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 fishes
First, 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."
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Dive into the islands
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 .