ON A BUDGET
Although high-end tourism is the name of the game here, you can see these islands on a budget. A couple of hotels on Grace Bay charge $100 to $200 a night, and dining where the locals do saves money, too.
Smokey's on Da Bay, for instance, is the place to be on Wednesday nights in Provo. Reggae music blares from huge speaker towers while cooks grill dinner. The diner-style restaurant is in Blue Hills, a small settlement on Provo where the locals live, shop, play. Smokey's weekly fish fry draws British and American expats as well as locals -- who are called Belongers and make up about half the TCI population. These descendants of early settlers and African slaves came to the islands more than 200 years ago to work cotton plantations.
I arrived just in time: Corn on the cob, lobster and snapper were sizzling on the outdoor grill. Overhead, a full moon sparkled, its light reflecting off Grace Bay. The dark silhouette of a small sailboat bobbed on the water at anchor.
The next day I headed back to Blue Hills to try another local favorite, Da Conch Shack, arguably Provo's best-known cafe. Fish can't get much fresher than it is here. Live conch are held in pens until diners order. They can watch their conch as it's brought up out of the ocean and cracked open.
Most of Grace Bay's newest resorts are spare-no-expense, über-luxurious palaces that rival the Caribbean's top resorts. But the granddaddy of them all on this prime curve of sand is a familiar name with no such pretensions of grandeur: Club Med.
The French company pioneered the tourist industry here when it cut a road from the Providenciales International Airport and opened its doors to GMs (gentils membres or ''gracious members'') in 1984.
Club Med Turkoise has been going strong ever since. It is one of the most popular Club Meds in the Americas.
I spent a couple of days here. It's all-inclusive, which means I could eat, drink, play and dance the night away for one set price. So I did. No one was more surprised than I at how much fun it was. Everyone was friendly, the Grace Bay Beach location couldn't have been better and the recently renovated rooms were fine, if a bit spartan. It was sort of like staying at a Holiday Inn with perks.
Parrot Cay, the exclusive island that's home to Richards and other superstars, receives the credit for bringing a buzz to Turks and Caicos and proving that the area was ready for high-end tourism. Now other developers are eager to take advantage of that wave of interest with their own private-island projects.
One balmy afternoon, I hitched a ride from Provo to the uninhabited island of West Caicos, site of Molasses Reef, a new Ritz-Carlton project. The 125-room hotel, along with privately owned villas and cottages, is scheduled to open in the fall. Prices range from $2.2 million to $6 million each.
Mandarin Oriental is also getting into the private-island business here. It is scheduled to open a small hotel on Dellis Cay in 2009. Eventually, 71 waterfront villas also will be built on the cay.
For the time being, however, Parrot Cay seems to hold the aces. A 35-minute boat ride from Provo, it offers privacy, exclusivity and a proven track record. And the commute is fantastic.