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Low Profile, Low Key, High Class

Giving work and world the slip, without sacrificing comforts, on an unsung outpost.

January 27, 2002|JUDI DASH

PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos — For a place we couldn't find in most guidebooks, the Turks and Caicos Islands proved to be quite a charmer.

Blame their lack of fame on their hard-to-categorize geographical position. The 193-square-mile archipelago of 30 low-lying islands (only six of which are inhabited) is strung out in the Atlantic Ocean, southeast of the Bahamas and just north of the Caribbean Sea, placing the group in neither region.

Blame it on the scarcity of hotel chains promoting their attractions. Or just be thankful that the Turks and Caicos--only a 90-minute flight from Miami--are all the better for their relative anonymity.

They are the perfect place to hide out.

Pirates on the lam knew that six centuries ago, when they lay low amid the treacherous coral reef (one of the longest in the world) surrounding the archipelago, which is actually two island groups (the Turks and Caicos) separated by a 7,000-foot-deep, 22-mile-wide trench of water called the Turks Island Passage.

For a destination so little known, the British Crown Colony of the Turks and Caicos offers an impressive range of lodging choices. During our 12-day visit to the islands last winter, my husband, David, and I sampled a beachfront condo complex, an all-inclusive family resort and a laid-back private island retreat where nobody wore shoes, even to dinner.

Providenciales, the archipelago's principal tourist island and home to about half of the chain's 25,000 citizens, doesn't get much respect. Too much development, too many tourists, too much bustle, say longtime visitors who knew the place when it was even sleepier. Most of the development has been in the last two decades.

But that's all relative. Newcomers will find Provo--as locals call the island--far less crowded and more tranquil than the high-rise hot spots of south Florida, the Bahamas, much of the Caribbean and coastal Mexico.

Populated by the descendants of African slaves brought to the island in the 17th century, as well as an expat community of American, British, Haitian, Canadian, French, Scandinavian and Dominican nationals, Provo is a friendly, live-and-let-live kind of place where there's little ado about anything.

The 12-mile powdery beach along Grace Bay, site of most of the islands' resorts and condos--none taller than four stories--is rarely crowded. Pockets of sunbathers may sprawl over short spans in front of the big resorts, but the beach is wide and the space between most lodgings substantial.

We did a little of everything on Provo, spending the first few days at Beaches, an all-inclusive family resort that is part of the Sandals chain, then moving to the Ocean Club, a condo complex with all the services of a hotel at the other end of Grace Bay.

We devoted a few hours each day to lazing and made a daily ritual of long beach walks by a sea so turquoise that it looked colorized. We walked early in the morning, while the air was still cool, and at dusk to catch the sunsets.

When spurts of energy called for action, we snorkeled right off the beach at the Ocean Club, swimming amid purple and orange sponges, neon anemones, giant sea fans and a resident bottlenose dolphin named JoJo. We went parasailing at Beaches and joined a half-day kayak excursion through backwater mangrove marshes and small cays of Princess Alexandra National Park off Providenciales.

One moonless night we hopped aboard a 50-foot catamaran to watch a showy spectacle of millions of glowworms mating like Lilliputian lava lights, not far offshore from the Ocean Club. At the Provo Golf Club (across the street from the Ocean Club), we dodged iguanas on the course.

Off the island, we took a day trip by boat and taxi through relatively undeveloped Middle Caicos, where we explored cathedral-size limestone caves and beaches studded with giant rock formations.

On Grand Turk, the islands' administrative capital, a 20-minute flight from Provo, taxi driver Rosemary Simon took us around to see brightly colored wood and concrete houses and the excellent National Museum, which documents the Molasses Reef wreck of 1513, one of the oldest European shipwrecks in the New World.

At Beaches, which we intended to use as a base our first week, we re-learned a travel lesson the hard way: No matter how well-publicized a hotel is, the place has to be the right fit to make it a winner.

Sure, the 462-room resort would be filled with children, but it was great for couples too, the booking agent said. There were five swimming pools (four with swim-up bars), nine restaurants, including two for adults only, a spa for soothing treatments and plenty of solitude on our terrace suite.

"In fact," the agent said, "we also think of ourselves as a honeymoon resort."

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