New Year's in Turks and Caicos

Is it too late to talk about New Year's? Oh well. It has taken me some time to get this post together (thanks stomach bug).

Anyway...

One week after my friends and I put down a deposit on a place in Orient Bay, St Martin (SXM), Hurricane Irma hit. 

 

I was crushed--and not just for myself. SXM is a special place and it has been awful to know that the people there are suffering as they work to rebuild. Last year, two friends and I spent a full week on SXM and it was such a relaxing trip. I came back relaxed, a little tan and ready to start a new year.

 

While our rental was apparently fine, the real estate agency admitted that the surrounding area had been devastated with restaurants leveled and supply deliveries slowed.

My friends and I struggled to agree on a new destination. Flights were expensive, just about everywhere, as were accommodations. Our plans fell apart.

And then one of my terrific friends, Christy, made a suggestion: Turks & Caicos (TCI). She had gone there on her honeymoon, and was under the impression that their hurricane damage was minimal. Soon after, I searched flights, found one for $350 and talked to my friends. Ultimately three of us-Adrienne, Christine and me-went to TCI for five nights--that is until stormy weather in NYC added a sixth night for two of us.

Here are some tips if you are thinking of visiting Turks & Caicos.

 

Accommodations

We stayed at La Vista Azul and which was my fault. When we were ready to book in November, AirBNB options were thoroughly depleted, and hotels were either pretty cheap or exorbitantly expensive (like $2000-$10000 per night). Because only two of us were confirmed to travel at this point, I recommended that we book the conservative option: $1575 for five nights.

While the hotel was fine-ish, the location was not ideal and we spent a lot of money on taxis (more on that later) before renting a car for two days. Vista Azul is in Turtle Cove and Grace Bay is really where you want to stay. Additionally Vista Azul is most definitely not a resort-style experience. The two rooftop pools are small and mostly shaded each afternoon. 

Our other conservative option, Ports of Call, was about $2200 for the same time period. It's the same approximate class as Vista Azul, but the Grace Bay location is so much better. You can walk to the beach, grocery store, shops, etc. Our only walkable option was Naughty Gull which was cute and convenient if pricey (an extra shot of espresso in your latte? That will be $4.).

If the price is right, stay at Grace Bay Club, Sands (where Adrienne and I stayed when our flights home were canceled), Villa Renaissance or pretty much anywhere in that strip.

Beaches

They're beautiful, pure and simple. Because we weren't staying at a beachfront Grace Bay property, it was a little awkward figuring out how to stage the perfect beach day: chairs, umbrellas, food and drink.

In Orient Bay, SXM, most of the accommodations aren't beachfront so everyone rents chairs and umbrellas from the little beach bars and restaurants. Then you order food and drink from their servers at your leisure, and you get access to their restrooms and wifi. It's a great set-up.

Grace Bay beaches all have public access, which is wonderful, but the various resorts didn't seem to know what to do when we asked if we could use or rent their chairs and umbrellas. Ultimately it worked out but no one tried to sell us food or drink. Missed opportunity!

There are, of course, lots of beaches beyond Grace Bay but our schedule of excursions didn't allow for a ton of exploration. Next time!

Activities

Adrienne and Christine hit a home run booking our excursions. They were terrific! We did a sunset horseback ride on the Blue Hills Beach through Unique Tours. It was a lot of fun. We also took Island Vibes' full-day BBQ tour on a catamaran. Our captains, Dondre and Big Mike were terrific. 

We visited uninhabited beaches and saw how conch is harvested. We also saw the abandoned Mandarin Oriental property. Wild!

 

Transportation

Taxis are expensive in TCI. When three of us traveled together, the trip from our hotel three miles to Grace Bay for time at the beach or dinner would run $10 per person. Given that rental cars can be found on Priceline et al for ~$40 per day, a rental car is a good investment, particularly if you're not staying in Grace Bay or if you want to explore more. My friends had a pretty easy time driving on the other side of the road--there isn't much traffic on TCI.

Rental cars in the Caribbean tend to be beaters so between that and the insurance you get through any travel-focused credit card, buying the car company's insurance isn't a must.

