Dave & Mic's Turks & Caicos

January 20-29, 2012

I had been wanting to swim with the humpback whales for several years, ever since I learned such a thing was possible. I was targeting the year of my 40th birthday to do this, and had researched and put a plan together for Tonga. In late October of 2011 I was looking back into my plan, and discovered that Air New Zealand no longer had direct LAX to Tonga flights, necessitating a much longer trip through Fiji.
I knew you could also see the whales from the Dominican Republic, but on live aboard dive boats- a no go for me. Through the magic of the internet I ran into info that excursions could be done from a small island in the Turks & Caicos...that might make sense.

Jimmy Buffett released some early 2012 concert dates, so I thought it might make sense to wrap a TCI trip around the Miami or Charleston dates. A little early in the whale season, but it could still work.
I'm used to doing almost all my trips by myself, and often don't even bother to ask anyone else any more. For some reason I decided to mention it on facebook, and to my surprise, Mic replied "I might be able to do a long weekend..."

Friday 20th- fly to Ft. Lauderdale

Southwest #3556 AUS 3:15pm to FLL 6:50pm $140

Did some last minute shopping for a few items: England and Caribbean travel books, shortie wet suit, Crocs sandals. Plus the hat and fun noodle I had neglected to pack.

Saturday 21st- fly to Provo then Salt Cay

American Airlines $557 RT
#1653 MIA 11:05am to 12:45pm PLS
Upgraded to first class.


You can see American Airlines Arena (which I would be returning to in a week) and Miami Beach below.
Such potential lost : (

"The Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) are a coral-reef paradise, largely shut off from the world, free of pollution and crowds. Even with the advent of real tourist development and the bustle of construction, particularly in Provo, the beauty and tranquillity of this little island chain remain intact. They're still off the beaten track, and they're not right for travelers who want lots of glitzy facilities or nightlife. You won't find the highly refined tourist infrastructure that exists in the Bahamas, but that's the appeal for some travelers."

"What's beginning to put Turks and Caicos on the map is an incredible array of beaches -- 362km (224 miles) worth, to be precise. Some stretches of soft white sand run for miles; others are small, hidden in secluded coves. The islands are also home to some of the world's most magnificent underwater life. For years, divers and snorkelers have enjoyed the countless varieties of brilliant coral and colorful fish that thrive within TCI's nearly 805km (499-mile) pristine reef system."

Of note- Jimmy Buffett likes to bonefish down here, I've spoken to two locals that have met him.
Also read that Jimmy's grandfather James Buffett used to captain a ship that would come down to Salt Cay.



Mic was supposed to land at 11:20am on American direct in from JFK, was was cheaper than my flight from MIA, but I knew she was delayed and at first glance I didn't spot her.


Through the TripAdvisor forums da Conch Shack was recommended. The taxi ride was expensive at $16 each way, but it was only about 10 minutes drive from the airport and turned out to be well worth the effort, especially versus sitting in the airport for 2hrs.


What a great setting, awesome start to the trip!


Mic was still in her NYC clothes, me coming from Miami the contrast wasn't as great.


Growing up a Buffett and Florida Keys guy, conch has always been a fantastic concept, but along with Key Lime pie I had never found to actually be that great. Well, the fritters here were good! As were the rum punch and rum cake too.



Caicos Express
4pm flight from Provo, through Grand Turk, to Salt Cay, $85
Flight left a little late, so we got in a little before sunset.





Here to see the neighboring other "Turk" island of Grand Turk.

After a quick landing there to drop off two passengers, we take back off and we see Salt Cay below!
I think 3x3x2 miles, population around 100 people. Still the real deal.

"If you can't quite envision what the Turks would have been like in the 19th century, take a trip to Salt Cay. Like stepping into a time machine, this picturesque island is the sort of hideaway that you search your whole life to discover. A few dusty roads interconnect the handful of structures, and donkeys wander aimlessly through the streets intermixed with friendly locals. While the land is quiet, the sea surrounding the island is awash with life. Turtles, eagle rays and the majestic humpback whale all frequent the waters."

