This Sleepy Caribbean Island Has Hidden Beaches and the Bluest Water

Plus storybook deserted islands and one of the largest coral reefs in the world.

After passing over so many miles of standard, dark blue ocean, you’ll know you’ve hit Turks and Caicos when the waves outside the plane window suddenly turn a vivid turquoise. The color is so vibrant, my mind could only think of Kool-Aid, Gatorade, and Freeze Pops—all artificial comparisons that reveal how deprived my life has been of this shade of blue thus far. At first sight, I even wildly thought there’d been a spill (perhaps lithium?) of something unnatural in the ocean. But no, we were simply arriving at the island with the bluest of the blue Caribbean waters—all real, all natural, and all the more captivating for it.

There’s no seawater quite like Turks water. Most of the country’s nine islands are framed by white limestone, and there’s no murky runoff from volcanoes, mountains, or rivers, so the oceans keep their brilliant hues. That's also partly why you'll find the world’s third largest barrier reef here.

Thanks to that, the area’s snorkeling opportunities far surpass a 10-minute doggie-paddle; you could find yourself mesmerized for hours by plus fleets of harmless jellyfish and over 50 different schools of fish, some glowing yellow and purple, some long and eel-like, some more colorful and shimmery than those in the The Rainbow Fish picture book. You can either see them and the ocean floor just by looking over the edge of the boat, or swim amid the swirling, undulating swarms. Just make sure your sunscreen is biodegradable—if not, you’ll learn, it’ll kill the coral reef system—and prepare to float face-down in the warm expanse.

Where to stay

Out of the nine inhabited islands that comprise Turks and Caicos, Middle Caicos is the one to visit if you’re looking to experience the least developed and least inhabited locale. If you’ve ever wanted to have an entire beach to yourself, where your sandy footprints are the only ones as far as the eye can see, Middle Caicos is your place. Both idyllic and sleepy, here you can pay a visit to hidden stretches of beachfront and dense mangrove wetlands.

On the main island, Providenciales (AKA Provo), you’ll find more contemporary developments, restaurants, shopping, and luxury properties. Despite the modernity, getting into the local way of life is still quite easy—you can still gorge a freshly cracked conch at a small shack, explore the pristine reefs via snorkeling or diving, attend the weekly fish-fry, and paddle a kayak while chatting with locals lucky enough to be born and raised here. Wherever you choose to stay, you'll have the opportunity to kick your feet in the powdery sand, take advantage of the unreal waters, and plan your itinerary around stunning sunsets. 

aerial view of scuba diving boat in turquoise waters
Island Vibes Tours

First thing’s first: Make a beeline for the ocean

Don’t worry if you didn’t account for a yacht rental in your budget, since companies like Dive Provo or Island Vibes Tours offer you the chance to get out on the water, either with a group or on a private tour. The boats will take you on a snorkeling excursion, as well as to a few spots off of Grace Bay, including sites known for harmless nurse sharks and an uninhabited island full of large lizards. Fueled by rum drinks from the boat’s bar, this is your chance to stumble like a drunken pirate across a deserted island.

More DIY or budget-friendly snorkeling is also possible on Provo. Take your own equipment and dive in right from shore at Smith’s Reef to spot angelfish and butterfly fish, among dozens of other species. Since no guide will be there to remind you, it bears repeating that if your sunscreen doesn’t say biodegradable or reef-safe on the bottle, don’t put it on your skin if you plan to get in the water.

Stephen Frink/The Image Bank/Getty images

Kayaking is another leisurely way to see the sights, whether you’re skimming across the calm waters along the shore or bobbing around the nearby mangroves. Keep your eyes on the skies, because if you’re there three to five days after the full moon, you may get to see bioluminescence in the water, when the glow worms do their monthly mating. It’s a great time to try one of the glass-bottomed kayaks. If you’re not there during the natural phenomenon, any time of year is ideal for looking straight through the transparent water all the way to the ocean floor.

Another way to become acquainted with the clear Turks’ water is by getting a Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) scuba diving certification through a reputable dive shop like Dive Provo. Depending on the conditions in the morning, the instructors will take you to the best dive sites around the islands. For example, if you make a stop at the West Caicos “Piranha Cove,” expect to descend to 40 feet and come face to face with amazing marine life like slow-moving conch, fast-moving hawksbill turtles, elusive moray eels, and schools of Creole wrasse. You may even have the opportunity to check out the so-called “Crocodile” dive site, where frequent visitors include grouper, parrotfish, and reef sharks.

And if you feel like upping the ante, consider the parasailing adventures to take in all that impossible-blue color from a bird’s eye view.

puppy walking on beach
Potcake Place K-9 Rescue

Explore Provo’s shops and rent a puppy for a day

Whether you’re looking to stock up on starfish necklaces, scuba gear, nautical-themed art, a flowy swimsuit coverup, or just a refreshing scoop of ice cream, Provo has your back. Here, shops also sell seashells or conches, which must be purchased from a store, as they’ve been cleaned in a sustainable way—you cannot pick up shells straight from the beach and put them in your luggage, or else you’ll be stopped and fined at the airport. Saltmills and Regent Village are the largest complexes, situated next to each other, where you’ll find luxury and designer shops. For something more casual, check out Ports of Call, complete with restaurants, a spa, a map mural, and a quirky pirate theme.

At Salt Mill, you’ll also find Potcake Place, a dog rescue center that lets you rent puppies for a couple of hours at a time. The beach walking program is meant to help socialize young pups so they’ll be friendly and ready for adoption, and it’s a great way to add some excitement and companionship to your vacation. Get there early, as the program is so popular, oftentimes the line stretches out the door before the nonprofit has even opened. And be warned: Rent-a-puppy often leads to unplanned on-the-spot adoptions…

If you want to get a feel for local life, head to the weekly island fish fry. The popular event was discontinued for the past two years due to the COVID pandemic, but it’s now back every Thursday in the Lower Bight near Mr. Grouper’s. In addition to all kinds of food stalls, you’ll find vendors selling crafts, storytellers, and Junkanoo bands playing drum-heavy music.

