BY MARK KEAST

“Eric the Survivalist” they call him here. He lives on a hill, well back from the beach, up in the bush. No one quite knows where, they just know he’s there. Twenty years ago he bought 30 acres. Some think he’s American. He ships in his food, doesn’t buy local.

Eric doesn’t like progress all that much. And if there’s one word that stands out after a trip to Turks and Caicos (TCI) “progress” would be it. TCI, which travelers – especially Canadian travelers – have discovered more through word-of-mouth, is a true luxury oasis.

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“Turks and Caicos unfortunately hasn’t done a good job promoting itself,” says Rob Ayer, the Canadian developer/owner of the five-star hotel/condo property run under the Wymara Resort and Villas banner. “But when people come, they come again.”

WYMARA

A colleague who traveled there refers to it as a glorious sand dune that rose from the Caribbean. That’s a good way of describing it, looking out the window as the plane pulls into Providenciales International Airport, brushing the turquoise surf.

Luxury is in the island’s hotels and condominiums, concentrated along the seven-mile stretch of pristine beach on Grace Bay. It’s in the quality of the cuisine, especially seafood like lobster and conch (trust us – you will discover taste buds you thought were in hiding). It’s in those powdery white sandy beaches, ranked the best in the world by standard-setters like Condé Nast Traveler.

Resorts here stress a holistic approach when it comes to luxury vacationing – core fusion yoga in the morning, or maybe a weight workout, massage at the spa, book by the pool, boat tour around Grace Bay, and finally surf & turf with fresh lobster and dry aged beef or veal tenderloin, overlooking a perfect sunset.

WORLD-CLASS BEACHES

People don’t come here just to get a tan.

Luxury is five-star service for tourists who make the trip here, right down to minute details: Kohler Water Tile rain showers in the bathrooms and Italian cabinetry and custom millwork in all the rooms at the Wymara; peaceful moonlight swims in the grand Mosaic Infinity pool at the Regent Grand Resort; even something as seemingly innocuous as a hostess passing a shawl to a woman during a cool-ish evening as she stares out pool-side at Wymara’s chic beachside bar, sipping a glass of 2010 Argentinian Cabernet. When talking about true luxury travel experience, it’s the little details like these that add up. “Every single detail and encounter,” says Ayer.

Turks and Caicos is a Caribbean country of roughly 45,000 scattered over forty different islands and cays, eleven of which are inhabited.

REGENT GRAND

Most live on Providenciales (Provo). The islands are just east of Cuba, with direct flights from Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. You can be toasting your winter-weary toes in just a few hours. Many travel here during the spring months as well.

Progress is in the new and future condo/hotel developments just off the beaches and surf of Provo (the island is protected by a barrier reef that surrounds it, meaning calmer surfs and a world class destination for diving buffs). There are new roadways. More police. A hospital.

TCI only sees about 30 inches of rain a year, and temperatures don’t vary much; just a few degrees year-round, always up around the high 20s and into the 30s.

Tourism and real estate are driving the economic bus. Conch (seafood, taken from those pink-lipped shells) and lobster are the main exports. TCI exports memories.

The modern history of Turks and Caicos got its start in 1984, around the time Club Med opened a 300-room property. Before that there wasn’t a whole lot of evolution from the time Christopher Columbus bumped into Grand Turk (one of the islands) in 1492. The islands were rustic, raw, un-developed. Small mom and pop-style properties dotted some of the islands.

Now, word is spreading, especially among luxury connoisseurs, mostly from the U.S. and Canada. The island saw an uptick of 23.6 per cent of tourists from Canada in 2016 compared to the previous year, then intense hurricanes hit the island in 2017. There were issues with hurricanes on the island in 2018.

Tourism is on the way back up. TCI is growing up, fast.

Thursday night is Island Fish Fry on Provo (the “Manhattan of Turks and Caicos,” someone here described it as) in a parking lot just off of the beach next to Wymara, where New York-style cool meets the sun and sand. This is the front line in the evolution of a true luxury destination.

Island Fish Fry is an opportunity for tourists to mingle with locals in their natural environment, try out some of the culinary offerings (how many different ways can you cook conch?), check out arts and crafts, and listen to local musical acts.

On a February night the highlight is a battle of the bands. V6 (pronounced “we 6” on the island) takes the stage. They are playing “rake and scrape” folk music. The primary instrument is a household saw, which one of the musicians scrapes with a screwdriver. People dance a freestyle called “Shay-Shay”. There is no wrong movement, the locals say. The crazier you are, the better you can Shay-Shay.

In the recent past, “Eric the Survivalist” has been quite vocal about his distaste for the Island Fish Fry, now in just its fourth week. He said it was too loud. His emails of complaints stretched eight pages, complete with decibel readings. He used the word “monkeys” to describe the locals who partake in the event. That wasn’t a good idea. The police soon became involved and Eric may not be “surviving” much longer.

