PROVIDENCIALES ISLAND, Turks and Caicos — It was on Valentine's Day 1990 when I learned about Philistina Butterfield's Hot Rhythm Pills. Also known as "Peanuts," Butterfield is a gregarious woman who emerged that day from her little blue shack on the waterfront of Cockburn Town with a steaming plateful of deliciously browned, deep fried conch fritters she called Hot Rhythm Pills. "Make you irresistible to men," she whispered conspiratorially.
What did I have to lose? I was traveling alone on one of the least known of all Caribbean islands, a seven-square-mile sandbar called Grand Turk, where donkeys still pull wooden carts along the single-lane main road. So when a handsome Parisian doctor materialized on a scooter later that day and invited me for Valentine's dinner at a beachfront cafe, who could say it wasn't due to the potent powers of Peanuts' cuisine?
Caribbean islands have a romantic quality that simply can't be matched by arid deserts or mountain landscapes. It has something to do with the sway of palm trees in a breeze, the candy-colored pastels of clapboard buildings, and how a walk on a beach is a gentle form of foot massage, so that suddenly any vacation takes on the rosy glow of a honeymoon.
When I first visited the Turks and Caicos Islands, it was their quirkiness, beauty and lack of commercialism that made me fall in love with them. Since then, the islands have gotten considerable press in diving magazines as a great hideaway, so last year my boyfriend, Philip, and I spent two weeks there during our Christmas vacation. More than most Caribbean islands, the Turks and Caicos have managed to remain a backwater. With a good map and a magnifying glass, they come into focus as a sprinkling of 40 low-lying islands 575 miles southeast of Miami, due north of the Dominican Republic. The Caicos group of islands is separated from the Turks Islands, to the east, by the 22-mile-wide Turks Island Passage, and we split our time between the two groups.
The Turks and Caicos are dry, flat and scrubby little isles bristling with cactuses, but their edges are trimmed with some of the world's most perfect beaches. Just offshore, where turquoise waters give way to cobalt depths, vast tracts of virgin reef make this a favorite domain of scuba divers and snorkelers. Ponce de Leon stopped here in 1512 during his search for the Fountain of Youth, and in the 1600s pirates plundered the region. After that the Turks and Caicos became the object of political pingpong: They were part of the Bahamas, then annexed by Jamaica; now they are a British colony.
Of the eight inhabited islands, Providenciales (" 'Provo,' mon, don't hurt your tongue," the expression goes) is the main base for visitors. Provo is home to almost half the islands' total population of 13,000; that includes locals--who call themselves "belongers"--and a high proportion of expatriate Canadians.
Despite the usual Caribbean airport humidity, and misplaced luggage, within an hour of our arrival we were sipping champagne by starlight on the deck of our own swimming pool alongside our one-bedroom cottage two minutes from the beach. Although Provo has many small hotels and condos, we instead rented a small house for no more than the cost of a room at the nearby Ramada or Club Med. (We booked reservations through a Florida service that specializes in Turks and Caicos trips; see Guidebook.) Landlord Colin Saunders had left his hometown in Ontario, Canada, some years ago to become a well-tanned, laid-back expert at shucking conch. During our stay his Bahamian-born wife, Kit, whipped up some conch into a wicked Tabasco-laced salad and took me on the circuit of fresh seafood shops, a supermarket and a liquor store to stock up on supplies. Colin pointed out the cottage's island vacation essentials: a gas barbecue and a hammock. We were set for a week of candlelight dinners on our own patio, disturbed only by the gentle clacking of bamboo wind chimes.
Early the next morning we were picked up in a ramshackle yellow school bus driven by Philippe "Fifi" Kunz, an energetic Frenchman we'd hired to take us diving. He wore a glittery gold and lime green bikini, a sliver of a bathing suit that left little to the imagination. Fifi runs Caicos Adventures, one of the few dive companies that avoid the heavily visited scuba and snorkeling sites on Provo in favor of the uninhabited shores of West Caicos, an island 50 minutes away by boat.
And the trip is worth it. The reef is pristine, covered in corals, sea fans and barrel sponges. We saw brilliant tropical fish, and there were no other boats in sight. Midday was spent on a white West Caicos beach unmarred by footprints, where, while lunch was being prepared, we walked for an hour.