Vacay.ca occasionally publishes articles on destinations outside of Canada. In this article, contributor Diana Ballon spotlights Turks & Caicos, a Caribbean destination that has been linked politically to Canada for decades.
Story by Diana Ballon
TURKS & CAICOS ISLANDS — I gaze down from the plane at the neon turquoise water surrounding Turks & Caicos Islands and I am wishing I really could be staring down at a piece of Canada in the tropics.
A tropical vacation in Canada? A Hawaii in our own country? The idea of annexing the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) to Canada has been bandied about for almost 100 years. It began with Prime Minister Robert Borden first suggesting a formal union with the islands back in 1917, to as recently as last year, when a TCI delegation, which included Premier Rufus Ewing, met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss the potential for stronger social and economic ties with Canada.
None of these discussions has yielded an 11th Canadian province, one that would surely be a retirement haven for cold-weary snowbirds. But even without a formal annexation, Canadians are travelling to the island in droves. Many have become foreign investors in the region, while some are settling down in the islands for the long haul.
On a recent visit to this archipelago of 40 islands south of the Bahamas, and just east of Cuba, I discovered Canadians not just reclining on the beaches, but working here — as restaurateurs, hotel managers, teachers, tour operators, taxi service owners and financiers.
Canadians are attracted to Turks & Caicos because it is easily accessible (the charter flight from Toronto is only four hours), boasts a stable government, has a good school system and a low-crime rate, making the region a safe place to raise kids, says Torontonian Irene Danics, who now teaches on Providenciales or “Provo” (the country’s main island) and has co-authored an excellent kids’ book about the area, The Turks and Caicos Islands (Island Books, 2014).
As Cynthia Filo, of Silly Creek Water Sports, and former resident of Barrie, Ontario, explains it, people like her are drawn to the islands because of the laid-back lifestyle, and as a place where even the tap water, desalinated ocean water, is safe to drink (though admittedly it doesn’t taste great), and every possible food option is available.
Certainly, many Canadian chefs have set themselves up here in high-end restaurants, including executive chef/owner Stuart Gray of Coco Bistro, executive chef Lauren Callighen of Parallel 23 at the Regent Palms Turks & Caicos, as well as chef Joel Rheaume of the popular sports bar Danny Buoy’s.
Although tourism is now burgeoning, the area didn’t really start to be developed until the 1980s, and beyond Provo, Middle and North Caicos (a half-hour ferry ride away) and other islands, like Salt Cay (a short flight away), are still sparsely populated.
Canadians Abound on Turks & Caicos
Val and Susan Kalliecharan — who hail from Toronto and Halifax, respectively — have been operating TCI Reservations since soon after they arrived in 2007. They saw an opportunity to run a vacation booking company as locals on Caribbean islands that don’t have the typical slew of all-inclusive resorts.
“The high-end condo resort concept is new to people,” says Val, referring to the many condominiums that people can rent with full kitchens, patios and spacious living rooms, as well as non-waterized sports, on-site pool, towel service, WiFi and other amenities that are often available as part of a resort.
The Kalliecharans help Canadians plan and book their vacations.
In our case, we chose the stunning Blue Pearl villa through VRBO for our first three days, and then the elegant Blue Haven Resort, an upscale condo resort overlooking the ocean and a small manmade beach. Although about a 10- or 15-minute drive to the famous 12-mile Grace Bay Beach, this beach was easily accessible through a free shuttle that takes guests to two sister properties located there. And being away from the fray made this a quieter retreat, where we could float in the pool or ocean on bean-bag cushions, make breakfast in our fully equipped kitchen, and buy groceries from the upscale market across the parking lot.
Our Easter Sunday in TCI was not a typical Easter for us. Yes, the Easter Bunny still did make an appearance. (Clearly he can hop long distances.) But bunnies are not the only animals to reside in this tropical destination. On a boat trip with Silly Creek Water Sports, Filo and her partner, Steve Martin (originally from Quebec), showed us some interesting wildlife in the less explored southwest side of Provo. Our family met them at Sapodilla Bay, where we drove by rental car, through Grace Bay Car Rentals, yet another Canadian company.
While on our excursion, we fed broccoli to one of the indigenous rock iguana, spotted an osprey leaving its nest, and tracked a shark and a spotted eagle ray darting back and forth in front of us in the water. We also explored a pirate’s cave.
“It’s a pirate paradise,” says Filo, referencing the buccaneers who would attack Spanish ships transporting gold, silver and Caribbean pearls to Europe in the 1500s to 1800s.
We later used the Blue Haven’s bikes to explore the nearby Caicos Conch Farm, the only commercial conch farm in the world. The tour begins with a short “classroom” talk (which clearly justifies taking the kids out of school for a week) and a 15-minute tour. This place is cool. In the classroom, we learn about the life cycle of the conch, and the technology they use — from collecting the egg mass, to hatching and then harvesting them. We then go outside, where we get to pick up a conch, check out its various body parts, and view the wire mesh off-shore pens and on-shore ponds — where conch develop at various stages.
A couple of days later, we were actually given a large pink conch shell to take home, as part of a half-day snorkelling and conch cruise through Caicos Dream Tours. That company is owned by John and Kim Esper, who sold a successful restaurant and beautiful home in Markham, Ontario 15 years ago, and brought their four children to TCI to start a new life.
If not for them, I wouldn’t have found myself snorkelling the third-largest barrier reef in the world, or getting instruction on how to cut and clean a conch, before sampling delicious conch ceviche back on the boat.
So conch was omnipresent on our trip, as was the presence of Canadians wherever we went.