Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Travel Rewind: A Nondescript Quasi-Unknown Demi-Paradise (August 2006)

Travel Rewind: A Nondescript Quasi-Unknown Demi-Paradise (August 2006): (photos on Smugmug) A few years ago I had the chance to take a brief Caribbean vacation to Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), a place most people have never heard of, never mind seen on a map. It is a group of nondescript islands south of the Bahamas. And when I say nondescript, I mean that in the sense that there is virtually nothing about TCI that stands out. They have a string of beautiful and expensive reports along an exquisite beach, just like dozens of other island groups. There is good diving and fishing, just like dozens of other island groups. And that's it. Literally. The most telling description (as you will read below) came from the shuttle driver on the way to the resort: "Welcome to Turks and Caicos. Tourism is about the only industry we have here so thank you for visiting."

Well it turns out TCI did stand out for one thing: government corruption. It was so bad that Great Britain came in dissolved their government and took over the administration of the islands, which they were legally able to do since TCI is a crown colony. In a moment of unintentional (but not unexpected) comedy, TCI's former leaders expressed outrage and declared themselves occupied by foreign invaders. The people of TCI had other opinions; specifically, they were overjoyed to be rid of their "elected" leaders and back under British rule.

(Just as a side note, in an effort to raise the unintentional comedy to new heights, Slate magazine took the time to determine if Canada was next.)

I think I can safely guarantee you that nobody in Her Majesty's government, nor any of Her subjects, wants anything to do with Turks and Caicos. They have a full plate already without having to worry about supporting and managing some island outpost. Nothing would make them happier than to get TCI off the books forever. Personally, I suspect there are drugs involved. TCI offers a lot of opportunities for plane stopovers for drug smugglers and I don't doubt TCI's leaders were in cahoots with them.

Whatever the case, it makes for a nice long intro to this travel rewind.

Turks and Caicos (TCI) is a chain of islands in the Caribbean; just south of the Bahamas and just north of Haiti. There is little industry or economic activity beyond tourism -- in fact, on the way to the hotel, the driver dryly offered, "Welcome to Turks and Caicos. Tourism is about the only industry in the islands so thank you for coming."

TCI is of British extraction, like Bermuda or the Bahamas or Grand Cayman. However one of the oddest things I learned was that for many, many years there has been discussion and debate over whether it should become a Canadian province. Apparently there are strong ties to Canada and the question has come up in the parliaments of both places. Typical of the damn Canadians, always trying to expand their empire.

From what I could see, most islanders have little interest in politics. There does not appear to be any significant poverty, although I certainly wouldn't call the island wealthy in the sense of a Grand Cayman (never mind Bermuda). But they may be getting there.

For the time being there is a certain dichotomy. There are a huge number of top flight resorts -- including some of the best in the world, such as the famous celebrity hang out Parrot Cay and the requisite Beaches and Club Meds and so forth -- the overwhelming majority of which are situated along Grace Bay on the island of Providenciales, or Provo. Grace Bay is rightly renown as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world -- a multi-mile crescent of powdery white sand and calm, crystal clear waters. I stayed at a place called The Palms, which I originally reviewed for Hotel Chatter, but here is the gist of my somewhat bi-polar resort experience:

According to some reviews at Tripadvisor, visitors to The Palms on the island of Providenciales in the British territory of Turks and Caicos are met at the airport by a Cadillac Escalade. Sadly, this was not to be the case for me. Along with a quartet of fellow travelers from the same flight, I was met by a pretty standard looking transport van. It was a nice enough van, but my inner pimp-daddy was sorely disappointed.

The Palms itself is far from disappointing. It is a strikingly beautiful resort; very refined -- there is no bombast or gaudiness to it, just an unmistakable air of quality. Your arrival initiates a thoughtfully designed process: You are dropped at the open air lobby and your bags are whisked away by a porter. You are handed a tasty passion fruit beverage and led on a brief guided tour of the property starting with the elegant and perfectly landscaped courtyard, beyond which is the manor house, a stately colonial mansion of old that now contains the main restaurant, Parallel 23, featuring a patio for alfresco dining and a nice comfy lounge. The five buildings beyond are the residences and you are guided up to you room for your in-room check-in.

