The buildings are ramshackle, the picnic tables could definitely use a fresh lick of paint, the beach is in need of raking and the dogs are stray. But the food at Da Conch Shack and Rum Bar in Turks and Caicos is fresh and delish.
The Turk’s Head beer is ice cold, the view of the Caribbean Sea is sublime and DJ Natti is cranking out the reggae tunes — even mid-afternoon.
My wife and I and our 10-year-old daughter sought out this legendary eatery during a side trip from our nearby luxury digs at the family-friendly Beaches Resort.
We’d be told repeatedly that Da Conch Shack — always pronounced with that cheeky Caribbean lilt — was the place to go on Turks and Caicos’ main island of Providenciales (nicknamed Provo for those in the know).
Admittedly the open air landmark doesn’t look like much when we pull up in a taxi.
But when we’re shown to our table — a picnic table in the shade of a palm tree on the beach facing the Caribbean — we start to swoon.
It’s also where we’re soon acquainted with Roger, one of the stray dogs that calls the beach home and hits up tourists for conch scraps.
Now for a bit of a tutorial on conch.
You’ll instantly recognize the big beautiful pearl and pink curved shell.
What you might not know is inside this pretty shell is a sea animal resembling a chunky snail that has become the national dish of Turks and Caicos.
The firm white meat of the conch is relatively tasteless raw and on its own.
But the texture is perfect for creating seafood dishes ranging from raw salads, chowders and stir-fries to fritters, curries and creole stew.
Of course, Da Conch Shack has them all on the menu and we quickly order conch fritters, Turk’s Head for my wife and I and non-alcoholic fruit punch for our daughter.
“We’re a regular stop for locals and tourists alike,” explained waitress Karene Brown when she dropped off our drinks.
“We’re famous. I don’t know exactly why. It has something to do with the food and drink and location and music and vibe though.”
We soak up the atmosphere, hear Adele and Michael Buble songs set to a reggae beat.
Then we catch a glimpse of Gaan Geahheah heading out to catch conch.
Well, there’s not much to ‘catching’ conch because they lay listlessly on the ocean floor just waiting to be plucked for a tasty meal.
As such Geahheah doesn’t have to go much farther out than waist deep to pick the sparkling shells and fill up his waiting kayak.
By the time he’s back on shore a small crowd of tourists, including us, of course, have assembled to watch him pull the meat from the shells to fill a white bucket.
Geahheah seems a little perplexed why we’ve gathered and are snapping pictures ferociously, after all, he’s just doing his job.
On the way out my wife and daughter buy jewelery from beach vendor Marilyn Simmons.
Back at Beaches Resort (the family-friendly brand of the couples-only Sandals Resorts, which has properties throughout the Caribbean) we continue to satisfy our appetite for conch.
At outdoor Bella Napoli Pizzeria chef Franco Malcolm has become the first to put conch on a pizza.
“It’s a natural. I’m surprised no one has done it before,” he said.
Conch will also pop up at three more of Beaches’ 16 restos.
At Barefoot by the Sea it’s in a zesty salad with tomato, onion, cucumber, lime and Scotch Bonnet pepper.
At Schooners it makes an appearance in another salad and tomato broth-based chowder.
And even at the Japanese restaurant Kimonos we nosh on the conch gyoza appetizer.
Besides eating conch we enjoyed the massive 615-room resort including a prime spot right on Grace Bay Beach, seven pools, waterpark, kids’ clubs and activities, spa and snorkel excursions.
That’s how we found ourselves out on the Kitty Katt catamaran and dropped off to spy conch, of course, parrot fish, lobster, snapper, doctor fish, grouper and loin fish in the Princess Alexandra Marine Park.
Then the Kitty Katt glided up to Little Water Cay so we could frolic on the deserted island’s pristine beach and dunes.
See turksandcaicostourism.com for general information