Low-key in the West Indies

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Grace Bay Beach, Turks and Caicos

BARTENDER Annie May said I should get Suzette to do my daughter's braids at Blessed Joyfulness Hair Salon because the stylist was good and fast. When I paid my bar tab I didn't have enough cash for a full head of braids, so hotel owner Jenny lent me $20. Later, Brian, another local who stopped by the bar, gave me a ride to the bank so I could repay her.

I'd been on Grand Turk Island just two days and already knew a dozen people and several dogs by name. While eating at an outdoor burger joint, I had met the Turks and Caicos Islands governor, appointed by Queen Elizabeth II. I'd heard lots of local gossip about total strangers, including one I later happened to meet.

I even inadvertently spread a false rumor about a waitress who hadn't left town for the weekend after all, as had been reported at the Courtyard Cafe.

I knew Turks and Caicos was going to be a friendly, laid-back place the minute I set eyes on it. Uptight people, after all, don't paint their Supreme Court building pink. That's the kind of thought that crosses your mind on this island of sandy white beaches, homes without addresses, wild braying donkeys and domesticated horses that wander around town until an owner wants a ride and sends a kid to fetch one. Electricity didn't reach Grand Turk until the late 1970s. Even today, the island has fewer than 100 rooms for guests in a handful of low-rise lodgings.

And to think that this is the capital of a group of nearly 40 islands and keys just 575 miles off the U.S. coast — an 80-minute plane ride from Miami. It's a miracle and some say a tribute to the benevolent incompetence of elected officials that these coral-rich islands aren't covered with high-rise hotels and time-shares.

Turks and Caicos is not the place to come for shopping and night life. Come for the pristine, powdery beaches, for clear turquoise water that suddenly turns deep blue offshore, where depths can reach 7,000 feet. Some of the islands are nearly deserted; some are riddled with caves. Residents of Providenciales (also called Provo), the island that hosts flights from the United States, are awaiting a promised movie theater, but for the moment, the islands share one cinema: a 40-seat room with a DVD player on Grand Turk. So don't come for entertainment or to indulge in fast-paced modern life.

Come, instead, if you wish to see thousands of rare rock iguanas that have an entire island dedicated to their preservation, to snorkel or dive among some of the largest and finest coral reefs in the world or, best of all, to dance with stingrays.

Two huge limestone mountains ringed by coral lie beneath the Atlantic, southeast of the Bahamas, in the British West Indies. Areas that rise above the sea create six major and numerous small islands and keys over 193 square miles. Together, they create the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British territory. English is the primary language. The currency is the U.S. dollar, with prices for lodgings and meals comparable to what you'd pay in a metropolitan area.

The largest island, Middle Caicos (48 square miles), is home to 275 people. Provo's 38 square miles is the population center, with more than 6,000 people, and the tourism center. My first reaction on seeing Provo from an airport taxi was disappointment. The dry, rocky land supports little more than scrub brush. Many skeletons of buildings are on their way to becoming hotels and shopping centers but look like the bombed-out remains of a war-torn land. But it took only one look at Grace Bay for me to understand why one slick travel magazine called that beach one of the world's best.

Calm, crystal-clear waterLATER, on a tour of nearby Little Water Cay, where iguanas live, a guide took us to the highest point of a wooden boardwalk and said that the water to the right was the Atlantic and to the left the Caribbean. He was wrong — the islands are surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. But it's easy to see why they could be mistaken for the Caribbean. The water is calm and crystal clear, the beaches made of the finely ground remains of coral.

On my second day, I somewhat reluctantly tore myself away from the shore and rented a Jeep, with plans to visit the marina, a conch farm and a huge inland lake, Chalk Sound.

The Jeep was an old rattletrap with a cloth-and-metal roof stuck in the up position. I had no luck replacing it: The entire fleet was decrepit, and a hotel receptionist told me that that was as good as it gets. But the water soon made up for everything. At a tidy marina that included a restaurant and bar, I rented a two-person kayak for my daughter and me and headed for Little Water Cay. We landed on the sandy beach and found that, except for a guide in a wooden shack, we were the only humans on the island.

The guide went with us as we walked the boardwalk, which is meant to protect the thousands of rock iguanas that race about on the sand below. Some scampered to the edge of the boardwalk and stopped. They cocked their heads, watching us watching them. The dry vegetation crackled with the sounds of iguanas going about their mating and berry-eating business. At a foot or more in length, they are the largest native land animals on the islands, and this particular species exists nowhere else on Earth. The 116 acres of this sanctuary belongs to them.

After returning to the marina, we headed east, stopping for lunch but giving up the driving tour before finding Chalk Sound. After witnessing a near head-on collision, we decided we were perfectly satisfied to spend our time touring between our hotel's beach and freshwater pool.

This is what flying was meant to be, we thought. You awaken and realize you don't feel like getting up for an 8 a.m. flight, so you call and book for 10 a.m., without penalty. You mosey out to the airport about 10 minutes before scheduled takeoff, check a couple of locked bags, walk onto the tarmac to board and buckle up for takeoff.

Less than an hour after leaving Provo, we arrived on Grand Turk. Five minutes after landing, we were at our hotel and had our shoes off.

Over a soda, we met some of the locals at the Osprey Beach Hotel's open-air bar, then walked a few steps to the beach. There we met Cortney and Louie, two island boys who hung out with us on the beach the rest of our trip. During our three days here, the four of us were the only people using the small strip of beach.

