Grand Turk

What To Expect From Cruising's Newest Destination

CLICK HERE for great pictures of Grand Turk Island

1/25/07 --  Carnival Corp. just about has the new cruise center at GrandTurk Island in the Turks & Caicos ready for its debut at the end of next month as the newest big cruise destination in theCaribbean. Some 370,000 cruise passengers are expected to visit GT annually by the end of 2007, though Carnival is trying to start light, with HAL's new 1,848 pax Noordam at the end of February followed by the 2,052 pax Carnival Sensation at the end of March. By June, Grand Turk will be getting two to three ship visits a week, including Princess' latest, the 3,080 pax Crown Princess, set to debut in May.

Planning the Cruise Center 

The idea to develop GT as a destination originally began with Holland America. They'd looked into building a pier to the downtown area in the center of the island-- where they'd been tendering in--but they ran into environmental concerns. "To dredge there would have destroyed all of the reefs and dive sights there," explains Carnival Corp.'s Director of Port Development Projects Gerry Ellis.

Also, it became clear all the development was going to be a multi-million dollar undertaking (it's up to $49 million) and would have to start from scratch at a less sensitive end of the island. Hence, Carnival Corp. took over the project, leasing 37 acres on the southern end of the seven-mile island. In addition to the pier, the company is building a terminal, transportation center, and buildings for car rentals, shops, and craft stalls.

"I regard myself as doing this for the cruise industry, not just Carnival Corp.," remarks Ellis, adding that the cruise center is available to non-Carnival Corp. brands.

CC learned a few tricks with its experience building the Puerta Maya terminal at Cozumel. "In Puerta Maya, there are two distinct trails, and one is more favored than the other," Ellis notes. "Here, we've made sure there's a balance between all of  the shops and walkways. Also, in Puerta Maya, there's a large Mayan pyramid in the center, and it's difficult to see across to the other side, so tours have to group on one side or the other; here, we've made an open plaza they can see across."

Cruise Center Facilities

The biggest structure by far at the cruise center is the 17,000 sq- ft Margaritaville Café, which will be the largest stand-alone Jimmy Buffett franchise in the Caribbean. Parrotheads might want to wait a bit for visiting, it'll only be serving drinks till June, when it's ready for full service.

Behind Jimmy Buffett's is a giant amoeba-shaped swimming pool with swim up bar, slide, cabanas, and infinity edge view. It's open to the public and should be a great place to hang out with the younger kids, as its deepest depth is just three-and-a-half feet.

The whole center is much less imposing than it sounds, apart from the Margaritaville Café. With carefully placed landscaping shielding the beach from the cruise center, it'll have some of the feel of a private island for pax pulling up. Yet it has an advantage over many other private islands--no tenders. Two ships up to the size of the QM2 can pull up almost impossibly close to the shore--  just 400 ft. away--and pax can step directly from the pier to the beach.

And what a beach!  Part of what makes Grand Turk so grand is that just a few hundred yards from shore the shallow continental shelf suddenly plunges 7,000 feet, and the coral reefs on this undersea wall, along with the pristine, healthy waters and great weather (cooled off by trade winds), make GT one of the top five diving destinations in the world. Passengers choosing to stick around the cruise center can get a taste of the underwater view just snorkeling around the existing beach--equipment to rent or buy will be available at the cruise center. 

Island Sights

Though passengers could fill their day in GT just hanging out at the cruise center, plenty will head into town via taxi or shore excursion. The half-mile long downtown area of Cockburn Town is charming--sleepy and quaint--with many Bermudan-influenced colonial buildings mixed with simple gift shops, guest houses, and a couple of laid back bars dotting the miles of public, powder-white sand beaches. Ellis describes GT as "the way the rest of the Caribbean was 25 years ago," and that's a constant refrain of the islanders, too.

Yet the administrative capital of T&C had become a little neglected over the years, as residents moved to booming Providenciales for a piece of the tourism pie. So Carnival Corp. put seven million dollars into infrastructure improvements, ranging from the  mundane, like installing a couple of pedestrian crossings and painting and planting, to the complete creation of tourist attractions based on the history of the island. A new bus- loop shore excursion, where pax can hop on and off at any stop, will take in these new attractions.

Phase I includes a restored Victorian Prison, which Ellis calls a "mini-Alcatraz." It's cute--if one can call a prison cute--with a café, gift shop, medicinal garden, and photo ops for junior standing in solitary confinement.

Also being restored is the lighthouse at the northern end of the island, built in 1852 at the insistence of the America government, tired of islanders waving lanterns near the rocky eastern shores luring ships to their dooms. The lighthouse keeper's former residence has become an outdoor dining area with a recreated kitchen. Best of all, Carnival Corp. has cleared two short nature trails leading off east and west from the lighthouse. On an eastern overlook, we stood entranced, bracing ourselves against the surprisingly strong westerlies, admiring the beautifully eroded cliff faces beneath us and the turquoise waters.

