TURKS & CAICOS – The indigenous people of Hawai’i are called kanaka. In the state of Indiana, they improbably go by “hoosiers.” And across the azure archipelago of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), the locals are “Belongers,” an epithet that needs no explanation.
These days, it’s never been clearer who belongs somewhere and who doesn’t. Basically, we all belong at home, because, Covid. But like non-Belongers throughout history, humans are compelled to journey to places they perhaps should not. And so it was that I found myself traipsing across some of TCI’s lesser-known spots this past winter on a three-week escape from New York City. This wasn’t my first time to the islands, and I was eager to meet the people beyond the glittering resorts of Providenciales, the go-to island for luxury tourism.
First Things First: The Covid Question
The British Overseas Territory of the Turks & Caicos Islands is comprised of two island groups: the Turks Islands of Grand Turk and Salt Cay to the east, and the larger Caicos Islands of Providenciales (“Provo”), North Caicos, Middle Caicos, East Caicos, South Caicos and West Caicos to the west. In total, there are 40 different islands and cays, of which only eight are inhabited by about 44,000 Belongers. In the pre-Covid era, TCI would log than a million visitors to their shores annually, though mostly on Grand Turk via cruise ship.
As of early April 2021, TCI had reported 2,344 Covid-19 cases and 17 deaths. Before entering TCI as an American visitor, I needed to complete a travel authorization form, purchase specific Covid-19-related insurance, which I got from American Express for $32, and bring proof of a negative PCR test conducted within 72 hours of my flight’s departure.
This year, curfews ranging from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. have been frequent and fluctuating. (TCI Assured on the Turks and Caicos Tourism website has the latest information.) When I was there in February, restaurants had to close by 5 p.m. and could only offer delivery or take-out, but I found a clever workaround to safely tuck into some authentic island dishes after dark.
The Chef from South Caicos
While dining options may be limited, private chefs can still work, not the least of whom is Nikita O'Neil Skippings, the official culinary ambassador of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Born and raised on South Caicos, Chef Nik is a towering man with a booming voice and wide smile. He vibrates with a childlike energy and is something of a local celebrity. (Ask just about any Belonger and you’ll get an, “Oh, yes, I know Nik.”) His father owned Smokey’s, a beloved BBQ restaurant on Provo, and Nik followed in his food-loving footsteps, opening the restaurant Crackpot Kitchen in Grace Bay on Provo, followed by private cooking classes and a catering business. A food truck is forthcoming.
On TCI you can’t escape conch. (Cue Bubba and that shrimp scene in “Forrest Gump.”) Menus abound with conch fritters, cracked conch, conch ceviche, conch tacos. Chef Nik agrees. “Before I started my restaurant, it was all conch, conch, conch.” But knowing that there was more to island food than the ubiquitous, chewy sea snail, he made it his mission to inspire visitors to look beyond the expected on resort menus. “What you come to the Turks and Caicos and eat pizza and pasta for? You don’t want to sit down and eat no risotto!”
The national dish is hominy: “Grits with everything in it.” Made from ground corn, it has long been a hearty food for hard-working people. “You didn’t have too much of anything,” Nik explains. “The typical household had to make do.” Locals would scoop up the leftovers from ships anchored along the shores, learning how to make dishes out of the barrels of salted pig tails or piles of fish.
Not unlike a crew at sea, Nik and his sous chef Carol Silvero commandeered my kitchen at The Yacht Club for a private cooking session, animatedly walking me through a menu of hominy with pigeon peas, conch (inevitably), pumpkin, smoked pork, and a storm of spices. He pan-fried two fresh snappers, whipped up a tomato-based Creole sauce, and served it all with avocado verde and sweet fried plantains. The local Bambarra rum was flowing throughout the cooking session. No one was yearning for pizza.
Chef Nik’s childhood home of South Caicos island is known to still embody an “Old Caribbean” lifestyle, a place where you’ll find only three resorts and docile donkeys roaming the brush. But to go back even further, to the most indigenous people of these islands, you’ll have to start with the Lucayans.
