The first thing you notice on any island in the Turks and Caicos is how impossibly blue the water is, from vibrant turquoise to deep indigo, a vivid contrast to the lily-white sand. These luscious beaches rival any in the world, as do the islands' legendary reefs. A tranquil haven for divers, the Turks and Caicos-a string of 40 small islands and uninhabited cays at the southernmost end of the Bahamas archipelago-offer stunning walls, teeming schools of fish, 150-foot visibility, and maybe even a chance to swim with humpback whales.
If you're looking for a well-established tourism infrastructure, Providenciales — aka Provo — is the most modern and bustling of the Turks and Caicos islands. International flights land here, so you can either jump on a small plane to reach another island in the chain, or grab a taxi and be lounging on world-famous Grace Bay beach within 20 minutes.
Provo is big enough that there are strings of beaches lined with luxury resorts and excellent restaurants, but still plenty of remote stretches of pristine white sand available to steal for your own selfish pleasure. It's the same with the diving: Provo has beautiful close-in sites on Grace Bay, but the island is also an ideal jumping-off point to discover sites that are scattered around nearby cays and islets and on the dramatic wall on Provo's Northwest Point.
Look at a dive map, and you can see how ideally located Provo is. You not only have easy access to nearby Grace Bay and more remote Northwest Point Marine Park, but also diving on Pine Cay, French Cay, West Caicos and spots in between. Boat rides from Provo's Turtle Cove Marina range from 40 minutes to an hour (less if you're diving Grace Bay), delivering you to walls and coral gardens teeming with turtles, reef sharks, horse-eye jacks, groupers and grunts. Most of the waters surrounding Provo are protected by a marine park.
Northwest Point It's a 45-minute boat ride to dramatic vertical walls that start at 35 feet and then drop precipitously. Large pelagic fish are common, as are tube and elephant ear sponges. Don't miss The Crack, a deep crevice that slices the wall to 100 feet and is often home to sharks, spotted eagle rays and snapper; and Amphitheater, which sports large pillar coral and rare orange rope sponges.
Grace Bay A mere 15-minute boat ride from Turtle Cove, Grace Bay is protected by a 14-mile barrier reef and is ideal during summer when there is often 150 feet of exceptional visibility. Look for groupers, barracudas, turtles, sharks and the occasional manta ray in this area. Aquarium is known for its giant schools of grunts, snappers and spadefish, and Pinnacles is a spur-and-groove reef formation that's home to purple and orange sponges, moray eels and abundant cleaning stations in 35 to 60 feet of water.
Pine Cay A private island best dived at high tide, Pine Cay's big coral canyons, thousands of horse-eye jacks, spadefish and abundant pelagics are worth the 50-minute boat trip. Football Field is known for its juvenile barracudas, jacks, Bermuda chub and lobsters, with a sandy bowl at 90 feet sporting enormous vase sponges. Eagle Ray Pass is a superhighway for rays.
French Cay Diving is best around this deserted bird sanctuary when the water is choppy-that's when the big fish come in. Double D, named for two large pinnacles that rise from the ocean floor, is a gradually sloping wall carpeted with coral. Rock 'n' Roll showcases lush reefs packed with grunts, soldierfish and squirrelfish. Keep an eye out for reef sharks.
West Caicos Notorious for shark sightings, West Caicos is a rocky island with walls close to shore. Black coral and purple tube sponges adorn the walls. Elephant Ear Canyon begins at 60 feet at the top of the wall; it's stuffed with sponges.
Topside, Provo offers water sports, swimming pools and spas, plus some top-notch fishing. With several remote nature preserves and uninhabited cays nearby, a sailing or kayaking trip is an ideal way to get away from it all for an apres-dive afternoon.
On island, venture over to Blue Hills for a lantern-lit evening on the waterside deck at Horse-Eye Jack's. Blue Hills — with swing sets on the beach and sloops anchored offshore — is where divers come to devour fresh conch with homemade slaw, and slowly slurp a frosty sunset beer on a quintessential beachside deck.
Treat your partner to the most decadent and romantic meal on the island at cozy Grace's Cottage in Point Grace Resort.