Phase II of infrastructure improvements, due for completion in June '06, includes a recreation of a salina, a series of  progressively saltier ponds where slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries harvested the resulting salt crystals. The attraction will include a museum on slavery; specifically, Mary Prince, a slave whose memoirs of working the salinas were Britain's version of Uncle Tom's Cabin--leading to the abolition of slavery by Parliament.

Also on tap is a working conch farm, an expansion of a farm in Providenciales which provides 85% of the conch meat sold in the U.S.

The bus loop will also take in GT's existing attractions, like the T&C National Museum, which has some info on John Glenn's splashdown off Grand Turk in 1962, Governor's Beach, and the Philatelic Bureau. Anyone who's ever collected stamps will know that Turks and Caicos has long had a great revenue source from its beautiful stamps, created almost solely for collectors.

Bus riders will also enjoy sights of the wild horses, donkeys, and cows roaming the island, descendants of the beasts who worked the salinas in previous centuries.

Shore Excursions

In developing shore excursions for the island, "We basically had to start from scratch," notes Ellis. "With the possibility of two ships coming in at once, we needed capacity for about 2,000 people on start-up, and that would mean about 18-20 tours."

The land-based excursions on tap will include the previously described bus loop, horseback riding through the surf, dune buggies, bike & hike, and flats fly fishing.

But really, any visitor to GT needs to take advantage of the great marine opportunities. To that end, there'll be shore excursions like semi-submarine, glass bottom kayaks & snorkeling, power snorkeling, helmet diving, deep water fishing, aquaboats, and a ride up to Gibb's Cay, where sting rays swim right up to the beach to be fed.

Though it's not a regularly scheduled tour, Ellis hopes there'll be ad lib opportunities for seasonal whale watching. In winter, Atlantic humpbacks swim up the Turk's Passage trench on the western side of the island to their breeding grounds at the southern end.

Even with such enticing choices, anyone who thinks they are at all physically capable of scuba diving should give it a whirl. I'd tried 10 years ago to dive in St. Thomas and chickened out, but the great conditions here led to success! The patient instructors got this allergy-ridden claustrophobe 30 feet down in a resort course meant for beginning divers (and it took only two hours of coaxing). Passing a resort course counts towards certification.

I asked my diving instructor about his favorite moments guiding tours: imagine being in the group seeing humpback whales singing to each other, 100-ft whale sharks, or manta rays with 25-ft wingspans arching their backs to feed. I, myself, almost cavorted with a pod of 10 dolphins, but they got shy once I finally got my act together and jumped off the boat.

Keeping it Light

Does the development of Grand Turk, promising an unspoiled atmosphere, by its very nature negate that promise? The question has three parts. First, you want cruise passengers to experience the authentic charms of the island, and second, you don't want them to become part of the problem. With careful planning, Carnival Corp. has addressed these two concerns. "Regarding not affecting the essence of the island, a lot of that is spreading the people around so there aren't crowds of people in any one place," explains Ellis. "We can absorb a lot of the people at the pool, a lot at the shopping, and the tours are designed such that they're spread throughout the island and staggered during the day, so you don't have 5,000 people in one place."

Also, there'll be no noisy watersports like jet skis or banana boats, etc., to disturb the tranquility, and Carnival has developed just 14 of the 37 acres it's leased, leaving the rest untouched.

And with its investment in island infrastructure, CC has actually improved GT in a manner consistent with the charm and architecture of the island.

But what about the third problem: outside influences coming in hoping to make a buck off the influx of visitors? Around the cruise center the effect will be minimal. Ellis explains, "There's only one narrow gate, and we'll have security; they'll allow people in and out but they won't allow someone bringing in a table. The last thing we want is a bazaar with tables covered with T-shirts."

Yet, theoretically, there's nothing to stop developers moving in elsewhere, throwing up McDonald's golden arches amidst the historic colonial buildings. Ellis is optimistic that won't happen. "The government is keen to maintain the island's appearance," he explains. "For example, with new buildings going up, we're appealing strongly to government planning officials to maintain the town's character. Will McDonald's come in? I doubt it, but it's entirely up to the country."

If GT can retain its charm, it'll be one of the best destinations in the Caribbean. 

-- Cruise Week 1/25/07


The beautiful Island of Grand Turk is the capital island of the Turks and Caicos. Take the time to explore Cockburn town’s wonderful selection of historical buildings including many Burmudian and Colonial style buildings and ruins. That’s just the beginning of all the things to see and do in Grand Turk.

It’s deep offshore waters serve as major transit points for Humpback Whales, spotted Eagle rays, Manta Rays and Turtles. Like to fish? Tuna, Wahoo and Blue Marlin inhabit these same rich waters. If you’re a diver, or simply interested in diving, Grand Turk is the place for you. With many dive operators and schools it can cater from novice snorkels to experienced divers. 

Come see for yourself. We know your experience on this beautiful island will be nothing short of Grand! 

-- Carnival Cruise Line

CLICK HERE for great pictures of Grand Turk Island


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