Travel: The crown's jewels

Is it whales, fish and coral you're after, or a luxury gulag? Hugh O'Shaugnessy visits the Turks and Caicos Islands, Britain's most forgotten outpost
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The Independent Online
It was a long, hot and noisy evening of dominoes at the Lions Bar at Cockburn Tow, the tiny capital of the Turks and Caicos Islands, but eventually the match was decided. The Cable and Wireless team came out on top, and we all drifted off merrily into the warm night of Britain's most forgotten West Indian colony.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are as the British West Indies were years ago, and as many traditionalists would like them still to be. Scruffy places with potholed roads where a certain loyalty to Our Dear Queen and her representative the Governor is tempered with a good deal of impatience with the Colonial Office - sorry, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office - in Whitehall. Here you find Lilliputian places where the politics are often bizarre and life is lackadaisical, and where the constant temptation to emigrate to New York is tempered by the realisation that it is a cold, unfriendly city far away.

In the TCI the local charm gets into the blood of outsiders to such an extent that one august governor from London was known to chase the best looking of the policewomen round the table of his rickety and termite- ridden official lodgings - and sometimes catch them. It is a place where people say "hello" in the street, and offer you a lift if they pass you in a car as you take a stroll.

Cockburn Town, the seat of government, where the present governor lives blamelessly in Waterloo, his refurbished and almost termite-free mansion, is on Grand Turk, an island which is neither grand nor Turkish but is utterly charming and shyly friendly. The accepted wisdom is that the name comes from the Turk's head cactus which grows here. But it could come from Barbary pirates who are supposed to have crossed the Atlantic. Nobody really knows - or cares.

For years the islanders made a precarious living producing sun-dried sea salt in pans, which still lie ruined and abandoned on many islands. The colony's former arms featured a sailing ship about to load the "white gold" which was piled in conical heaps in the foreground. When the government had new flags made during the last century, these came back with little doors drawn on the conical white heaps, which a helpful but misguided London flag-maker had taken for igloos.

The islanders also once grew sisal grass for rope. But the bottom has long since fallen out of both the salt and the rope markets. For generations, wrecking was both a sport and a livelihood as unwary captains were lured on to the coral reefs. The lighthouse on the north point of Grand Turk was erected only over the strong objections of those who saw their fun and their incomes in jeopardy - and, indeed, their supplies of wood, since no trees grow on the islands.

Now these reefs and the azure sea are once again the islands' fortune, as visitors are drawn here by some of the world's finest snorkelling and diving. At the fine deserted beach at the Arawak Inn on Grand Turk the other day I saw Canadian tourists wading ashore from a launch, overcome by the experience of seeing a hump-back whale teaching her week-old calf, weighing no more than a ton or so, to flip and manoeuvre in the water. If you are a diver or snorkeller, you have to go only a few hundred yards out before the sea plunges down into the abyss 7,000 feet deep that separates Grand Turk from the Caicos Islands. There is fishing, too. On purchasing a licence (cost US$10) fishermen can catch marlin of weights of 350lb and more.

On the island of South Caicos, far from governors and museums, the few tourists have the beaches and the sea to themselves.

Providenciales, Provo for short, is something very different. Discovered two or three decades ago by a rich coterie of Roosevelts and Rockefellers, it bloomed when the British government paid for a new airport and persuaded the Club Med to set up along a broad white beach, 12 miles long. There are now 12 hotels there, and a couple of banks. The TCI's only casino is at the Turquoise Reef, but, in deference to the religious convictions of the islanders, it is closed on the Lord's Day.

It seems a pity that the hotel accommodation on Provo is of the gilded concentration camp variety which aims to keep the holiday-maker from spending any money outside its gates. All this new development, in a place that had no roads and no cars 35 years ago, gives Provo the feeling of a sort of Basildon New Town in the sun. Job opportunities in tourism and construction are attracting migrants from Haiti, the Dominican Republic and all over the TCI - to the detriment, it must be said, of the smaller islands in the territory.

Generally, though, the TCI are probably as close as you'll get to a tropical island paradise. That is, if you discount the food. This is not a place for the gourmet; local produce is rare. Most food - indeed, almost everything - has to be imported, and is not cheap. As in most of the rest of the Caribbean, no food was served to me which the cooks did not feel could be improved with tomato ketchup.

Nor are the TCI a refuge of the muses. A neglected education system means that there are no indigenous writers, few artists or indeed many musicians - an absence of local culture which makes the TCIs' survival as a political entity all the more remarkable.

Such shortcomings are compensated for by the people, whose contentment and friendliness are remarkable. "We are just blessed," said an islander on the beach. And he talked with not a trace of self-satisfaction or complacency.

The Turks and Caicos trail

There are no direct flights between the UK and the Turks and Caicos. The best single-airline connection is on American Airlines (0345 789789) from Heathrow - and, from next month, Gatwick - via Miami. The lowest fare quoted for travel in May is pounds 679 return, but availability is tricky.

Alternatives include flying British Airways (0345 222111) to Nassau or San Juan, or finding a charter to Santo Domingo, and transferring to Providenciales.

UK Turks and Caicos tourist office: Mitre House, 66 Abbey Road, Bush Hill Park, Enfield, Middlesex EN1 2RQ (0181-350 1017).