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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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March 2003 Vol. 29, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Providenciales, Turks, and Caicos

great for a quick trip

from the March, 2003 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

There's a moment every year when the weather turns foul and the urge strikes to head quickly to any easy-to-reach dive destination. With Providenciales convenient (just over an hour flight from Miami), the diving good, and plenty of off-season bargains thanks to few travelers between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision and headed south. As I learned, a dearth of divers can be a double-edged sword.

Among the resorts populating the 12-mile stretch of beautiful beach, the new Sands at Grace Bay offered better Internet rates than its neighbors for comparable ocean view rooms. It's wedged between the all-inclusive (if not intrusive) Allegro Resort and the family-friendly Beaches. You can almost smell the freshness of the pastel paint on the six buildings, each decorated in that nouveau colonial motif sweeping Grace Bay development. From the 118 "suites," I opted for a studio suite with a "full kitchenette."

After being picked up at the airport and greeted with a frozen daiquiri at check-in, they showed me to my ground-level room. While spacious and impeccably clean, the "ocean view" from my private screened patio didn't extend beyond the nearby pool, though the beach was just a minute walk. The "full" kitchenette was a microwave oven. Providenciales, Turks, and CaicosThere's a well-stocked miniature market on the property, and the resort will take you to and from IGA for $5 round trip, or a jitney will drop you off and pick you up anywhere for $8-$10.

With no dive reservations, I considered help from the "Tour Desk"(where I could get free hobies, kayaks, masks/snorkels, clean beach towels), but I started cold-calling, only to learn many folks weren't even answering the phone, including Art Pickering's Provo Turtle Divers at the nearby Turtle Cove Marina. So I checked in on The Sharkbite at the Marina for a conch burger and fries for $7, where I hung out until someone finally showed up at Provo Turtle -- Pickering, himself, pulled up from a fishing trip. He seemed almost bothered to arrange for my $90 twotank trip, but obliged me nonetheless.

The next morning, after a short ride to the marina, the dive guide Morgan, a fetching 26-year-old Canadian who grew up mostly on Provo, offered a warm hello. A retired couple now living on Provo were the only other divers on Chuck's Other Honey, a 26-foot, single-engine veteran vessel. As I set up my gear, I heard a dreaded hiss from my high-pressure hose. Having tossed this trip together at the last minute, I failed to check my gear and the hose was frayed. I jumped off the boat to rent a regulator and a BCD (Provo Turtle Divers didn't have a replacement for the hose), but afterward Aussie captain Piers said I didn't anticipate the malfunction, so he didn't charge me (nice guy, since he damn well knew I could have prevented it).

After a 40-minute ride to Northwest Point, Piers (pronounced Pearce) gave us a laid back briefing -- then I stepped in, dropping next to a bold 3-foot barracuda with the scowl of a nightclub bouncer. I spotted a Caribbean stingray on a sandy break on the way over the wall to 95 feet. Bushy and feather black corals swayed in the gentle current alongside sea whips and red branching sponges crawling with brittle stars. Black durgon cruised around barrel sponges. Yellowtail and blackfin snappers ventured over to investigate me, and in the distance two reef sharks scampered into the great blue. In the shallows, reef fish were plentiful, and I extended the dive to 55 minutes before heading to the hang-bar at 15 feet, where the sentry barracuda still lingered. I handed my fins up to Piers and lumbered on board after taking care of a little business -- better tended to in the water than on a small boat with no head, I always say.

After 45 minutes topside, we shuttled to Chimney, with many of the same features as the first dive. I scoured the small spaces between brightly colored yellow and orange encrusting sponges looking for hidden treasures, finding mostly hefty lobsters the length of my forearm betrayed by waving antennae. Among the brain coral, a spotted trunkfish hovered. Water was a comfortable 81oF, and the visibility, 60 feet. With a vibrant reef, plenty of the standard tropicals, and so few divers, it was practically a private outing. Afterward, I ambled up to the Tiki Hut for a spicy conch salad in the warm afternoon breeze and watched a Miami-Buffalo football game in a blizzard.

That evening I tried Aqua, down the dock a piece, but beside the check ($12 for a spiced chicken wrap and a beer) my meal cost me a day and half of diving. I spent the next 36 hours purging whatever strain of food poisoning I had picked up, eventually emerging from my room eager to get wet again. The tour desk at The Sands tried finding an afternoon dive at Dive Provo, Flamingo Divers, and Big Blue Adventures, but no luck. There weren't enough divers on the island to justify firing up. I called Fifi at Caicos Adventures and got a seat on his boat the next morning.

Running on island time, Fifi picked me up 30 minutes late with his ebullient south-of-France energy oozing out the bus door as it swung open. The Caicos Cat, a 43- foot twin-engine catamaran, was docked on the south side, and she was bustling with activity, because as readers of Undercurrent know, he is the dive operator of choice for divers in the know. While his craft can fit 20 divers comfortably, we had 14 plus Fifi and divemaster Aisa. As Fifi briefed us (while picking up sunflower seed shells from the deck and holding them aloft with a wry "I want names!"), he explained that we were going to be on TV. A pair of French ex-pats was along to film for a Francophile satellite network. As we pulled out of the marina -- looking cheery of course -- the cameras rolled. But then we had to return to the dock to pick up the camera operator, which added 30 minutes to the trip.

