While the Turks and Caicos island group has become a hot luxury spot with million-dollar homes and exclusive resorts on the island of Providenciales (also called “Provo”), Grand Turk has been little known outside the circle of diving aficionados who come to explore the third-largest coral reef system in the world. That relative obscurity changed with the opening of Carnival Corporation’s new $50 million port facility, Grand Turk Cruise Center, earlier this year.

Once just a barren strip of sand, the 13-acre complex has been planted with lush vegetation. The terminal is laid out like a mall, and the pier can accommodate two 100,000-ton-plus ships per day. This year alone the center will welcome some 175,000 passengers on 120 ship calls from nine different cruise lines. Carnival Corporation says that figure will rise to 320,000 passengers on 180 ships calls in 2007.

The cruise center has its own beach, pool, shops and restaurants where passengers can shop, tan and tour to their hearts’ content, just a stone’s throw from the ship. Passengers can lounge on the white sand beach for free in one of the 1,100 chairs or loungers or, at extra cost, they can have one of the comfy cabanas. The center’s focal point is the huge, winding swimming pool, which has a swim-up bar, umbrellas and several hundred lounge chairs. Next to the pool is a huge Margaritaville restaurant, one of a chain of restaurants and bars owned by singer Jimmy Buffet, where you can grab a Red Stripe beer or the ubiquitous margarita. Duty-free shops include major Caribbean retailers like Little Switzerland. A separate area features craft huts, an Internet center and restrooms with changing facilities and lockers.

Passengers seem to love the new terminal. On my Crown Princess cruise, guests raved about the facilities and appreciated the island ambiance. “It’s like a private island experience,” remarked one passenger.

“Consumer response to the new call at Grand Turk has been nothing short of phenomenal,” says Carnival president and CEO, Bob Dickinson.

Old Turk

The cruise center is a nice, controlled Caribbean experience, but to get a real sense of the island’s unspoiled beauty you need to venture away from the terminal and the crowds. Grand Turk is a tiny island with just 3,700 residents, and much of it reminds me of the “old” Caribbean. Pristine beaches, dusty roads, salt ponds and grazing cows are the main attractions, though the island claims two historic visits: Christopher Columbus may have made his first New World landfall here in 1492, and astronaut John Glenn certainly splashed down in Grand Turk’s lovely turquoise waters in 1962, after he became the first American to orbit Earth.

From the cruise center, it is a five-minute taxi ride into Cockburn Town, the island’s largest town. A walk along Duke Street, the town’s main drag, offers just one rustic hotel, one lively bar and two shops selling island mosaic art and conch shells. There is also a post office and a small red-and-white church. If you’re in the mood to check out the local fare, be sure to try the conch burger at the Birdcage Restaurant, which is part of the Osprey Hotel. Around the island there are other charming spots like the old Majesty’s Prison and Lighthouse Park, which has a working lighthouse dating back to 1852. If you visit the lighthouse from December through April, you might spot migrating humpback whales.

Of the many shore excursions available, snorkeling and diving are at the top of the list. (The island’s barrier reef is 2.5 miles long.) There is also a terrific excursion to Gibbs Cay that allows customers to swim with stingrays. There are also kayak tours, beach breaks and a dune-buggy safari. A convenient hop-on, hop-off bus tour operates on a continuous loop around the island, enabling travelers to visit the lighthouse and prison.

Grand Turk is a great place to spend a day. I hope it can keep a measure of its pristine charm.

For more information visit: the Grand Turk Cruise Center official Web site and the
Turks and Caicos Tourism Web site.

Do you have a cruising question for Anita? Maybe a problem to solve? Feel free to e-mail her.