When you first see it, you can’t believe it.

Flying high over the Atlantic Ocean, you descend through the clouds to see endless azure water in shades of blue and turquoise you never thought existed. Welcome to the turquoise waters and white sand beaches of the Turks and Caicos Islands. I’d read about them for years and always wanted to see Grace Bay Beach on the island of Providenciales, which is ranked as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. To me, every beach is beautiful in its own unique way. How much more beautiful can one beach be over others? Just wait and see.

Pittsburgh to Provo

Let’s start with a little history and geography. Turks and Caicos is made up of 40 coral islands in the Atlantic Ocean southeast of the Bahamas and, like the Bahamas, is a British Overseas Territory. They drive on the “wrong” side of the road here, but use the U.S. dollar as the official currency. Getting here is easy taking only about an hour longer than flying to South Florida. You won’t find a nonstop flight from Pittsburgh, but Delta, American, United, Jet Blue and Southwest will all get you to the main tourist hub of Providenciales island with one plane change. Providenciales (“Provo” for short) is home to most of the country’s small population and also most of the resorts, restaurants, shops and condo/villa rentals. The Caicos Islands are larger than the Turk Islands though Grand Turk is the capital and hosts the cruise ship port. One thing you’ll notice right away is how quiet these islands are compared to other Caribbean destinations. The entire 170 square miles of Turks & Caicos are home to just over 35,000 people – half that of Grand Cayman. There is plenty to do here, but the main attraction is the calm, relaxed vibe coupled with the incredible beaches and light blue water. Maybe it’s because of the smaller population and lack of hustle and bustle, but the people here are just so laid back and genuinely friendly and welcoming. If you’re searching for late night clubs blaring dance music and a rowdy bar scene, this is not your place. But if you’re searching for serenity, beauty, snorkeling and diving teeming with colorful coral and marine life plus the most beautiful beach you’ve ever seen... you’ve found your paradise.

Underwater wonderland

Providenciales airport is a quick 15 minute cab ride from Grace Bay Beach, the world famous three mile stretch of powdery white sand unspoiled by seaweed, jellyfish or rocks and lapped by warm water so crystal clear that I could still look down and see my toes after wading out into water up to my chest. That water is perfect for all sorts of fun like paddle boarding, kayaking, jet skiing and of course snorkeling and diving. You’ll find two terrific snorkel spots right along shore at Coral Gardens – by Somewhere Cafe – and at Smith’s Reef – just west of Grace Bay.

The beach stretches nearly seven miles with the main stretch of three miles dubbed Grace Bay Beach. This was absolutely my most favorite spot for diving yet. The 14-mile barrier reef on Provo’s north shore hosts bright orange, purple, neon green and even black corals plus sea turtles, angelfish, barracuda and parrotfish.

Out to the west, we spent time exploring the wall off West Caicos that stretches all the way to Grand Turk island and drops off dramatically from a shallow reef to deeper than 6,800 feet. Nurse and reef sharks, grouper, eels and stingray caught our eye when we weren’t mesmerized by peacock flounder and lobsters hiding on the bottom or spotting butterfly fish and pufferfish weaving in and out of the coral.

I spent three days diving with Caicos Adventures and they are a top notch diving outfit from top to bottom. They also operate daily snorkel tours for all ages.

If you’re not quite ready to take up scuba, try a half day snorkel outing with Caicos Dream Tours. They pulled the double decker catamaran right up to the beach to pick us up then took a leisurely ride about 15 minutes off Provo to a colorful snorkel spot on the reef. Once we dried off and had a rum punch, we pulled ashore on Half Moon Bay, a private island that is actually a sandbar created by Hurricane Donna in 1960. It’s only reachable by boat with a gorgeous, secluded beach. The only residents here are dozens of iguanas who playfully scurry around and will gladly snatch up pieces of fruit tossed their way.

The price of paradise

There’s no shortage of places to stay here especially with beachfront properties as an option.

But, this blue water paradise definitely comes at a price when compared to other Caribbean destinations and Mexico. Don’t expect to find a hotel room here for under $150 per night and that’s not even in high season. On the other hand, if you’re looking for luxury, you’ll find everything you want in Grace Bay.

We tried a bit of both starting with a few nights at the charming and more affordable Sibonne Beach Hotel. This two story, quaint hotel was built before Turks and Caicos became a luxury beach destination and still boasts only 30 rooms. Most of them have some sort of water view and you’re only 300 feet from the ocean. It’s quiet and clean and the staff is wonderful.

The bonus find here is Bay Bistro, the oceanfront restaurant at Sibonne. The London- trained chef and owner at Bay Bistro created a menu combining fresh Caicos seafood with an international flair. The blue cheese and pear salad, almond crusted grouper and homemade ice cream were fresh, delicious and truly a memorable meal.

With meals I won’t soon forget in mind, we hopped a taxi further down the beach to the swank and trendy Wymara Resort for dinner at Stella. The chef here took inspiration from his native Southeast Asia and paired it with Caribbean cuisine to create dishes like succulent stewed mahi mahi. This was a sort of mahi mahi curry with coconut milk and is one of the most delectable things I’ve ever tasted.

We were really spoiled the last few nights of our trip by staying at the Grace Bay Club just a half mile or so from Sibonne Beach Hotel. This is luxury at its finest with a delicious buffet breakfast featuring fresh squeezed citrus juices, your own personal concierge, an on-site spa and late night drinks by the infinity pool bar.

One surefire fun event not to miss won’t cost you a penny unless you can’t resist some tasty treats from the food stands at the Island Fish Fry every Thursday night at Bight Park.

The island’s tourist board puts together this festival featuring local restaurants, entertainment and artists including live music on stage and a Junkanoo band parading through the crowd – think marching band complete with Carnivale costumes.

If you arrive hungry, you can feast on scrumptious conch fritters, coconut shrimp and curry oxtail and sample the Turks Head craft beer made right on the island.

As we munched on fresh, tasty seafood and danced along with the Junkanoo band under the stars, we savored this first trip to Turks & Caicos and knew it definitely would not be our last.

Columnist

Kristin Emery is a meteorologist at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, an O-R columnist, and writer for Total Health magazine and other publications. Kristin is a Washington native and a graduate of Washington High School and West Virginia University.

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