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Turks & Caicos Islands
Even Better the Second Time Around!
By Norman E. Hill 'The Tandem Traveler'
During our brief tour of Grand Turk in January, 2010, my wife and I saw enough to resolve to come back. When Maralyn was invited to be a food judge at the annual November Conch Festival, we decided that was the time for both of us to return. Still better, the festival site allowed us to explore “Provo,” the nickname for Providenciales, the most developed island with the highest population. Our visit took place from November 23 through 28, 2010, including the Conch Festival itself on November 27.
With more time available than last January, we expanded our Provo visit to include
several island sites. These included a Conch farm, a boat tour to several islands,
stays at two luxury hotels, and dining and drinks at several fine establishments.
Because of the importance of the Conch festival, we became conversant with several
plays on words connected with the Festival, such as “conch-
Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) Background
Provo, one of the Caicos portions of the chain, is the most developed of all the TCI islands. There are 40 of them in total, including eight (Provo, Grand Turk, and others) with inhabitants. In total, the population is 35,000 to 40,000.
The TCI chain is not nearly as well known as other West Indian destinations. It is not as lush as, say, Puerto Rico or Jamaica. TCI is only partially in the Caribbean, with its other sides facing the Atlantic Ocean. The majority of its current citizens are descendents of slaves who were abandoned here by their owners, mostly displaced American loyalists, who left when local soil could no longer tolerate cotton planting.
TCI is a British colony which, until recently, was largely self-
In the meantime, Great Britain became greatly concerned about alleged corruption in the local government and drug smuggling. In 2009, they deposed the government and imposed direct rule. This controversial shift is considered temporary until a return to the original TCI government structure is made.
Part of the islands’ revival involved construction by Carnival Cruise Lines of a gigantic ship’s docking center on Grand Turk. This facility made it feasible for new mammoth ships to visit the island. Although hotels and shops on Grand Turk are not as developed as on Provo, cruise visitors still enhance the local economy with short term visits.
TCI has to import almost 90% of all necessary goods and food. Automobile gasoline is about $4.60 per gallon. Thus, the islands depend heavily on tourism as the chief industry.
Our January visit to Grand Turk included a tour of Conch World. There, we learned about this fascinating form of mollusc, with its host of uses. We were told about the unique farm on Provo that harvests conchs in captivity, by using queen conchs to lay eggs and carefully caring for the egg offspring. One of our prime objectives was to visit this Conch Farm.
We had learned that some of conch uses include:
• Food—Ranging from a similarity to escargot, to salad (“conch salad”), soup (“conch chowder”), gumbos, burgers, or even “conch crepes”.
• Musical instruments—Conch shells as wind instruments.
• Pearls—A wide range of pearl colors, produced by the Queen Conch.
• Decorations, souvenirs, and jewelry—Plain conch shells, planters, cameos.
• Building materials—Conch shells as bricks or bases for landfills.
• Home security—Broken conch shells, imbedded into outdoor walls, serving a function similar to barbed wire.
This knowledge served to increase our interest in visiting the Farm. We were pleased to visit with the owner and developer of the farm, Chuck Hesse. He started it in 1999, after first coming to TCI in 1974. His training started with engineering, then premed, then biology, and, finally, concentration on marine biology. His passion for the underlying biology of the ocean shone through.
Hesse pointed out that the conch is a form of underwater “cow,” feeding on algae. All other fish, without exception, lobsters, shellfish, etc., are carnivores. They feed on other fish and, of course, on conchs. By way of contrast, land animals that humans eat, cows, sheep, pigs, etc. (with the rare exceptions of lions or bears), are grass eaters.
The human race has barely scratched the surface on how to farm the ocean. Before Hesse’s research, there was apparently no knowledge of how conch survived during the first year of life. Now, we know that, in the wild, only about 1 in 500,000 conch eggs survive inroads of the above predators.
Conch eggs controlled by the farm are laid in 1200 ponds offshore, about 5000 per pond. Then, eggs are hatched on shore in a closed sterile building. This way, the survival rate seems to be about 50%. After about 22 days, the newborn are taken to small, water filled bins. Here, although difficult to see at this stage, they can be viewed by the public. They feed on algae. A water environment is essential, since conch can survive for only 12 to 24 hours without it.
As they grow, the young conch are taken to different bins, for up to 2 months old, then 3 months, 2 years old, then up to 4 years, etc. At four years of age, conch can start laying eggs and males can fertilize females. After 6 years, they are considered too tough to eat.
Hesse has faced formidable obstacles since opening his farm. Hurricane Ike and other natural disasters have slowed down operations. Probably the biggest disaster to hit came when his neighbor started to dredge his own waterfront. This owner did not provide underwater barriers between his activities and Hesse’s conch ponds. As a result, many of the ponds were destroyed, causing around $4 million damage.
While extensive repairs were being made, the Conch Farm was closed for some time. Now, our visit indicated that it is close to reopening and continuing the Hesse techniques. This man’s determination can be viewed by inspecting the remains of the small boat he used in his original journey to TCI. He and a student who eventually became his wife came to Provo from Bahamas in quite a small vessel. He kept the boat intact until a recent storm, but retains its ruins as an incentive for him to keep going. We truly hope he does just that.
Maralyn Hill and Brenda Hill, along with six other judges (including three local residents), participated in the 7th annual Conch Festival. This is an annual event well worth attending. It is held on Thanksgiving weekend. The Conch Festival was a source of many creative conch creations. We also enjoyed food at Bagatelle Restaurant, Vix Restaurant, The Conch Shack, Bay Bistro/Kissing Fish Catering Full Moon Beach Party, Hemingway’s, Opus and Soleil. Naturally, we tasted several versions of TCI Bambarra Rum, one 8 years old, the second at 15 years. Both were exceptionally smooth. I really enjoyed the Bambarra Coconut Rum.
While on a catamaran tour of several of the Caicos chain, we ventured to an uninhabited island with a large colony of iguanas. The walk through this area was surprising!
When it came to lodging, our time was evenly split between the Gansevoort and Villa Renaissance. Both provided top of the line amenities in our condos. There is a large selection of upscale hotels and some reasonably priced.
Just like in the USA, the economic downturn has adversely affected TCI. Much of the Provo development has been with higher end hotels, condos, and shops. As is often the case, these have been harder hit than somewhat lower end establishments.The Provo airport is being expanded to feature one longer runway. Hopefully, this will encourage foreign airlines, such as British Airways, to schedule flights and expand tourism to additional European visitors.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to TCI. As enjoyable as was our second time around, we look forward to future visits.
The Tandem Travelers are a traveling writing team made up of Maralyn D. Hill and
Brenda C. Hill -