Grand Turk, (pop: around 3720 people) is not a resort island although there are hotels and dive operations which concentrate mostly on the wall just off the west coast. The vegetation is mostly scrub and cactus, among which you will find wild donkeys and horses roaming.
Behind the town are old salt pans, with crumbling walls and ruined windmills, where pelicans and other waterbirds fish. More abandoned salt pans can be seen around the island, particularly towards the south. The east coast is often littered with tree trunks and other debris which have drifted across from Africa, lending credence to the claim that Columbus could have been carried here, rather than further north in the Bahamas chain. Grand Turk is the seat of government and the second largest population center, although it has an area of only seven square miles.
Cockburn Town, the capital and financial centre, has some very attractive colonial buildings, mostly along Duke Street, or Front Street, as it is usually known. The government offices are in a nicely restored, small square with cannons facing the sea. The town had a facelift in 1996-97: new stone planters were built along Front Street and trees planted; the post office and government buildings were painted in a combination of blues, ranging from deep turquoise to almost white, nicely matching the ocean; the Victoria Library was stripped and repainted and local landowners and householders were encouraged to clean up their property. Those who own old houses have been offered duty free import of materials for renovation and conservation work. New benches along Pond Street came complete with a litter bin beside them. However, in 1997/98 El Niño brought bad weather which caused damage to the sea walls. Holes opened up on Front Street and the sea started to fill them from the bottom. The trees on the west side lost all their leaves in the storms and the beaches were eroded. The rebuilding of the sea wall on Front Street started in 1999 to ensure that the old buildings will not suffer further sea damage and erosion.
Grand Turk has just completed a brand new airport of international standing. Just a short 20 minute flight from Providenciales, Grand Turk remains the second most popular tourist island for divers in particular as well as those just wishing to enjoy relaxing on an island steeped in history and surrounded by white sand beaches.
The oldest church on Grand Turk is St Thomas’ Anglican church (inland, near the water catchment tanks), built by Bermudan settlers. After a while it was considered too far to walk to the centre of the island and St Mary’s Anglican church was built in 1899 on Front Street overlooking the water. This is now a pro-Cathedral with the southern Bahamas and is the first cathedral in the islands. The Victoria Library, built to commemorate 50 years of Queen Victoria’s reign, is also an interesting building, with shutters. Walking north along Front Street you come to Odd Fellows Lodge, opposite the salt pier, which is thought to be one of the oldest buildings on the island and was probably the place where the abolition of slavery was proclaimed in 1832.
A new Tourist Board office was opened in 1999 in a renovated old town customs building and warehouse that sits right on the water at the north end of Cockburn Town. The work has been done sympathetically, in keeping with the old Bermudian architectural style and is a pleasant place to stop off during a walk round town.
Continue north to the Turks and Caicos National Museum(PO Box 188, Front Street, Grand Turk, Tel/Fax-016499462160) opened in 1991 in the beautifully renovated Guinep Lodge. The exhibition on the ground floor is of the early 16th-century wreck of a Spanish caravel found on the Molasses Reef between West Caicos and French Cay in only 20ft of water. The ship is believed to have been on an illegal slaving mission in the islands, as evidenced by locked leg irons found on the site. A guided tour is highly recommended although not essential. Upstairs there is an exhibition of local artefacts, photos, stamps, coins, a few Taino beads, figures and potsherds. A local historian, the late Herbert Sadler, compiled many volumes on the theory of Columbus’ landfall and local history, some of which are on sale at the museum. A Science Building has been completed beside the museum, which houses a conservation laboratory, the only one of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean. It has a climate-controlled storage space and classroom and the aim is to demystify archaeology and introduce the islanders to their history. The most recent find was a Taino paddle buried in the peat bottom of North Creek, which has been carbon dated to 1100 AD. Also beside the museum is a new and delightful garden. All the plants are native to the islands and carry a code number so that you can identify them from a booklet. The original building on the site was destroyed by fire, but the oven from the old slave kitchen and the water catchment tank have been renovated and preserved as garden features. The museum is working on the reconstruction of a windmill to illustrate the impact of the salt industry on the islands. US$5 for non-residents, US$2 residents, US$0.50 students. Mon-Fri 1000-1600, Sat 1000-1300. For further information contact the curator, Brian Riggs, Box 188, Grand Turk, T9462160.
Grand Turks new exciting attraction is GTCC. Grand Turk diving is laid back and unhurried. The boats go out with one-tank and easily return to shore for an hour interval before going out to the government's marine conservation parks for the second dive. The local dive operators have combined efforts forming an organization to 'Protect Reefs & Islands from Degradation and Exploitation' ensuring that the reefs are managed and used with respect.
There is now an attractive walkway beside the salinas behind the town. There is a shaded viewing spot for birdwatchers and trees have been planted all along Pond Street to improve the view. Elaine Huard runs an animal sanctuary (United Humanitarians) at her home on Duke Street, where she usually has up to 40 dogs and cats. She brings vets from Canada three times a year to provide free sterilizations, medicines and general care for the domestic and stray animals on the island. Her dedicated voluntary work has made her something of a national institution and she is always pleased to receive visitors. Donations welcome.
The Governor’s residence, Waterloo, south of the airport, was built in 1815 by a Bermudian salt merchant as a private residence and acquired for the head of government in 1857. Successive governors and administrators have modified and extended it, prompted partly by hurricane damage in 1866 and 1945, and by the Queen’s visit in 1966. In 1993 the building was again renovated and remodelled; the works were so extensive they constituted a near rebuilding of the historic residence. Governor’s Beach is one of the nicest beaches and excellent for snorkelling, with isolated coral heads rising out of the sand and a wide variety of fish and invertebrates.
Further south is an ex-USAF base, known as South Base, which is now used as government offices, and beyond there some pleasant beaches on the south coast, with good snorkelling at White Sands beach by the point. US Navy, NASA and Coast Guard bases were once important for the economy of Grand Turk; John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, splashed down off Grand Turk in the 1960s.
The cays southeast of Grand Turk are a land and sea national park, sheltering Turks Head cacti on Martin Alonza Pinzon Cay, frigate birds on Penniston Cay and breeding sooty terns, noddy terns and other seabirds on Gibbs Quay. The lagoons and red mangroves of South Creek are also a national park, serving as a nursery for fish, crabs and other sea life, as well as a reserve for birds.
North of Cockburn Town a paved road leads along The Ridge up the east side of the island to the 1852 lighthouse and another abandoned US base, from where there are good views out to sea. This is to be refurbished and converted into a Community College. A channel at the north point gives access to North Creek, an excellent hurricane shelter for boats.