The Belongers Before
TCI is part of the Lucayan Archipelago, which comprises the Bahamas-Turks and Caicos island chain. The Lucayans died within one generation of Columbus’s arrival, as did so many indigenous peoples when the Europeans made landfall in North America. While much of their history was lost, scholars do know that the Lucayans enjoyed fresh fish, lobster, corn, yucca, and, of course, conch, along with lesser-seen menu items today like rodent, iguana, and tortoise. More than a shared cuisine, they left the Turks & Caicos Islands with an enduring legacy: its name. In their Arawak language, cayo meant “shallow water islands.” (There are conflicting stories about the provenance of “Turks.” It could refer to the Turk’s Head cacti, a rare but standout plant with a reddish-cap top, like a fez, or the Barbary pirates who sailed the Caribbean at a time when “Turk” was synonymous with “pirate.”)
A piece of Lucayan living is still found today on Middle Caicos. Nestled at the end of a dirt road in the Village of Conch Bar is a single thatch-roofed hut — a re-creation of a traditional Lucayan dwelling. Beyond that, a walkway made of fossilized coral leads to the entrance of 100,000-year-old limestone caves. Inside was where the Lucayan chief and his family would have lived (no huts for them) and where community rites and ceremonies took place.
Travelers can wander through these Conch Bar Caves (reservations required, +1-649-247-3157), which is where I met Demitri Harvey, a guide from the Turks & Caicos National Trust. A lanky twentysomething wearing a bright green bandana over his braids, he handed me a flashlight. and off we went into the cool darkness. The Trust protects the one-and-a-half miles of underground caverns, one of the largest cave systems in the Caribbean. Exploring some of its “chambers,” you may happen upon a small tidal lagoon or a colony of friendly (through copious) bats. A Belonger himself, Demitiri carried his flashlight as more of a prop, while mine was a requisite for survival. “I used to play hide-and-seek here as a kid.” Yes, here, inside this ancient structure, a portal to the islands’ little-told history.
A Strong People
It’s best to think of North and Middle Caicos as twin islands, connected by a causeway, with fewer than 2,000 full-time residents between them. North Caicos is lush and green, with pink flamingoes and a massive pine forest that’s a beautiful complement to its shocking blue sea. Fruit trees dot the shorelines — guava, sapodillas, and sugar apples. It’s sister, Middle, is an emerald paradise and home to Mudjin Harbor, a jaw-dropping cove that conjures up an improbable mix of Scottish cliffs and Thai vistas.
Before you go to either island, find a man named Maclean “Charles” Handfield. The owner of Belmont Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org, +1-649-247-7880), he’s a deeply knowledgeable and moving guide to the history of these two islands. (Day-long group tours cost $245 per person and are currently limited to five people. Private tours are $800 per person, including pick-up and drop-off in Provo and ferry fare.)
“I’m not ashamed that I’m descended from slaves,” Handfield tells me as he and Cynclair Musgrove, the district commissioner for North and Middle Caicos, walk me over the grounds of Wade’s Green Plantation on North. Surrounded by limestone walls hand-built by African slaves in 1798, the plantation, once overseen by the British loyalist Wade Stubbs, is not what you’d find on a tour in New Orleans or Georgia, which makes sense considering the history of the African slaves brought here is not the same as those brought to the U.S. either. In an unusual twist of fate, it’s actually better.
In 1824, after a failed 30-year go at finding a boom crop, Stubbs and his crew just left. By then, a generation or two knew this place as their only home and continued forward, creating self-sustaining villages, traditions, and local governments. This differed from other Caribbean islands like Haiti or Jamaica, or the United States itself, which continue to subjugate the descendants of slaves in ways both overt and insidious. The islands’ tight-knit homogeneity continued until very recent times. (Handfield admits, “I remember the first white family that I met — maybe around 1985 or ‘86.”)
Also unlike the American South, Wade’s Green Plantation offers no big house or rolling fields. It looks more like Roman ruins, with a few roofless structures within an encroaching huddle of trees. No matter: Handfield is able to conjure an entire world of characters through colorful descriptions and a personal connection to the plantation’s history. Like a kind schoolteacher, he asks leading questions he knows you can easily and happily answer. He poses some you’d never know, teeing up a little spiel he must’ve shared a thousand times, but delivers as if he’d just learned it that morning.
