Grand Turk: Dive right in
Another colorful and peaceful beach in the Turks & Caicos. (TurksandCaicosTourism.com)
The dazzle: Governor's Beach, a strip of white that edges the island like the powdered sugar rim of a cannoli.
The sea: It's actually not deep blue. It's as turquoise as a swimming pool. It's as vivid as a photo with jazzed color. The ocean here is shallow - right up until it plunges 7,000 feet straight down a quarter mile offshore at the Grand Turk Wall.
This island is part of the Turks and Caicos, a trendy Caribbean vacation spot 500 miles southeast of Miami. The tiny British territory has eight major islands and dozens of uninhabited keys, a glistening broken necklace in the Atlantic.
Grand Turk is mainly visited for two reasons - diving and cruise ships. In 2006, Carnival built a big cruise ship dock and terminal here. That same year Grand Turk snagged nonstop air service from Ft. Lauderdale on Spirit Airlines. It had celebrity visitors like Steven Spielberg and Serena Williams. It had big plans.
Then, in September 2008, Hurricane Ike pummeled a lot of the island's hopes and dreams. About 80 percent of the flat little limestone island was damaged.
Now, life is slower. The nonstop flights ceased. The house Spielberg reportedly owns is for sale. The condo Williams supposedly was building is just a shell.
Though the cruise ship crowds still arrive on Grand Turk - 655,000 of them last year - they operate in their own tight orbit, flocking to the cruise line-sponsored shopping complex near the ship, pouring onto Governor's Beach for tans, speeding off for snorkeling. By late afternoon, the ships are gone. There are just a handful of hotels on Grand Turk, comprising only 70 rooms total, according to the tourism bureau. The whole island is just 7 miles long and 1 miles wide.
And once the cruise passengers depart, it's left to the locals and the divers.
Cockburn Town, the capital city of the Turks and Caicos, is really a village. A small collection of attractive but weathered pastel 18th- and 19th-century colonial buildings, it is a shabby-chic version of Bermuda. There's an unfinished shopping center on the middle of the block. The Victoria Public Library is charming, but its sign needs help: "VICTORI PUBL LI R R."
About a mile down the road is a collection of old military buildings that date from the days the U.S. Air Force used Grand Turk as a tracking station for early space travel. There's a memorial to astronaut John Glenn, whose 1962 first round-the-globe space flight splashed down just off the coast of Grand Turk.
The British governor of the Turks and Caicos, Damian Roderic Todd, lives in a house along this stretch, and he is not a popular man. After a big government corruption scandal in 2009, the British took control of the islands. To help balance the budget, Todd is planning to impose a goods tax, the tax haven's first. On top of that, Grand Turk has had constant water problems this spring due to an inadequate water plant.
Trouble in paradise? Well, maybe. Still, the life expectancy here is nearly 80, higher than in the United States. And I can see why.
Early in the morning in Cockburn Town, men sit on plastic chairs under spreading trees, chatting about the day's news. Women run tiny gift shops, selling homemade wood carvings, bead necklaces and clothing. The sun shines. They take out their wares. It starts raining. They hurry to put everything away. The sun comes back out. They display everything again. They sit.
If you are a diver, the main thing to know is that Grand Turk is near the third largest barrier reef system in the world, with its amazing drop-off and excellent diving. A 10-minute boat ride, and you're amid sea turtles, sponges, coral and grouper. Novices can start with something a lot simpler - snorkeling and stingrays on Gibb s Cay, an uninhabited island a few minutes offshore.
The stingrays come when they hear the boat motors. As people stand in waist-high water, the stingrays glide up silently, letting their humans hold their velvety bodies. The motors attract barracudas, too, and I see them - long ones - swimming near the people petting the stingrays.
The memorable quality of Grand Turk? The light. When the sun is out, it's like being on a very clear turquoise dot.
When it rains - and yes, it does rain in Grand Turk - the light dims, but colors seem more vivid. It smells good here. It's clear.
By late morning, I stroll the empty beach in town, watching fishermen gather their wooden boats to shore. Giant conch, old ones, puckered with tiny holes in the shells, lay partially buried on the beach with its fluffy sand. Far out, small powerboats - divers, probably, coming in from their mysterious adventures at the Wall - speed ahead of gathering storm clouds, headed for shore.