The standard rooms are all suite-sized with a balcony (or patio) on which to appreciate the beautiful evenings. There are two bottles of Fiji water and plate full of cookies waiting for you, complimentary. Everything looks fresh, clean and new. More water and treats are delivered with the nightly turn-down. (The profuseness of gratis bottled water is important because the water as it comes out of the tap is gag-inducing; probably desalinated.)

The five residential buildings surround the pool on three sides. The pool is a beauty: formed in a curvaceous, meandering shape that envelops a hot tub and a swim up bar-and-grill eventually ending in infinity. It is nicely appointed with lounge chairs and umbrellas with attendants to raise them. More entertainingly, there are four "pods", or circular day beds, that are the target of fervent attention. They are highly desired but not reservable. You can spot type-A personalities as they dash out of bed bright and early to deposit belongings on them as a territorial claim, and jealously guard them throughout the day because if they are left alone for an undefined length of time the attendants will give them away. Comical how some people escape to paradise then immediately seek out their habitual stress level.

Beyond the pool is the legendary Grace Bay Beach and it is as fabulous as its reputation suggests. A multi-mile long crescent with powdery sand and crystal clear water tinted slightly green and turning a deep turquoise beyond the shallows. The sea is warm, buoyant and calm.

The Palms has it all, and it seems to work extremely well as long as you stay within the resort. Many guests -- perhaps a majority -- will do just that. It's when you have to interact with the outside world that things can get dicey.
I had it in my head to explore the island a bit (and maybe find a less expensive place for dinner) so I stopped at the concierge desk one morning to inquire about a car. They told me a small car could be had for $39/day. Great, I said, I'll stop by after breakfast and finalize arrangements. Of course, it was not to be so simple.

After breakfast I was told that there were no small cars available, but Avis could rent me a jeep for $69/day. I found it strange that in the off-season there was not a small car to be had on the island. I also found it strange that Avis, which typically has a policy of giving you an upgrade for the same price if the car you want is not available, would not then offer me a jeep for the lower price. Neither of these observations seemed to incite any action on the part of the concierge beyond a shrug. I strongly suspected a game of soak the tourist was being played, but my options were to call around the island on my own to see what I could work out or just deal with it. Since I only wanted the car for a day, I chose to just deal with it and asked them to have Avis bring over a jeep for me at 3pm.

Come 3pm, no one from Avis was to be seen, so I checked with the concierge who told me that instead of Avis, they had arranged for my jeep to come from a place with the professional sounding name of Scooter Bob's. Hmmm, I wondered whether they had gotten a better price for me there, but there was no representative from Scooter Bob's there either. Apparently, Scooter Bob just dropped off the jeep and the left the key with the concierge.

It was very surprising to get handed a key without having anyone even check that my license was valid, never mind get a credit card number. The concierge just guessed that Scooter Bob would make arrangements with me when I was done. I was given pause when I noticed the keychain had the word "mayhem" printed on it. I was given yet more pause when I saw the "jeep" -- a clapped-out Geo Tracker, with no rear window, no a/c, a manual transmission, and a nicely lit "check engine" light. The word "mayhem" was printed on the front in stick-on lettering. Luckily, all this shabbiness was offset by the brightly polished chrome wheels that were probably worth more than the entire vehicle.

I had to laugh. It was if someone asked Scooter Bob for a car, and Scooter Bob asked the gangsta wanna-be teenager down the street if he could borrow his ride. At this point I was in roll-with-it mode so I managed to get around for the day in "mayhem" -- it is not a big island and you can't go over 40 mph anyway.

The next day I dropped off the key with the concierge and suggested they have Scooter Bob contact me when they get there to pick it up. The concierge (a different person than the day before) was surprised that they had not taken credit card info from me when they dropped it off. It was my turn to shrug.

I never got a call from the concierge or Scooter Bob. I mentioned it again at checkout the next day, but nobody had heard from Scooter Bob and nobody seemed to feel an urgent need to follow up. I wasn't sure what was going to happen, but my shuttle was leaving and, well, if Scooter Bob was concerned about getting my money, I figured he would ask The Palms to get in touch with me.

Imagine my shock when upon my return I discovered a charge for $79 to my credit card from "Holiday Rentals" which, presumably, is Scooter Bob's legal name.

