GRACE BAY, Turks and Caicos -- Legendary rocker Keith Richards was out of uniform. No dangling cigarette, no wailing guitar, no stormy look. As a matter of fact, he was grinning. And scratching the tummy of a shaggy black munchkin of a dog.
It was late January, and the Rolling Stones member was chilling on a dock overlooking the turquoise waters surrounding Parrot Cay, a Caribbean islet that bills itself as "the world's most exclusive resort."
The 1,000-acre private island is in Turks and Caicos, a semi-obscure archipelago east of Cuba that has been propelled into the limelight by its rising popularity with the glitterati.
The multimillion-dollar beach house owned by Richards shares the sandy white shoreline with the homes of Bruce Willis, Christie Brinkley and Donna Karan.
The mind boggles just thinking about the neighborhood's holiday parties and summer barbecues.
I spent several days exploring their chichi slice of paradise, snorkeling in electric-blue waters, sinking my toes into sun-bleached sand, breathing the balmy air. OK, so maybe I was out of my league playing on their turf, but I faked it. You don't have to be rich to have fun here.
It wasn't all play, though. I spent three days touring resorts -- very high-end resorts. The kind where you might run into a star, someone like, oh, Conan O'Brien. I saw him hiding under a baseball cap pulled so low over his face that I might not have recognized him but for skin so white it was almost blue. People with skin that fair should vacation in Seattle, not the tropics.
But tourists like O'Brien have helped make Turks and Caicos Islands a success story. Twenty years ago, these 40-some islands and cays had few paved roads or services. Now this British crown colony has one of the world's fastest-growing economies; its 33,000 residents share their islands with 300,000 tourists annually. There are a dozen or so high-end resorts where overnight stays top $1,000 a night and a booming real estate market that caters to multimillionaires.
The soaring popularity of the tiny West Indian territory isn't surprising. It's a 75-minute flight southeast from Miami -- close enough to make it an attractive short-holiday destination for the East Coast platinum-card crowd. Other pluses: The currency is the U.S. dollar, crime is minimal, residents are amiable and everyone speaks English. And, of course, there are the stars. Where they lead, others follow.
Everywhere I went, people talked about the luminaries who were visiting: Cindy Crawford at the Grace Bay Club, Will Smith at the Somerset on Grace Bay, Alicia Keys at the Regent Palms, Kelly Ripa at Amanyara. The four luxury resorts are on the island of Providenciales, aka Provo, Turks and Caicos' main tourist center. The other islands and cays are low key, except for Grand Turk, the capital, where a Carnival Cruise Lines port opened in 2006.
But Provo has the momentum; it's home to an international airport, great beaches, fine restaurants, a small casino and a golf club, all packed into 38 square miles. I spent most of my time in Provo, peeking below the brims of baseball caps for famous faces.
Visitors who aren't interested in stargazing can find other diversions. For instance, I hopped on a boat in Provo and headed out to sea. In less than 30 minutes, I found an isolated sandy cay (80 percent of Turks and Caicos' islands are uninhabited) populated by osprey, flamingos and iguanas. Nearly 300 square miles of the islands have been designated as parkland and wildlife sanctuaries.
One of the biggest draws is underwater, where divers and snorkelers come eye to eye with an array of sea life. Many people visit to explore the coral reef, one of the world's largest. Divers also can scuba down a vertical sea wall where the continental shelf drops a mile.
And then there are the outstanding beaches, especially Provo's 12-mile-long Grace Bay Beach, covered by ultra-white, very fine sand and lapped by dazzling turquoise waters. Jet Skis and other noise-makers are prohibited. The coral reef that fringes the island creates something akin to a lap pool.
Although high-end tourism is the name of the game here, you can see these islands on a budget. A couple of motels on Grace Bay charge $100 to $200 a night, and dining where the residents do saves money, too. These places may not feature foie gras or filet mignon, but they have an unbeatable Caribbean vibe.
Smokey's on Da Bay, for instance, is the place to be on Wednesday nights in Provo. Reggae music blares from huge speaker towers while cooks grill dinner. The diner-style restaurant is in Blue Hills, a small settlement on Provo where residents live. It's a handful of miles from the elegant resorts on Grace Bay.
On Wednesdays, Smokey's indoor-outdoor restaurant has a fish fry that draws British and American expatriates as well as natives -- who are called Belongers and make up about half the Turks and Caicos Islands population. These descendants of early settlers and African slaves came to the islands more than 200 years ago to work cotton plantations.
I arrived just in time: Corn on the cob, lobster and snapper were sizzling on the outdoor grill. Overhead, a full moon sparkled, its light reflecting off Grace Bay. The dark silhouette of a small sailboat bobbed on the water at anchor. Another patron seemed just as captivated by the scene as I.
"Ten years ago," he said, looking across the bay to where hotels lined the water, "I'd look down the beach and see two lights. Now there are lights everywhere. It's like Miami Beach."
He wasn't complaining. Like most of the Belongers I talked to, he was happy about the changes, which have brought jobs and new opportunities.