The beaches of Grand Turk are not as grand as those of Provo, and the lodgings are modest. But Grand Turk was the island I loved best. There was almost no traffic, making walking and biking a joy.

At the Courtyard Cafe, which everyone calls Phyllis' after its owner, we chatted with the few other customers, all of them transplanted Europeans or Americans.

One of these was Brian Riggs, an American who came here to volunteer on an archeology dig nearly 30 years ago and decided to make Grand Turk his home. He agreed to take us on a tour of the National Museum, where the most prized possessions are artifacts from the oldest European shipwreck so far discovered in the Americas. Archeologists believe that the ship, found 20 feet under the sea on Molasses Reef, sank in about 1515.

At one with the fishesFirst, though, my daughter and I were eager to make arrangements to take our first scuba dives.

I'd been unable to reach any of the several dive companies on Grand Turk before leaving home, but my worries that it would be too late to book on arrival were misplaced. I stopped by Sea Eye Dive, across the street from the Osprey. Instructor Algrove "Smitty" Smith asked, "When do you want to go? Now?" So my daughter and I spent the rest of the afternoon learning the surprisingly simple first steps: using a mouthpiece called a regulator and retrieving it if it popped out or got tangled; putting on a mask underwater and clearing it without surfacing; releasing and pumping air to regulate buoyancy; falling backward off a boat with heavy tanks. Snorkeling along a coral reef, I once believed, was the ultimate water experience. Why adulterate such a pure activity, I thought, with tanks and suits and hoses?

I was wrong.

The morning after our hour or so of training, Smitty took us by speedboat to the edge of a coral reef 30 feet beneath the ocean. The heavy diving tanks seemed weightless underwater; I soon forgot that I was breathing through artificial means. I might as well have had gills, I felt so at one with the colorful fish, weaving among massive boulders and delicate, waving sea fans.

After an hourlong dive, the three of us sped across the water and pulled up to the dilapidated Poop Deck. Although I didn't find dining a particular strength of Turks and Caicos, we got an outstanding lunch of chicken, rice, black beans and fried plantains to go. We took off again on the speedboat to picnic at uninhabited Gibbs Cay.

We were the only humans moored beside the little island, which was rimmed with a broad beach. Soon, however, we were joined by two stingrays that glided around and beneath the boat. We got out to swim with them.

One soon got bored with us and headed to deeper water. The other, however, continued to play.

Smitty seemed more at home in the water than any man I'd ever seen. I donned a mask to watch him and the ray interact, the man nearly as graceful as the creature, as the two of them glided and turned and frolicked.

I would have thought I could never tire of swimming with a stingray. But after an hour, my skin had puckered and I was ready to head home. The ray, however, kept circling even after we got back on the boat, seemingly beckoning us to return.

"Why?" I asked Smitty. "What does the ray get out of it?" He gave a terse Yeats-like reply: "It's the dance."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Dive into the islands

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, connecting service to Providenciales is available on American, US Airways and Air Jamaica. Unrestricted round-trip fares begin at $765.

Two interisland airlines operate daily flights between Providenciales and Grand Turk, and less frequently among other nearby islands. Contact SkyKing, (649) 941-3136, http://www.skyking.tc , or Inter- Island Airways, (649) 946-1-41-5481, http://www.interislandairways.com .

WHERE TO STAY:

Providenciales (also known as Provo) is the most developed of the sparsely settled islands and has 30 hotels; the best bets are those along the gorgeous 12-mile sweep of Grace Bay Beach. Most of the properties are fairly new, and none is more than four stories high. Most hotels on all the islands have dive packages.

Alexandra Resort, P.O. Box 622, Providenciales; (649) 946-5807, http://www.alexandraresort.com . This modern four-story hotel has studios, apartments and a large pool situated around a small outdoor restaurant. Doubles from $199.

Sibonne Beach Hotel, P.O. Box 144, Providenciales; (649) 946-5547, http://www.sibonne.com . There are 26 rooms in this two-story building, which has a graceful old-Caribbean feel, with an open-air restaurant overlooking the beach. The only drawback: a tiny pool. Doubles from $89, including continental breakfast. Bay Bistro Restaurant features steak and fish. Most dinner entrees exceed $20; tapas $7-$10.

Grand Turk Island has fewer than 100 hotel rooms. A sampling:

Osprey Beach Hotel, P.O. Box 216, Grand Turk; (649) 946-2666, http://www.ospreybeachhotel.com . Low-key, low-rise hotel isn't fancy but has large rooms with kitchens and doors opening onto the beach, a friendly bar and nightly dinners around a pool facing the ocean. Doubles, all oceanfront, from $138.

Manta House, (649) 946-1111, http://www.grandturkmantahouse.com . This budget option is across the road from the ocean. Doubles from $67.

WHERE TO EAT:

Bugaloo, Providenciales, a beach hangout where curried conch and other regional dishes cost about $7. Open for lunch only, unless there happens to be a special occasion, like lobster night.

Tiki Hut, Providenciales, overlooks Grace Bay and has a broad Caribbean and American menu, with entrees beginning at about $15.

Poop Deck, Grand Turk Island, is a shabby-looking lunch joint on Front Street in downtown Grand Turk. It offered the best meal I ate on either island. Platters of chicken, rice, beans and plantains, $6.

TO LEARN MORE:

Turks and Caicos Islands Tourist Board, (800) 241-0824, http://www.turksandcaicostourism.com .

— Cindy Loose

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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