Just 7 miles (11 km) long and a little more than 1 mile (1½ km) wide, this island, the capital and seat of the Turks and Caicos government, has been a longtime favorite destination for divers eager to explore the 7,000-foot-deep pristine coral walls that drop down only 300 yards out to sea. On shore, the tiny, quiet island is home to white-sand beaches, the National Museum, and a small population of wild horses and donkeys, which leisurely meander past the white-walled courtyards, pretty churches, and bougainvillea-covered colonial inns on their daily commute into town. But things aren't entirely sleepy: a cruise-ship complex at the southern end of the island brings about 600,000 visitors per year. That said, the dock is self-contained and is about 3 miles (5 km) from the tranquil, small hotels of Cockburn Town, Pillory Beach, and the Ridge and far from most of the western-shore dive sites. Pristine beaches with vistas of turquoise waters, small local settlements, historic ruins, and native flora and fauna are among the sights on Grand Turk. Fewer than 4,000 people live on this 7½-square-mile (19-square-km) island, and it's hard to get lost, as there aren't many roads.
Conch in every shape and form, fresh grouper, and lobster (in season) are the favorite dishes at the laid-back restaurants that line Duke Street. Away from these more touristy areas, smaller and less expensive eateries serve chicken and ribs, curried goat, peas and rice, and other native island specialties. Prices are more expensive than in the United States, as most of the produce has to be imported.
Walk 500 meters down the beach from the cruise terminal and you'll find this local beach bar. It gets busy with volleyball players, and offers chair rentals and tropical drinks. Casual food such as burgers and hot dogs satisfy your hunger. Print a coupon from the website for a free shot of T&C's local rum, Bambarra.
Accommodations include original Bermudian inns, more modern but small beachfront hotels, and self-catering suites and apartments. Almost all hotels offer dive packages, which are usually an excellent value.
Grand Turk is a quiet place where you come to relax and unwind, and most of the nightlife consists of little more than happy hour at sunset, so you have a chance to glimpse the elusive green flash. Most restaurants turn into gathering places where you can talk with the new friends you have made that day—for instance, every Wednesday and Sunday, there's lively rake-and-scrape music at the Osprey Beach Hotel, and similar bands visit the Salt Raker Inn on Friday. On some evenings, you'll be able to catch Mitch Rollings of Blue Water Divers; he often headlines the entertainment at the island's different restaurants.
Shopping in Grand Turk is hard to come by—choices are slim. Let's just say that no true shopaholic would want to come here for vacation. You can get the usual T-shirts and dive trinkets at all the dive shops, but there are only a few options for more interesting shopping opportunities. When a ship is in port, the shops at the pier will be open, and these increase your options dramatically.
Turks and Caicos National Museum
In one of the oldest stone buildings on the islands, the national museum houses the Molasses Reef wreck, the earliest shipwreck—dating to the early 1500s—discovered in the Americas. The natural-history exhibits include artifacts left by Taíno, African, North American, Bermudian, French, and Latin American settlers. The museum has a 3-D coral reef exhibit, a walk-in Lucayan cave with wooden artifacts, and a gallery dedicated to Grand Turk's little-known involvement in the Space Race (John Glenn made landfall here after being the first American to orbit the Earth). An interactive children's gallery keeps knee-high visitors "edutained." The museum also claims that Grand Turk was where Columbus first landed in the New World. The most original display is a collection of messages in bottles that have washed ashore from all over the world.
Grand Turk Lighthouse
More than 150 years ago, the lighthouse, built in the United Kingdom and transported piece by piece to the island, protected ships from wrecking on the northern reefs. Use this panoramic landmark as a starting point for a breezy cliff-top walk by following the donkey trails to the deserted eastern beach.
A beautiful crescent of powder-soft sand and shallow, calm turquoise waters front the official British governor's residence, called Waterloo, framed by tall casuarina trees that provide plenty of natural shade. To have it all to yourself, go on a day when cruise ships are not in port (but bring your own water). On days when ships are in port, the beach is lined with lounge chairs, and bars and restaurants are open.
Amenties: parking (free), toilets. Best for: swimming, walking.
With sparkling neon turquoise water, this is the prettiest beach on Grand Turk; it also has great off-the-beach snorkeling.
Amenities: food and drink; parking (free); toilets. Best for: snorkeling; swimming; walking.
Her Majesty's Prison
This prison was built in the 19th century to house runaway slaves and slaves who survived the wreck of the Trouvadore in 1841. After the slaves were granted freedom, the prison housed criminals and even modern-day drug runners until it closed in the 1990s. The last hanging here was in 1960. Now you can see the cells, solitary-confinement area, and exercise patio. The prison is open only when there is a cruise ship at the port.