One by one on a scorching August afternoon, cars begin streaming in to the parking lot of the Sunset Cafe Bar & Grill, one of the few restaurants on the tiny, eastern Caribbean island of South Caicos. Their occupants — women in fluttering dresses, men in loose-fitting suits —emerge and file onto the restaurant's patio, where my friends and I have just ordered lunch. Within minutes, loud conversations and laughter fill the entire space.
Members of the group skirt our table on their way inside, and we ask what's brought them all here as they pass. “A funeral,” says a burly man with a kind voice as he hands over a program from the service. He divulges more details: a young, aspiring musician; a party; too much to drink. This gathering, it turns out, is a post-funeral celebration of the young man's life. We offer our sympathy, and he wishes us well before heading inside to his friends.
The exchange feels intimate, but, then again, so does South Caicos. The island is home to roughly 1,300 residents — small even by Caribbean standards. Here, people don't stay strangers for long.
Such authentic interactions are among the pleasures of a stay on South Caicos, an 8½-square-mile island just 25 minutes by air from Turks and Caicos’ most tourist-trafficked island, Providenciales. Other pleasures include exploring the island’s untouched beaches, flamingo-flecked salt flats, and a tiny, historical downtown in near-total privacy. Then, there’s the fresh, straight-off-the-boat seafood, and a permeating calmness that’s increasingly hard to find almost anywhere else.
Before 2017, anyone looking for a cushy place to stay on South Caicos — a sleepy island once at the center of the Caribbean’s salt trade — would have had little luck. A few modest hotels serve mainly the local market, and the shell of a once-planned luxury resort stands isolated and empty in an open field. But for travelers seeking upscale, off-the-grid R&R, that all changed in June, when Sailrock Resort opened on the peninsula that juts north into the sea from the easternmost end of the island. Now, visitors who crave the Caribbean’s powdery beaches and clear water — but not the crowds — can get their fill of water sports, spa treatments, tropical drinks and gourmet meals, all with luxury Ridgetop Suites and Beachfront Villas serving as their base.
While he would most likely be happy to have guests lounge all day at his new resort, Sailrock’s Chicago-based developer, Colin Kihnke, encourages guests to explore beyond its walls. “The thing I loved the most right off the bat during my [first visit to South Caicos] was the town — this historic, authentic, fishing village dating back to the salt-raking days of the mid-1700s,” he says. “You don't get that on a lot of the islands.”
Indeed, around town guests will find charming churches — there are around 13 of them, according to some locals — small service stations and grocery stores, and a few divey bars, all brimming with sun- and wind-weathered character. An open-air pavilion and park, known as the Queen’s Parade Ground, was built in 1966 to receive Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. The royal visit was commemorated the following year with the inception of the South Caicos Regatta, which brings everything from donkey races to beauty pageants to town each May.
Of course, the turquoise waters that flank the Turks and Caicos islands are the region’s major draw, and South Caicos — home to a remarkable barrier reef — is no exception. From Cockburn Harbour, a 10- to 15-minute boat ride takes visitors to some of the world’s most celebrated scuba and snorkeling sites replete with marine life, wall sites, canyons, arches and swim-through reefs. Pirating history runs deep — literally and figuratively — in the Harbour’s waters.
At one of Kihnke’s favorite spots, which he describes as “two little islands directly north of South Caicos that you can actually wade to,” rays can be spotted gliding through the shallow water. On Long Key, located directly south of South Caicos, iguanas roam the beach. At the northern tip of McCartney Cay — nestled between the peninsula of northern South Caicos and East Caicos — natural sandbars make for blissful wading.
“The thing that really does set South [Caicos] apart is that it has all this natural beauty and these unusual characteristics, but it’s this historic and authentic destination,” says Kihnke. “You can’t replicate that. [An] island either has that or it doesn’t, and South has it.”
Since discovering South Caicos for himself more than a decade ago, Kihnke has invested in improvements around the island, ranging from the installation of electricity in some areas to the paving of roads in others. “This isn't Walt Disney World. We're not going to go make [things up]. That history is there.”
While it’s definitely not Disney, for weary travelers looking to reconnect with the sun, sky, sea, and sand, South Caicos might just be the happiest place on earth.