“I’m proud,” he says. “We come from a strong people.” That pride is apparent but not boastful and painfully well-earned. Not until the end of the tour does he seriously hold my gaze as we arrive at a structure with a blue-and-white tiled sign that reads “Slave Quarters.” That betrays the truer and more sinister purpose of the building, which was to imprison and “break in” the African slaves who would be forced to work for Wade Stubbs. Handfield more accurately refers to it as “Torture Chamber.” His bright caramel eyes bore into mine, and he says with that quiet but firm resolve, “We were strong people physically. Mentally. And spiritually.”
Commissioner Musgrove also traces her roots to the Africans who worked this plantation. “We’re resilient. Not resentful,” she adds. Her love of the place is apparent in her book of poetry, Turks and Caicos Pride: People, Places, Politics, which celebrates nearly 100 local people including her father, who was a bush-medicine man. It’s Musgrove who points out a small green plant with a purple flower that catches her eye on the plantation grounds. “This plant is the cure for Covid.” I pause, staying reverently focused on the plant. I listen for Handfield, whose views I’ve quickly come to respect. “That’s no joke,” he says.
Then we pass a three-foot sisal plant, one of the plantation’s main crops that was used to make reams of rope for the booming 18th-century shipping industry. Eventually sisal was used for durable personal goods like rugs. “I did a lot of sisal rug making in my day,” Handfield recalls. “It itches your skin a lot,” Musgrove chimes in.
More traditional handicrafts are sold at the Middle Caicos Co-Op, now located on North Caicos. In operation for more than two decades, the creative consortium of about 60 local artists aims to preserve the culture and heritage of TCI and create a sustainable economy for the artisans. This is not chintzy stuff. You’ll find straw beach bags, slippers, and bowls that could sell in SoHo for hundreds of dollars, hand-painted watercolors of blue or red doorways, stunning shorelines, and profiles of proud Belongers.
The Last Shall Be First
In spite of the million or so visitors who come here every year, Turks and Caicos still seems like a sleepy and undiscovered corner of the Caribbean.
On one of my last days on Provo, I meet a cab driver called Dr. Love. He hails from Middle, but has traveled the world during his 73 years. Belonger of Belongers, he claims heritage from three indigenous tribes as well as Scottish settlers. “As the Bible says,” he reminds me, “‘The last shall be first and the first shall be last!’ Turks and Caicos was the first land to be discovered by Christopher Columbus, and is the last to be developed.”
One can only hope.
Where to Stay, Beyond Grace Bay
No one’s going to argue with staying on one of the world’s best-ranked beaches: Grace Bay on Providenciales. But if you want to stations yourself on other parts of TCI, here are a few starters.
Dragon Cay Resort is one of just a handful of places to stay on Middle, and abuts the resplendent Mudjin Harbor and rugged limestone cliffs. Meanwhile, on the tiny spit of land known as Parrot Cay, you’ll find the luxurious COMO Parrot Cay (and possibly the non-Belonger and supermodel Christie Brinkley, who lives on this cay.)
Back on Provo, you can sidestep the big resorts on Grace Bay and try a rental on the charming Turtle Cove Marina, close to excellent snorkeling on Smith’s Reef. A great option is The Yacht Club, a luxury condo development with units for rent on VRBO, Airbnb, or at YachtClubTC.com, which a smart entrepreneur created for the various Club units he owns.
If you want an even more secluded part of Providenciales, head (in a four-wheel vehicle) to Northwest Point Resort, where the road getting there hasn’t even been paved by the local government. It’s the perfect area for kiteboarding and peace. The only other place to stay on this far-flung corner of Provo is Amanyara, the ultra-luxury and revered Aman property whose name combines the Sanskrit-derived word for “peace” with yara, the word for “place” in the language of the indigenous Arawak (the Lucayans’ ancestors). Its 36 timber-shingled guest pavilions and 20 villas are indeed peacefully tucked between an 18,000-acre nature preserve and the crystalline turquoise sea.