Today we visited the island of Grand Turk, the capital island of The Turks & Caicos Islands – a self-governing nation with close ties to the US and UK. The ship docs at a purpose-built cruise center, which is not the manufactured experience we usually advocate, but several surprises were in store for us on this trip, including a great tour and an island of resilient folks.
Everything is Relative – Including “Early”
Frequent readers and viewers, especially those finding their way here from RoyalCaribbeanBlog.com may have noticed that Larissa and I are not earlier risers – especially on vacation. Today however we had a tour which began at 9am, so we governed ourselves accordingly last night and woke around 7am today.
Breakfast was quick but satisfying in the Lido Restaurant where we enjoyed another made to order omelet as well as a crepe. The crepe station seems a daily fixture at the Lido, and is run like well-oiled machine. You can get a crepe with various fruits and other toppings (yes, including Nutella). This is a great way of having something sweet with your breakfast while not committing to a filling waffle.
After breakfast (and accompanying coffee of course), we returned to the room to get ready for our excursion. After debating some, we opted not to bring rain jackets, which ended up being alright, though it was a gamble, because there were some scattered showers in the overcast skies. Heading to “A” deck (just below deck 1), we stepped off the ship and walked a couple hundred yards to the cruise center where the tour was meeting. If you’ve ever sailed to Labadee the walk is similar, and offers a beautiful glimpse of the resort-area you’re approaching.
Three Two Hour Tour
The tour we booked (at the Explorer’s Lounge coffee shop if you read our day one blog) was called the Rainbow Tour (or something similar) and described itself as a two-hour tram tour around the island with a short stop for souvenirs. The appealing part was that a two-hour tour in the morning left us the rest of the day to spend how we please, and it was only $29/person.
We easily found the meeting area about 15 minutes early and many guests had already arrived. Once the clock struck 9am we took a short walk to a covered open-air tram which seated about 35, though I’d estimate only about 25 of us were on the tour. The guide, Austin, was friendly and helpful right from the beginning, personally helping guests step up and get seated, assisting those with children, etc. This was the first sign that the tour was going to be great, actually – Austin’s demeanor was great.
As we departed the cruise center Austin assured us that we’d be going no faster than 21.5mph – and while I’m not sure about his specificity, this was nice to know as if you’ve ever spent time in the late 80s taking a tour in a teenager-driven pickup with bolted-on park benches along cliffs in the Caribbean islands you sometimes get a bit nervous (just me?).
As he drove around the small island (two miles wide by nine miles long if I recall correctly) Austin explained the history of the US military presence, the salt ponds which, now retired, once supplied most of North America with road salt, and sadly, the recently struggles this hurricane season. Many have asked me about the condition of the Caribbean since this active hurricane season, and it’s important to remember that no island or even city’s tale is the same – and in the case of Grand Turk, the good news is that things are now operating as normal for tourists. This is essentially for any town in the Caribbean as it’s the primary industry, they can’t recover without tourism. This also means however that many locals still work hard every day to rebuild their homes, roads, etc.
Austin explained that he got power back at this home only three days ago. “When it happened I just stared at the light for two hours.” While most businesses were operating, I can tell you that if you do construction on homes and businesses in Grand Turk, you’ve got lots of work. Most homes still had some type of work being done on them. In some cases these were aesthetics being addressed, but in many other cases major structural work was underway. This wasn’t isolated to just the more modest homes either – we saw many places you’d expect to see on House Hunters International that were in need of some TLC…and lumber.
Eventually we came to an area near some historic buildings along the water and took a ~20 minute shopping break. I usually dread these as you end up at knick-knack shops where everything was shipped from the warehouse in Doral, FL next to where I worked for years (I may be a bit grizzled). I was delighted to see that the shops were small independently owned businesses with both imported and locally-made crafts. I can’t say that I saw anything we “needed” but earlier Austin told us we were only the eighth ship to come since the storms two months ago, so I honestly wanted to contribute to the local economy in any way we could. As such we bought a small painting which is lovely, though will likely end up in my “random souvenir” box. Strolling the area we chatted up the family we sat with on the tram (who happened to be from Tampa, just a few hours from us).
As we took each other’s pictures Austin asked if he could have a picture with the family’s young daughter who was his daughter’s age. He seems a really friendly and optimistic man, especially considering the past few months. He also shared that he is an advisor on the government’s youth counsel. I snapped a photo of him having his phot taken – very meta, we know – but it was touching.
After the stop we continued on to the highest point on the otherwise flat island, visited a lighthouse, and hung out with donkeys. Donkeys? Yes – there are donkeys all over the island, as well as quite a few wild horses. After this stop we continued to learn about the island and headed back to the ship.
Below are just a few random tidbits Austin taught us about his native island:
- Turks & Caicos has a population of about 50,000.