Most of Grace Bay's newest resorts are spare-no-expense, uber-
luxurious palaces that rival the Caribbean's top resorts. But the granddaddy of them all on this prime curve of sand is a familiar name with no such pretensions of grandeur: Club Med.
The French company pioneered the tourist industry here when it cut a road from the Providenciales International Airport and opened its doors to GMs (gentil membres or "gracious members") in 1984.
Club Med Turkoise has been going strong ever since, doing its own thing in a sort of a quirky vacuum that ignores the world outside its gates. The club, for instance, sets clocks forward an hour, creating its own time zone.
Nonetheless, Club Mediterranee Turkoise is overwhelmingly popular with guests -- one of the most popular Club Meds in the Americas. It caters to couples, singles and groups of friends 18 and older.
I spent a couple of days here. It's all-inclusive, which means I could eat, drink, play and dance the night away for one set price. So I did. I was surprised at how much fun it was. Everyone was friendly, the Grace Bay Beach location couldn't have been better and the recently renovated rooms were fine, if a bit spartan. It was sort of like staying at a Holiday Inn with perks.
"A friend talked me into this," said fellow GM Kusi O'Hemeng of Alexandria, Va. "Before I came, I thought it was so '80s." He said he nearly left on the first day of his vacation, but by the second day, he was happy he hadn't.
"I met so many great people. You can decide to have a lot of fun or to be by yourself. Either way, it's terrific."
Parrot Cay, the exclusive island that's home to Richards and other superstars, receives the credit for bringing a buzz to Turks and Caicos and proving that the area was ready for high-end tourism. Other developers are eager to take advantage of that wave of interest with their own private-island projects.
One balmy afternoon, I hitched a ride from Provo to the uninhabited island of West Caicos, site of Molasses Reef, a new Ritz-Carlton project. The 125-room hotel, along with privately owned villas and cottages, is under construction. Prices range from $2.2 million to $6 million each.
More than 25 of the vacation homes have been sold to a moneyed clientele, many of whom have a net worth of more than $50 million. The development, which is being promoted as "the ultimate escape," is scheduled to open in late fall.
Mandarin Oriental is also getting into the private-island business here. It is scheduled to open a small hotel in 2009.
For the time being, however, Parrot Cay seems to hold the aces. A 35-minute boat ride from Provo, it offers privacy, exclusivity and a proven track record. And the commute is fantastic.
Rosemary McClure writes for the Los Angeles Times.
ONLINE See a photo gallery of the Turks and Caicos Islands at baltimoresun.com / turksandcaicos
If you go
American, Delta and US Airways offer connecting flights from Baltimore to Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $626.
P.O. Box 164, Providenciales; 877-754-0726, parrotcay.como.bz. This 1,000-acre private island resort has 59 rooms, suites, beach houses and villas. In its days as a hideout for swashbuckling sailors, it was called Pirate Cay. Rates $525 to $10,000 a night.
Grace Bay Club:
P.O. Box 128, Providenciales; 800-946-5757, gracebayclub.com. Get a Caribbean vibe at this all-suite resort on striking Grace Bay Beach. Recently expanded and renovated, the resort has adults-only and family sections. Rates $501 to $8,470 a night.
Somerset on Grace Bay:
Princess Drive, Providenciales; 877-887-5722, thesomerset.com. This year-old resort on the powdery sand of Grace Bay Beach exudes classic elegance, with British colonial accents and furnishings. One- to five-bedroom condos. Rates $275 to $5,000 a night.
800-545-4000, regenthotels.com/thepalms. Also on Grace Bay Beach is this resort with 12 acres of lush landscaping, formal gardens and 164 colonial-style rooms and suites in five buildings, as well as the elegant bar and the 25,000-square-foot spa. The rooms can be converted into one- to three-bedroom suites. Rates $325 to $6,500 a night.
Sibonne Boutique Hotel:
Grace Bay, Providenciales; 800-528-1905, sibonne.com. Low-key, two-story beachfront motel with a Caribbean feel. Rates $110 to $375 a night.
Ports of Call, Grace Bay Road, Providenciales; 877-424-6423, comfortsuites.com. Across from Grace Bay Beach. Rates $115 to $180 a night.
Club Med Turkoise:
Grace Bay Beach, Providenciales; 800-258-2633, clubmed.us. Beachfront adults-only resort with many activities. Weekly rates begin at $1,400 per person and include food, beverages and activities, but check for specials.
Da Conch Shack & Rum Bar:
Blue Hills Road, Providenciales; 649-946-8877, conchshack.tc. Conch salad and fritters are the specialty. $10-$14.
Smokey's on Da Bay:
Blue Hills Road, Providenciales; 649-941-7852. Breaded pork chops, curry goat and barbecued ribs. Dinner $16-$45.
Princess Drive at the Somerset on Grace Bay; 649-946- 5900, thesomerset.com. Island-inspired dining in an elegant setting. Seared Pacific scallops, duck breast are favorites. Entrees $22-$45.
Turks and Caicos Tourist Board:
[Los Angeles Times]