Grand Turk sits apart from the other islands in the Turks and Caicos, separated from South Caicos by a trench 7,000 feet deep. People flying over to Grand Turk from Providenciales – one of the Caicos Islands – will notice the change in the colour of the sea from a light-blue to a dark blue, a change that happens instantaneously. The trench is one of the deepest in the Atlantic Ocean and is an essential visit for divers from all over the world. The light-blue is a result of the reef that surrounds the Turks and Caicos, which is why clear and shallow sea can be seen from most of the beaches.
Visitors arrive in two main ways on Grand Turk. A new cruise ship terminal has been built on the south of the island and the passengers from these ships are taken around the island on tour buses. Some of the more adventurous hire All-Terrain Vehicles and proceed in convoys around Cockburn Town, the capital of the Turks and Caicos, and its surroundings. Other tourists arrive on Beechcraft 99 planes from Providenciales. These planes are the size where everyone gets a window seat and can see the pilot’s dashboard. It’s amazing how many different lights come on during the 30-minute flight – it’s best to look out of the window and watch the islands go by.
On arrival at Grand Turk airport, the only activity was the maintenance men cutting the hedge in front of the arrivals building. The airport is named after JAGS McCartney, who was the first chief minister of the Turks and Caicos when he died in a plane crash in New Jersey in 1980. JAGS are his initials and stand for James Alexander George Smith. McCartney was from Grand Turk and National Heroes Day, a holiday celebrated on the last Monday in May, commemorates his life. The sun was beating down but a gentle breeze from the Atlantic felt disarmingly cooling.
Once the bags had arrived on the carousel, I quickly realised that the other 14 passengers on my flight – the flight had been full – all had people to meet them. Once their vehicles had gone there were no other cars around. I asked one of the Inter-Caribbean airlines staff how I could find a taxi and she very kindly ordered one for me on her mobile phone. After 5 minutes, Delphine Simone from Queen Bee taxis arrived and whisked me off to the Osprey Beach Hotel. The fare was seven dollars, which for this part of the Caribbean is very cheap.
The Osprey Beach Hotel faces westwards towards South Caicos. The line of dark-blue water where the ocean trench started could be clearly seen about a mile out to sea. The sandy beach disappeared southwards in the direction of the cruise ship terminal and northwards towards Cockburn Town. The hotel serves meals around the swimming pool with some tables overlooking the waves that hit the beach every few seconds. When I asked to switch rooms the following day because there appeared to be a herd of wildebeest in the room above, I was moved without any fuss to a better, single-storey room with a patio that looked over the ocean.
Opposite the hotel is a diving company where you can also hire bikes for travel on dry land. I headed left out of the hotel along Duke Street. Just after the Sandbar restaurant is a sign proclaiming the Columbus Landfall National Park. There’s a feeling on Grand Turk that Columbus didn’t first make landfall in the “New World” on San Salvador in The Bahamas but rather landed on Grand Turk instead. This will almost certainly never be proved conclusively one way or the other. What can be said with confidence is that Columbus almost certainly landed near a place called Cockburn Town, as that is also the name of the main town on San Salvador.
Along Duke Street are some lovely restored buildings dating from around one hundred years ago with casuarina, frangipani, and Caribbean pine trees in the gardens. The sea is never far away with its clarity and light-blue colour being a constant feature all the way into town. There is a bank on Duke Street, which has a technologically advanced ATM with a touch-sensitive screen.
On nearby Pond Street is Her Majesty’s Prison, which is open for visitors when a cruise ship visits the island. This prison held inmates for over 150 years before being closed in the 1990s, when prisoners such as Pablo Escobar’s brother-in-law had found it all too easy to escape with outside help. Around a dozen cells held the male prisoners and there are fewer cells for the women. The three solitary confinement cells would have been brutally hot in the summer sun. The exercise area allowed prisoners to receive messages that had been thrown over the wall. The entry fee is $3 and the prison is well worth a visit.
The next place of interest is the Turks and Caicos National Museum. The exhibitions begin with the poetically titled “Wreck of the Molasses Reef”, a heavily-armed caravel that hit the reef surrounding the islands in 1513. After the initial discovery by professional divers in the mid-1970s, the wreck was dynamited by some glory-hunters, who thought the caravel was carrying treasure, but none was ever found, which means the caravel predates the Spanish invasion of Mexico. The museum outlines the story of the dating of the wreck and has a number of objects from the caravel on display, with visitors being given the opportunity to guess the function of the item via a series of buttons.
The National Museum also outlines the story of salt production on Grand Turk. Between 1678 and 1964 salt was the number one export of Grand Turk and the salt pans that produced the salt can still be seen in the centre of Cockburn Town. In 1907, there were 230 acres of salt pans on Grand Turk and each acre produced 4,000 bushels of salt. One bushel contains between 75-80 pounds of salt. The role that Grand Turk played in the historic flight of John Glenn in Friendship 7 is also well documented – after splashing down Glenn first stepped ashore on Grand Turk. There’s also a collection of messages in bottles from various parts of the world and a fine model of the ocean topography around the islands, showing how steep the drop-off is into the surrounding trenches. The gift shop has a fine selection of locally produced artistic mementoes of the islands.
Walking around Cockburn Town, there’s an odd assortment of modern buildings, carefully restored older buildings, and houses that will almost certainly be blown over in the next hurricane. Grand Turk was affected by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the Osprey Beach hotel had some of its beach front destroyed. Two blocks away from the sea, the salt pans host some fish and bird life, with egrets wading in the shallows.
There are some restaurants along Duke Street serving local specialities such as curried goat and peas and rice. Some also serve grits, which I can’t really recommend. I’d always associated this ground-corn foodstuff with the southern USA, but it has percolated over to the Caribbean too. The Sandbar has great views over the sea from its bar stools.
The restaurant at the Osprey Beach produces wonderful food and I can particularly recommend the Crab and Pasta salad eaten at a table with a view over the clear light-blue sea. Two people were swimming in the sea, three were heading off to dive on the 7,000-feet wall, and three more were thinking about sunbathing in the early afternoon. Four yachts bobbed on the waves just offshore. Grand Turk doesn’t have many visitors and so makes an ideal destination for those who like a quiet time under the sun with the Caribbean for company.