PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos Islands -- Thanks to the recent visit of Turks and Caicos Premier Rufus Ewing, Canadians are once again fantasizing about the idea of inviting this tropical paradise into the federation fold as a new Canadian province or territory. This despite Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird throwing cold Atlantic water on the idea by saying, "we're not in the business of annexing islands in the Caribbean."
To that I say -- rats! As far back as 1917, when then Prime Minister Robert Borden first floated the idea, Canada has toyed with the possibility of legally embracing this jewel into the federation fold. In recent days, whenever the subject comes up so do the arguments about equalization payments, health-care costs, refugee issues and on and on.
Such a shame as, truthfully, all these government naysayers need is one visit to this pristine part of the south and the deal would be sealed before the sun set. At least that's how I felt during a recent visit to Providenciales, where I found myself immediately captivated by the beauty of the beach, my feet thoroughly buried in warm sand while my eyes scanned the horizon.
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Like the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos is in the Atlantic, not the Caribbean Sea, but it is generally regarded as part of the Caribbean. With baby-soft white sand and crystal clear turquoise waters, the beaches are superbly spectacular -- so perfect you're afraid they're not real.
You can stand there for hours, looking out to sea. Warm as a bath, with nary a ripple, the moment you set foot on the beach, your whole body just propels you to these calm waters, with so many iridescent shades of blue that I'm sure a few have yet to be named.
The landscape is primal, pristine, magnificent and soothing as a balm. It's hard to believe such beauty exists. But it does.
This scene was my introduction to this glorious piece of paradise, a vision that helped me survive the recent, wicked Canadian winter. During the coldest days, I found comfort revisiting memories of my visit and stay at the inviting Ocean Club Resort, where small buildings stacked with airy and elegant living quarters, complete with kitchens, are grouped around a good size pool, a great restaurant and the famous beach.
From the moment we arrived there was a sense of comfort, from our cab driver Virgil, who greeted us with the words "welcome home" and a smile as wide as the beach, to staff and residents who came to feel like family, to food so fresh and delicious, prepared with local ingredients, it left us wanting more.
Turks and Caicos is a British Overseas Territory a one-hour by flight from Miami. The islands are home to Grace Bay Beach, frequently rated "best in the world," and surrounding waters that receive high praise from divers. TCI also has the largest above-ground cave system in the Bahamas-TCI archipelago and one of the Top 10 golf courses in the Caribbean.
Home to world-famous Grace Bay Beach, Providenciales -- or Provo -- is the main tourist island and the heart of the country. This is the island everyone talks about. And despite its spanking brand-new vibe (it seems to grow daily), it is the most populated island. All international flights arrive on Provo and the humble airport looks as if it might burst as it tries to keep up with the surge in tourism.
While there, I kept bumping into Canadians -- from tourists to banks officials to hotel owners, even chefs. Canada has played a major role in helping to build up the islands' infrastructure; InterHealth Canada developed, constructed and currently operates two hospitals there.
I loved spending my time just bobbing around in the water, but there is excellent fishing, numerous water-sports and you can ride a horse bareback down the beach. But don't kid yourself -- Turks and Caicos is all about tranquility, a vacation spot that is both family friendly and perfect for people who want to relax, snorkel, bask in the heat or take long walks on the beach. It doesn't have the vibrant mania of, let's say Jamaica or Mexico. There are no Cirque du Soleil shows and the nightlife borders on tame, but there is plenty of great shopping, restaurants that offer some fine culinary adventures -- even S'mores adventures on the beach after sunset.
It's also the perfect spot for weddings or other special occasions. Visitors can indulge in sunset cruises and snorkel on the world's third-largest reef in the protected marine park of Grand Turk. Add parasailing, whale-watching or just grabbing a bike tootling around -- at 98-sq.-km, you can probably bike the whole place in a day stopping for a bite here and there. (Keep in mind, driving is on the other side.)
We spent an idyllic afternoon aboard Sun Charters' Atabeyra, gliding through crystal clear waters and anchoring near a private beach for a swim from the 23-metre-long ship. I watched in amazement as a giant dark orb slipped past my toes, then later realized it was a stingray.
Apart from the stingray encounter, no one event stands out in my mind. Instead, a thousand little adventures have left me with a timeless image of a landscape of sea, water and smiles. This is a place of happiness, home to people who make you feel magical. Even the volunteer dog rescue operation -- Potcake Place on Providenciales -- stands out as a place of love and refuge.
Should Turks and Caicos become part of Canada? Only history will tell. I certainly know it has become part of my heart.
-- Located 925 km southeast of Miami, the 40 islands and cays of Turks and Caicos are made up of two archipelagos: To the east, the Turks islands, named after the native Turk's Head cactus; to the west are the Caicos, a word derived from "caya hico," which, in the language of the indigenous Lucayan Indians, means "string of islands."
-- TCI is a British Overseas Territory with a population of about 30,000 spread over eight inhabited islands. The capital is Cockburn Town on Grand Turk. English is the official language. Which European explorer first discovered TCI is debated: Some historians believe it was Juan Ponce de Leon in 1512, others believe it was Columbus in 1492. Over time, control of TCI was passed Spain, to France and finally to Britain.
-- Until the 1950s, sea salt production was the major industry, with occasional attempts at cotton, sisal and sugar-cane plantations and shipwreck salvaging. Now, tourism, fishing and financial services are the main revenue sources.
-- Providenciales is the most developed island as well as the economic and tourist epicentre. Grand Turk distantly follows in terms of infrastructure. Other inhabited islands are sparsely populated and tend to reflect the atmosphere of the old Caribbean.
-- TCI's main claims to fame are its spectacular beaches and crystal-clear waters, crowned by the world-renowned 12-km-long long Grace Bay beach on Provo. The climate complements the beaches, with sunny days and temperatures ranging from 28C to 32C being the norm.
NEED TO KNOW
-- For travel information, see turksandcaicostourism.com.
-- Some hotels offer meal plans. Many -- like Ocean Club Resort -- have full kitchens and access to outdoor barbecues. There are several large supermarkets near the resorts that are within walking distance or a short cab ride away. For details on Ocean Club, see oceanclubresorts.com.
-- Many tour operators -- Air Canada Vacations, WestJet Vacations, iTravel2000.com, Expedia, Sunquest and more -- offer seasonal packages and last-minute deals.