Aquatic enthusiasts enjoy outstanding aspects of this "Beautiful by Nature" island group.
About a half hour boat ride from Grand Turk, the nation's capital, lies Gibbs Cay, a remote uninhabited island where day-trippers enjoy wild encounters with over a dozen semi-tamed southern stingrays.
In Gibbs Cay's shallow waters just off Sun Ray's white-sand beach, excursion guides lure stingrays by tossing scraps of conch, a Turks and Caicos Islands delicacy, and small fish into the water. Within minutes, the furtive creatures, averaging around three to four feet in diameter, glide in along the sand bottom to suck up the chewy tidbits with their vacuum cleaner-like mouths. Before long, over a dozen rays join in, gently brushing against snorkelers and waders, who may pet their backs or if brave enough, hand-feed them for themselves. (Editor's note: stingrays should not be petted, they have a mucous layer on their skin that protects them from disease.)
At sunset, a number of majestic eagle rays sweep in, gathering any leftovers from their less skittish southern stingray cousins. Gibbs Cay is never crowded; in fact, visitors are delighted to find they usually have the lovely beach and graceful rays virtually to themselves.
Two Grand Turk tour operators offer excursions to Gibbs Cay. Sea Eye Diving's Snorkel and Beach Barbecue at Gibbs Cay includes boat ride, beach barbecue, island exploration, snorkel or swim, fresh conch salad prepared on site and rum punch at sunset. Cost for the trip is US$35 per person, six-person minimum. Tel/Fax: 649/946-1407; email Sea Eye Diving.
Oasis Divers offers a similar tour. Snorkeling with Stingrays, which includes boat ride, conch and salad preparation en route to Gibbs Cay, barbecue, fresh fruit, chips and rum punch. Trips depart afternoons at 1;30 pm and return at 5:30 pm. Cost for the excursion is US$40. Reservations are required: Tel: 800/892-3995 or 649/946-1128; email Oasis Divers.
Grand Turk, the start-off point for Giggs Cay and other nearby excursions, can be reached via a short flight from Providenciales, the main tourist hub of the Turks and Caicos Islands. The charming seven-mile long island offers well-preserved 18th and 19th century Bermudan-style architecture, intimate inns, and a treasure trove of national artifacts that the Turks and Caicos National Museum. It is an underwater enthusiast's Mecca, with spectacular diving wall dropping from the shallows of 30-40 feet to as much as a 7,000-foot dramatic plunge.
John Skippings, Director of the Tourist Board comments: "We are delighted to add to our growing reputation as a world class destination. These awards join our most recent award for the best beaches in the world from Condé Nast magazine and awards for our accommodation and spas.
"I am very pleased that we gained the healthiest marine environment award in particular. This award would not have been possible without the collaborative working of our commercial dive operators, our Department of the Environment and Coastal Resources and other agencies like the National Trust. This work will ensure that the high quality people are beginning to associate with our country can be sustained for present and future generations."
The Turks and Caicos Islands also ranked in the top 5 Awards for Best Fish Life; Best Underwater Photography; Best Macro Life; Places You'd Return To, and Best Place to Dive with Big Animals.
By John Smeltzer, Denver Correspondent.