Bernard Lagan snorkels with a barracuda and samples conch in the Caribbean of old.
In the mid-1970s a lanky, young American engineer, Chuck Hesse, stumbled upon a sliver of land in the far west of the North Atlantic. He anchored a little yacht, Alandra, which he'd sailed on a rough and sickly passage down the east coast of the US, and decided to stay on those far-away islands the Turks and Caicos, east of Cuba.
It was then a forgotten archipelago of fishermen, ragged sea ports, remnants of pirates, a few sullen strangers escaping a past and the "Belongers", as the close-knit islanders descended from African slaves are known. Held by the British since they drove off the French and Spaniards in 1799, the islands have been visited by the Queen just once, in 1966. She has never been back.
The beauty of the islands ringed by the world's third-largest coral reef, filled with exotic fish in an azure sea so struck Hesse that he and his marine biologist wife soon founded an organisation to fight their commercial exploitation.
The bleached, frail hull of the Alandra now rests upon the sandy stone at the marine farm outside the old seaport town of Providenciales, where these days Hesse grows and exports conch ("konk"), the huge saltwater snails that live in the warm shallows. For a small fee the island people employed here will show visitors the mysterious world of the giant snails and what an environmentally friendly island enterprise looks like.
Directly across the road, however, is a garish testament to the rise of the empty money men who Hesse feared; it is the $US8 million ($10.7million) home of the recently resigned, locally elected premier of the islands. Its mock Corinthian columns, deep green lawns and tall gates indicate the pretensions of its occupant one Michael Misick, who paid himself more than the prime minister of Britain, blew millions on jets, servants and a US television starlet wife and duchessed foreign and sometimes shady land developers. He resigned late last year after suspicious British MPs forced a public inquiry into corruption on the islands. Britain, which retains the Turks and Caicos as an overseas territory, is preparing to take back day-to-day control by expanding the powers of the governor-general.
For once, it's not too late. The property sharks have been stopped or at least checked before the beachfronts could be plastered with more stacked concrete boxes.
The charm of this place is that it is still possible to see the old Caribbean: tall, graceful people walk slowly to churches, hundreds gather on a Saturday to fly quirky home-made kites, rusty freighters laze around the archipelago, young men dive into the sea and share their catch with visitors. Nightlife is mostly confined to a beer and fresh fish in a beachside shack amid the casuarinas where you can watch startling sunsets and try to catch the mysterious green flash on the horizon that often occurs at sundown. Did Christopher Columbus see it when he sailed through these islands on his way to the New World in 1492? What is not here makes the islands special. You won't trip over bodies on packed beaches, be assaulted by jet skis, harassed by hawkers, cornered and ripped off by resorts nor be discouraged by rental car prices.
The island's international airport is just outside Providenciales. Close by is the gem among the island beaches Grace Bay, a mesmerising 20 kilometres of pastel sand and turquoise sea, chosen by readers of Britain's The Sunday Times newspaper as the world's most beautiful beach.
A reef stretches across the bay, providing an underwater amphitheatre for bathers to float in still, translucent water and for snorkellers and divers to watch the fish flash by.
If you're staying in one of the many hotels or apartments on the long Grace Bay strip, the tour boats will pick you up from the beach right in front of your room. We chose Reef Peepers because it had a catamaran with a glass hull so non-swimmers can enjoy the submarine views, too. The small but impressively stable Reef Peepers catamaran cruised into the beach right on 9am, the stereo blaring Crowded House.
The first stop is Iguana Island, a sanctuary also known as Little Water Cay, where rare rock iguanas plod about while you make a guided circuit on a boardwalk raised just above the sand. Then onto a nearby reef to moor and get snorkelling. The water is so clear and calm that our seven-year-old jumped off the boat without hesitation and we bobbed happily about for 20 minutes or so in this wild aquarium. There was even a reef shark and a barracuda but we didn't swim towards those. By then the rum punch was flowing and the stereo was pumping. It was time to gather lunch.
Captain Santo and his first mate, Joel, dived for conch. Within half an hour they had hauled 15 big, beautiful, shimmering pink conch onto the boat. They juiced limes, lemons and oranges and diced onions, tomatoes, chillis and capsicums to prepare a delicious conch ceviche.
To experience simpler, genuine island food, head to the old Blue Hills district in Providenciales for lunch or dinner. This is the remnant of the town as it was before the islands caught the eye of international tour operators. The rundown road is dotted with little beach shacks that serve island seafood including the luscious conch. And be sure to try a cold bottle of the local Turks Head Lager and toast the old, slower Caribbean. It will not last.
For now, though, it's a cheaper alternative than the Bahamas and several US airlines have daily flights into Providenciales, taking two to three hours. Rentals cars are cheap and Australians will feel at home in a land where you drive on the left-hand side of the road.
The Turks and Caicos are not as super-heated as the Virgin Islands or the Bahamas. Nor as cool. Sometimes less is more.
Miami is the nearest major airport if coming from Australia. Delta flies non-stop from Sydney to Los Angeles and then on with another change of aircraft in Atlanta for $1330. (Melbourne passengers pay the same and fly Virgin Blue to Sydney.) Qantas charges $1249 flying non-stop to LA and then a partner airline to Miami. American Airlines has a return fare from Miami to Providenciales from $US338 ($452). Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney (unless otherwise stated) and do not include tax, which varies depending on airline, itinerary, stopovers and time of payment.
Staying and eating there
On the lovely curve of Grace Bay are plenty of hotels and serviced apartments. The flashier hotels include the Regent Grand and The Sands, which has one of the best outdoor bars in the world. Hemingway's evokes the life of the great writer and has a mammoth bar-top shaped like a bay.
We chose the less expensive option of a serviced apartment at Grace Bay's Alexandra Resort. Two-bedroom units are from $US540 ($721) a night, a one-bedroom unit costs $US300 ($400). See www.alexandraresort.com.
For a reasonably priced, memorable lunch or dinner try the casual, breezy Conch Shack in the Blue Hills district of Providenciales. Dine right upon the beach front and watch the conch fishermen at work.