PROVIDENCIALES , Turks and Caicos Islands -- A string of 40 tiny islands and cays in the British West Indies, only eight of them inhabited, the Turks and Caicos have long been off the radar for many Americans. But with their magnificent white-sand beaches -- and recently stepped-up air service, including seasonal nonstop flights from Boston and New York -- the destination is growing more popular.
Trade winds keep the islands comfortable well into spring and summer, when rates drop and deals can be found. Nowadays, the islands are abuzz with activity to provide for the rising number of guests. On the main island of Providenciales , or Provo , construction is rampant.
``In the three years I've been coming here, I've seen dirt roads paved and hotels go up," said Eleanor Alvarez, 52, a health care consultant from Columbus, Ohio. She was recently vacationing with her daughter Emily at the Grace Bay Club , one of the first resort properties to be built on Provo, in 1993. ``The ease of access and other services keep getting better. And that's great for the people who come here," she said. ``Most of them really just come to rest and relax."
Located along the prime 12-mile sweep of powdery beach that is its namesake , the Grace Bay Club recently opened a new 5,000-square-foot spa and a series of family-friendly villas. The property is also constructing 22 estate residences -- at a starting price of roughly $3 million each -- and overhauling 21 adults-only suites. Elemis spa products, wireless Internet, and flat-screen televisions are just some of the perks here. The friendliness of the mostly local staff is exceptional and a prime reason guests keep coming back. Captain Bill, of the eponymous and popular beachside Captain's Bar, may even issue an invitation to go dancing at his nightclub down the road.
If peace and quiet is the goal, seek out Amanyara , Singapore-based Amanresorts' newest, and first Caribbean, hotel, located on the isolated north end of Provo . It has the exotic, muted elegance of Aman's other luxurious properties in Southeast Asia and a gorgeous setting inside a 5,000-acre nature reserve . But some will insist that the ultimate in retreat luxe is still a long weekend at Parrot Cay, a private island getaway that is a 30-minute speedboat ride from Provo .
On approach to the island, one can see just how many exquisite shades of Caribbean blue there are, from the palest icy tint to the deepest cerulean hue. The white sand gleams in the shallows along Parrot Cay's main beach, and it seems possible to walk all the way out to the reef itself, its coral fingers reaching from just offshore. Up the slope from the beach, when viewed at just the right angle, the resort's expansive infinity pool appears to run seamlessly right into the sea. There's just enough time to ogle a celebrity or two before forgetting about it all over a cocktail in the pool lounge.
A primary reason for coming to Parrot Cay is the spa, called Shambhala (Sanskrit for ``place of peace") . Treatments run from the introductory Como Shambhala massage ($150) , which uses a signature basil and eucalyptus scented oil , to the over-the-top, two-therapist Pizichili massage ($250) , an Ayurvedic treatment that integrates a Swedana herbal steam and shower to release toxins through the skin.
The retreat center also has an impressive yoga pavilion overlooking the water, where complimentary classes in yoga and pilates are held six days a week . In April, May, and June, the center hosts special events with such yoga luminaries as Rodney Yee, Erich Schiffmann, Jessica Bellofatto, and Colleen Saidman.
In this glorious Balinese-meets-Caribbean setting, it can be easy to forget where you are. To keep it all in perspective, it's important to remember that before all of these fancy resorts came along for the jet set, people made their way to the Turks and Caicos for the diving, along the world's third-largest coral reef . Laid-back places like Grand Turk, the capital island and a 20-minute puddle jump from Provo, are where it all began, and where the diving is most spectacular.
There are just a handful of dive operators and small guesthouses on Grand Turk, and Bohio, the original Taino Indian settlers' name for ``home," is the only dive-centered resort . Owned by Britons Nick Gillings and Kelly Shanahan , this laid-back 16-room inn opened last year with its own dive shop, located right on Pillory Beach.
The rooms are decidedly no-frills, but people don't spend much time in them -- it's underwater thrills they come to see. Dolphins frolic just offshore and often nose up to dive boats and divers swimming under the surface . Three hundred feet from the beach, the impressive reef wall reaches 7,000 feet down, and sea turtles and vivid blue-green parrotfish crunch away on the corals. From January through April, humpback whales migrate past the island.
Non-divers won't have a problem enjoying the setting: Kayaks and snorkeling gear are available, and lounge chairs abound. Day trips to nearby islands -- Gibbs Cay, for a stingray encounter , or Salt Cay, a historic World Heritage site that was once the center of the Bermudan salt industry -- run regularly during the week . The main bar at the Guanahani Restaurant opens at noon for lunch, just in time for a midday cocktail.
``I Googled some key words -- ``quiet," ``beach," ``restaurant" -- and that's how we got here," said Jude Fox, of Williamstown, who spent a last-minute vacation at Bohio with her husband, Richard. ``You can look outside and see this beautiful beach with no one on it. Another great thing is that it's less than six hours travel time from Albany, which is most convenient for us in Western Massachusetts."
``I was teaching right up until the night before we left, which was in the morning," said Richard Fox, a visiting assistant professor of religion at Williams College. ``We were on the beach by sunset."
Sleepy Grand Turk is characterized by colonial-style buildings painted in bright pastels, and old salt ponds that are a reminder of the island's history in the salt trade (the ponds now serve as nature habitats for egrets, flamingos, and ospreys) . The capital might be quiet by day -- it has only 3,720 residents -- but the islanders know how to party by night. Bohio's outdoor beachside bar hosts a live local band and barbecue dinner on Thursday nights, and the entire island seems to congregate there .
But make no mistake, the Turks and Caicos are growing fast. A new cruise ship terminal developed by Carnival opened for business at the end of February on the north side of the island . And if Hollywood is any indication of popularity, movie crews have already hit Grand Turk. There may be no better time go than now.
Contact Bonnie Tsui, a writer in California, at www.bonnietsui.com.