Provo's Pleasures

The Turks and Caicos are so much more than a pit stop to points south.

Throw up your hands!

"OK now, everybody sing!

We had stopped by for a drink but became twisted up in some kind of interactive cabaret show, trapped among a herd of sunburned tourists shuffling across the patio trying to limbo. Synthesized steel drum pulsated into the balmy Caribbean air, eliminating the natural sounds of the tranquil tropical evening. Between a trapeze routine and a magic act, guests wallowed to the bar redeeming drink coupons for tropical rum concoctions served with a variety of appendages streaming from the tops of their glasses.

This scene, inside the confines of a walled resort, contrasted harshly with our previous two days on a rough, lonely, open ocean as we worked our way from Ft. Lauderdale to St. Thomas.

"I said never get off the boat, my friend Graeme said, pleading with a line from Apocalypse Now as we struggled to break free from the pack. A practical Kiwi, Graeme recognized the common-sense practice of escaping for the safety of sea once shore leave became a little too freaky.

But had we fled like cowards from our circus encounter, we might not have discovered the special parts of the Turks and Caicos chain, specifically Providenciales.

Since the late 1990s, I've relied on Provo as a quick fuel stop and convenient point to wipe off salt while cruising between the East Coast and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Turks and Caicos are directly on this popular snowbird route and are a near perfect stop for cruisers heading in either direction. I had never spent more than 24 hours there until a recent trip left me bound by weather, and now that I know what the destination offers, I will never spend just 24 hours there again.

When I tell somebody I'm heading off to the Turks and Caicos, the response is often, "Where? or "Where in the Bahamas are they? First of all, they are not part of the Bahamas. Politically speaking, they are still part of the United Kingdom and operate on a semi-autonomous relationship. They lie southeast of the southernmost Bahamian islands and about 100 miles north of the Dominican Republic. For the cruising yachtsman, only three cays are of concern: Provo, South Caicos and Grand Turk.

The island you choose to call on probably depends on your boat and how long you plan to stay. I prefer the Turtle Cove Marina on Provo's North Coast, which is a good base to enjoy the rest of the island. The Leeward Marina is another North Coast option, but like many places on Provo, the facilities are still under construction and the location is not as convenient as Turtle Cove. Choosing the North Coast for a layover does mean you'll need to add a little extra time to navigate around the western reef, although this really isn't an issue when cruising on a powerboat with a good turn of speed.

The other choices in Provo include the South Side Marina and the Caicos Shipyard and Marina, both on the South Coast. Unless you need to haul out or lack the little extra time required to layover on the North Coast, I would skip the South Coast. What I saw of it still has the atmosphere of a mining camp.

After a few trips into Turtle Cove, I finally felt comfortable making the approach at Sellars Cut, with all the zigzags and doglegs. Part of the trick is finding the cut in the reef. A red and a green mark the break in the reef, but be aware, they are often hard to see. If there is a stiff breeze, they tend to lie almost horizontally, and they can be absent during storms. If you call the Turtle Cove on VHF channel 16 when you're outside the reef, they will gladly send a guide. Plus, they can call ahead to customs and help speed up the clearing in process, which is very businesslike, anyway.

The sheltered marina hosts a variety of services, including car and moped rentals, fuel, diving and fishing. A fresh fish sandwich and cold beverage at the scenic Tiki Hut is worth it after any long passage, and the seating is a perfect perch for watching the local catch come in. The Turtle Inn, part of the same complex, adjoins The Terrace Restaurant overlooking gardens on the plant-shaded terrace.

Do yourself a favor: Walk across the street before sunset and climb the stairs to the Erebus Inn for happy hour. Looking out across the island from atop the high hill is one of those "pinch me moments.

Renting a car is a must, since Provo has no town proper to stroll into for provisioning and taxis are less than convenient. Taking a drive, it quickly becomes evident that the zoning and planning on Provo is haphazard, with offshore banks alongside a KFC that may border a condo or two, next to a strip mall. The most gentrified part of the island is developed around the chain resorts sprinkled at the eastern end. These include a Club Med and a Beaches.

The beauty of Provo centers around the water. Its color and the white sand beaches that flow into it are better than most I have experienced in the Bahamas and throughout the Caribbean. Better yet, if we went off the beaten track a little, we usually had one of these ideal spots to ourselves, save an occasional lizard or a passing sea gull. The establishment of six marine parks and 50 sites designated as land parks, reserves, sanctuaries and historical sites help preserve the Turks and Caicos' splendor. Perhaps the building codes are a little scary, but along the water, it is truly paradise. The conservation measures limit the LOA of yachts that can anchor to 60 feet, and skippers may only anchor over sand.

The Turks and Caicos are often noted as one of the world's best scuba diving sites, a designation that is well deserved. The nearly endless visibility on good days, combined with the vivid reefs and surprising amounts of marine life protected by strict regulations, create an awesome underwater canvas that alone is worth the trip. Early one morning, a few of us took a tender to a spot in Grace Bay marked by a Clorox bottle and found spectacular snorkeling less than a quarter of a mile from Turtle Cove. You can choose snorkeling in Grace Bay, shallow reef dives, or-thanks to the staggering depths around the islands, as much as 12,000 feet in some places-some of the best wall dives in this hemisphere.

There are plenty of local guides offering bonefishing and bottom fishing for grouper, snapper, barracuda and shark. Or you can head out for marlin, tuna, dorado and wahoo.

When we left the marina, its docks were bustling with crews prepping baits on the handful of fishing boats. Divers were clamoring with gear aboard boats preparing to head to the reefs. Our lonely 46-footer, which stayed tied in front of the Tiki Hut for five days, stood out. The few cruising yachts at the marina came and went after a day or two. I don't know why they, and more yachtsmen, didn't stay to cruise the Turks and Caicos.

But truthfully, I'm glad.