Blue -- not a fixed color but a series of constantly changing shades -- forms the backdrop of any visit to the Turks and Caicos Islands, 550 miles southeast of Miami. The ocean appears to be teal as from the air, azure from the beach or cyan aboard a boat. Its hues blend seamlessly and contrast with those of the sky.
The bathed-in-blue islands take their name from the indigenous Turk's head cactus, a succulent that looks like it's wearing a red fez, and from a Lucayan term meaning "string of islands." In all, 40 islands and cays make up the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British Overseas Territory where the U.S. dollar is the official currency, traffic flows to the left as in the United Kingdom and cars, imported from the United States, are left-hand drive. Just eight of the islands -- Grand Turk (the capital and a cruise-ship port), Salt Cay, South Caicos, East Caicos, Middle Caicos, North Caicos, West Caicos and Providenciales -- are inhabited. The vast majority of the islands' population of slightly more than 32,000 resides on Providenciales, which is also the most frequently visited by tourists.
On Providenciales, or "Provo," 12-mile-long Grace Bay Beach is the crown jewel. Its fine white sand and calm waters explain its appeal and are also good reasons why this particular piece of paradise is hardly secluded. Most of Provo's resorts have developed along these shores. They include the sleek Gansevoort, family-friendly Beaches, luxurious Regent Palms and the aging Club Med -- one of the first hotels on the island when it opened in 1984.
In the case of Grace Bay, popularity isn't necessarily a bad thing. A variety of resorts offer whatever type of activities their visitors hope to experience. For pure relaxation in an elegant setting, the 72-suite Regent Palms is an excellent option. Visitors can take a break from the beach or serpentine infinity pool with swim-up bar to visit its 25,000-square-foot spa, which was renovated last year. The long list of experiences includes a pearl and water lily passage, precious gems facial or purifying sea wrap -- all experienced in the total serenity of a treatment room overlooking a palm-tree-lined reflecting pool.
Provo's dining scene is another of its draws. The island will host its Third Annual Caribbean Food and Wine Festival from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. The weekend-long culinary extravaganza features internationally known chefs and includes a Gourmet Safari -- a progressive dinner that takes foodies from one sought-after island restaurant to the next as they sample creative courses served in over-the-top settings. This year's kitchen stars include Christina Tosi of New York's Momofuko Milk Bar, Tiffany Derry from Season 7 of Bravo's Top Chef, and Xoliswa Ndoyiya, who was Nelson Mandela's personal chef for more than 20 years.
Those who miss the Gourmet Safari can still feast on stellar cuisine year-round. At Parallel 23 at the Regent Palm, executive chef Ingo Moller's menu of international fare with a tropical accent might include an appetizer of seared jumbo scallops with cauliflower mousseline, warm white truffle vinaigrette and vegetable matignon -- or a main course of Chilean sea bass poached in Pernod and saffron broth and served with chorizo couscous.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Island Fish Fry held on Thursday nights at Bight Park on Grace Bay. Local food vendors set up shop and cook the authentic island specialties tourists might otherwise miss -- conch fritters, crab fried rice, jerk chicken and rum punch -- to name just some. The festivities include performances by live bands.
Elsewhere on Provo, and within walking distance from many Grace Bay resorts, Coco Bistro serves Caribbean cuisine in a pretty patio setting beneath towering coconut palms. Don't be surprised if a cat sashays up to your table as you try the grilled shrimp satay on sugar-cane skewers with banana chutney, Jamaican curry dip and spicy Asian hot sauce. Her name is Coco, and she's a regular.
For fabulous sunsets, head to Magnolia Wine Bar and Restaurant, and sit on the deck overlooking Turtle Cove. Magnolia is well known for its sesame-crusted rare seared tuna. But save room for dessert. The bannoffee pie -- bananas and toffee on a graham-cracker crust -- deserves your attention.
Despite the considerable temptations of Provo's restaurants, eventually you'll want to head for that blue, blue water. Surrounded by a barrier reef, the island is the ideal jumping-off point for nearly every water sport, including kayaking, paddle-boarding and snorkeling. The best spots are Smith's Reef and Bight Reef along Grace Bay. Additionally, Long Bay Beach is a mecca for kite-boarders. If you're new to the sport, get started with lessons through KiteProvo, the island's most popular kite-boarding school.
WHEN YOU GO
The Regent Palms: www.regenthotels.com/en/palms
Third Annual Caribbean Food and Wine Festival: www.caribbeanfoodandwinefestivaltci.com
Coco Bistro: www.cocobistro.tc
Magnolia Wine Bar and Restaurant : www.magnoliaprovo.com/contact-us.html
Adriana Gardella is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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