Speaking of great returns, the standout Turks and Caicos Food and Wine Festival is set to take place in October 2023—if you can wait that long to make the journey.

middle caicos
Matt Anderson Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

Wander oceanfront cliffs or tranquil beaches on North and Middle Caicos

Catching the ferry from the island of Provo (home to the international airport) to North Caicos or Middle Caicos is an experience in itself. The top level of the ship is where you can enjoy light ocean spray and languishing views of passing islands on the 25-minute ride. Once on land, you can drive across the two largest islands of North and Middle Caicos.

Easing into the slow pace of Middle Caicos, soak up the island’s abundant nature offerings with stunning rocky cliffs jutting out over white sand beaches, natural limestone tunnel formations, quiet coves, and outcroppings along the scenic Mudjin Harbor. Thrill-seekers can stand out over these cliffs to watch the waves crash and spray up dozens of feet in the air.

The island boasts over 2,200 feet of white-sand beaches. For a gorgeous swimming and kayaking option, visit Middle Caicos’ Bambarra Beach. If you visit these sands around noon in the middle of the week, don’t be surprised if it’s just you and maybe a fisherman or local catching some zzz’s.

caves turks and caicos
Matt Anderson Photography/Moment Open/Getty images

Into hiking? Venture along the Crossing Place Trail, a well-trodden route full of rocks, sand, and paved areas that used to be the primary link for traveling to and from North and Middle Caicos islands (now connected by a bridge). Some must-sees along the way include Juniper Hole, a craggy sea cave, and Blowing Hole, a 75-foot-long underwater cave.

Taking things underground, head to the Conch Bar Caves for a fascinating sojourn through an array of 1,000-year-old stalactites, stalagmites, and columns, along with pools of water that flow in and out of the acidic limestone backdrop. You can conjure images of previous inhabitants mining for bat guano, which was used for fertilizer in the 1880s, as you hike around. Keep an eye out for sleeping bats that like to literally hang-out on the overhead portions of the cave.

restaurants turks and caicos
Photo courtesy of Ocean Club Resorts

Eat your weight in incredible seafood

Easily one of the best upscale meals in all of Turks can be found at Opus on Provo. The red snapper is perfectly salted and served across a bed of saucy vegetables, the curry is one of the tastiest vegetarian dishes on the island, and you’ll kick yourself if you skip the lobster bisque covered in flaky puff pastry. The whole sparkling restaurant is enclosed in a wall of jungle greens, making you feel like you’re in a romantic private getaway. And if you’re looking for that ocean sunset, grab a drink at nearby Cabana Bar and Grill before making your way over.

Alternatively, Solana offers dinner (and rum tastings) right on the beach. You can get sushi, Rasta Pasta (the wonderful jerk-chicken-meets-Italian dish), mint-crusted lamb, and conch chowder, all while gazing out to sea, trying to catch that legendary green flash of sunset.

For sweeping vistas perched above it all, try Magnolia. Sitting on a hilltop, you’ll have a whole lot of sky between opposite horizons to watch some blazing twilight colors. The restaurant’s seared tuna is crusted in sesame and a soy-ginger sauce, and the desserts are decadent, with a gooey chocolate cake and salted caramel ice cream or banana toffee coffee with graham cracker crust.

For low-key vibes, grab freshly caught seafood like lime-seasoned conch salad, buttery lobster, and flaky conch fritters at da Conch Shack. While here, watch fishermen cleaning brilliant conch shells on the beach.

If you’re going to Middle Caicos, visit Seaview Café, located along the Crossing Place trail. Here you’ll find perfectly seasoned, minced curry lobster or baked salmon accompanied with garlicky potatoes, all of which you can enjoy on cozy outdoor picnic tables.

hotels turks and caicos
Photo courtesy of Ocean Club Resorts

Where to stay in Turks and Caicos

Providenciales is full of major chains, from Beaches to Club Med. To stay near the action on Provo but get away from the crowded beaches and all-inclusive corporations, opt for Ocean Club Resorts. The smaller and homier hotel offers rooms spread out across three-story buildings positioned in a U shape facing the ocean, so that all the balconies get a choice view. It’s situated directly on Grace Bay Beach, which is regularly ranked one of the best in the world. You won’t find cheesy theme nights or water parks here, but you will find excellent onsite restaurants, a relaxing pool, and a quiet stretch of the beach near the east property. Plus, in-room kitchens and grills by the pool mean you don’t have to spend all your vacation cash on eating out. There are also complementary kayaks, SUP boards, and bicycles. (Tip: Reserve a room on the third floor for spacious vaulted ceilings.)

For a romantic stay, spend a few days on the private island of Pine Cay, located a short boat trip east of Provo. The island has the softest sand you’ll ever feel along with luxury, oceanside cottages with king size beds, private hammocks, and your own golf cart to roam the island in style.

If you’re looking to fall asleep to the sounds of breaking waves and humming tree frogs, book a cottage or villa at the Dragon Cay Resort on Middle Caicos. Equipped with kitchenettes and living rooms, the accommodations are perfect for small groups and families traveling on a budget. You can also request paddleboards, kayaks, and bicycles to use during your stay—all on the house, of course.

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Adrienne Jordan is a contributor for Thrillist.
Danielle Hallock is a Travel Editor at Thrillist, and she now compares Gatorade to oceans, not the other way around.