In The News
Turks and Caicos - like home, only better
Source: MSN Travel
By Alyssa Schwartz
Our writer visits the famed Grace Bay and discovers it's worth veering off the tried-and-true all-inclusive track
This is going to sound distinctly un-Canadian of me. And yes, it probably makes me a snob. But the thought of vacationing at a Caribbean all-inclusive has never been the most tantalizing of getaway options. While a place with hot sun, cool blue seas and a whirring blender full of frozen drinks is one I visit often in my mind, the phrase "package deal" has always invoked images of wristbands, beer chugging contests at the pool and godawful food. And so I have stayed away.
But Providenciales, notable for an almost complete lack of all-inclusives, promises a different type of Caribbean getaway. Provo, as it's commonly called, is the most populous island in Turks and Caicos. But though it emerged as a travel destination on the heels of Club Med, which opened in the '90s, much of its boom has been around condominiums and world-class resorts that have cultivated a more sophisticated flavour (if you're looking for a good ole-fashioned, laid-back beach vacation though, don't let this deter you. The island is the antithesis of pretension).
When we arrive at the tiny Provo airport early on a Wednesday afternoon, I can literally feel a drop in my blood pressure, even as we work our way through the usual airport routine. While customs lineups back home are synonymous with words like stress and chaos, at Turks and Caicos' main airport, a ceiling fan whirls lazily over our heads as we wait our turn (it's not a long wait - outside of peak times - like Christmas - we're told airport traffic is often one flight at a time). The customs officer is mostly concerned with how the weather back in Canada compares and whether this is our first visit to Turks and Caicos. As we're about to discover, everyone on the island considers himself an ambassador.
We're greeted at Seven Stars resort with ice-cold glasses of rum punch, and immediately whisked off on a tour of the property by the front-desk manager before being shown to our room. Though the resort has all the amenities you'd expect of a five-star resort - spa, tennis courts, pool, several eateries - and though its three towers sparked controversy over their height when the property went up two years ago (with seven stories, they are the tallest on the island), the feeling is quaint and personal. Unlike monster-sized resorts or cruise ships where it takes half your vacation to learn your way from the beach back to your room, we have our bearings immediately.
Though the best thing about vacationing is being away, it's impressive how quickly Seven Stars, and its environs, feel like home - though a more aspirational version of it. The kitchen in our two-bedroom suite has more appliances and nifty gadgets than I own (lots of sleek and modern Krupps toys and more than a dozen different types of drinking glasses and cups) and the décor is elegantly curated and appropriately Tommy Bahamas-esque. The master bedroom and wraparound terrace both overlook Grace Bay, the 20-kilometre stretch of fine, white sandy beach and turquoise waters on the Atlantic side of the island where Seven Stars is nestled. The beach is rated one of the world's 10 most beautiful by Conde Nast Travel magazine - which makes it better than home. Much, much better.
But it's the people that make Provo so instantly comfortable. Our first night we venture out to Caicos Café, an open air restaurant across the street from the resort. A family-run café, owned by French expats Pierrik Marziou and his partner, Daphne, Caicos is that tiny restaurant you wish was your local - fresh-baked breads, simple, French-inspired dishes that incorporate local flavors and seafood (think yellowtail in white wine and lemon sauce, local mahi mahi and grouper, and conch ... lots and lots of conch), and a crowd that makes you feel like you belong there.
Though it's after nine on a Wednesday, late in the tourist season, there are a handful of locals dining solo at the bar and the wooden tables on the deck are mostly full. Sipping on sparkling wine and munching addictive, spicy spring rolls - a house specialty - while we wait for a table, we're drawn into conversation with a couple of Canadians who now call Provo home. My travel companion, who is fluent in French, chats comfortably with Daphne, one of the proprietors, and she kisses us on both cheeks, French-style, when we go to leave (when we visit Daphne's store, Rumors, adjacent to the restaurant, a few days later, we get a similarly warm greeting).
Because Grace Bay is so small - all of the hotels and restaurants are strung along one main road (Seven Stars offers a free shuttle along the strip; the beauty of not staying at an all-inclusive is that you actually leave the resort) - we encounter the same expats again and again over the course of our five-day stay. Like certainly attracts like, and somehow we manage to connect with a number of Canadians who have forsaken the cold on a more permanent basis. The expat community is highly social (from the frequency at which they dine out it would not surprise me if living quarters in Provo did not have kitchens), and there's a scene built around particular nights of the week - live music and Tex Mex at the open-air Somewhere on the Beach on Thursday nights, Fridays at Vix and the neighbouring Wine Bar and so on. While you might expect the locals to be protective of their haunts and exclusive with these routines, the opposite is true. Part of my resistance to all-inclusives is that they seem so anonymous, but our local interactions make our visit to Provo feel personal, full of "Eat, Pray, Love" moments.
Though the beauty of Provo may lie in its beaches and community, the third jewel in its crown is that there is quite simply nothing to do there. No shopping, mostly quiet night life. On our third day on the island, we take a half-day boat and snorkelling excursion to Ft. George Cay, a secluded, pristine beach accessible only by boat. The hotel sends along a simple picnic of wraps and fresh fruit and Veuve Cliquot. And as I gaze out at the bands of white sand, topped by a wide stripe of turquoise sea and then even bluer sky and munch my sandwich and sip my champagne, I can't help but think about the brown-bagged lunch I could be eating at home. And so while my stay in Turks feels as comfortable and familiar as home, it's also just so much better. And like home, I can't wait to get back there.
If you go:
Seven Stars Grace Bay
P.O. Box 432
Grace Bay Road
120 suites ranging from 600 to 4,000 sq., starting from $290 off-season, $350 in the winter
Caicos Café Caicos Café Plaza, Grace Bay Rd., Grace Bay, Providenciales
Somewhere on the Beach
Coral Gardens Resort, Providenciales
Vix and The Wine Bar