Is Turks and Caicos the Most Sustainable Island in the Caribbean?
Sustainable initiatives around farming, construction, and development are helping preserve Turks and Caicos Islands. Contributing editor Kerri Allen returns to see what's new and finds excellent initiatives throughout the islands.
“Eat all the snapper! Have at it!”
And here I thought I was being so sustainable, opting for grouper and conch during my latest visit to the Turks and Caicos Islands. But Alizee Zimmermann set me straight.
Born on Grand Turk — one of the eight inhabitable islands of this Caribbean archipelago — Alizee is a lifelong scuba diver and executive director of The Turks and Caicos Reef Fund, which preserves and protects the islands’ environment. While she assures me that local snapper abounds, the combination of global climate change and tourism is starting to erode some her home’s natural resources, including its endemic food supply. Conch is to the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) as corn is to Mexico or kimchi is to Korea. It’s more than food — it’s a part of the place’s history, culture, and way of life. “Ask any scientist who’s done any work here, and they’ll say there is a real possibility of TCI running out of conch.”
The Precipice of Change
The TCI is perhaps best known to travelers because of Grace Bay Beach, which often ranks as the best in the world. It’s a hard point to argue. Located on the island of Providenciales (“Provo” to locals), its white shore is pristine and wide, and its electric blue water is calm and warm. Add to that a vibrant and lively reef and a black night sky that dances with stars, and you have the stuff that beach-getaways fantasies are made of.
The TCI does not have the tourist volume of other spots in the Caribbean. (Jamaica outpaces these islands seven-to-one.) Here, you’ll mostly find luxury accommodations and few options for spring break antics or epic bachelor parties. Cruise ships can only dock on one island — and it’s not Provo — due to the protected coral reef and prohibitively shallow waters. While tourism has steadily increased over the decades, and roared back in 2021, it hasn’t yet broken the place. Mindful residents, business owners, and government officials are actively working to keep the islands’ ecosystem in balance and in abundance.
I’ve visited the TCI a number of times (and written about it for Fathom), but being here post-pandemic had the feeling of teetering on a seesaw — as if things could quickly and dangerously tip in one direction. New resorts and residences, night clubs, and international restaurants continue to fling open their doors, as old strongholds work to preserve nature and empower locals and visitors alike to help keep this paradise pristine.
Oceanfront Views Meet Ocean Conservation
Provo is where you’ll find one commercial airport and thousands of tourists. It’s is also where you’ll find that superlative Grace Bay Beach and the majority of the resorts. Opened directly on its shores in 2001, Grace Bay Club is a luxury hotel with 136 sleeping rooms and seven restaurants and bars. Nikheel Advani, one of its principals and chief operations officer, is tasked with keeping his discerning guests happy while also minding the environment. During a beachfront dinner at Infiniti one recent evening, we mused about the future of sustainable travel. “How do we protect Mother Nature?” he asks with some urgency over the lullaby of Grace Bay’s waves. “Without that, we’re nothing.”
Grace Bay Club has set a goal of reducing its carbon footprint by 30 percent this year. Their current irrigation system uses recycled water, and the traditional plastic “do not disturb” signs and room key cards are transitioning to bamboo, the latter embedded with a QR code that provides guests everything they could need without the resort having to update and print paper guest books. The property is also looking to phase out all single-use plastic from water bottles by providing guests with reusable ones at check-in and installing refill stations around the grounds.
Next door is Seven Stars Resort and Spa, another grand oceanfront property with 167 suites, four restaurants, as well as in-room, oceanfront, and private dining. For foodies visiting the TCI, snapper is indeed abundant, conch is still available (for now), and spiny lobster remains a solid local option. But very little grows here in the way of produce, and the contemporary traveler’s desire for healthy greens is only increasing. To arrive on a plate, the likes of kale and arugula are transported from California or South America to Miami, then dropped off along various Caribbean islands before they arrive here.
Robin Janse, Seven Stars’ director of food and beverage, was eager to improve this clunky and wasteful process. During the quiet of 2020, his colleague chef Edwin Gallardo began a little project: a rooftop garden.
“I started with a lot of vegetables,” Gallardo tells me as we tour the humble space, where trays of brown soil and green leaves contrast the azure water in the distance. He has greens growing in old Styrofoam crates that imported fish arrives in. (Sadly, that non-degradable white foam is still not banned universally.) “But by the time you hit June, you can’t grow anything, because that’s our hurricane season. That’s when I started growing microgreens. It helped us produce a little bit more.” Janse and the resort team rallied around this idea and wanted to expand Seven Stars’ approach to growing fresh greens.
Online research brought them to Freight Farms, a Boston-based agriculture technology company and the first of its kind to manufacture and sell "container farms." In one retrofitted shipping container, farmers anywhere can grow the equivalent of what’s normally cultivated across two-and-a-half acres of land. The three of us stepped out of the Caribbean sun and into one such metal container, which was narrow and cool, with tight rows lined with perky green leaves of romaine, arugula, mint, kale, and dozens more. There’s no need for the restaurants to wash these greens before serving them, as there are no pests, pesticides, or even dirt to remove. The freight farm currently uses electricity to power the container, but they are looking to shift to solar energy.
This effort marks the first of any resort on the TCI to self-manage and grow its own produce. The result is a unique island culinary experience that offers hand-grown and harvested greens that are rich with nutrients and absent of a carbon footprint. They’re already being used in 50 to 60 percent of the resort’s dishes, but the remainder is still imported to meet diners’ demand. The resort's latest, a 200-seat restaurant appropriately named The Farm, will be exclusively “garden-to-fork.”