David Bowen, the former Director of Culture for the government’s Cultural and Arts Commission, takes it all in stride. On that February Island Fish Fry night he was the MC. David takes the stage with a banana and a microphone and calls out to, “Eric the Survivalist”.

According to David, as the island develops, as more tourists come, as more people from other countries buy real estate here, the time is now to preserve, even promote, local culture. And it’s a chance for local people to see the tourists and people from other countries who have come to live here. That’s the purpose behind Island Fish Fry.

“You wonder if there is culture here. There is. We want to bring that culture to the tourists,” Bowen says.

Driving around Provo, the gap between the haves and have-nots is right in front of you: the five-star luxury hotels/condos down by the beach, places like Wymara, which opened in 2009, the Regent Grand, also relatively new, the Beach House, the Grace Bay Club, the luxury jewellery shops in Regent Village (one of 60 retail shops, next to the Regent Grand, another sign of infrastructure growth targeting a luxury audience), upscale resorts like Amanyara, on the northwest tip of Provo, and the posh Provo Golf Club, all mingle with the rustic shacks and the churches where the locals dress up in their finest and go to Sunday service.

PENTHOUSE AT REGENT GRAND

The locals work at the hotels and restaurants. They greet you and take your clubs at the Provo Golf Club. They serve drinks to the tourists on the beaches by Wymara and Regent Grand. Dave Fenimore, a public relations executive with the Turks and Caicos tourism board, says locals here live a simpler existence. Fenimore is U.S.-born but has lived here most of his life. His parents opened a small hotel on Grand Turk in 1972. People are happy, he says. There isn’t a lot of crime to speak of, among the lowest in the region.

People love their country. There’s so much rhythm. Just a humble and relaxed environment. People aren’t jaded. And family is so important.

It’s in the poorer areas in places like Blue Hills where local culture really thrives, Bowen says.

“You see the culture because they are living the lifestyle,” he says. “All the artisans and musicians, they are all there. Out of that comes our folk music, our folk dance. Many of our songs come out of our reality. If something happens on the island someone might do a song about it. Each island (of TCI) might claim the song for themselves, and add their own little twist to it. That’s another aspect that I love.

“In other Caribbean countries, you have issues where tourists don’t feel comfortable being among the locals. Not here. You also don’t see the local culture in your face, like in other Caribbean countries.”

Canada and Canadians are everywhere. Canada is the fastest growing tourism market, according to the tourism board, which is expected to jump even more if airline companies like Westjet add direct flights from Calgary, as is expected.

Three major Canadian banks – RBC, Scotiabank and CIBC – are where most people withdraw their money.

Rob Ayer, originally from Kitchener, is an example of what happens with Canadians here, whether they end up living here, which many do, or vacation regularly. Ayer came here with his wife in 2001 and fell head over heels for the place.

He purchased and developed a piece of land on the western section of Grace Bay Beach with four other partners, knowing he wanted a contemporary complex for the luxury crowd, young and old.

As well as direct flights and an average temperature of 29 degrees, the use of the U.S. dollar currency and close proximity to the mainland are other enticements for Canadians.

Oh, and again, there’s also that no tax thing – income, capital gains and corporate.

Then there are the smaller things – or bigger, depending on your perspective. Ayer is a hockey nut, so he can’t help himself — the hotel put a large TV down on the beach to celebrate Hockey Day in Canada during hockey season, ran all three games on Hockey Night in Canada on CBC (all the Canadian television channels are available down here), and had a big party. It was Don Cherry over a dish of “island-style” conch and a bottle of Turks Head Lager.

Ayer’s son played in the organized inline Provo Hockey League, run by a Quebecer, with team names like the Sailrock Lobsters. There are three divisions with three teams in each for boys and girls ranging in ages from four to 17.

Hockey on the island got its start back in the mid 1990s when a few Canadian expats – former European and NHL pros, and college players – threw together some sticks. It grew from there.

At Provo Golf Club, the director of golf, Dave Douglas, a Canadian from Sarnia who has lived here since 1996, says roughly half the golf club members are Canadian.

PROVO GOLF CLUB

Canada considered annexing this island, first back in the 1970s. An MP named Max Saltsman tried to use a private members bill to persuade the government to take in the islands. Maybe we should have. The idea popped up again a few other times – most recently in the early 2000s.

The news coverage surrounding all this caught the eye of many Canadians.

But back to Eric. Those decibels from “rake and scrape” are really pumping now, and so is the energy level at Island Fish Fry. Hundreds have gathered.

“He has to understand that the same island he’s been living on has to grow,” Bowen says. “Tourism is our bread and butter. If he came down and saw people here, maybe he would change his mind. And see that it’s for the greater good.”