Turks and Caicos Islands: Places to Explore

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Grand Turk

Sleepy, laid-back, lazy, and charming, Grand Turk is the kind of place that you either love or can't wait to leave. Rich in history, the island's historic buildings were made mostly from scraps of the ships of pirates who were tricked into coming ashore. Locals walk slowly down the street in the heat of the sun, wearing big floppy hats or under parasols. Perfectionists and guests who want the latest and trendiest may not appreciate the island's rustic, laid-back charm, but photographers and divers delight in the colors and authentic ambience, and vacationers looking to simply relax will find much to like about Grand Turk.

Just 7 miles (11 km) long and a little more than 1 mile (2½ km) wide, this island, with a population of 3,700, is the capital and seat of the Turks and Caicos government. It has been a longtime favorite destination of divers eager to explore the 7,000-foot-deep pristine coral walls that drop down only 300 yards out to sea. On shore, the tiny, quiet island has white-sand beaches, the national museum, and a small population of wild horses and donkeys, which meander past the white-walled courtyards, pretty churches, and bougainvillea-covered colonial inns on their daily commute into town. History here mixes with nature.

Many argue that Grand Turk was the actual first landfall during Christopher Columbus's first voyage to the New World—not the Bahamas, which has always been the traditional location. You will see national park signs making this claim all along Front Street. The island first gained international recognition in 1962, when John Glenn's Mercury spacecraft splashed down nearby after he became the first astronaut to orbit the Earth. You can see a replica of his rocket ship outside the airport.

A cruise-ship complex that opened at the southern end of the island in 2006 now brings some 600,000 visitors per year. Despite the dramatic changes this could have made to this peaceful tourist spot, the dock is pretty much self-contained, and is about 3 miles (5 km) from the tranquil, small hotels of Cockburn Town, Pillory Beach, and the Ridge, and far from most of the western-shore dive sites. The influx of tourists has had a mostly positive effect on the island, pushing Grand Turk to open up a few new historic sites, including Grand Turk's old prison and the lighthouse. Otherwise, the atmosphere is pretty much the same.

In September 2008 Grand Turk was devastated by a one–two punch from Hurricanes Hanna and Ike. As luck would have it, the reefs did not suffer any serious damage, and divers were back in the waters in a few days. Except for some ongoing construction on Front Street, you’d never know it happened.

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