Thursday, March 13, 2008

Aboard the Fred. Olsen cruise ship Balmoral, port stop: Grand Turk

In yesterday's blog post, I talked about the new Fred. Olsen cruise ship, Balmoral, which carried me and some 1,300 other passengers to the Eastern Caribbean out of Miami last week, the first U.S. embarkation port for this well-respected British cruise line.

It was a nice itinerary, even though high winds forced us to skip over a planned stop in Samana, Dominican Republic, which to my mind is the most beautiful (yet often overlooked) corner of that country. (To buy one of my co-authored guidebooks to the DR, the Dominican Republic Adventure Guide or Dominican Republic Pocket Adventures, both from Hunter Publishing, click here.)

After a full day at sea out of Miami, our first port stop was Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands, just south of The Bahamas.

Since Carnival built a shiny new cruise center at the end of the pier there two years ago, Grand Turk has become an increasingly hot cruise destination and tourism has taken over as the top industry. The Turks and Caicos are surrounded by an extensive coral reef system and are known for fine diving, snorkeling, and swimming at some 230 miles of beaches across the chain.

Grand Turk is one of 40 islands in the Turks and Caicos, part of the British West Indies. (Incidentally, the name "Turks" comes from a local type of cactus whose tops resemble old-style Turkish headdresses -- a bit of trivia I learned on this trip.) Eight of the islands are inhabited, with a total population of about 36,000 people.

We were cleared to go ashore around 11 a.m., a bit late due to the aforementioned high winds. I was signed up for an early afternoon island tour, but first wandered around the new Grand Turk Cruise Center, a neat-as-a-pin complex of shops with a stretch of sandy beach (and free beach chairs!), a big resort-style swimming pool area, and the obligatory Margaritaville, the Jimmy Buffett-themed bar/restaurant chain. Antiseptic places like this shopping complex bore me to tears, but I realize I'm probably a minority on that score. The beach filled up fast with fellow passengers, as did the shops and Margaritaville, and Jimmy's canned voice ("wasting away again in...") blasted over a loudspeaker.

I was more anxious to see something of the island since it was my first visit here, which made it all the more frustrating when my "safari" tour was postponed for more than an hour -- one reason why I usually avoid group tours of this sort. But in this case, the wait was worth it.

With a dozen people packed into the back of an open-air four-wheel-drive vehicle painted with zebra stripes ("safari," remember?), Vic, our Chukka Caribbean Adventures driver headed off toward Cockburn Town, the Turks and Caicos' administrative capital. (If you aren't on a tour, you can catch a taxi there -- U.S. dollars accepted -- or walk from the pier in around a half hour.)

While I had overheard someone on the ship counseling "Don't bother to go into town," I found it quite charming. It's true that it is small, quiet, low-key, and mostly devoid of shops and commercialism, but it had colorful Bermuda-style houses and a few inviting-looking inns, and the main street overlooked the sea and a sandy ribbon of beach. Columbus famously landed here and the seafront is a national park.

We passed the only fast food place on the island, a joint called "Nookie Pookie Pizza," rumored to serve some of the worst pizza south of Florida -- or anywhere else for that matter.

Our one stop in town was to tour the historic Her Majesty's Prison, dating from 1830, when there were just three cell blocks. Since there wasn't much crime, the cells were often taken up with minor offenders, such as heavy drinkers and -- this is true -- annoying kite flyers. Shut down in 1994, it's now a tourist attraction, complete with gift shop filled with cell-bar-themed T-shirts.

By the way, as our guide Vic pointed out, there still isn't much crime on the islands. For instance, no one steals cars because there's no place to go once you steal them. (But watch out for those dastardly kite-flyers!) However, they have built a brand-new prison just in case.

Then it was off to the "bush," or whatever they call the hinterlands on Grand Turk. (I'm trying to keep to the safari theme here.) Perhaps the most interesting sight of the entire tour was the parade of wild horses, donkeys, and cows sauntering up to the island's one fresh-water pond for a drink. The animals all technically belong to the government but roam freely. Vic pointed out the "zebra without stripes" (donkey), a joke that fell as flat as the local landscape.

As a whole, Grand Turk is, well, flat as a flounder and lacks the kind of lush scenery and greenery you find on many other Caribbean islands (though it's not as desert-like as, say, Curacao). In fact, no crops of any kind grow here -- the soil is too salty. So all island food has to be imported. And you know what that means -- prices go up at Nookie Pookie Pizza. Even salt must be imported because they've given up on farming the local salt ponds, which look somewhat forlorn.

To justify the use of the four-wheel-drive vehicle, we took off over some dunes at one point along an incredibly rutted path that had everyone wishing they hadn't drunk so much bottled water. And to fully justify calling this an adventure tour, Vic drove backwards for what seemed like a quarter mile, before stopping at the foot of a place called Gun Hill. The second highest point on the island -- it must have been all of 30 feet above sea level -- it was a one-time lookout where the British watched intently for the invading French, who never arrived (perhaps put off by the prospect of Nookie Pookie Pizza for dinner). Or maybe the French did invade and the Brits were at tea. Whatever.

The last stop was Governor's Beach, said to be the most beautiful stretch of sand on the island. While it doesn't rank with the best in the Caribbean by any means, the water was crystal clear, aquamarine, and refreshing for a quick dip, all I could ask after our "adventurous" safari tour. Vic ladeled out some rum punch and before we knew it, we were back at the Cruise Center, ready to shop -- or, in my case, for tea on the ship.

In sum, I'd say Grand Turk is low-key, safe, clean, and perhaps more interesting underwater than above, but still mostly untouched and unspoiled by mass tourism. And for that, I'd gladly go back.

Next up: Gustavia, St. Bart's; and Phillipsburg, St. Maarten.

Balmoral photos courtesy of Peter Knego.

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