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Port of the Month:

When Grand Turk welcomed its first cruise ship (Holland America‘s Noordam) in February, 2006, it heralded the opening of a new and interesting port of call for the Caribbean region. Officially called Grand Turk Cruise Center, it’s most definitely a grand centerpiece for an exciting new destination.

“The Grand Turk Cruise Center is already considered one of the finest facilities of its kind in the Caribbean and the grand opening represents the culmination of many years of hard work in developing and constructing this state-of-the-art center,” said Turks & Caicos Deputy Premier Floyd Hall at the official opening ceremony of the $42 million facility last May.

The new port features a modern pier that can accommodate two, huge, post-Panamax cruise liners, as well as a bustling 13-acre complex that serves as a gateway to the island. The pier--1,033 feet in length from land to the end of the mooring dolphin--was developed near the island’s spectacular 7,000-foot drop-off and was carefully constructed to minimize any environmental damage. Carnival Corporation , which developed the pier and cruise center in cooperation with the Turks & Caicos government, also has an extensive reef monitoring plan in place to continue to limit the environmental imprint of the port's development.

Many ships from Carnival Corp.'s various lines have already called on Grand Turk, but all cruise lines and ships are welcome, and many are accepting the invitation. Grand Turk had about 130 cruise ship calls in 2006 and that number is expected to swell to around 170 this year, as more lines receive positive feedback from happy passengers who find an almost “private island” feel at the port and, farther afield, an land full of friendly people that features much to see and do. And it's user-friendly for Americans, too--English is the official language and the U.S. dollar is coin of the realm.

Grand Turk is the capital of the Turks & Caicos, which has been a separate Crown Colony of Great Britain since 1973. The name Turks derives from the indigenous Turk’s Head fez cactus prevalent throughout the islands, while the name Caicos came from the Lucayan term, “caya hico,” which means string of islands. The chain is southeast of the Bahamas, north of Hispaniola, and right on the route of Eastern Caribbean cruises departing from South Florida.

Columbus is said to have “discovered” these islands in 1492. However, the Taino and Lucayan people inhabited many of the islands well before Columbus briefly sailed through them. The Lucayans disappeared from the islands by the mid-1500s, due to Spanish enslavement and disease. Throughout much of the 16th and 17th centuries, rule of what would become the Turks & Caicos alternated between the Spanish, French, and British. In the late-1600s, a group from Bermuda established settlements on Grand Turk, Salt Cay, and South Caicos. They cleared land for salt ponds that still exist on Grand Turk and other islands, eventually establishing a huge salt trade that would become the foundation of the islands' economy for more than three centuries. The success of the salt business caught the attention of colonial powers, with the islands becoming part of Britain's Bahamas colony in 1766, but the French claimed control a couple of times as well.

After being part of The Bahamas for more than a century, Jamaica (another British colony at the time) annexed the islands in 1872. When Jamaica gained independence in 1962 and the Bahamas became independent in 1964, administration of the Turks & Caicos went back to the British. In 1973, the Turks & Caicos became a British Crown Colony, with a governor appointed by Her Majesty, the Queen of England, and a local government elected by the citizens, which number about 3,700.

The 13-acre complex that makes up the Grand Turk Cruise Center is a destination in its own right. Carnival Corp. hired OBM Design and Engineering to create building designs that were in keeping with Grand Turk's Bermudian-influenced architecture. The firm, with offices in Florida, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the Turks & Caicos, included four prominent chimneys in the main building, a typical design element seen throughout Grand Turk. Color consultant Denise Israel came up with more than 30 different hues that trace back to the original Bermudian shades, resulting in a veriegated facility true to the island’s historic colors.

The vivid cruise complex is anchored by the Caribbean’s largest Margaritaville theme bar and restaurant. Here you can enjoy food (including a Jimmy Buffett-style “Cheeseburger in Paradise“), various tropical beverages, music, lots of live entertainment and games, and the large adjacent pool (including a swim-up bar and cabanas). As expected, there’s also lots of shopping opportunities. Liquor appears to be the most popular purchase, followed by jewelry, apparel, and more--including local arts and crafts sold (and maybe made) by friendly locals.

The 800-foot white-sand beach features calm and clear waters, some 1,200 complimentary lounge chairs, and a great view of the docked cruise ship (or ships). Passengers are also welcome to use the changing facilities with showers, lockers, and toilets. Though it can get a bit crowded on the beach at Margaritaville when two ships are in port, the “private island” feel prevails here, too.

