There are two kinds of islands in the Caribbean: some like St. Thomas are volcanic and scenically very beautiful with dramatic vistas from the mountain tops. Others like the Bahamas are created over the millennia by coral deposits on reefs and have nice beaches, but are flat and hard to spot from the sea until you are almost on top of them. The Turks and Caicos are among the latter. They are two small island groups - about 28 islands in all with a total population of less than 10,000 people. They were part of the British Commonwealth and grouped in with Jamaica until it achieved independence. Then they were grouped with the Bahamas until they became independent. Now they are still nominally under British control, but pretty much left to their own devices.
Most major cruise companies have a beach stop, often at a resort of their own making. The beach resort in Grand Turk is less than a year old and we could still detect the smell of fresh paint. The obvious draw was a huge beach thick with powdery white sand. As we sailed in we could see row after row of beach chairs, punctuated by cabanas. For those who have had enough of salt water, a huge winding swimming pool was also available. A few shops with names recognizable to cruisers were also open, so jewelry, T-shirts, and duty free liquor were easy to purchase. There were also small shops for locals to market their wares. Many of these did not have tenants yet; word still has to get out.
One of the reasons we came on this cruise is that we had never been to the Turks. From what we can tell hardly anyone has ever been here apart from serious divers. Its reefs line an ocean canyon over 7,000 feet deep and the undersea life is relatively pristine. Therefore, we chose an excursion that would take us to swim with the sting rays, eat fresh conch, and go to a snorkeling beach. The tour sounded much nicer in its description that it turned out to be in its execution. The tour was oversold and it was had to find a place to be on the boat. Although it was supposed to be an English speaking tour, the boat was packed with Italians and we were reminded that while we love the country of Italy, we are often not so fond of its residents. They still smoke like chimneys and are very pushy; getting in an orderly line is not in their national psyche. The captain of the boat tried to explain what the tour comprised, but his speakers were weak and the Italians carried on animated conversations in their loud, oblivious way and we didn't have a clue what we were about to experience.
Our first stop was to see the sting rays. We had done this before in the Cayman Islands and on that tour the rays outnumbered us significantly and we were coached on how to gently offer a hunk of fish to be sucked out of our hands as they swam by. This beach only had three or four rays and they were quickly surrounded by shrieking Italians, reaching out to touch them. If I had been a sting ray I would have felt very alarmed and my thoughts had to turn to the recent death of Steve Irwin.
Then our guide swam onto the reef and brought back a conch shell with its tenant still living inside. He dug out the large, slug-like animal, peeled it, and offered pieces for us to taste. You couldn't have asked for a fresher piece of sea food, but he didn't portion it very well and it was gone before everyone who wanted a taste could have one.
Our snorkeling stop could have been a great one, if the seas had not been so rough. We caught tantalizing glimpses of forests of coral, but only could see about three feet ahead of us. As we were tossed to and fro in the surf, we swam hard to stay in view of one another and the ship. From our stop on the sting ray beach we knew that the boat crew would leave without bothering to count if everyone was back on board. There were other boats in the area and it would have been easy to become permanent residents of Grand Turk. On board the captain got out his first aid kit to patch up the weaker swimmers who had not managed to keep their knees and feet off the coral as they snorkeled past. I had to wonder why the captain did not take us to a more sheltered spot. We could see numerous tiny islands around us that could have broken the wind and made the snorkeling safer and more fun.
Oh well. I'd come here again, but I just might stick to those beach chairs on that sandy beach and leave the boat to the Italians.