Now, despite the abysmal incompetence of their concierge staff, it is not technically the fault The Palms if Scooter Bob wants to soak me for the clapped-out piece of crap they referred to as a "jeep". That's for me and Scooter Bob to work out. What is a huge black mark against The Palms is that they gave my credit card information away to a third party without my consent! That is an egregious violation of my privacy and security. I am stunned that a hotel of such seeming quality would do such a thing.

I don't quite know what conclusion to draw on The Palms. The fact is, apart from the rental car fiasco, everything was top notch and I suspect most people would never run into the troubles I did. Reviews from guests tend to be way over to the positive side of the scale. The concierge issues could be chalked up to a garden variety bad service experience that happens from time to time. But I cannot accept them handing out my credit card number without my authorization.

The Palms may be a sweet place, but I'm left with too many open suspicions to be certain of that. Other things equal, I would suggest staying elsewhere.

The resorts seem to be the extent of the usable development. Beyond them, there is one little area on Provo that has the usual touristy crap shops and bars, but in relation to the number of resorts, it is tiny. There are numerous condo and condo-hotel combos in the process of being built on the Eastern end of Provo and, as I understand, on the other islands, but most seem to be "in-process" at this point. No doubt there is a massive time-share bubble in the early stages of expansion. [[update: It didn't take a genius to call this housing bubble early. -- dam]]

For the most part, the islands still exude something of a Caribbean backwater air. People run their little shops, go to church on Sunday, sip their somewhat watery beer and just live it day-to-day like in a Jimmy Buffet song. One guidebook suggested being extra careful on the road when merging into the roundabouts because they were relatively new to the island and the natives weren't all that comfortable with them. There are no stoplights. The cell phone company Digicell was giving away t-shirts by the side of the road and the party they were going to throw to announce their arrival was the talk of the islands.

Provo is far and away the most developed of the islands but even there major shopping areas as marked on maps may turn out to be a packet of four or five shops including a gift shop that went out of business and a little seafood shack with a hand-scrawled sign that says, "Back in 30 minutes" on the door. Like an idiot, I took a Hobie Cat out on the bay one afternoon without a lanyard for my Ray-Bans. Bye-bye Ray-Bans. I swear I spent an hour and a half driving around looking for a little gift shop that had a cheap, $10 pair of sunglasses; the kind of things you find on any corner in most tourist destinations.

Is the island beautiful? Not especially. There are some lush green areas, but it is mostly scrub. The beaches and the water are beautiful. As I think about it, it is easy to draw a ton of comparisons between TCI and Grand Cayman. Both places are of British extraction, but cater almost exclusively to U.S (and Canadian) tourists. Both have one very long and exceedingly beautiful beach around which most of the tourist activity is centered. And both have a main island without any particularly easy way to get to the other islands in the group short of a commuter flight (and when you ask about visiting the other islands, people can't understand why you would want to). It's hard to escape the conclusion that Provo is Grand Cayman ten years ago. And I suspect it is on the same development path. I would take Bermuda over either.

Although there is no reason you wouldn't enjoy yourself, I just can't see a compelling reason to pick TCI over more accessible and less expensive vacation spots (barring a yearning for some specific dive or fishing sites). The resorts are as good as any, so if you just wanted to hang in the resort, you'd be fine. But there are similar vacation spots that are easier to get to and still provide you with that sort of vacation.

For a limited amount of time, you can probably still scare up an off the beaten track trip by staying clear of Provo (maybe venturing over to Grand Turk [[update: Grand Turk is a haven for cruise ships now -- dam]]. The people were unfailingly friendly in that laconic way of Caribbean out-islanders. You can even find gems on Provo, like the Tiki Hut at the Turtle Cove marina, where a medium rare burger is over to the rare side (as it should be) and the fisherman exchange exaggerations at the bar.

I did enjoy my time in TCI, but my gut emotional reaction was one of discomfort. Perhaps because there was so little to explore. I was happy for a couple of days in the resort, but when venturing out there was so little to do and see that I almost felt trapped. (I would have killed for a casino or a good sized hiking trail.)

No doubt it's personal taste. Like I said, TCI is just fine and if you choose to go there you'll likely enjoy yourself. But if you're looking for a tourist center, Grand Cayman or Paradise Island is better. If you're looking for a something more sophisticated, Bermuda can't be beat. If you are looking for something more remote, someplace like the Grenadines are popular -- actually I hear Saba is the hot new off the beaten track Caribbean island. TCI just doesn't stand out enough.