The Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) are blessed with all the elements of a perfect Caribbean getaway: turquoise waters and fine-sand beaches; world-class diving and snorkeling; and a sophisticated chef-driven food scene. But many visitors never encounter authentic TCI culture – the history, music and food that are unique to these islands.
Now a British Overseas Protectorate, TCI was founded by the British: in the late 17th century, Bermudian salt collectors set up a thriving salt production on the Turks Islands, bringing slaves to work as salt-rakers, and about 100 years later, Loyalists fleeing the newly independent United States also established cotton plantations on the Caicos Islands. Slavery was abolished in the British colonies in 1834 and many plantation owners fled, but the laborers stayed on. Contemporary residents of Turks and Caicos – known as Belongers – are largely descendants of these slave populations, and their culture is the unique combination of African traditions, British rule and Caribbean influence.
Cotton plantations and salt ponds
The cotton industry was short-lived in TCI due to boll weevils and hurricanes, while the salt industry endured for some 300 years until it finally collapsed in the 1960s due to lack of investment in modernization and mechanization. Both of these economic foundations have left behind remnants of their former success, and their ruins make allow for an opportunity to learn about TCI's economic history and the impact of slavery on the islands. Located right in Providenciales, often dubbed 'Provo' by locals, Cheshire Hall is the evocative remains of the Thomas Stubbs plantation. Although the site has not been well preserved, you can explore the ruins and grounds, and the tour guide spins a good yarn.
Take a short ferry ride to North Caicos to visit Wade’s Green, TCI's best preserved plantation established by the other Stubbs brother, Wade. Gravel paths wind around the ruins of buildings such as the Great House, the kitchen and the slave quarters. There is some signage, but it’s worth stopping at the National Trust in Kew to hire a tour guide.
Further afield, the islands are littered with the remains of the salt industry, or salinas. It’s not exactly a tourist attraction, but there are acres of salt ponds, as well as the remains of salina walls, windmills and warehouses, all free for wandering. The most unusual feature is the Boiling Hole on South Caicos, a natural underwater passageway from the ocean into the main salt pond. (Walk west from St George Street and look for the low, wide concrete wall around the hole.)
Travelers might expect to hear reggae or calypso on their Caribbean vacation, but in Turks and Caicos the local sound is ripsaw music. It’s exactly what the name implies: a regular handsaw that is played by bending it and scraping a nail or a knife along its teeth. Ripsaw music – or rake-and-scrape – was invented by slaves who were trying to reproduce the sound of the shekere, a West African gourd instrument. 'Ripping the saw' is usually accompanied by drumming, accordion, harmonica and maracas: the ensemble creates a raw, rhythmic sound that gets the locals out on the dance floor, doing the Shay Shay. You can hear a local rake-and-scrape band every Sunday night at Somewhere Café & Lounge in Providenciales.
Nightlife at the Island Fish Fry
But the best place to groove to ripsaw music is the Island Fish Fry, a popular event that’s held Thursday nights at Bight Park in Provo. The music is good and the food is even better (and inexpensive compared to restaurants on the island). Sample local fare like peas and rice, 'festival' (a side dish reminiscent of hushpuppies or potato cakes) and all kinds of seafood, not to mention original rum cocktails that are not served anywhere else. Artists also hawk their wares from makeshift stalls. The highlight of the evening is the junkanoo, a traditional holiday parade with festive costumes and plenty of percussion.
TCI is starting to blossom as a food destination, and the menus at Provo resorts are filled with delectable seafood dishes prepared by distinguished chefs from around the world. Fresh fish like snapper and grouper make regular appearances, as does Caribbean spiny lobster when it is in season from August to April. The pride of Turks and Caicos cuisine, however, is the queen conch, a local specialty that can be served a variety of ways: conch salad, conch fritters, scorched/sauteed/grilled conch and cracked conch, to name a few. This local fare tastes all the better at atmospheric beachside restaurants like Bugaloos Conch Crawl and Da Conch Shack.
If you love conch as much as the locals do, you might also pay a visit to the Caicos Conch Farm, the only commercial conch farm in the world. The place has spent nearly 30 years cultivating Caribbean queen conchs. The fascinating 30-minute tour is a hands-on experience, where you can get up-close and personal with the shellfish and learn all about its qualities as an aphrodisiac.
Shopping for handicrafts
Once you discover authentic Turks and Caicos culture, you might just want to take a little piece of it home with you. Many local artists sell their masterpieces at the Island Fish Fry in Provo, including the highly lauded conch artist, Stanford Handfield. The National Trust also operates a craft center in the Town Centre Mall. Finally, it’s worth a trip to Middle Caicos to visit the Middle Caicos Co-op, where the elders produce exquisite baskets, hats and other traditional handicrafts, all made from indigenous grasses and palms.
Make it happen
Most resorts and other tourist facilities are located in Providenciales, which is also the main population center of Turks and Caicos. It’s an easy 25-minute ferry ride to North and Middle Caicos. There is also a 90-minute, twice-weekly ferry from Provo to South Caicos. Alternatively, InterCaribbean runs the 25-minute flight to South Caicos two times a day.