"Hard to get to and even harder to leave, this place is a true haven for scuba divers and for those seeking an escape from the modern world." - Lonely Planet






Salt Cay airport!



Haidee explained some of the island dynamics on the golf cart ride to our place.

Rent this 2-story house on the beach
4 nights is $629, including tax, service, airport transfer and the Salt Cay Welcome Packet.






We watch the cruise ship from Grand Turk head out...

There are really only three restaurants on the island, so it is common practice to let one of them know you are coming and if possible place your order before 3pm.

Our first meal would be at Porter's Island Thyme, which is where Haidee and her husband Porter lived as well.



Mic got the fish which was pretty good, my jerk pork was just OK. Hard to get real jerk.


Half the island was here for karaoke night- I did some old stand-bys - Sister Golden Hair and Every Rose, plus tore up Journey's Separate Ways.

Sunday 22nd


Upstairs
There was no AC in the house, and if a mosquito gets in it always kills my sleep. But no problems here- screens on the windows and few bugs in general, plus the wind was literally howling through from front to back to keep us cool.


I've always thought a white picket fence and coconut trees would be part of a nice place to live.






We would have all three of our breakfasts on island at the Coral Reef Bar & Grill, which was right at the boat dock area and run by Debbie, who we had booked the whale excursions through.

Mic would get the spinach and brie omelette each day, today I had two eggs, bacon, and toast.

Our 10am whale excursion got pushed back to the afternoon obstensibly so a naturalist that was on the island could go with us, so we moved up our afternoon golf cart rental. $40


Another interior view of the house.

We headed down south first...


A line from Jimmy Buffett's song "Boat Drinks".


While the island was real and rustic, that didn't always mean scenic like hundred year old sugar mills or forts. Much of it is decaying buildings or abandoned property.







Southern tip.


So one of the key characteristics of this island is there are tons of free roaming donkeys (and some cows), and the resulting donkey poop can generally be found everywhere.

And then made our way up to the north shore beach. Gorgeous and deserted except for us.




WORK IT! WORK IT!




We'd try some snorkeling, but Mic's snorkel was malfunctioning.


So we found this area that I would call the "full body bidet" as it was excellent to sit in and get the sand cleaned out by the natural wave action.



We return the golf cart.

Salt Cay Divers
$100 per 3hr outing
10am or 2pm- go once per day

"Join the seasoned whale watching guide of Ollie, born and raised in Salt Cay, and his staff to experience the magnificence of these huge mammals for yourself.

Salt Cay is considered the "Whale Headquarters" from January to March each year. The little cay is directly in front of Columbus Passage where the Atlantic humpbacks migrate to the Silver Banks, between the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Dominican Republic, to calve & mate. When scuba diving and snorkeling you can hear the mesmerizing sounds from the Humpbacks. The beautiful songs assist them with their navigational skills.

Snorkeling with these huge whales during frequent "in-water encounters" is truly an awe inspiring experience. You can get an excellent view from the boat if you don't want to get in the water with them. Salt Cay is one of the last places in the world where you can actually swim with these magnificent creatures.

Mothers and calves are frequent visitors to the waters off Salt Cay."

Turns out the two Wisconsin couples from karaoke would be joining us, but no naturalist since he was now feeling sick.


View of our neighborhood from the water.


So while we knew whales were definitely here- there had been sightings and divers were hearing whale song- we unfortunately didn't spot any. Also although the weather was fine for the beach on land, in the water once we rounded the southern tip it was pretty choppy. Waves were high enough, plus white caps, that it made it difficult to spot whales if they were there. And additionally with the flat bottom boat we were on, we were getting slammed around pretty hard, and we were all soaked and pretty cold.
I kept my mouth shut, but later Mic would say what I was already thinking to myself- it was miserable enough that if conditions stayed like that, after seeing a whale she probably wouldn't need to go out any more than that.