- Grand Turk is the capital island, but is the second smallest populated island in the country and has a population of 6,000.
- Despite tourism being their primary industry, the hurricanes left the island without cruise ships for two months, ours was the eighth to return.
- There are no traffic lights on Grand Turk.
- There is only one prison in the country, which holds its ~80 prisoners.
- Donkeys were brought to the island for transport during the salt trade over 100 years ago and they’re now all owned and protected by government. There is a $300 fine for accidentally striking one with your car.
- Almost everything is imported, which means high costs. A gallon of gas is $5.50, and a gallon of milk is ~$10.
- The US Dollar is their official currency, but cars drive on the left side of the road.
- Senator John Glenn splashed down off the coast of Grand Turk in Friendship 7’s recovery module after circling the earth three times, traveling over 75,000 miles in 4 hours, 55 minutes, 23 seconds. There is a small open-air museum with information on this at the cruise center.
I’ve taken a lot of “tour of the town” excursions in the Caribbean, and Austin of Rainbow Tours was the very best value I’ve come across. He was a friendly and knowledgeable guy who offered an interesting and entertaining tour for a great price. I’d encourage you to visit Grand Turk as it’s a peaceful place and your presence will help their recovery. When you visit, find Austin of Rainbow Tours (again, booked through Holland America – but available on any Carnival Corp ship) – he’s a great find.
In addition to the tour, we also strolled around the cruise center. It’s a shame the weather was a bit off, as I was truly impressed by the cruise center. I mentioned that I don’t usually like these isolated and manufactured experiences, but the beach is white sand, the water crystal-clear, and get this – the loungers, clamshells, and umbrellas are complimentary! You can enjoy a very nice beach day only steps away from the ship in Grand Turk.
Back Onboard for Lunch…and a Nap
We came back after the tour to get some lunch which included a vegetable lasagna for which I had low expectations but wish I could get at home. Once again, we were pleased with everything we had. Despite some coffee with dessert (as I posted the previous day’s blog) we needed a nap…in a big way. We tried just resting in Crow’s Nest, but there was no resisting the calling of our comfy bed.
After sleeping an hour or so it was time to enjoy the remaining daylight, so we went back to the aft pool. It wasn’t crowded at all but offered great views, and by this time the weather had really started to clear up. As we sat I ordered the drink of the day, some tropical concoction. For an extra $9.95 I got the drink in a souvenir cup because frankly, Holland America wins the souvenir cup game. It’s shaped just like their ship’s classic funnels, is sturdy, and I can’t wait to ask myself where I’m going to keep that when I get home.
We sailed away, heading south at a slow clip (we don’t have far to go to get to Amber Cove tomorrow) and shared our day briefly on Facebook Live and Periscope. Sharing was tricky, as the rustic and quiet nature of Grand Turk also seems to mean slow wireless internet.
Dinner, Drinks & Drunken Singing
We dined in the main dining room this evening, and enjoyed items we’d selected off the vegetarian menu we mentioned yesterday. This may have been the best meal of the cruise – but that’s a tough battle as there have been quite a few. I had a mushroom crostini, guanabana (soursop) and coconut soup, and curried cauliflower. How did I polish off that great meal? They had chocolate whisky cake – it’s as if I’m in a universe where someone created a dessert specifically for me. I need that in my life every day.
After our meal, we headed to the Explorer’s Lounge to enjoy a drink and the sounds of Adagio, the violin and piano duo. I’m no great musician, but I really enjoy listening to them – they seem very much in sync. Also, they played Hava Nagila, which was unexpected and neat.
As I type this, it looks like we’ll again cap the day with a visit to David in the Piano Bar. There is quite a crowd in here now and the energy level is fantastic. The good news is that it’s a lot of fun, the bad news is that we’d love to try and get up early (for us) tomorrow to enjoy Amber Cove.
Tomorrow’s Plans – A Funicular or Just a Lounger
Tomorrow we dock at Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic. We’re scheduled to arrive at 8am but the captain said we’ll arrive around 30 minutes early, just ahead of a Carnival ship (the Splendor if I recall from previous research). Amber Cove is another “cruise center” but without a beach. In videos it seems lovely, but the novelty of pool resorts may be lost on these South Floridians – we’ll see. We may opt to take it easy there, but I think we’ll likely jump in a cab and head to Puerto Plata as we’ve read the architecture, beaches, and mountains are quite nice. This may be a good chance to visit a local grocery store too (I recommend you do this in every country to see how locals really live). There is also a funicular that my father-in-law’s significant other mentioned, and our friends Brandon and Cathy tried to experience on their honeymoon some time ago but found it was closed for maintenance. Whatever we do we look forward to sharing it with you on Twitter, Facebook, and Periscope.
Check out some more photos below, and look at other live blogs from this sailing.