Pros: The beaches and resorts are quite nice
Cons: Little to do, island feels very run down
My fiance and I visited Providenciales in late June / early July 2003. We had high hopes for the Turks and Caicos because it was always portrayed as a fairly exclusive destination with excellent snorkeling and diving. Perhaps because of these high expectations, the Turks and Caicos thoroughly disappointed us.
The Good -
We stayed at a resort on Grace Bay beach, a beautiful, white sand beach that stretches for miles. This beach is the primary resort area of the island, so when you walk along the beach you will pass many sun worshipers and many resorts. Most of the resorts are actually quite attractive, and most are only three stories tall or less, so they are not very obtrusive. There are merchants on the beach, but not very many, and they don't tend to hassle anyone. A lot of them simply set up shop near the biggest resorts like Beaches.
The Bad -
Despite tourism being the economic lifeblood of the island, the tourist facilities (aside from the resorts) are not well developed and generally lack the sort of professionalism most Americans have come to expect from a tourist destination. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the area was the relatively average quality of the snorkeling. There is little to see directly off the island, so you need to book one of the snorkeling trips that the local water sports outfitters offer. You can experience some OK snorkeling, to be sure, but we have experienced better around St. John, Bonaire, and the Caymans. I cannot speak from experience, but another family we met during a snorkeling trip also said Hawaii had much better snorkeling.
The Ugly -
The island of Providenciales definitely deserves the adjective ugly. It is a flat, relatively barren island. If you have seen St. John, try to imagine the exact opposite. The infrastructure of the island felt very run down. The roads are easily the worst I have ever driven on, they are literally disintegrating. Street signs do not exist, and very few stop signs remain, making driving around the island a definite adventure. Most of the roads we drove featured a good deal of litter along the side.
The following are some specifics about the places we stayed and visited during our trip.
The Resort -
We stayed at the Ocean Club West. There are two Ocean Club resorts on Providenciales, and Ocean Club West is the newer of the two by a few years. We saw both resorts and while they are quite similar, we thought we liked the Ocean Club West a little better and would definitely recommend it. The central pool area at Ocean Club West just felt more fun and inviting. There is a free shuttle that will take guests between the two resorts, so you can use the facilities at both when you stay at either. Both have tennis courts, bikes, and a small fitness room. The staff at Ocean Club West was generally quite friendly and helpful, and there is a free internet connection in the lobby for guests to use. The front desk can also check out board games and videos to guests (all the rooms have VCRs). Ocean Club West is also a very short walk from a small shopping/restaurant area called Ports of Call. We did not eat at any of the Ocean Club restaurants, so I cannot speak to their quality.
Like the majority of the resorts on Grace Bay, the Ocean Club resorts are actually condominiums. People bought, or are buying, condominiums which are then rented out as hotel rooms for income. This means your room often includes a kitchenette and laundry facilities, which can come in handy. Many of the rooms at these resorts also have large, fully screened-in porches, which are a great feature day and night. These resorts tend to be the only places on the island where you'll see lush vegetation and landscaping, so the view from your window is usually pretty nice (and of course many rooms look out over the Caribbean). Most of the resorts provide beach chairs, umbrellas, and beach/pool towels to guests free of charge. Depending on which resort you are staying at, they may or may not run out of the beach chairs. Some resorts seemed to be overflowing with people whenever we walked by, and others seemed to only fill one or two of their beach chairs at any given time. Club Med (which is next door to Ocean Club West) and Beaches usually had the most activity going on on their beaches, and Beaches was clearly popular with families. Most of the resorts have meal plans you can purchase, making your stay practically all-inclusive, but we decided against such a plan as they are usually quite expensive. Despite the presence of these meal plans, resort restaurants tend to be open to anyone on the island.
The Restaurants -
We dined at several different restaurants around the island (in addition to preparing a number of our own meals in our room). Here are several that I can remember. All of the following restaurants can be considered casual dress. You may see a few customers dressed up a bit more, but you will also see people in little more than swim trunks and a shirt. At all of these restaurants we had dinner and beverages for two, plus a tip, for around $20-25. There are always more expensive options on the menu, but you can usually get fish and chips, conch, a burger, pizza, or something for less than $10 per person. Many of the restaurants have specials one night a week, which you can easily find in one of the free guidebooks all over the island.
Latitudes is in the Ports of Call complex near the Ocean Club West and Allegro resorts. It is upstairs and has a mix of indoor and outdoor seating. The menu includes a lot of seafood, as well as stuff like burgers and pizza. The atmosphere here was fun and relaxing and the food was pretty good.
