On Turks & Caicos nature takes a bow

Associate editor Kimberly Scholz sampled the sunny side of the Turks & Caicos and found it to her liking. Here is her report:

PROVIDENCIALES, Turks & Caicos -- For sun, sand and sea, this is the place to be.

But if it's museums and attractions you're after, go elsewhere.

OK, so Provo, as locals call Providenciales, does have the world's only conch farm. Beyond that, the pickings are slim.

I didn't mind. The beaches gave me plenty to do.

I caught up on my reading, I felt sun on my face, and I was mesmerized by the blue sky and the turquoise sea.

I did not spot JoJo, however.

He's an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin and perhaps the most famous resident in the islands.

JoJo has been swimming in the Grace Bay area for the past 12 years and is very much at ease with humans.

He even has a project named after him, which studies his behavior and environment and protects him from harm.

To protect me from the sun, I ventured off the beach in search of sunscreen and activities.

Most of the latter revolved around the water and included sailing to Parrot Cay, a private island with a spa-equipped resort, and shelling on the shores of Fort George Cay.

My land activity was a visit to the Caicos Conch Farm, which proved more interesting than I thought it would.

A word to the squeamish: Conches aren't pretty, despite their pink outer shells. The body inside is a mass of black slime and muscle.

The guided tour included the egg farm, the hatchery, nursery ponds and food-raising tanks.

Hatching takes place in the summer, when the eggs are transferred from one vat to another and can be seen by the naked eye. At that point, the eggs are about two centimeters, the size of a thumbnail.

The farm has a small gift shop selling empty conch shells and and related items.

I headed back toward the beach and Leeward Marina, the departure point for fishing excursions, sightseeing tours and ferry services to other islands in the chain.

The trip to Parrot Cay took about 30 minutes by high-speed ferry.

Parrot Cay is home to a resort of the same name, complete with a spa, an infinity-edged pool and one of the prettiest white sand beaches I've ever seen.

Several travel publications have tagged this stretch of beach one of the most beautiful in the world. I agree.

A sand bar in front of the resort stretches out for what seems like miles, with water no deeper than mid-calf.

Shells that collect in this area tend to be unbroken and make great souvenirs.

The Asian-themed Shambhala spa offers body wraps, scrubs, facials and massages for individuals or couples.

Parrot Cay
Phone: (800) 628-8929 or (649) 946-7788
Fax: (649) 946-7789
Web: www.parrot-cay.com
E-mail: [email protected]

Leeward Marina also is the jumping-off point for Sand Dollar Cruisin' sightseeing excursions.

A five-minute jaunt from the marina is Little Water Cay, also called Iguana Cay after the 50,000 scaly inhabitants that roam freely in the nature reserve there, part of the 150-acre Princess Alexandra National Park.

The rock iguanas especially like red toenail polish, according to Allen Ray, owner of Sand Dollar Cruisin'.

"They think the polished toenails are berries, one of their favorite foods," he said.

Half-day excursions visit Little Water Cay and then sail on to a snorkel spot at the barrier reef that surrounds most of Providenciales.

Snorkel equipment, drinks and snacks are included in the tour.

After snorkeling, we stopped at several uninhabited islands to shell and gather sand dollars (a form of sea urchin), which Ray had promised us we would find.

"I guarantee that everyone on my tours leaves with at least one sand dollar," he said. "That's where we got our name."

Fort George Cay, a tiny island between Water Cay and Parrot Cay, is a great place to shell. I found shells on the beach and in shallow water in all shapes, sizes and colors, from bright reds and purples to muted variations of pink and orange.

Guests should be prepared to bring their own bag or bucket to stash their collection of shells.

Sand Dollar Cruisin' also offers a secluded island getaway, a Middle Caicos cave tour and a North Caicos scooter trip.

Rates start at $35 per person for the boat trips and $140 for the cave and scooter excursions.

Sand Dollar Cruisin'
Phone/Fax: (649) 946-5238
Web: www.sanddollar.tc
E-mail: [email protected]

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