Our first port day was a stop in Grand Turk. Never having been to the Turks and Caicos before, I was excited to see what was in store for us. A small island less than 7 square miles and with a population of just over 3700, you can actually see across the island. As the ship slowly pulled in, we saw various shades of blue water and a hint of what the day had in store for us. If you are into scuba diving, this is the place to go. Why? Grand Turk is located along the southern tip of the Bahamas and as such stays sheltered from heavy currents and visibility is excellent year-round for scuba diving. As a result, Grand Turk is a summer gathering place for gentle manta rays and inquisitive scuba divers. Grand Turk is surrounded by walls covered in sponges and corals starting at 25 feet and rising to 30 feet and plunging 7000 feet straight down. Why so far down? It is actually a mountain under water with the plateau part sticking out of the water being the visible and livable part of the island.
Grand Turk is one of several islands in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Most people fly into the island of Providenciales Airport. From Providenciales you would take a local flight to Grand Turk on Air Turks and Caicos Air Turks & Caicos. As you can see in the picture, there is an airport in Grand Turk where the landing strip covers the width of the island with water on either side. It is truly quite a site! However, if you were on a cruise ship like we were, you would stop at the Cruise Terminal, toward the south end of the island. No more than two cruise ships are allowed to dock at a time so the tiny little island of Grand Turk never feels crowded. This is a laid back, old style Caribbean kind of island and I’m glad that it hasn’t been built up with tons of beachfront high-rise hotels. Well, at least not yet. The world’s largest Margaritaville’s is in Grand Turk. If you are a “parrot head,” you might find this exciting news. If you are looking for an authentic experience, you will find this Disney-like destination on this small island completely out of place. I was shocked to see how many people head right for this place upon arrival. From the Margaritaville website: “This 16,000 sq. ft, thatched roof restaurant can seat 500 Parrot Heads comfortably and serve you all 52 flavours of margaritas while you hang by our very own swim up bar.” It all depends on what you are looking for when you visit a new destination. Some people are extremely happy with trying new things, while others want to feel safe and secure and know exactly what they are getting.
When you get off the ship at the cruise port, you will see a sign that is at the entrance. It says “Welcome to” on one side and “Grand Turk” on the other. This is important to know since the beach area is free to use as are the chairs. On the “Grand Turk” side there was hardly anyone there, which is where we went after our excursion. We quickly learned why no one was there as it is an extremely rocky beach. If you are looking to lay out this might be the side for you as there are cabanas and lounge chairs with big, thick cushions on them. If you are looking to swim, then go on the “Welcome to” side. This side definitely has more people, but the water was beautiful as we had hoped it would be. The water was warm and inviting and with the backdrop of our cruise ship, the ms Eurodam behind us and the soft white sand beneath our feet, nothing could have ended our day any better than this.
But how did we spend our time on Grand Turk? We decided to do the Horseback Ride and Swim excursion offered from Chukka Caribbean Adventures. This was a shore excursion we had to purchase through the cruise line as the tour company only offers it this way. When we got off the ship we walked through the Dufry area where the duty free store is and where there is a shopping area to purchase souvenirs and other items from stores like Del Sol and Ron Jon’s Surf Shop. We waited for the excursion people to show up by passing the time shopping for the elusive baby onesie in Del Sol for our friend’s new baby, which apparently they didn’t sell in any of the ports we visited. We also looked at the information about John Glenn and the Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft that landed here in 1962.
The excursion person collected our tickets and we made our way onto the shuttle bus for the short drive to the beach where we would be riding our horses. Our driver, a very fast talker, gave us a quick history lesson about the island. Much of what was done to the island was a result of the US military. Prior to that, simple necessities such as electricity were not so commonplace. In fact, the US military constructed what is now the island’s airport. I found this link from a gentleman who served in the Army and helped work on what was then known as the US Army Airstrip in Grand Turk. The history of Grand Turk is an interesting one with connections not only to the United Kingdom, but also with Canada. Not having had much problems in the past with hurricanes in the Turks and Caicos, since 2000 they have experienced damage like never before. First in 2004, Hurricane Frances hit and caused moderate damage to homes and downed many trees. In 2008, Hurricane Ike hit and this was far worse than Frances. The airport was under water and power was out for weeks. In Providenciales, there was flooding, roof damage, and downed power lines but no injuries. I think they got a company like WDR Roofing Company – Top Roofing Contractors to come out and fix the roof for them. It looked pretty badly damaged. Grand Turk suffered approximately 85% damage to housing and infrastructure. South Caicos suffered major damage with approximately 65% of roofs blown off. In Grand Turk, roads were impassable due to fallen poles and electrical wires. As you visit the area, you can see they are still working hard to recover, but it is slow work. One of my favorite things that I learned on my tour was that the police station on the island is the only one you will ever go to anywhere in the world that also has a bar at night.
We arrived at our destination just past a group of donkeys eating in their private stable and we were excited. Our group consisted of a range of people from a family with their daughter, about age 8 to an older couple who had been drinking and talking far too much the entire way there. We waited in an open enclosure for them to get the horses ready and then we were matched up with our horses. I got QQ who was a pretty gray horse who was determined to not follow my instructions so I felt we were fairly paired up. This is a simple excursion for the novice rider who wants a feel for riding on the beach and in the water. There were several guides there with us to take pictures of us with our cameras and to give us instruction and help us out when needed. The scenic trail winds up and down the hillside overlooking the water and the surroundings to give us a beautiful view of Grand Turk. Oscar, one of the guides, spoke with my husband and said that he lives in town and loves coming to work to get away from it all and to enjoy the peace and quiet with the horses. The guides were all friendly and seemed to appreciate their surroundings and their jobs. We rode back in and dismounted the horses and waited under the enclosure yet again. Of course, I felt disappointed as they had advertised this as a “ride and swim.” Unbeknownst to me, they were changing out the saddles on the horses for the swim. What I also didn’t realize is that they let my son take my horse and ride her with Oscar at full speed along the beach. That was worth the trip itself! We were separated into groups of six to go into the water with the horses. We rode in and went back and forth several times without getting us terribly wet although the horses were. I hope they enjoyed the multiple swims!
After everyone had a chance to ride a horse in the water, we dried off, got something to drink, and then collected our belongings and made it back onto the shuttle. I highly recommend tipping the guides as they do work extremely hard to make this is a great excursion. On the way back we heard additional information such as how the island had wind turbines to reduce the cost of electricity, but they are shutting them off to charge the residents as I guess they want to make money since they wouldn’t make any if the electricity was free. We arrived back at the port and that is when we decided to go swimming. It was at this time that we noticed that a Crystal Cruises ship, the Crystal Symphony, had pulled into port next to our Holland America ship. Even with two ships here, it wasn’t terribly crowded as we would see in other ports during our cruise. This quick taste of the Turks and Caicos was enough for us to to decide that we definitely want to return and stay a week. That’s the best part about cruising as you get to sample different destinations and see what you like and don’t like. What ports have you fallen in love with on your cruises?