Paddling for Rock Iguanas
Take an easy afternoon kayak trip through placid turquoise waters on the leeward side of Provo across the channel to Little Water Cay, a nature reserve that's uninhabited except for an estimated 2,000 rare and endangered Turks and Caicos rock iguanas. Found nowhere else on earth, the long-living, highly territorial iguanas were nearly hunted out of existence by feral cats and dogs. Their population dwindled down to fewer than 200 on Little Water Cay, but now iguana conservation efforts are thriving — you'll have plenty of encounters with the little green reptiles as you saunter through the reserve. Little Water Cay's iguanas are now being reintroduced to other cays where rock iguanas have been entirely wiped out.
You can also paddle to Donna's Cut (a giant sand pile linking Little Water Cay and Big Water Cay that was completely swept away during the 1960 hurricane). A shallow inlet here traps a slew of lovely upside down jellyfish splayed on the white sand like blue-green flowers. Plan a stop at Half Moon Bay, a beautiful deserted beach, for a swim break. At high tide, head back to the marina via Mangrove Cay, where you can paddle into the natural inlet supporting a healthy stand of gangly red mangroves teeming with sharks, young turtles and nursery fish.
For more info, visit Big Blue Unlimited.
Touching down on Grand Turk is a refreshing step back in time. New World explorer Christopher Columbus is rumored to have landed on these heavenly beaches in 1492, and NASA astronaut John Glenn splashed down here after orbiting the earth nearly 450 years later.
Charming Cockburn Town is the capital of the Turks and Caicos, but its sleepy streets and colonial architecture ooze an old-world Caribbean vibe, not the tourist-driven energy of other, better known Caribbean capital cities.
Grand Turk's bustle is confined to the cruise ship terminal at the island's far north end, where most passengers shop and dine in a makeshift "salt house" village. That leaves the seven-mile-long island, where locals still regularly dig cannon balls out of their gardens and a pedal bike is perfect transportation, as a bastion for low-key divers who want world-class wall diving without any topside pretension. A plethora of dive sites at the edge of an astounding 7,000-foot wall along the Columbus Passage are so close that leisurely dive intervals are spent back on shore. Topside, Grand Turk lets you sink leisurely into island life. Afternoons are for meandering along sandy streets lined by freshly whitewashed limestone walls and 200-year-old houses, then popping into one of a handful of beach bars for sustenance and shade. And after hours, Grand Turk's friendly divemasters may be tending your favorite bar or inviting you to dance to the music of the local ripsaw band.
The most amazing thing about the Grand Turk experience is, without a doubt, its reef. Giant manta rays and spotted eagle rays are often seen cruising Grand Turk's pristine 7,000-foot wall as it dips down into the abyss. Dives typically start in about 30 feet of water before heading over the wall, but some particularly outstanding dives are shallow ones. More than two dozen permanently moored dive sites line the west side of the island, and boat rides are rarely more than 10 minutes long. Grand Turk's exceptionally healthy and diverse reef is lush with soft and hard corals, sponge growth and colorful fish.
Amphitheater As you swim toward the wall, the sandy bottom splits wide open in a V-shaped channel that showcases the blue beyond. If you're lucky, you'll spot dolphins, eagle rays, sharks or whales. A proliferation of bright orange sponges and sea fans cover nearby outcroppings, but make sure to take a slow, shallow swim back via the Annex, where you'll find colorful schools of fish, along with stingrays and nurse sharks.
Coral Gardens This site is known for encounters with Alexander, the resident flirt. This puppy-like Nassau grouper craves attention and peeks into your mask. Alexander covets his territory, understandably so, as this spectacular shallow dive features vibrant purple sponges, healthy brain corals, rays, eels, queen triggerfish and hawksbill turtles.
Black Forest At 80 feet down on a straight vertical wall, black corals are protected by a dramatic overhang that makes the unusually abundant corals grow as if they were deeper than they are. In this low light and pristine water, deep red, orange and yellow elephant ear sponges abound, along with deep-water gorgonians. Keep an eye out for yellowhead jawfish, blackcap basslets, triggerfish and turtles.