 

Food and Drink

TCI is a good Caribbean destination for dining, but I kept comparing them to the restaurants of SXM, which were largely more budget friendly for the same quality. TCI highlights included Coyaba and Coco Bistro.

On New Year's Eve, we started the night at Infiniti before moving on to Ricky's Flamingo Cafe. Ricky's ended up being a highlight between the bonfire, the fireworks and the opportunity to meet locals. Don't miss it.

 

Something to keep in mind: a lot of TCI spots do NOT engage in continuous service a la restaurants in the US. Additionally, bars where tourists tend to go often close down earlier than we're used to. If you want a late night, befriend a local!

The Verdict

Would I go back to TCI? While my heart is still in St. Martin, until the island is truly ready for visitors, I will absolutely make plans to return to Turks & Caicos.

At least 2016 ended well!

 

When my friend, also named Jennifer, asked if I'd be interested in returning to beautiful St Martin, I practically shouted "YES!"

Four of us vacationed there in July and it was wonderful. SXM is a beautiful island that is easy to get to from NYC.

After everything, it felt like a good time to treat myself.

I was thrilled to spend the last days of 2016 in paradise - and the first days of 2017 too.

For this trip, I went for seven decadent nights and it made such a difference. I felt the most relaxed that I have in months. And when I came back to NYC, I honestly felt more or less normal, something that I didn't always feel after the surgery.

 


A few of you asked for tips on travel to St. Martin so here they are!

The first decision you'll likely face is where to stay. Before you decide Dutch side versus French, think hotel versus house or apartment. The island is small enough that you'll almost certainly spend time experiencing both Dutch Sint Maarten and French St. Martin.

Image via sintmaartenvacation.com

Image via sintmaartenvacation.com

Where To Stay

For both SXM vacations, my friends and I stayed in apartments in Orient Bay (Baie Orientale). For the New Year's trip, we rented a two-bedroom duplex from Sprimbarth, a real estate agency we found on TripAdvisor and had a great experience. 

Apartments have been a great choice for us: more space, the ability to cook a bit (if desired) and better economics. 

If hotels are more your speed, there are many options. The Westin Dawn Beach has gorgeous grounds and, I assume, rooms. Incidentally, the property also has apartments for rent, however because they only allow Saturday-Saturday stays (no exceptions!) we looked elsewhere. While I haven't visited this luxe hotel, I have heard great things.

What to Do

We were seeking R&R more so than adventure. We read (I loved this book), swam, sunned, napped and drank a lot of rosé.

After a few days lounging on our gorgeous "home" beach, we did spend a day on Mullet Bay Beach and really enjoyed the change of scene. Mullet Bay featured bigger waves, a population that included lots of locals and proximity to landing airplanes which made for fun photos. 

 

We took a wrong turn on our way to Mullet Bay but it came with the reward of finding this tiny beach.

While St. Martin has plenty to do, we opted to make a day trip to St Barths. Same-day ferries between St. Martin and St. Barths are NOT available every day so it pays to plan ahead (thanks for that, JG!).

I am someone who has always enjoyed being on the water, HOWEVER the sea was very rough on the fourty-five minute sail. All three of us felt...not good. There's funny video from the trip on my YouTube SXM playlist.

One other thing you should know if you visit St. Barths during the high season: cabs can be very difficult to find. Smart vacationers hire taxi drivers for the duration of their stay during the holidays. As such, when it was time to leave Eden Roc for the ferry terminal, we couldn't find an available taxi.

So we hitchhiked. Sorry Mom!

Our savior, a lovely French woman, spoke no English and collectively we speak maybe thirty words of French. But we managed.

Where We Ate

St. Martin likes to think of itself as the culinary capital of the Caribbean. And it's definitely a contender. Our favorites included La Table d'Antoine (Orient Bay), Le Piment (also Orient Bay), and Bistrot Caraibes. We enjoyed dinner at Coco Beach on New Year's Eve.

In the morning, we sampled pastries throughout Orient Bay, and I tried in vain to find a Starbucks-style iced latte. Oh well...no place is perfect.