The Cat got us to Tons of Sponges, where I joined Fifi's group on a sandy bottom crawling with conch. A spotted eagle ray big enough to take me on a magic carpet ride soared away, sensing the impending rumble of bubble breathers. A hawksbill turtle joined us for several minutes. There were barrel sponges that even the biggest grouper could comfortably lounge in and still accommodate the rainbow parrotfish roaming the reef. I had stopped to admire a French angelfish scanning the outcropping that was teeming with countless energized wrasses, when I saw an epic battle unfolding between a hapless octopus and a hulking grouper. It was unbridled violence; a speed-of-light fight to the death. It was awesome. And then suddenly, in a blinding flash of black, the octopus unloaded its defense system and disappeared. The grouper gobbled his souvenir leg and sauntered away. Indeed, one hell of a match up.

Soon someone hit 1,500 psi, and it was time to head back. When I noticed that I still had 2,200 psi left on my back, I wasn't too pleased. Along the way, I found a small spotted moray slithering through a labyrinth of rough star and cactus coral, grunts, a puffer, and more angel fish as I penetrated valleys between sprawling coral heads along the shallowing bottom. Under the boat I still had 1,400 psi, so Fifi signaled me to join him on the continuing video shoot. We were rewarded with two 5-foot blacktips that aproached and then veered away. I eventually heaved my happy self onto the boat where the Cat was already abuzz with stories from our time below.

After an hour of drying out and half an IGA sandwich courtesy of Caicos Adventures, we grabbed a buoy at Melissa's Cove. I dove with Aisa and stayed relatively shallow as dictated by the site. It's essentially a large sandbar channel with a slopping wall. The visibility was at least 100 feet, but the reef was quiet. Maybe it just felt that way after so many feature creatures on the first dive. The only unusual sight was small schools of darting horse eye jacks. We finally got back to the marina well after 3:00 p.m. I wasn't back in my room until after 4:00 p.m., a long day for only two tanks and half a sandwich.

The Sands doesn't offer the immediate access to several restaurants that Turtle Cove does, but Hemingway's -- on the resort's beach -- offers fine eats at palatable prices. I had plaintain-encrusted mahi mahi after a conch salad and a Turk's Head for $27. The water practically licks your feet as you dine under swaying palms. Another evening I strolled 10 minutes to the Allegro to see the casino (don't even try to go beyond the casino door or you may be abruptly approached after several minutes in the lobby by a security detail who will semi-politely inform you that they have been following you "all night" and you need to leave) and dine across the street at Bella Cuba in Grace Bay Plaza. I was the only patron in the open-air Caribbean-style joint. It's overlit, but the fare is bountiful, tasty, and reasonably priced. A mildly curried snapper over rice, fried plaintains, fresh avocado, and steamed veggies go for $13 including service. That leaves spare change for an uplifting mojito -- the cheapest drink on the menu.

I decided to log a few nights at the Turtle Cove Inn, which sits in the heart of the marina flanked on either side by restaurants and bars, all with reasonably priced fare. Acqua, the on-site bar/restaurant, has its cast of regulars who come nightly, none of whom appeared to have been afflicted by the food poisoning I contracted. From my second-floor balcony I watched boats move in and out and people stroll between the Shark Bite on one end of the boardwalk and the Tiki Hut on the other. (The money view is actually from the bar at the Miramar, a two-minute walk up some stone steps from the marina.) Saturday night is karaoke night at the Banana Boat where locals and tourists alike croon away.

The Inn also has the only liquor store around where you can stock your mini fridge with water, OJ, and rum. The rooms are serviceable, kept clean, noisily airconditioned, and have cable TV which you can surf with the remote you get at the check- in desk. Lose the remote and you pay an extra $25. There's also a pool, which is the only dip you can take unless you want to take the 10-minute walk out around the entire marina to the sea, where there's virtually no one on the beach.

All in all, Provo diving -- if you go to the right areas and not Grace Bay -- is good Caribbean diving, perfect for a quick getaway. There are plenty of reefs, most similar to what I've described here, so in a week you're unlikely to return to the same spot twice, though many spots are worth a second visit. If you take a quick trip, plan in advance. As my experience shows, these operators are bound by their own economic rules. Just because you are spending a few hundred bucks for a vacation doesn't mean they have to fire up their boats, and Fifi's popularity and have-fun attitude at times fills up his boat, even in the off season.

- J.J.

Diver's Compass: Art Pickering's Provo Turtle Divers: Tel 1-649/946-4232, Fax 1-649/941-5296 or 1-800/833-1341, and on the web at ... Philipe "Fifi" Kunz's Caicos Adventures: Phone-Fax 1-649/941-3346 and on the web at ... Both offer comparable seven-night hotel dive packages on their websites, ranging from $800-$1300, depending on property and season ... Refer to the Chapbook for other excellent operators.

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