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.