Grand Turk, one of a chain of more than 40 islands in the Turks & Caicos, offers cruise passengers a tropical, laid-back ambience, excellent diving and fishing, colonial architecture, miles of beaches and a recently inaugurated pier and cruise ship terminal.
Cockburn Town, the main town, is the capital of the Turks & Caicos chain, where Providenciales is the biggest and probably best known island. The islands, territories of Great Britain, are located 30 miles from the Bahamas.
During its history, its location, outside the main navigation routes of colonial powers like England, France, Spain and other countries that alternated control of the island from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and its lack of gold and sufficient rainfall for the cultivation of sugar cane, made it remain almost forgotten. In the 18th century, a group of settlers from the Bermudas came to establish salt ponds on the island (salt was the "white gold" of that era, used to preserve food). The ponds still exist, but with the advent of refrigeration (and less need for preservatives) these settlers desisted, departing from the island and leaving behind their houses, Bermuda colonial-style buildings, slaves and animals--horses, donkeys, cattle, chickens and other animals who live wild on Grand Turk to this day.
In more recent times, the U.S. established bases on the island that played a role in the Mercury and Apollo space missions. The trajectory of spacecraft was tracked from Grand Turk--and the island has a replica of John Glenn's Friendship 7 who landed in the waters off Grand Turk in 1962.
Grand Turk has a population of 3,000 people and is tiny--only one and a half miles wide and six and a half miles long. Until a few years ago, the island attracted only a handful of tourists--primarily diving aficionados and fishermen. But its location and natural beauty caught the attention of several cruise lines that were actively looking for ports of call--they found it to be an ideal stop during Eastern Caribbean itineraries from Florida.
There were difficulties: the infrastructure of the island was not fully developed and it did not support mass tourism. In 2006, Carnival Corporation paved roads and constructed a pier for cruise ships, a smaller pier to launch excursion and a Cruise Center. The 13-acre Cruise Center has colonial-style architecture and a variety of shops selling perfume, china, crystal, liquor and other merchandise at duty prices.
The Cruise Center is next to beautiful white-sand beaches and has a 16,000-square-foot Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville where visitors can enjoy cheeseburgers and such and wash them down with 37 varieties of margaritas--perhaps at the swim-up bar.
Popular shore excursions and activities include horseback riding, kayaking, fishing excursions and tours via horse-drawn carriages. Diving programs can be booked on board ship and enthusiasts find one of the biggest tropical reefs on the planet with a 7,000-foot drop, only 300 feet from shore. Independents are able to rent diving equipment for the day at the island's dive resorts including the Bohio Dive Resort (www.bohioresort.com).
Other pastimes include a tour of the island to see such sights as its lighthouse (from where visitors get good views of the shoreline and sometimes, in the clear waters surrounding the lighthouse, stingrays and other marine creatures). Examples of colonial architecture include the Methodist Church, and also of interest are parks, like the Columbus Landfall Park (some experts have advanced the theory that Christopher Columbus landed here before the Bahamas) and gardens with the cacti with a flower that looks like a Turkish fez that are a symbol of Grand Turk. Additional points of interest include the National Museum on Front Street, with artifacts from the Taino Indians, the island's first inhabitants as well as exhibits about area wrecks.
Looking for local flavors for lunch? In addition to the cheeseburgers and margaritas at Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville best bets include fresh seafood. Try the local fish and conch at the Guanahani Restaurant & Bar at the Bohio Dive Resort.
Cruise lines that visit Grand Turk include Carnival, Costa, Crystal, Cunard, Holland America, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea.
IF YOU GO: For additional information, visit www.turksandcaicos.tc.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun