Friday, January 27, 2006

Caribbean Dream

My wife and I returned last Tuesday from a great four-night trip to Providenciales, the most developed island in Turks and Caicos. We have tried to take one of these trips to different places each of the last four years, just to get away without the kids. What follows is an exhaustive review.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are a British Overseas Territory made up of eight islands and about 40 cays or keys located near the Bahamas. Eleven years ago, when we honeymooned in Saint Martin, T&C was not even listed in our Birnbaum's guidebook, but it is a growing tourist destination. We saw numerous resorts, hotels and condo developments under construction while we were there, and apparently a cruise stop is being built.

The flights both ways were good with a few exceptions. Because of schedules (ours, the kids, and the babysitter), we couldn't get a direct flight from BWI, but our layover in Miami was less than an hour. The plane to Providenciales was a jet (737 I think), which was a welcome sight considering the Tinkertoys that we have had to fly in the past (thank you, American Airlines). If not for the excessive flatulence of the passenger next to us, I would give the whole experience an A+. After about a half hour, we moved to the back row, which was technically off limits, but the flight attendants must have been aware of our noxious fellow traveler because they told us we could stay there. You know it's bad when the seats closest to the bathroom have more breathable air. When we arrived at the Provo airport, I saw him having a long discussion with the customs officials. Perhaps they, too, smelled something.

Our flights home had some drama, but none of it was ours. While we were waiting in line to check our bags, my wife smiled at a little girl waiting with her parents and two younger sisters. "She's been sick," her father volunteered cheerfully. "Actually, we all have." Trying to restrain the instinctive urge to move away, my wife smiled again and offered condolences, as our family had been through some of that before we left Baltimore. Naturally, moments later, the little darling vomited into the plastic grocery bag she was carrying, which it turned out, had a few holes in the bottom. I don't think the people around her would have moved any faster if she had pulled out an Uzi. Remaining thoughts of sympathy fell aside as self-preservation took over. Suddenly our greatest concern was not losing our luggage or making our connection, but seat assignment. Would it be worth paying for an upgrade to First Class to avoid this plague?

Fortunately, we were blessed to be seated a good many rows away from the afflicted clan and both flights were quite pleasant. We had a four-hour layover in Miami, but we knew we would be there a while, so we had a very good meal at the airport hotel restaurant and passed the time with some intriguing people-watching. First, we watched a businessman drink an entire bottle of wine with his dinner as the sun set. No phone calls, no paperwork, just a newspaper. He had to be pretty relaxed when he left. When we sat for dinner, I remarked that the best tables, the ones by the window, were full. One couple seated there completely wasted the location by having what looked like a pretty good row. Little was said, but the woman was crying and then quickly stood and stalked off. The guy sat and drank his wine, and after about 10 minutes asked the waiter where the bathrooms were. Shortly thereafter, they both returned and she sat in silence while he ate his meal. These two were on our flight and didn’t appear to have made up by the time we boarded. That had to be a tough 2 ½ hours.

Our transportation from the airport to the Royal West Indies resort hotel was on time and easy to find. It was dark, so the driver, Bradley, couldn't be much of a tour guide, but he did recommend three restaurants, all of which were excellent. The front desk staff was courteous and helpful, reminding us that the kitchen at the restaurant would be closing soon in case we were hungry.

The resort consists of eight three-story buildings, a total of 96 studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments. Ours was an “ocean view” studio and although we were in the building furthest from the beach, we were on the third floor and could see it from our balcony. We also had a small sitting area and a kitchenette with a full-size fridge, microwave and washer and dryer. There was no dishwasher, but the maids would clean any dirty dishes. Great accommodations.

The resort also had two small pools, a Jacuzzi, a restaurant, and staff to assist with water sports and excursions. The grounds were beautifully landscaped and the meandering walkways enhanced the tropical getaway feel, but the “Keep off the Grass” signs seemed a bit heavy-handed. Chairs, towels and umbrellas were available at the pools and beach.

