I found a bit of solitude and country charm during my June visit to the small bean-shaped island of Grand Turk – more laid back and quiet when compared to many other Caribbean islands. I was also surprised when I learned about the island’s historic past. On the eastern edge of Turks and Caicos, Grand Turk is where the cruise ships stop and is home to this British Overseas Territory capital, Cockburn Town.
What history? In particular, visits by explorers, from colonial to modern times. Many believe Grand Turk is where Christopher Columbus first stepped foot in the New World. But debate continues as to whether landfall was actually on a Bahamian island, or on a white sand beach along what’s now appropriately named Columbus Landfall Marine National Park on Grand Turk’s leeward side. The National Park helps preserve the world’s third largest barrier reef with its dramatic 7,000-foot-deep “wall.”
What’s not debated, however, is the visit from astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. His Friendship 7 Mercury space capsule splashed down off Grand Turk’s shoreline on February 20, 1962, and Glenn was brought to what was then a U.S. Air Force base for debriefing and medical evaluation. A few months later, astronaut Scott Carpenter – the second American to circle the Earth – also splashed down off Grand Turk.
Along Cockburn Town’s scenic shoreline, the Turks and Caicos National Museum outlines the visits of Glenn and Carpenter after their historic missions. It also showcases the archipelago’s geography and history along with cannon fragments, pottery pieces and other artifacts of the 1513 Molasses Reef Wreck, the oldest European shipwreck discovered in the Western Hemisphere. Some believe it could be Columbus’s Pinta.
An exhibit at Grand Turk’s cruise terminal celebrates John Glenn’s splashdown, as does a Friendship 7 replica outside the island’s international airport. Inland, former salt ponds or “salinas” are testament to the past salt industry. The Salt Museum explains how it all started when late 17th century Bermudan salt rakers first settled on Grand Turk.
As for fun in the sun, I kayaked tranquil waters off Pillory Beach at the Bohio Dive Resort, and walked the quiet leeward beaches outside the Osprey Beach Hotel where I stayed for my three day visit. I also relaxed for three days on Providenciales, Turks and Caicos’ most populated island lined with resorts and miles of beaches. But a highlight for me was snorkeling and swimming with stingrays during an excursion from Grand Turk to tiny Gibb’s Cay, where docile stingrays swimming in the wild freely ease up to shore.