Another unique addition to this new port is the cruise center’s own FM radio station. Located on the dial at 97.1, this cruise industry first is dubbed GT Cruise FM and offers a mix of Caribbean music and news, as well as helpful background about visiting Grand Turk. “This new radio station will provide guests with valuable information about the cruise industry’s newest destination,” says Grand Turk tourism director Lindsey Musgrove. Operation of the radio station will be limited to those times when a ship is in port (portable headset radios can be purchased in the center).

Though Grand Turk measures just seven miles long and a mile-and-a-half wide, there’s much to see and do outside the cruise complex. Most ships that call offer an enticing list of shore excursions that belie the island’s size and status as a new destination. On our recent Princess Cruises' sailing to Grand Turk, the Crown Princess offered 19 different shore excursions. The possibilities included a great hop on/hop off option, a variety of watersports pursuits, several alluring island tours, biking, hiking, horseback riding, and more.

Of course, Grand Turk’s crystal-clear and warm waters make for great watersports. There’s world-class snorkeling just off nearby Governor’s Beach (the energetic could easily walk there from the pier) and elsewhere, plus a small semi-submersible submarine called the Nautilus, kayaking, saltwater flats fly fishing, inflatable two-person aqua-boat trips, a stingray encounter at sublime Gibb’s Cay, helmet diving, “snuba” (air from the surface), and renowned scuba diving for first-timers and veterans alike. With so many choices, it’s easy to get wet on Grand Turk.

Land-based options departing from the port's new four-acre transportation center include: an elegant horse and carriage ride to Cockburn Town and through the island’s countryside; a trolley train to Governor’s Beach for snorkeling and beach time; dune buggy adventures to North Wells in search of pink flamingos and secluded beaches; a bike/hike/swim tour; a back-country tour in a safari-themed 4x4 truck; and horseback riding that includes a swim with your steed.

One of the very best ways to see the island is to sign up for the hop on/hop off Guana Island Tour. This unique and reasonably priced shore excursion features a fleet of air-conditioned buses that pick-up and drop-off passengers at three points on the island at 15- minute (or less) intervals. Each of the drivers provides a bit of appropriate island history or local insight during the brief ride between points.

After receiving a wrist band allowing all-day bus access, passengers can head from the stop at the cruise center to Cockburn Town on the waterfront, where two stops allow easy exploration of the small town. It’s easy to walk through friendly Cockburn Town, exploring various landmarks, and then re-board the bus at the other end of the village.

This shore excursion includes a ticket to the recently restored 19th-century Her Majesty’s (H.M.) Prison, where professional exhibits explore life in a small island prison--including the original cell block, solitary confinement, an exercise yard, and even a prison door with a barred window for photo opportunities. There’s also a small snack bar with tasty smoothies and a gift shop with creative prison-logoed items that make for unique souvenirs.

The island capital also features quaint old Bermudian-style architecture, with several small inns and private homes providing a colorful backdrop. Other highlights include the Post Office (a great place to send a postcard with a colorful Turks & Caico stamp), the Government House, St. Mary’s Anglican Church, St. Thomas Rectory, and several other small places of worship. Also around town and throughout the island, there are many old salt ponds, which were once used to obtain salt from seawater back when Grand Turk was a huge exporter of salt. Several entrepreneurs sell local (and Caribbean) artwork along the streets, without the aggressive marketing techniques now seen on larger islands. A few waterfront bars and restaurants offer refreshing respites from the sun.

The third point on this flexible hop-on/hop-off tour is Lighthouse Park. This scenic point is well worth a stop of an hour or so, thanks to the 1852 lighthouse, several interesting historic exhibits, and two self-guided nature cliff-top trails along the island’s north shore. The lighthouse, which is not open to the public, has a fascinating history that is colorfully related by local hosts. The light was often covered at night to lure ships onto the island’s sharp reefs--where they were plundered for treasure. Nearby, there’s an interesting exhibit recreating the lighthouse keeper’s kitchen, as well as a gift shop and snack bar. Each of the short hikes along the coast (plan on 15 minutes or so) are well worth exploring--both offer great views and interpretive signs for history and nature buffs. The bus then drives back to Cockburn Town, picking up and dropping off passengers, before returning to the cruise complex.

If the ship is in port long enough (six hours or more), it’s easy to combine one of the shorter shore excursions (including the hop on/hop off) with time for the beach, shopping, Margaritaville, and more back at the bustling new Grand Turk Cruise Center.

Who's calling at this new port these days? Nearly every line plying the Eastern Caribbean, including Carnival, Costa, Crystal, Discovery, Fred. Olsen, Hapag-Lloyd, Holland America, MSC, NCL, Oceania, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean and Silversea. For more information contact your travel agent or log on to the Grand Turk Cruise Center's  comprehensive website at www.grandturkcc.com.