Providenciales is known for the 12-mile long Grace Bay beach, and it is indeed beautiful. The sand, sun and water are just as they appear on the travel brochures and websites. In some places the beach is narrow, and we saw several sunbathers get themselves and their stuff soaked. As I mentioned earlier, there is a good deal of construction taking place, but we did not find that it detracted from our enjoyment of the beach. We had one day that was extremely windy, and the water actually had some strong waves, which I hadn’t seen before in the Caribbean and thoroughly enjoyed. By the next day, the water had calmed enough that we were able to go snorkeling. We tried Coral Gardens, which is a popular snorkeling spot, but we saw a lot more at Smith’s Reef, several miles further down the beach. We walked there from Coral Gardens, but it was a long way especially since we didn’t really know where we were going. There was only one other couple on the beach and nobody else snorkeling, which I found surprising because it was such a nice day.

Our long walk on the beach endured one of those marital moments where your spouse gives you the familiar “what were you thinking” look, and you start to wonder yourself. We’d been walking for about an hour, carrying snorkel equipment, it was warm, our water was running low, and around every turn of the shoreline lay more beach with no sign of snorkelers or the marina. Finally, we headed off the beach on a sandy path, trespassed through an opulent beachfront estate, and we were delivered into the hands of Austin, the proprietor of the Yacht Club at Turtle Cove Marina. Austin graciously pointed out restaurants and directions to the snorkeling spot and neatly nipped an impending spat in the bud.

For our vacation to be a success, we have to find good food. I have been to one all-inclusive resort, and the buffets were fine, but I have always enjoyed searching out good restaurants and never mind paying a little more. Our first full day, we ate breakfast at Mango Reef, the Royal West Indies on-site restaurant and, aside from the surly hostess, had an enjoyable meal. It was expensive, a theme that would be repeated everywhere we went, but we knew that going in. We had good lunches at the Barefoot Cafe, Carter’s Café, but the best lunch was at the Tiki Hut, one of Bradley’s recommended spots. Dinner at the Mango Reef was also good, with delicious appetizers, large entrée portions (too big really), and no rude hostess at night; dessert was just okay. Our second night, we were unable to get a reservation at Anacaona (Sundays are tough because many places are closed), so we headed to the Gecko Grille. It was good, but a step down from Mango Reef. The bar area looked like a Manhattan martini bar, but the outdoor seating lacked ambience. Our server was funny in a quirky way but slow even by island standards. And at dessert, he was replaced by none other than Miss Surly from Mango Reef, who rebuffed my wife’s request for a cappuccino mocha, replying, “Do we have that?” I was actually surprised when she did not reappear as a flight attendant on the trip home.

Dinner on the last night was at Coco Bistro, which was so good it merits its own paragraph. Again, we dined outdoors, but this time the setting – the lighting, landscaping and music- was perfect. I had had enough seafood by then, and the lamb chops were as good any I’ve had at a U.S. restaurant. Our server was terrific, bringing more ice when we needed it for the spicy sangria. The owner was warm and friendly, stopping by each table to chat. Coco Bistro has been there 25 years; as the owner said, “When we opened, the good news, no competition, the bad new, no customers.” This is a great French and Mediterranean restaurant with Caribbean influences that is impressive without trying to be too fancy.

All the restaurants were within walking distance. They are working on sidewalks and repaving the road, so it was dusty and dark at times, but we certainly felt safe and enjoyed being able to walk, especially after the dinners. On our first day, we went to the IGA grocery store to buy breakfast foods and snacks, which saved us some money and allowed us to have breakfast on our balcony each morning.

Getting around the island was easy. We purchased passes for the Gecko, a tour bus/taxi service. There are several Gecko vehicles, ranging from a fairly new coach-style bus to a well-travelled not-so-spacious minivan. The drivers were all polite and helpful. If you are in a hurry or have kids along, you might want to rent a car. Also, if we had been there longer and wanted to explore a little more, we would have rented. The scuba diving and fishing are supposed to be good as well, but I couldn’t say firsthand. Also, there is an 18-hole golf course near Grace Bay. Maybe next time.

All in all it was a great vacation. We have now been to three different Caribbean islands and want to see others, but Turks and Caicos is definitely on the go back someday list.

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