Mic would also read the the waters around Salt Cay are typically flat as glass, so I guess some bad luck for us there.




Here we take a rest stop on a beautiful beach spot on a near by island.


Half way home we get to hitch a ride- you can see "the White House," one of the island landmarks, in the background.


Sunday is BBQ ribs night at the Coral Reef- being from Texas I had my doubts, but they were fantastic.
We had dinner with the Wisconsiners, a fun group of folks.



Monday 23rd




The Wisconsiners left us their remaining whiskey, which we would later put to use with some pineapple juice.


EXCELLENT breakfast burrito.

Whale excursion #2, this time with Debbie driving and a couple from the U.K. (I think) doing a day trip to Salt Cay.



Don't know why we didn;t think of this yesterday, but sitting on the life vests made a big difference. It even had a natural hole to rest your testicles.


Debbie's dog Snow followed her everywhere.



So no whales again. Debbie was consciously driving the boat more gently, but again once we got past the southern tip, to where the water was shallower and where the whales are known to play (hence more likely to have an encounter there), the water was choppy and had white caps. So we spent much of about 2hrs driving along the calmer west coast, before heading in to see what the afternoon might look like.

So we chilled close to the dock.







TripAdvisor reviewers had specifically called out the cheeseburgers as good here, but it was just OK. Mic's cracked conch I believe was excellent.

We made the call not to go back out on the boat, and instead were dropped back up at the north shore beach to snorkel and chillax.







And we walked all the way back home, making one stop at a "souvenier shop" which was really a room in a couple's home.







For dinner we went to Pat's, which was closer to us on the southeastern part of the island in a residential neighborhood. We had heard Pat would sit with us and fill us in on all sorts of island knowledge, but she was engaged with the other folks there, six island regulars. So we just listened in to the gossip.


We both thought the rice & peas were excellent, the main course of the minced lobster was ok. Glad I didn't have to work to eat it, but not the tender buttery juiciness you expect of lobster. Also came with plantains and coldslaw.

Tuesday 24th






At some point we decided looking for whales today was a no go. So I did some snorkeling by the dock, and then we both did some beach combing. Very chill day, but I don't remember being bored at all.










We also did our feel good activity of cleaning up the trash on the beach. Pretty sure it is mainly stuff that washed up with the tide, as opposed to the locals littering.


Conch fritters, some sort of fried Haitian spicy beef thing, and some good margaritas.


The supply boat was coming in, so understandably the whole town was out to meet it!



The beach in front of our house.



Final dinner at Island Thyme- lobster kabob and lobster chunks in butter, with some good mashed potatos.


And some excellent mango ice cream.

So I must say the food here was very expensive, Mic calling it higher than New York City prices. For 10 meals here for the two of us it came up to something like over $500 I think?
We did purposely spread the business around, and while there was obvious rivalry between Debbie and Haidee on a small island it seems like they kept it friendly.

While any friends that have heard me complain about Lonely Planet's sections on "self-catering" (no, I am not going to be cooking my own food on vacation...), Mic and I agree were we to come back it would make sense to cook some meals. There was a full kitchen, and certainly it would make sense for breakfasts. Also with more than one person and the time, cooking can be a fun event, and even give an imaginary and novel semblance of a family life.

Well, mission not accomplished- did not get to swim with whales, which was the original purpose of this trip.
That being said, I'm glad I went, still had a fun time, and don't consider the trip a failure. I believe this is due to having a friend along, someone I got to catch up with and also share the experience. Otherwise, since currently in my life I have plenty of free time and lots of recent tropical locales, I don't think I would have appreciated this experience as much.

The pictures below I found on the web for my initial research, I am leaving them below to visualize what we could have seen, and to incent planning for the next trip where we will see and swim with them!

Wikipedia Salt Cay info
Salt Cay info
Salt Cay info
Oasis Divers- a Grand Turk whale watching outfit
Salt Cay Tours

TCI whale watching info
Salt Cay whale info and video
Person's blog on their Salt Cay vacation and whale experience


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