Just off Grand Turk Island, in the Turks and Caicos, our excursion boat scrapes the sand when our skipper beaches us on an alabaster stretch guarded by a sloping dune maybe a hundred feet away, bisected by a sandy path that climbs to a ridge with a view of Grand Turk in the distance, Salt Cay in the near ground and limpid seas that makes you feel like you’ve landed in paradise.
We’ve made landfall on Gibbs Cay.
Another boat beaches just down from us. They set up a makeshift tent for their four guests. We are six including our skipper.
Stingrays wheel and soar in the water just off the beach, circling my legs as I stand waist-deep. Ten people inhabit this oasis; a dozen stingrays.
Half an hour ago we drifted in fifteen feet of water. Our skipper dropped the hook, disappeared over the side and reappeared minutes later, dripping, holding three conchs. Conch ceviche for lunch today.
From the heights of Gibbs Cay ridge we can see the massive docks of a cruise ship terminal. Were we closer we’d notice a huge freeform pool, shops and restaurants, a deluge of people populating the world’s biggest Margaritaville.
Tomorrow the streets of Cockburn Town, whitewashed stone fences guarding historic colonial homes, will be filled with visitors, color-coordinated jeeps, a tour bus or two.
Tonight it belongs to my wife and I, strolling all but alone on byways that show like a set piece for a play only the actors have already said their exit lines.
Tonight we feel like we are at the edge of reality – a surreal quality to this sleepy village, this somnolent oasis that is nonetheless the capital of Turks and Caicos.
That surreal quality was a dominant impression when we toured Middle Caicos.
We marched down a rock-strewn path toward the ruins of Wade’s Green, an erstwhile 18th-century plantation.
We drove for an hour along serpentine roads encased in green foliage, blue skies and bluer seas for company. We saw one other car. At Mudjin Bar and Grill, an eatery boasting one of the best views in North America, it was only my wife and I and two other people.
The edge of the world … Maybe the edge of reality.
Something surreal about visiting Water Cay off Provo (hard by Pine Cay and Mangrove Cay) accompanied by more iguanas than people, the only sounds the wind whispering in casuarina trees fragile and graceful as ballerinas.
There’s something surreal about the fact that only five nautical miles down the coast on Parrot Cay, Bruce Willis and Keith Richard both have houses.
But what else would you expect from a chain of islands on the edge?
For these truly are islands on the edge.
Turks and Caicos (Turks comes from the ubiquitous Turk’s Head cacti, Caicos is Lucayan for ‘string of islands’) comprise roughly 40 islands and cays (most uninhabited) stretching south and east along the furthest reaches – the ‘edge’ – of the Bahama Banks.
They lie thirty miles from the Bahamas, and a hundred miles from the Dominican Republic.
Go due north: next landfall the Carolinas. Head east: next stop, the Sahara.
While this sense that in the Turks and Caicos you’ve really gotten away from it all, is part of the appeal, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Provo is elegant and sophisticated, populated by hostelries like Blue Haven, the Alexandra, the Beach House, Villas del Mar, Gansevoort. It boasts a wealth of dining options. Think catch of the day at Seaside Cafe, beef tenderloin amid garden mood lighting at Opus. Or go with the locals, lured by the scents of barbecue and jerk at the weekly fish fry, serenaded by dreadlocked musicians pumping out tropical grooves.
Late one afternoon – our last on this appealing archipelago – I’m lounging on the beach outside our suite at Bohio Dive Resort on Grand Turk.
The setting sun gilds the sea, and waters are predominantly aquamarine close to shore. Way offshore the waters are painted indigo, a perfectly straight line marking the changing colors.
On our return trip from Gibbs Cay our skipper pulled up beside a white buoy. “Right here,” he said, pointing, “depth is fifteen feet. Over there it’s seven thousand.”
The Turks and Caicos really are islands at the edge.
The edge of paradise itself.
To plan your voyage on the islands on the edge, visit: turksandcaicostourism.com