Dive right in to Turks & Caicos 0
A group of Canadian tourists enjoy the heavy surf and sunset off Grace Bay of Providenciales of the Turks and Caicos Islands. (JOE BELANGER/QMI Agency)
The shades of blue these waters possess are like a painter's palette -- azure, celeste, Maya, sky -- several shades every day, shifting and changing with the weather.
With sunshine that never seems to quit, the white, powder sand beach should be fire under your feet. Instead the sand delivers a cool, soothing massage as you walk. It's made of crushed coral, not silica, from the barrier reef just off shore, visible as a white line of crashing waves from the Atlantic Ocean.
The online travel website, TripAdvisor, ranks this beach the best in the world and the reefs in and around it among the top 10 of the world's best for diving and snorkeling.
So, it's not surprising that for divers, snorkellers and sun worshippers, it's a veritable paradise, a playground of the rich and famous where Bruce Willis, Oprah Winfrey, Donna Karan, Keith Richards, Prince and the late Dick Clark have built homes.
It's called Grace Bay beach on the island of Providenciales, one of 40 islands and cays (eight inhabited) that together are called the Turks and Caicos Islands, population 45,000, located southeast of the Bahamas.
It's also a vacation destination that carries a hefty price tag well beyond the reach of the average traveller, with all-inclusive, off-season vacation next month costing more than $7,600 for two.
Yet, here my wife and I were, standing on the same beach, silly grins on our faces as we marvelled at the sea turtles, the ray with a four-foot wingspan, the reef shark and baby sharks, the brightly coloured reef fish big and small and healthy coral and other aquatic life we'd seen less than 30 metres away on Smiths Reef.
The fact is, Turks and Caicos may have a reputation as an elite vacation destination, but more people, especially Canadians, are discovering there's a way to make it affordable.
Londoners Alita and James Milliken were looking for an affordable, last-minute vacation earlier this month when a trip to Turks and Caicos surfaced offering flight and hotel with breakfast for about $2,000 for two, including taxes.
"We didn't even know where it was and had to do some research," said James, who got to within a few feet of a four-foot barracuda while snorkeling.
"And it's been beautiful. We've walked everywhere, mostly because we wanted to see everything that was close."
The Turks and Caicos Islands are a British Overseas Territory coveted by Canadian politicians since 1917 when Prime Minister Robert Borden first suggested Canada annex the islands. There have been several efforts since, most recently in 2004, when the government rejected the idea on immigration, tourism and economic issues.
The Millikens were among a small contingent of Canadians who made the trip affordable by lowering their expectations for luxury and staying at the three-star Comfort Suites Ports of Call, a 98-room hotel located a five-minute walk from the beach and 10 minutes from the restaurant and entertainment district on the island.
Across the street they found a fully-stocked gourmet grocery store with deli that also sold a wide selection of alcohol.
The Millikens found the location, the grocery store and the hotel's guest policies (including no smoking in public areas, the pool, or rooms) an advantage.
"What we really liked about the hotel is you can bring your own food and drinks right out to the pool," said Alita, who stocked up at the grocery store.
"This is the first time we haven't stayed at an all-inclusive which I find you always eat and drink too much anyway."
There are only a small handful of "affordable" hotels on Providenciales, where hotel rates range from $99 to $3,000 per night. And there are even fewer as centrally located as Comfort Suites, which has two three-storey wings now being upgraded to try and tap a huge share of the small but growing market for affordable vacations.
"Our central location is huge in making a trip affordable," said general manager David Crofts, who was born and raised in London, graduated from Beal Art and studied hotel management at Fanshawe College.
Not only is the Comfort Suites within walking distance to bars, restaurants and the grocery store, it has its own Ports of Call plaza housing a dive and charter shop, two restaurant/bars, clothing and gift stores and even a beauty salon, soon to be augmented by an Italian restaurant, deli, and dance club.
"You can walk to all the stores, restaurants and bars and we're still in the middle of millionaire's row (on the beach)," Crofts said.
"We want to be a one-stop destination where everything you need to enjoy an affordable vacation is right here . . . We're investing (especially in green technology such as solar panels for hot water and to power air conditioning) so we can keep it an affordable destination. We don't want to raise the rates just to chase the electricity bill."
Grace Bay is not party central. There are no big nightclubs packed with 20-somethings. It offers an interesting but relaxing vacation where you can dive, snorkel, boat, golf, fish, or just catch some rays and swim in the surf. There is also a casino.
Interestingly, the bulk of hotels, condos, villas and even a large part of the retail business area were built over the last decade.
"Grace Bay is really just being discovered," Crofts said. "And they're discovering us quickly. We (Providenciales) had one million visitors over the last three years (up more than 20% since 2007.)"
The Millikens also discovered that serious or violent crime is rare on the island, although petty crime such as theft is common.
"You feel safe and the people you meet here are always friendly and there's no one bothering you all the time to buy something," Alita said.
"It's absolutely gorgeous here, breathtaking. The water is crystal clear and even when you walk down the beach for miles -- no matter what time of day -- it's not crowded."