Hidden, quiet charm on Grand Turk

Carnival Corp. investment in port facility helping tourists discover tiny island

Destination Caribbean

October 22, 2006|By Toni Salama | Toni Salama,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

GRAND TURK, The Turks and Caicos Islands -- Adrift out here on the fringes of the Caribbean, the Turks and Caicos Islands sit at the bottom of the Bahamas chain, nature's afterthought 575 miles southeast of Miami.

Oh, they've had their share of pirates and slaves, shipwrecks and plantations; but scarcely anyone except scuba divers ever vacationed in this 40-island archipelago until the mid-1960s, when development and offshore banking on Providenciales - Provo for short - began, little by little, to attract the resort crowd - and inevitably drew job seekers away from Grand Turk.

But now, Grand Turk's tourism star is rising. Its ship has come in. Literally. The tiny island that once received perhaps 10,000 visitors in the space of a year is now welcoming an estimated 300,000. In February, Holland America Line's MS Noordam became the first ocean liner to tie up at the brand new Grand Turk Cruise Center - a far cry from the days when the occasional ship would anchor at a distance and tender passengers ashore.

There's no facility quite like it anywhere else in the Caribbean. The 1,033-foot-long cruise dock leads to a 13-acre day-use resort of groomed beaches, showers and lockers, a shore-excursion pier, taxi and tour-vehicle queues, a vast swimming pool, 45,000 square feet of retail and the largest Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville Restaurant in this part of the world, with a swim-up bar, yet.

All it took was a vision - and about $50 million from Carnival Corp., the parent company of 12 cruise lines that range from Carnival Cruise Lines' bargain "Fun Ships" to Cunard's be-all and end-all Queen Mary 2.

Gerry Ellis, director of port development for Carnival Corp., said Grand Turk was a natural choice: in a great location for Eastern Caribbean itineraries and a direct shot from New York, unspoiled by commercial development, with a local government and a population of 3,700 "belongers," as the residents call themselves, eager to encourage tourism.

It also didn't hurt that they built the cruise center on the southwest tip of the island, safely away not only from one of the world's most extensive reef systems but also protected from the prevailing winds. Any ocean liner can dock here, not just those under the Carnival flag. Its position makes it a safe berth, Ellis said, a contingency port in bad weather, with a two-ship pier engineered to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.

"The rest of the island might blow away," Ellis said, "but the pier won't."

Carnival Corp.'s investment in Grand Turk goes beyond the port, though. The company provided start-up money to local shore-excursion entrepreneurs for things such as dune buggies and horse carriages. "We bought 10 taxis and sold them at cost to the drivers," Ellis said. "We don't own these things, but we did invest."

One new attraction is the hop-on hop-off jaunt aboard the 'Guana, a narrated shore excursion mini-bus that makes continuous 15-minute runs to the lighthouse at the far end of this 9-square-mile island.

Much of the ride shows Grand Turk as a sun-broiled and windswept place, or did when my husband and I took it in late June.

It turns out that the 1852 lighthouse, restored by Carnival Corp., was installed by the United States when Grand Turk was queen of the salt trade.

A cliff walk leads down to a deserted beach, if you are not the sort to be deterred by a goat trail of brambles and loose rocks. Along the way, you might, as we did, catch sight of an osprey among the branches, regally looking out to sea.

On the way back from the lighthouse, the 'Guana makes two stops in little Cockburn Town, where the chief attractions are the cell blocks of Her Majesty's Prison and the vintage Bahamian architecture along the waterfront.

The prison, another Carnival Corp. restoration project, is old enough to have held runaway slaves and slaves who survived the wreck of the Trouvadore in 1841. Before it closed to become a tourist attraction, it would have held its share of modern-day drug runners. At the end of the brief prison walkthrough, we bought a mango smoothie (canned, not fresh) for $6 from the juice stand on the grounds and freshened up in the modern bathrooms.

If it sounds like there's not a lot here, that's because, with the exception of a handful of inns and eateries, there isn't. But belongers say that's the charm of their tiny island, and Carnival Corp. seems determined to preserve it, even while bringing 2,000 passengers ashore on any given call.

Shore excursions are divided about 50-50 between land and water activities, Ellis said. There are horseback and bike trails, kayak tours and underwater "walks" beside coral beds - in all, more than 20 excursions, with a conch farm and a botanic garden both expected to open before the end of the year. They're all in different locations. "Because of that, we are able to `hide' people around the island so nothing seems crowded," he said. "We don't want to spoil that atmosphere."

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