GRACE BAY, Turks and Caicos -- Legendary rocker Keith Richards was out of uniform. No dangling cigarette, no wailing guitar, no stormy look. As a matter of fact, he was grinning. And scratching the tummy of a shaggy black munchkin of a dog.
It was late January, and the Rolling Stones icon was chilling on a wooden dock overlooking the turquoise waters surrounding Parrot Cay, a Caribbean islet that bills itself as ``the world's most exclusive resort.''
The 1,000-acre private island is in Turks and Caicos, a semi-obscure archipelago east of Cuba that has been propelled into the limelight by its rising popularity with the glitterati.
The multimillion-dollar beach house owned by Richards shares the sandy white shoreline with the homes of Bruce Willis, Christie Brinkley and Donna Karan.
The Turks and Caicos also have some very high-end resorts. The kind where you might run into a star, someone like, oh, Conan O'Brien. I saw him hiding under a baseball cap pulled so low over his face that I might not have recognized him but for skin so white it was almost blue.
Tourists like O'Brien have helped make Turks and Caicos Islands, or TCI, a success story. Twenty years ago, these 40-some islands and cays had few paved roads or services. Now this British crown colony has one of the world's fastest-growing economies; its 33,000 residents share their islands with about 300,000 tourists annually. There are a dozen or so high-end resorts where overnight stays often top $1,000 a night and a booming real estate market that caters to multimillionaires.
The soaring popularity of the tiny West Indian territory isn't surprising. It's less than a two-hour flight southeast from Miami. Other pluses: The currency is the U.S. dollar, crime is minimal, locals are amiable and everyone speaks English.
And, of course, there are the stars. Where they lead, others follow.
Everywhere I went, people talked about the luminaries who were visiting: Cindy Crawford at the Grace Bay Club, Will Smith at the Somerset on Grace Bay, Alicia Keys at the Regent Palms, Kelly Ripa at Amanyara. The four luxury resorts are on the island of Providenciales, a.k.a. Provo, TCI's main tourist center. The other islands and cays are low-key, except for Grand Turk, the capital, where a Carnival Cruise Lines port opened in 2006.
But Provo has the momentum. It's home to an international airport, along with great beaches, fine restaurants, a small casino and a golf club, all packed into 38 square miles.
BEYOND THE STARS
Visitors who aren't interested in stargazing can find other diversions. I hopped on a boat in Provo and headed out to sea. In less than 30 minutes I found an isolated sandy cay (80 percent of TCI's islands are uninhabited) populated by osprey, flamingos and iguanas. Nearly 300 square miles of the islands have been designated as parkland and wildlife sanctuaries.
One of the biggest draws is underwater, where divers and snorkelers come eye to eye with a color-saturated world populated by an array of sea life. Many people visit to explore the coral reef, one of the world's largest. Divers also can scuba down a vertical sea wall where the continental shelf drops a mile.
And then there are the outstanding beaches, especially Provo's 12-mile-long Grace Bay Beach, covered by ultrawhite, very fine sand and lapped by dazzling turquoise waters. Jet Skis and other noise-makers are prohibited. The coral reef that fringes the island creates something akin to a lap pool.