TURKS & CAICOS:Â Sometimes it seems like it’s easier to fly down to Providenciales than it is to get across town during rush hour.Â Which is perhaps why the islands of Turks & Caicos are so popular with the Northeast crowd.Â And me, too.Â There’s almost nothing to do on Provo, as the island capital is known, so there’s no residual guilt to be had about not seeing the sights;Â you can thoroughly unwind, soaking up the sun on Grace Bay, one of the world’s great sandy beaches.
A trip down here in January is a tonic for the the harsh New York winter and this trip had the added benefit of a stay at the new Seven Stars.Â As a New Yorker, it’s a particularly bittersweet pleasure to find a hotel room larger than your apartment.Â At the oversized Seven Stars, the bedroom alone was larger than my apartment.Â Naturally, I had to be dragged out kicking and screaming – least of all because the beach was right outside my sliding glass doors.
There’s a curiosity that made this trip memorable as well.Â A culinary delicacy I’d heretofore been ignorant of despite my many trips to the Caribbean.Â Never one to shy away from the local fare, I stepped up and swallowed it raw and whole, according to local tradition.Â And what was this sublime aphrodisiac, you ask?Â Conch penis.
Blessed with sunshine and moderate daily rains, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Caribbean is a bounty of fresh local food.Â With a few exceptions the reality is actually quite the opposite:Â most everything needs to be imported.Â You see, there is one significant piece missing from the puzzle across most of the islands and that is arable land.Â The vast majority of them are essentially giant sandbars.Â And what little earth exists underfoot is contaminated by salt and brackish water.Â Ergo, no fresh fruit; no fresh vegetables.Â What little is able to be produced locally is grown hydroponically in very small batches.Â (tiny Anguilla – to its enormous credit – has a massive organic hydroponic farm that supplies a handful of resorts as well as the local community)
What’s a yuppie on holiday supposed to do?Â In Turks & Caicos the answer is conch.Â Endangered in over 95% of its natural habitat, conch strangely flourishes here.
Da Conch Shack in Blue Hills is a Turks institution and as you might guess, conch is the specialty:Â cracked conch, conch fritters, creole conch, stir-fry conch, conch salad, curry conch, conch gumbo, conch chowder – the hardy creature is incredibly adaptable as a meat substitute.Â Technically, it’s a giant sea snail, so I’m surprised to not see it served in the French-style, with lots of garlic and butter – but then again, perhaps that cooking method doesn’t really lend itself to the warmer climes.
The Shack goes through upwards of a few thousand conch a week.Â Held offshore in giant pens, they are killed – or conched, if you will – to order.Â If you’ve time, head to the beach after lunch and manager Peter or one of his staff will show you how it’s done.Â Essentially they stab it in the head to sever the connective ligament that attaches the snail to its shell, before yanking it out and cutting off the attached claw foot, eyes, and digestive system.Â The tough outer skin is then peeled away, leaving a filet of white meat.
One interesting side note to today’s conch excursion was the chance to try a local delicacy:Â conch penis.Â That’s right, today I ate my first ever animal penis.Â (Prized as an aphrodisiac, it’s really a shame I’m down here solo.)Â About three inches long, with the approximate thickness of angel hair pasta, it didn’t really taste of anything besides salt. As for texture I’d liken it to a gummy worm.Â How’s that for thinking globally and eating locally?
Sailing around the outer cays of Turks & Caicos was a sublime way to spend the morning today.Â The water is what I call Photoshop Blue:Â the kind of color you tend to see in postcards and don’t believe actually exists.
Due to the tectonic activity in nearby Haiti as well as strong weather fronts crossing the region, I expected the waters to be churning and murky with sand.Â And while the tides are much higher than normal right now, they nevertheless remain crystal clear.Â So clear, in fact, that my captain was able to forage us the freshest possible lunch:Â conch; which made for a killer ceviche that was enjoyed with a couple of beers.
Almost as good was lounging on the powdery stretch of beach.Â Apparently this strip of Fort George Cay didn’t even exist a couple of days ago; it was washed into existence by the tide.Â As a result of that evolving birth, it’s also strewn with starfish, coral and live sand dollars.Â Rinsing the morning’s collection in a bowl of water made me imagine the most interesting kind of bouillabaisse!