Sharkbites overlooks the marina. While all the seating is indoors, the windows are all propped open, so it is essentially an open-air restaurant. The fish and chips here were probably the best I had on Providenciales, though the portion sizes were the least generous. The service was friendly, but fairly slow.
Hemmingway's is at the Sands resort. It's an outdoor/open air restaurant with views of the Caribbean. The service here was particularly good, and the food was also pretty good.
The Tiki Hut is another outdoor/open air restaurant located at the marina. The menu here was pretty varied, much like Latitudes, but the service here was particularly slow and inept. I think it took us nearly two hours to have dinner here. The food was pretty good, at least.
Banana Boat is the final marina restaurant at which we ate. It is indoors, but open air. The staff here was among the friendliest we met, and the food here was excellent. Just be warned that this restaurant is usually quite expensive (closer to $20 per person for an entree), but they do have a half-price night each week that makes it reasonable. I think this is Tuesday, but you can find out for sure in the guidebook.
Hey Jose's is located further inland, between the airport and the resorts on Leeward Highway. Hey Jose's is ostensibly Mexican, but also has burgers, pizza, etc. The staff here was very friendly, the atmosphere was great, and the food was also great. This restaurant is indoors and air conditioned. It is also a very popular happy hour destination.
The Attractions -
There is not a whole lot to do on Providenciales once you leave the beach. I read that the island is working on a master plan to create a shopping and entertainment district in the center of the island, but that must be years away. Here is some of the stuff we saw and did.
Silver Deep is one of the water sports businesses on the island. While there are more numerous options for diving, the options for non-diving water sports are fairly limited. Silver Deep and two other outfits control most of the business on the island and even collude together. If you call one of them about their snorkeling options, for example, you will often hear the exact same trip that the other business just described to you, because it is the same trip. Silver Deep is a thoroughly unprofessional operation that I would not recommend to anybody, but if you want to get off-island to snorkel you will not find many other options. Our group ended up getting a second free outing from Silver Deep after they botched our first outing (they refused to refund us). They will be late to pick you up, late to begin your outing, and, depending on who is captaining your boat, you may or may not see everything on your itinerary. There are not a lot of other options on Providenciales right now, but I feel a need to forewarn.
The Caicos Conch Farm is the world's only conch farm. (Conch is a sort of muscle that grows a shell around itself.) A guided tour cost $6 per person and was fairly interesting. We were able to see conch at various stages of development, and they even coax a couple of adult conch out of their shells so you can see what they actually look like.
Ports of Call is a small shopping/restaurant complex near the Ocean Club West and Allegro resorts. We didn't buy anything here, but we did eat here and visit the ATM.
Iguana Island is a small, uninhabited island near Providenciales. Many of the excursions offered by Silver Deep and other outfitters make a brief stop at this island. For $5 you get a short guided tour along a boardwalk. The iguanas here seemed quite willing to approach humans. I would not go out of my way to visit this island, but if your excursion happens to include a trip here it is probably worth the $5 to see it.
The snorkeling around Providenciales is disappointing. If you want to snorkel right off the beach you aren't going to see too much. If you walk or drive to the Coral Gardens resort you'll find probably the best right-off-the-beach snorkeling on the island, but this location is still nothing to write home about. The snorkeling we saw during the snorkel trips with Silver Deep ranged from fair to good, but never really approached excellent.
Final Tips -
Although the temperatures in the Caribbean are pretty constant throughout the year, the sun is definitely more direct during the summer. Bring a lot of sunscreen and be ready to reapply frequently. You'll also find flip-flops or sandals very useful as the paths around your resort will become painfully hot in the afternoon.
We rented a car for the duration of our trip. This was useful at times, but was probably overkill after we realized how little there was to do and see on the island. Most of the water sports operators will pick you up at your resort free of charge, and there are taxis, shuttles, etc. to get you to and from the airport and other destinations. It was apparent that most tourists on the island did not rent cars, or rented them for only a day or two. The roads on Providenciales are the worst I have ever driven on.
There is an IGA supermarket on the main highway. It looks pretty new and is actually a pretty decent grocery store. The selection is pretty good and prices are not outrageous for most items.
Credit cards are accepted nearly everywhere on the island, which is very handy. The IGA store will not let you use a credit card for a purchase under $25, but other than that we ran into no problems paying for everything with a credit card.
There is currently a large amount of construction on Grace Bay. While this means greater room availability and more reasonable prices, it also means you might find a construction site right outside your window. You may try to inquire with a resort before booking. Our first room at Ocean Club West was directly overlooking construction next door. Fortunately they were not fully booked and we were able to move to another room on the other side of the resort.