Exploring by Land and Sea

Award-winning journalist and ISLANDS contributing editor Bob Payne is a certified scuba diver, but what pleased him most about the Turks & Caicos, which are known for their diving, were his experiences on land.

"Sea whips and gorgonians are nice," he says, "but for me they don't compare to watching a kid gallop a horse at sunrise down the main street of Cockburn Town on Grand Turk, or losing $20 playing pool on Saturday night at the local bar on Salt Cay. The people of Turks & Caicos were as interesting as any I've met."

Photographer Darrell Jones tells us that the Turks & Caicos are one of his favorite island destinations, a place where he would like to vacation. For someone who has traveled the Caribbean for 25 years, that"s saying a lot.

Jones was most taken with Grand Turk. "It's rustic yet intimate, and the island culture hasn't been diluted," he says. "And it's very friendly; I traveled everywhere by golf cart, stopping frequently to chat with the locals."

Jones, a Miami resident who grew up near the ocean, is an ISLANDS contributing photographer.

Dive In Turks & Caicos is a world-class dive destination with an extensive reef system that's 65 miles wide and 200 miles long. The big draws are shipwrecks, legendary walls that drop 7,000 feet into the Turks Island Passage, and visibility up to 200 feet. The wall is closest to shore off Grand Turk. Contact Blue Water Divers on Grand Turk (tel. 649-946-2432, www.grandturkscuba.com); Salt Cay Divers on Salt Cay (649-946-6906, www.saltcaydivers.tc); and Dive Provo on Providenciales (tel. 800- 234-7768, www.diveprovo.com). The best time to dive in the Turks & Caicos is from April through November.

Beach Time The islands host 230 miles of beautiful white-sand beaches, but be prepared because most of them have no shade. Provo's 12-mile-long Grace Bay Beach is impressive, and despite the hotels scattered along it, you'll find plenty of space to be alone. Salt Cay's pristine North Beach is just as gorgeous but nearly deserted. It's also more exposed, so the water can be rough for swimming. Governor's Beach is the most popular strand on Grand Turk. For great shelling, take a day trip to Dellis Cay.

Room Key On Provo, Payne splurged by staying in one of the 21 luxury suites - complete with marble bathrooms, Guatemalan rugs, and Mexican vases - at the Grace Bay Club ($395 to $1,115 per night; tel. 800-946-5757, Web site www.gracebayclub.com). The Turks Head Inn is an offbeat romantic hideaway housed in a former colonial mansion on Grand Turk ($100 to $125 per night; tel. 649-946-2466, Web site www.grand-turk.com). The Island House on Grand Turk provides guests with free golf carts, and on Salt Cay, the Mount Pleasant Guest House, which dates to 1830, is a comfortable place to stay and one of the island"s evening gathering spots ($85 to $125 per night; tel. 649-946-6927, Web site www.mountpleasantguesthouse.com).

What's to Eat Since virtually everything except seafood is imported, meals can be expensive - but good. The best food is on Provo. Boogaloo's, near Blue Hills, is a wooden shack on the shore. The chef wades out to a pen and harvests live conch to mix with onions and peppers in conch salad, and to use for making deep-fried, batter-dipped cracked conch. Nearby is the 3 Queens, which consists of a restaurant-bar in one building and also a beach shack similar to Boogaloo's. The most elegant restaurant in the Turks & Caicos is Anacaona, where beautiful water views complement the excellent nouvelle cuisine at Provo"s Grace Bay Club.

On the Road It's a 25-minute plane ride from Provo to Grand Turk or Salt Cay. The trip from Grand Turk to Salt Cay takes 10 minutes by air or 45 minutes by boat. There are car rentals on Provo. (Remember to drive on the left.) On Grand Turk, you can get around by golf cart or taxi, or on foot. Most people walk on Salt Cay, although you can rent a golf cart for about $45 a day.

Don't Miss To have beaches and reefs all to yourself, take a boat north from Provo to empty Fort George Cay. On Provo, drive out to Chalk Sound, a narrow three-mile-long inlet lined with grand houses overlooking impossibly blue water. Another highlight is the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk, which displays artifacts from the oldest shipwreck in the New World; it sank on Molasses Reef in the early 1500s. From January through March, be sure to sign up for a whale-watching trip in the Turks Island Passage.

Read It and Leap For a historical account of the region, take a look at Turks Islands Landfall, by H. E. Sadler. Stephen Harrigan's Water and Light is this Texas writer's account of spending a season diving off Grand Turk. The most useful guide is Lonely Planet"s Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, by Christopher Baker.

Web Headings For in-depth information, see the Turks & Caicos Islands Information Gateway at www.tcimall.tc. Get the 411 on hotels, restaurants, and islands dive operators at www.tcisearch.com. You'll find plenty of info specifically relating to Providenciales at www.provo.net.

Cash Flow While Provo and Grand Turk have banks and ATMs, Salt Cay doesn't have any. Credit cards are widely accepted on Provo, less so on the other islands in the group.