean chef includes items like jerk chicken, spicy steamed conch, fish stews and peas and rice. The menu also has typical bar food offerings. However, vegetarian meals are not readily available, and seafood is limited. You'll find water sports gear and full resort amenities like free Internet, lounge chairs, floats, beach umbrellas, volleyball gear, showers, restrooms and storage lockers. Sign in online and print a coupon for a welcome shot of local rum. (500 yards north of the cruise center; 649-232-0099 or 649-244-9309)
Barbie's Bar and Restaurant is a local favorite featuring conch fritters and native island cuisine. Easy to spot from the road, but not as common with tourists, this might be your best bet for an authentic Grand Turk meal. (Churchill building, Cockburn Town; 649-946-2981)
Most of the restaurants on the island are connected with its few resorts. Secret Garden Restaurant at the Salt Raker Inn is a great place for cracked (delicious deep-fried) conch. (Duke Street; 649-946-2260)
The Sandbar, an outdoor bar on the beach across from the Salt Raker and neighboring Manta House, is a great spot for a quick snack, serving up quesadillas, burgers and cracked conch. (Duke Street; 649-243-2666)
The Birdcage at the Osprey Beach Hotel is open for lunch, with island dishes like spicy conch salad, fresh fish and lobster, as well as curries, pizzas, salads and key lime pie. Tables surround the pool and overlook the ocean (1 Duke Street; 649-946-2666)
Though there are no real "upscale" eateries on this casual island, Guanahani Restaurant at the Bohio Dive Resort is probably Grand Turk's finest, on a quiet strip of Pillory Beach. The menu changes daily; lunch offerings are eclectic -- French, Italian and American with a Caribbean twist. Entrees range from simple fresh fish sandwiches and pecan-crusted mahi mahi to jerk chicken. (Bohio Dive Resort, Pillory Beach; 649-946-2135; open for lunch daily)
Ships dock on the southwestern tip of the island, at a pier built specifically for cruise ships; the facility is owned and operated by Carnival Corp. There's a number of duty-free shops, jewelry stores, souvenir stands, bars and restaurants located in the cruise center. Adjacent to Margaritaville, you can even find a FlowRider. Froots and other facilities in this area have free Wi-Fi.
See photos of Grand Turk from a cruise on Holland American Line's Eurodam
According to the State Department, the overall crime rate in the Turks and Caicos Islands is relatively low, and crimes typically involve opportunistic petty theft. Exercise a sensible level of caution if walking around at night, and keep valuables in a safe location. The CDC recommends hepatitis A and typhoid vaccinations when visiting the Turks and Caicos. If you will be anywhere near caves on an excursion or while exploring, be sure to have an updated Rabies vaccine, as bats can carry the virus. Also be sure to bring insect repellent due to reports of mosquito-borne illnesses, such as Chikungunya.
The official currency of Turks and Caicos is the U.S. dollar. Scotiabank offers two ATMs located in Waterloo Plaza; it's open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday. The ATM is open 24 hours a day.
The island's primary language is English. Spanish and Creole are also widely spoken.
Shopping is a limited pastime, and this sleepy island is not the place to stock up on mass-produced T-shirts. The gift shop at the National Museum is a great place to pick up straw trinket boxes and other handmade goods. The Shell Shack, open during Grand Turk's high season (roughly December through April), offers items such as picture frames made from shells and driftwood.
Try a rum punch, a concoction of coconut rum, dark rum, pineapple and orange juices and grenadine. The best we've had is at Sandbar, across from Manta House on Duke Street. If throwing back a beer is more your style, try Turks Head, brewed on nearby sister island Providenciales.