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.
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.