Due west from Seven Stars along Provo’s north shore is Vita (which means “life” in Italian), an open-air restaurant at Rock House, the new hotel from Grace Bay Resorts that opened in 2022. Executive chef Dennis Boon crafted an Italian-inspired menu replete with sardines, tuna, octopus, olives, oranges, lemons, olive oil, and other life-giving ingredients. Naturally, there are vegetarian and vegan menus.
The romantic restaurant tucked high up into the property’s rugged architectural design was inspired by the cliffside hotels of the Mediterranean. To build this 38-room property across 14 acres, the developers engaged a local expert and biologist for guidance on how to protect the living environment. Instead of cutting plants and trees, the builders held 4,000 of them in a nursery until the buildings were completed and then replanted the greenery. Rock House’s white exteriors are made from the island’s natural limestone, which local artisans excavated by hand. There is an undeniable connection to nature as you journey along the resort’s curving walkways and narrow breezeways that overlook the sea.
Seeking even deeper immersion into nature outside Provo, I took a dreamy 20-minute boat ride across that stunning blue sea to another island: Pine Cay. Originally called the Meridian Club, the Pine Cay Resort is the only property here. Visitors have been coming to this hideaway for more than 50 years, and it has the air of a beautifully weathered yacht club.
Named for the pine trees that curiously grow in this tropical climate, this Relais & Châteaux property offers a kind of “high-end castaway” getaway of solitude and silence. No music plays in the restaurant and cell phones are prohibited in most shared spaces. As a result, you can sink into the sound of the ocean waves, the breeze against your ears, the scuttle of a salamander. After the sun sets, your options winnow to stargazing or sleeping. Laying along the shore’s edge, I spent nearly an hour one night just staring at the stars in wonder.
There are a variety of ways to shelter away from the world here across nine private homes of varying sizes and architectural styles, 10 beachfront rooms, or two free-standing beachfront cottages. I stayed in a cottage, which was tucked among the trees and just 150 feet from the water’s edge. The main room’s sweeping vaulted ceilings and beige and white palette made for a grand and airy stay. Some of the cottage’s woodwork was crafted from the island’s very pines.
The world’s third largest barrier reef sits in front of the property and a world-champion free diver teaches here twice a week. Guests can take a catamaran out for the day, grab a stand-up paddleboard or even try kitesurfing.
And while Provo is no Times Square, being on Pine Cay beckoned me to do close to nothing. I indulged in a bit of reading under my private thatched beach tiki and loungers, swimming in the empty sea, and enjoying the natural freedom of the suite’s stone-carved outdoor shower, outfitted with bath products from Bamford, a sustainable line from the UK.
After a spell of stillness for a few days, I did take one of the resort’s free-use fat tire bikes out for a ride. Cycling in near-silence across this 800-acre forest continued to be centering and meditative. Perhaps too much so. (Did I get utterly lost? Yes. Did I eventually find my way back to the lobby. Yes.)
Pine Cay Resort has embraced sustainable practices as a matter of doing business for decades. The property’s “Go Green!” digital brochure for guests explains, “Pine Cay supported environmental conservation as a matter of conscience long before it became fashionable to do so. We’ve used electric golf carts for island transportation for more than 35 years. We had strict building guidelines, including set-backs from the beach, long before the government passed legislation on the subject.” They are looking to open a solar farm in 2024 and to be 100 percent sustainable by 2028. Perhaps most impressively, the have pushed back against pressure to expand their hotel to accommodate more visitors and more income. A rare feat of prioritizing planet over profits.
The Source of Everything
I catch Alizee Zimmerman from The Reef Fund in between dives for a conversation up on land. She spends a lot of her time underwater, researching and actively restoring the coral reef. Having grown up on the islands, she has seen changes over time — for good and bad.
As tourism has increased, so has income for locals. With the economic boost, overall quality of life has improved in many way, including the ability for islanders to build much needed services, like the TCI’s first hospital. But with more visitors, and the effects of global climate change, she has also witnessed damage to the coral reef, which she calls “the source of everything in the Turks and Caicos.” Aside from their innate beauty, the presence of coral actually helped create the infamous Grace Bay Beach.
“That talcum-power white sand is parrotfish poop,” she says. “They crunch and clean the surface of corals that have algae. They are eating rock and eating the microalgae in the rock.” The land itself is old coral reef, and the beaches will erode very quickly if there’s no reef to protect it.
But the reef is going away. The TCI has lost more than 62 percent of its coral cover since 2014. Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease has been ravaging reefs across the Atlantic and Caribbean since then, and coral colonies typically die within months, or even weeks, after being infected. While its cause has not officially been connected to climate change, insiders like Alizee wonder. “These events do happen, but in scientific history, in marine history, this is unprecedented.” Rising sea temperatures and increased oceanic pollution don’t help.
So what’s an eco-conscious traveler to do? Many people I spoke to on the islands agreed that understanding and respecting the environment and local culture goes a long way. Small things do add up. Bring a reusable water bottle for your trip. Take your single-use plastics home —there is no real recycling infrastructure on TCI, so it all ends up in a landfill. Choose resorts and hotels with sustainability programs. When selecting sunscreen, choose one with non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, like those made on-island by The Wildflower Lab. (“Reef-safe” branding is an unregulated, hyped-up marketing term.) If you order a salad of leafy greens — finish it. Or just get the snapper.
“I do believe there’s hope,” Alizee concedes. “There’s amazing things happening here.”