“Stand on the airstrip, wave your hands in the air and the pilot will pick you up”
Hammock-swinging, conch-blowing and other adventures on the Turks and Caicos islands
Turks and Caicos islands: where the conch is king
The hammock as a holiday pastime is something that I have not been able to properly master or fully grasp. But there is nothing much else to do on the Turks and Caicos islands other than hone your hammock skills and get the hang of being laid back rather than highly strung.
And hone your conch-blowing skills. It’s all about the embouchure. And breath control. And trying not to suffer a pulmonary infarction. Or a ruptured eardrum.
There is a popular folk myth that if you hold a conch shell to your ear you can hear the Caribbean. November 29th sees the 12th annual Conch Festival. This showcase of local culture will feature a conch-fritter eating contest, a conch-knocking contest, a conch-peeling competition and a conch-blowing tournament.
The winner of this prestigious event must produce a recognisable tune rather than a plumbing anomaly. On some islands fishermen announce they have fish for sale by sounding a conch shell. At the Turks conch festival, contestants in the conch-blowing section often announce they are just about to suffer a prolapse.
Everywhere serves conch. Stuart Gray’s Coco Bistro offers conch ravioli with sweet pepper and rose sauce. The Beach House serves a salad with heirloom tomatoes wrapped in rice paper. Hemingway’s offers conch fingers.
Blue Hills Road, off the Leeward Highway, has conch shacks where you “eat” rather than “dine”. Menus include conch sautéed in rum and butter sauce. Your waiter will even wade out to sea and select a conch for you.
You can’t get away from the white-meated , Strombus. Or tropical escargot.
Having eaten conch in its cracked (fried), frittered, sweet ‘n’ sour, smoked wonton form, I had developed many attributes of the great Caribbean gastropod.
I didn’t move very far. Or very quickly.
Columbus found conch on the Turks and Caicos islands in 1492. He described the shells as “the size of a calf head”. Provo has the world’s only commercial conch farm and you can do the tour and learn all you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask about edible trumpets.
The conch is called “Titan’s Trumpet”. It is reputed to be the instruments most favoured by mermaids and mermen.
Providenciales (Provo) island, 550 miles from Florida, is becoming increasingly known for its luxury real estate and resorts.
Accommodation ranges from plush sprawling five-star, all-inclusive resorts with well-rehearsed, super-casual staff and as-much-as-you-can-heap-on-a-plate buffets to marvellous B&B establishments such as Columbus Slept Here. The Sibonne Beach Resort on Grace Bay is run by a Scots couple, Ken and Sandra McLeod.
The island is developing fast. It saw its first car in 1964. The locals or “belongers” are descendants of African slaves brought over by loyalists from Georgia and south Carolina to grow cotton and sisal. Mopeds can be hired to tour the 30sq km island and 230 miles of fairly empty beaches.
A half-hour flight away from Provo is seven-mile long by one wide Grand Turk, the administrative capital of the British Dependent Territory. Cockburn Town is a charmingly sleepy place where a tailback means two bicyclists stopping to talk to each other on Front Street.
Two Australian sisters run the award-winning Grand Turk Inn which boasts Conch Cottage. It is a former Methodist Manse. Pillory Beach is where Columbus made his landfall. As did astronaut John Glenn in 1962.
The National Museum possesses the hull and rigging of the Molasses Reef, the oldest shipwreck in the New World. The 150-year-old lighthouse was made in Britain. For real exclusivity, there is The Meridian Club on Pine Cay. The 800-acre island has its own airstrip and cars are banned. The favoured mode of transport is electric golf carts.
There are no phones on the island. The only bright lights you will see will be on a glowworm cruise. On Pine Cay (another “elegant lodging option”), iguanas outnumber humans 100 to one. Although sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
As the Meridian Club’s postcard says, “Many a Caribbean island has been bludgeoned to ruin with people’s careless tinkering. But not Salt Cay. It remains as close to authentic traditional Caribbean island life as you will find.”
Between January and April whales mate offshore. Divers check out the wreck of the British warship, Endymion, which sank in 1790 and was discovered in 1991. One moment you can be swimming in a school of creole wrasse and the next be in the company of zebra-striped high hats and long-jaw squirrelfish. You mustn’t get in the middle of mating whales.
Checking in to the 1832 The Mount Pleasant Guesthouse, I was greeted with the words “Welcome to the Island Time Forgot. To the Land of Hand-Raked Salt. All sixty-three of us wish you a good time.”
Salt Cay is the only place in the world I have been where I have been told to keep to the left because livestock has the right of way. It is also the only place where I have had to wave down a plane.
“Don’t worry, man. You don’t need a ticket to get back to Provo,” I was told as I walked the Salinas. “Just stand on the airstrip, wave your hands in the air and the pilot will come and pick you up. No problem.”
A tiny tin bus-shelter doubled as the departure lounge. I stood in front of it and seeing the Provo-bound plane overhead, I started waving frantically. The pilot saw me and came in to land. I had a 20-yard walk to the plane.