PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos — It was peer pressure that made us eat the strange, wiggly thing. “It gives you power for romance, if you know what I mean,” said Buff, the first mate from Caicos Dream Tours, as he demonstrated how you slurp down the long, translucent tube he had pulled from the body of a conch. “It is island Viagra,” he said to our group of mostly women. “Suck it down like an oyster.”
Well, why not? It wasn’t that bad — kind of like a rubbery, fish-flavored gummi worm. Buff remained mum on what body part we’d consumed. A couple of days later, a quick web search revealed that we’d eaten the style, a protein rod from the conch’s stomach. By that time, we’d tried so much conch — served raw, fried, and ceviche-style — that it really didn’t matter. But the conch we ate aboard the Dream Tours catamaran was definitely the freshest, since we had caught it ourselves, minutes before, free-diving on the sea floor off the island of Providenciales.
Everyone raves about the beaches in the Turks and Caicos, but we were drawn to the islands’ unique adventures. It’s not every day that you get to try conch-hunting, as they call it here. The snorkel portion of our half-day snorkel-and-conch boat trip was fun, too. In bathtub-warm water, we explored the marine life on Bight Reef, one of the many small reef networks. On the same trip, we stopped off at Little Water Cay — a.k.a. Iguana Island — where the endangered rock iguanas, some as large as chihuahuas, saunter right past you.
With its long stretch of pristine beach, Little Water Cay is one of 40 sun-drenched spots that make up the Turks and Caicos. Located in the Atlantic Ocean, the islands, eight of which are inhabited, are 575 miles southeast of Miami, south of the Bahamas, and east of Cuba and Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Providenciales, or Provo, where most of the hotels are, is the most densely populated, with about 28,700 people. Most island lovers have heard of Provo’s Grace Bay Beach, a 12-mile strand that has been named “the world’s leading beach” by the World Travel Awards for four years straight.
That’s where we were headed, cruising back to Grace Bay as we sipped rum punch from paper cups, listening to reggae music backed by the whirr of the engine. Next on the agenda: sprawling in one of the beach cabanas at the Gansevoort resort and seeing if we could spot JoJo playing in the surf. JoJo, a bottlenose dolphin, is something of a mascot here. He’s been swimming in the coastal waters of the Caicos Cays for more than 25 years, and he has his own website.
Even on Providenciales, things are pretty low-key, so where you stay is important, since you’ll spend a lot of time there. The Gansevoort Turks & Caicos hotel, like its cousins in New York, ups the “cool” quotient on the island. The Gansevoort has a more energetic vibe than the Grace Bay Club, thanks to live music and a younger, hipper crowd, and it’s more affordable than the Amanyara, which costs thousands per night and draws celebrities who are paying for privacy. The open entrance of the Gansevoort has views that go straight to the water, and all 91 guest rooms face the ocean. It also sits on the widest part of Grace Bay, so you’re always just a few steps from that white sand beach and aqua water.
Speaking of water, a “glow worm cruise” is one of the quirkier outings available on the Turks and Caicos. Seeing the bizarre romantic display of the glow worms mating takes a bit of planning. The best time to see them is four to six days after a full moon, about an hour after sundown. We were out on Arielle, a 52-foot catamaran, with Jay Stubbs of Sail Provo, who’s been doing this trip for 18 years. Passengers were a mix of families and couples, enjoying the music, the sherbet-hued sunset over the water, the “Sail Provo Jungle Juice” (rum punch), and the prospect of witnessing something unusual.
As we neared Donna Key, the crew doused the sails, and the captain gave us a quick briefing on what we’d see. “The female worms twirl around and leave a little ‘exhaust’ behind,” Stubbs said, describing the females releasing their eggs. “Then, the males come out, with little jittery lights,” to fertilize them. “You can see the glow worms on either side of the boat. They’re really tiny, like a grain of rice.” The kids scrambled to rails to peer into the water. “If you see a strange light or movement off the water, let us know,” Stubbs said.
It didn’t take long. “Look! Over here!” “I see it, I see it!” Kids shouted, and adults chimed in, as neon-green flashes appeared in the water. They were popping up everywhere. Cellphone cameras were pulled out to capture the moment, and then, like the last few kernels in the popcorn popper, the action slowed, then stopped.
“Now what happens?” someone asked. “Well, they got together, and the lights went out, and then, boom! The males died,” said the captain. “The current will take them back to the bottom of the ocean, where the little wrasses in the sand will eat them.”
Anyone who’s ever watched “Planet Earth” knows that nature isn’t always pretty.
Just another day in the Turks and Caicos.