TURKS AND CAICOS
Aside from the Turks and Caicos' spectacular white-sand beaches and unbelievably blue waters, a view from the air reveals little that's inviting about the mostly dry, scrubby, sparsely populated chain of Caribbean islands. Their real appeal lies below the water—one of the world's largest networks of coral reefs provides exceptional diving and snorkeling, while the turquoise inshore flats and deeper aquamarine offshore waters guarantee world-class fishing.
Resting serenely to the southeast of the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos are beyond being "discovered" yet still remain off the radar for the average Caribbean island vacationer (truth be told, the islands are surrounded by Atlantic, rather than Caribbean, waters).
Those who do visit typically head for Providenciales (known locally as Provo), the largest, most developed and most westerly island in the Turks and Caicos island chain. Provo has exploded in recent years and has many luxury hotels and many good restaurants, but no cruise ships stop there, and although the skyline is now creeping upward, no one could mistake it for Aruba. You won't find fashion franchises or fast-food outlets; for many locals, dressing up means a clean T-shirt that doesn't promote a brand of beer.
The second-most-important isle, history-steeped Grand Turk, is the island capital and was thoroughly trashed by Hurricane Ike in September 2008, although residents and developers alike worked diligently to restore it. The most visible damage that remains today are the ruts in the paved Causeway that connects North to Middle Caicos.
The rest of the inhabited Turks and Caicos islands have a real outpost feel to them—but they all have their own annual festivals, which provide a great time to gather on the beach, renew or start friendships, and eat some local specialties.
The Turks and Caicos islands are a pleasant destination, but before you go, make sure you have a solid understanding of what's there and what's not: Those who want to delve into the undersea world or lounge on the beautiful beaches—and want little else—won't be disappointed. The same goes for vacationers seeking hotel luxury beyond the dreams of Croesus. Those who are looking for lush Caribbean island scenery or who can't appreciate a slow-paced, quirky island atmosphere should spend their vacation somewhere else.
SOME OF THE INCREDIBLE EXPERIENCES YOU'LL REMEMBER FOREVER
Historic Cockburn Town, Governor's House and St. Thomas Church (Grand Turk); the romantic ruins of Cheshire Hall plantation (Providenciales) and Wades Green (North Caicos); the beautiful stalactites of Conch Bar Cave System (Middle Caicos); Grace Bay beach (Providenciales).
The story of the Lucayans, displays of the Molasses Reef shipwreck and the early history of the islands (sisal and cotton plantations, salt raking) at the Turks and Caicos National Museum (Grand Turk); the National Environmental Centre for its exhibits on flora and fauna (Providenciales).
Da Conch Shack's conch fritters and conch salad (Providenciales); seared tuna at the Magnolia Wine Bar (Providenciales); cracked conch at The Sand Bar (Grand Turk); Mediterranean dishes at Lemon Cafe (Providenciales).
A night dive off the coast of Grand Turk; karaoke at the minigolf at Fun World in Providenciales; cocktails at The Lounge on Grace Bay.
A stroll along any of the beaches, especially at Grace Bay.
ESPECIALLY FOR KIDS
Caicos Conch Farm to learn how the shellfish is raised and harvested; Little Water Cay to marvel at the mini-dragons (also known as rock iguanas).