Tunnels Several small swim-through chutes and one large one sit amidst isolated coral heads bustling with cleaning stations. The main attraction is a 20-foot-long downward sloping tunnel that starts at 65 feet and pops out on the wall at 80 feet. Watch for manta rays when you emerge.
Rolling Hills Starting 30 feet down on a vertical wall, soft corals, including sea fans, sea rods and sea plumes as big as trees, sway in waves of purple and rich brown. Big black sea fans jut intermittently out of the wall and huge orange encrusting sponges grow around the 100-foot mark.
McDonald's You'll drop down a sandy slope to the top of the wall at 50 feet. There, a giant coral archway, big enough for you and your dive buddy to swim through together, is the gateway to the blue. Near the arch are isolated coral heads and a resident green moray eel.
Anchor A century-old ship's anchor, encrusted with coral and sponges, is embedded in the sand at the top of the wall at about 35 feet. The massive chain dangles over the edge.
The Library With tons of octopuses, groupers, lobsters and feeding eels, The Library is a night dive crowd-pleaser. Also recommended are Chief Minister's and Austin's Reef, two local favorites due to their sandy patches and prolific eels.
Drop in for a casual, poolside yoga class with the local ex-pat crowd at Bohio Dive Resort.
Located a mile off the Atlantic side of Grand Turk, tiny Gibbs Cay's shallow waters are an ideal spot to while away an afternoon and mingle with the stingrays. Playful rays swoop languidly alongside snorkelers, often pausing to let you stroke their velvety skin. They're also keen to linger and nibble on hand-fed chum. Don't forget sunscreen, and your mask and snorkel.
Grand Turk dive shops offer trips to Gibbs Cay on afternoons when the cruise ships are not in port.
Leap back in time on bitty Salt Cay. A thousand people may have lived here in the heyday of the 19th-century salt-raking business, but these days only their enchanting salt ponds and quaint stone houses remain, and there are only a handful of local residents.
At barely a mile across, Salt Cay is so sleepy that its essence is virtually "stop." The lone Texaco gas station's primary customers appear to be grazing donkeys. Golf carts are the preferred mode of transport. And locals foster such renowned fun that a February hermit crab race was able to raise $5,000 for the island library. Rooms are available for rent around the island, spread among a variety of cottages, guesthouses and one small resort.
Salt Cay is an idyllic spot to commune with nature and to make a few dives on its sublime reefs. Bring a good book and your penchant for beachcombing. The pace of life on Salt Cay is all about dive, then chill.
Salt Cay is known as humpback whale headquarters. The island sits directly in the Columbus Passage and has more than a dozen moored dive sites located within a five- to 10-minute boat ride of the dock.
Kelly's Folly Salt Cay's wall at Kelly's Folly is known for its fish life and a lush coral garden. Off Northwest Point, swim past purple tube and barrel sponges and pillar coral.
H.M.S. Endymion Lying in shallow water, this 18th-century British warship sank in 1790. Most of it has disappeared into the reef, but still visible are 18 coral-encrusted cannons and nine huge anchors.
For more info on Salt Cay, visit Turks and Caicos Tourism.
Weather: Between June and October temps are in the high 80s, and there's a chance of brief showers; from November to May temps are between 80 and 84, and there's little rain.
Dive Conditions: Winter water temperatures range from 74 to 78 degrees, and summer water temps range from 82 to 84 degrees. Visibility is anywhere from 50 to 150 feet.
Documents: U.S. citizens must have a passport.
On-island Travel: Get a rental car if you want to explore Provo — or a jeep if you plan to head down the sandy roads to remote Northwest Point. Grand Turk is easily explored via scooter, pedal bike and taxi. Explore Salt Cay on foot.
Money Matters: Turks and Caicos uses U.S. dollars. Credit cards are accepted at dive shops and most tourist-oriented businesses, but smaller restaurants and shops often require cash. There are ATMs on Provo and Grand Turk.
Electricity: Standard 110 volt currents suitable for U.S. appliances.
Time Zone: Eastern Standard Time.