The Rich and Salty History of Turks and Caicos

Forget sweet spots, it's all about salt spots 



They say too much salt isn’t good for you, but “they” clearly haven’t spent much time in the Turks and Caicos. Situated about 885 kilometres southeast of Miami, this British Overseas Territory consists of a collection of 40 islands and cays and boasts vast stretches of undeveloped beaches, crystal-clear waters teeming with colourful marine life, gorgeous resorts and a rich and colourful heritage. 

Of the eight inhabited islands in the Turks and Caicos, Providenciales, or Provo, is by far the most populated. More than half of the islands’ 36,000 residents live on Provo, which also happens to be where the majority of Turks and Caicos’s tourism development has taken place, thanks, in large part, to Grace Bay—a 20-km stretch of exquisite beach that’s shaped like a smile and is repeatedly ranked as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Modern resorts, villas and condos, as well as restaurants, shops, water sports outfitters and tour operators, are all located on, or close by, this dazzling expanse of powdery sand. 


Provo’s beloved Grace Bay, the hub of salt-water sports and laid-back beach vacations

But, long before tourism fuelled the local economy, life in the Turks and Caicos revolved around salt—a precious commodity for providing a little kick in the flavour department and, in the days before refrigerators, for preserving food. Many of the Turks and Caicos islands have naturally shallow ponds where salt water pools and evaporates, leaving copious amounts of crunchy salt behind. When enterprising merchants from nearby Bermuda visited the islands in the late 1600s and realized the commercial potential of this “white gold,” the islands’ salt industry was born. 

“We are here because of salt,” says local David Bowen, who remembers playing on massive salt heaps as a kid. Like the vast majority of the islands’ population, Bowen’s roots are connected to the early slaves who were sent periodically to the mostly uninhabited Turks and Caicos from Bermuda and elsewhere to harvest the salt from the ponds (called salinas). Once the salt was harvested, merchants sold it up the east coast of North America. 

Business was good, and it kept getting better. As the decades passed, more and more workers came to do the brutal work of raking salt—long days toiling ankle-deep in brine under the unrelenting Caribbean sun—and, eventually, they began to stay there all year long. Salt production remained the main industry on the islands—at one point supplying up to a sixth of the salt used in North America—before it finally collapsed in the 1960s due to the islands’ inability to keep up with increased competition and advancing production techniques. 

Today, the islands’ salt industry is all but gone, but the mineral itself has left an indelible mark. From water sports and spa treatments, to heritage tours and the stuff on the lip of your margarita glass, salt is at the heart of some of the best things the Turks and Caicos have to offer.


Swimming with stingrays in Gibbs Cay (off Grand Turk)

Turks and Caicos Fast Facts

Made up of 40 islands and cays, eight of which are inhabited

Total land area: 500 sq. km

Capital: Cockburn Town (on Grand Turk)

Language: English

Currency: U.S. Dollar

Population: 36,000


Trip Tips

Where to Stay: Ocean Club Resorts has two separate properties situated right on Grace Bay Beach in Provo. The original resort, on the east end, offers guests a perfectly framed view of the sunset every evening, while its newer sister resort, Ocean Club West, is close to shops, restaurants and a grocery. 

Tour to Try: Take Big Blue Unlimited’s “Heart of the Islands” eco-tour to North and Middle Caicos to see flocks of flamingos, visit the eerie Conch Bar Caves National Park and taste native cuisine at a local matriarch’s private home. 

Dining Musts: After exploring Salt Cay, tuck into late lunch at Coral Reef Bar & Grille and try a slice of homemade key lime pie for dessert. On Provo, head to Seven, a restaurant at Seven Stars Resort, for fresh seafood dishes like Caicos Rum Butter Lobster and Blue Crab Ravioli.

Getting There: WestJet flies to Providenciales six times a week from Toronto and Montreal.