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Grand Turk Overview
In many Caribbean ports of call, lazy days on the beach have been replaced with active excursions such as ziplining, kayaking and hiking -- or futile attempts to avoid gridlock in shopping and sightseeing areas. But there's still a place for those who want to slow the pace of life. That place is Grand Turk, the capital of the Turks and Caicos.
If you find yourself asking "the Who and What?" you are not alone. The chain of islands has long been one of the Caribbean's last off-the-beaten-path destinations. Only eight of the 40 islands are inhabited, and until the past decade or so, not many travelers had heard of the Turks and Caicos Islands -- few airlines flew there directly, and places to stay were scarce. Nowadays, Grand Turk is on the map but still exceptionally quiet; even though it is the governmental and financial center of the Turks and Caicos, most tourists opt instead for the upscale resorts and nightlife on Providenciales, the most developed island in the chain.
That's not to say that shore excursions on Grand Turk don't run the gamut from horseback riding to fly fishing -- and one of the biggest draws here is diving, with the islands lying along the third largest barrier reef in the world. But traffic is sparse, and with a population of less than 4,000, everybody really does know everybody else's name. 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 salting 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 called at Grand Turk in the past, Carnival Corporation has committed time -- and money -- to positioning Grand Turk as a mainstream cruise destination. In 2006 (and again in 2008, after the port sustained hurricane damage), Carnival Corp. opened a brand-new cruise terminal that is a destination in its own right, with retail shops, a recreation area right on the beach and a huge pool. The pier can accommodate two post-Panamax vessels, theoretically from any of the many cruise lines under Carnival Corp.'s umbrella, including Princess, Carnival and Holland America.
In 1962, long before cruise lines were interested in this little island, John Glenn -- the first American to orbit the earth -- splashed down just a mile or two off the coast of Grand Turk, and spent his first couple of days there after his historical 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.
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Other Eastern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Freeport • Grand Turk • Jost Van Dyke • La Romana • Labadee • Nassau • Princess Cays • San Juan • St. Croix • St. John, USVI • St. Maarten • St. Martin • St. Thomas • Tortola • Virgin Gorda
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Although the Turks and Caicos Islands have been under many different rules through the years and used a multitude of currencies (from Jamaican dollars to British pounds sterling), the official currency these days is the U.S. dollar; the change went into effect when the new constitution was drafted, because most imports -- and tourists -- come from the U.S.
There are few banks in Cockburn Town: FirstCaribbean on Duke St. is open Monday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., and Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.; there is a 24-hour ATM. Another 24-hour ATM is accessible at Scotia Bank, located near the airport.
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 local beer is more your style, try Turks Head, brewed on nearby sister island Providenciales.
Shopping is a limited pastime here, 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.
Where You're Docked
Though Grand Turk is now a part of Eastern Caribbean itineraries, it is interesting to note that the Turks and Caicos are 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.
Ships dock on the southwestern tip of the island, at the new pier built specifically for cruise ships; the facility is owned and operated by Carnival Corp.
A brand-new tourism village packed with restaurants, amenities, and the usual 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. There's also direct access to an 800-ft. stretch of beach with cabanas and changing rooms.
By Rental: Tony's Car Rental offers car, scooter and bicycle rentals. Car rentals start from $70 per day; open-back Jeep rentals start from $95 per day. Golf carts can also be rented on the island.
By Taxi: Taxi fares will be set in advance -- look for posted signs; a ride from the cruise terminal to the downtown area should be around $7.
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. Your best bet is to take an organized excursion, rent a car or grab a taxi.
Diving and Snorkeling: Turks and Caicos' major claim to fame, beyond its gorgeous white sandy beaches, is the fact that it sits on the world's third-largest coral reef. Dive operators on the island, including Blue Water Divers and Grand Turk Diving, offer programs for everyone from novice snorkelers to the most advanced divers. Be sure not to miss Columbus Landfall Marine National Park and the Grand Turk Wall, which 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.
Cockburn Town: Duke and Front Streets are lined with historic 18th- and 19th-century buildings that mirror the Bermudan-style architecture (pastel-painted wood) of the salt-raking era (salt ponds, while not in production, still run throughout the city). Cockburn Town is the administrative capital too, and a walking tour will take 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 here in 1492.
Turks & Caicos National Museum: Don't let its small stature fool you -- the two-floor 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 are available, as are exclusive behind-the-scenes tours.
There's also an exhibit dedicated to John Glenn, whose Friendship 7 spacecraft splashed down off the coast, making Grand Turk the spot where the first American to orbit the 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 Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., when ships are in port.
Been There, Done That
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 over 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 here 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 now on display in the museum; informative plaques surround the lighthouse, and the spot offers a breathtaking view of the ocean.
Editor's Note: If your ship is in town past sunset, look for the "green flash," a phenomena that occurs when the color of the sun changes from red or orange to green or blue just as it dips below the earth's surface. It isn't indigenous to the islands, but due to atmospheric conditions it's seldom seen in the Caribbean (or anywhere else for that matter). Don't blink -- it happens quickly!
Most Secluded: Governor's Beach is a crescent of soft sand and calm, turquoise ocean 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. Low, cliff-edged Bluff Point Beach is located just west of the lighthouse; in the spring and summer, you might even spot flamingos here.
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 & Spa, on the beach, features its own dive shop.
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.
Most of the restaurants on the island are connected with its few resorts. The Secret Garden at the Salt Raker Inn is our favorite place for cracked (delicious deep-fried) conch. 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 some more cracked conch. Duke Street.
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. Duke Street.
Though there are no real "upscale" eateries on this casual island, Guanahani Restaurant at the Bohio Dive Resort is likely 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. Open for lunch daily.
Best for First-Timers: A Hop-On/Hop-Off Island Tour is a convenient transportation option for cruisers that want to see a little bit of everything; the shuttle stops at attractions scattered throughout the island such as an 1800's prison in town and the lighthouse.
Best for Active Travelers: After a drive through Cockburn Town, saddle up for a ride along the beach -- and in the water -- on a Horseback Ride & Swim adventure.
Best for Water Lovers: An Ultimate Snorkeling excursion takes you to two different sites -- Horseshoe Reef and Round Cay. Crew identify fish and coral, and also provide waterproof "fish identification cards" to keep with you as you explore. Kids must be at least 8 to participate.
Best for History Buffs: If you like history, space or space history, check out Grand Turk Cruise Center's exhibit, dedicated to NASA's Mercury space program. This offering celebrates the 1962 splashdown of the Friendship 7 space capsule near Grand Turk and features story boards that discuss some of NASA's accomplishments, equipment and future plans.
Staying in Touch
Though we anticipate that an Internet cafe will eventually pop up in the tourist village at the cruise pier, at this point, the most convenient way for cyber geeks to stay in touch is to use their ships' services. Cruisers who don't mind lugging their wireless-enabled laptops ashore will find free Wi-Fi signals at the Osprey Hotel's courtyard cafe in downtown Cockburn on Duke Street. Froots, a healthy beverage kind of joint in the port facility, also offers free wireless access. Additionally, the Internet can also be accessed at the Victoria Public Library, on the corner of Victoria and Front Streets, in the heart of Cockburn Town.
For More Information
Contact the Turks and Caicos Tourist Board at 800-241-0824
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Grand Turk
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Bargains and Features
--By Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor
All photos appear courtesy of Melissa Baldwin.