The Turks and Caicos Islands are overseas territories of the United Kingdom. Grand Turk is an island in the country of Turks & Caicos Islands and is located in the West Indies, north of Hispaniola between the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. It is considered part of the Lucayan Archipelago.
Turks and Caicos is made up of two groups of islands, the Turks Islands and the Caicos Islands. The Turks Islands are mainly Grand Turk and Salt Cay. The Caicos Islands are separated from Turks Islands by the 20-mile wide Turks Island Passage.
Considered the historical center of Turks and Caicos, the island of Grand Turk is the second most populated island in the country and is home to the capital city, Cockburn Town. (pronounced Co-burn)
There is some question as to whether Christopher Columbus made a stop on Grand Turk. He described a “bean-shaped” island with central ponds and dense red mangrove forests. If Columbus was on the island, he apparently moved on and left the occupants in peace. The Turks & Caicos remained largely uninhabited for about a century after the decline of the Tainos population that had lived there.
In the 1600s, British colonialists saw the potential of the ponds on the island and sea salt production began. The 1900s was the peak of the island's sea salt production, and Grand Turk was the base of export. The sea salt production eventually faltered because of the inefficiencies of the small scale production.
Still a point of pride today, Grand Turk was the spot where astronaut John Glenn first stepped on dry land he had orbited the earth in 1962. His capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean east of the Turks & Caicos. After being picked up by the American destroyer USS Noa, John Glenn was taken to Grand Turk and spent a few days recuperating. There is a 3,500 square foot attraction that celebrates the splashdown with murals, monuments and information on the space program in general and the Friendship 7 mission in particular. Outside the Jacs McCartney International Airport, they have a full-size replica of the Friendship 7 capsule.
Today, tourism is the primary source of income in Grand Turk. This small island is laid back and unhurried. It is not unusual to see wild donkeys strolling along the beach or in town. If you want to explore on your own, Grand Turk has 350 days of sun a year and is home to one of the world’s largest reef systems. Diving is one of the biggest draws to the island. Most stops in Grand Turk are about 5-7 hours, so it is not feasible to see any of the other main islands when you are visiting by cruise ship, so plan accordingly.
Check out these excursions in Grand Turk.
Where You Dock in Grand Turk – Turks & Caicos
The main event in Grand Turk is the Grand Turk Cruise Center built by Carnival Cruise Lines for its passengers. Situated on the southernmost part of the island, it is a 13-acre complex that has everything you want, as long as everything you want is the typical amenities found in a cruise line constructed park – beach, pool, Margaritaville, FlowRider, duty free shops.
The pier walk from the docked ship to the cruise center is about 400 feet.
The Turks & Caicos Tourist Board has a manned information kiosk located near the tour and taxi departure area. Below is a map of the facility:
If you want to venture outside of the cruise center, and get an idea of what Turks and Caicos is really about, it’s about 3 miles to the historic downtown, but the tourism board advises to not walk, but take transportation instead.
Getting Around Grand Turk – Turks & Caicos
Don’t plan on walking to town, and this comes from the tourism board. It is not advised as it is about 3 miles, it is a very hot walk and there are no sidewalks.
The bus stops that you see around the island are areas where students grab a shuttle. There is no public bus system.
Island Trams Limited has a fleet of open trams that offers tours of Grand Turk Island. Each tour is about two hours. On the tram tour you will see the cruise center, Cockburn Town, West Road Market, the Lighthouse and Sugar Beach Club. The tours have a guide that will give you a history and information about each site you visit. The cost is about $25. The schedule and number of trams can be somewhat erratic, so if you miss one tour, it might be two hours before the next one comes along.
The taxis in Grand Turk are not metered and taxi fares are set in advance. However, even their tourism board says that these statutory fares may not always be adhered to. Confirm your trip and price with your taxi driver before departing the port. Taxis are located at the Grand Turk Cruise Center.
Rental Cars And More
There is a car rental service – Island Auto Rental – in the Grand Turk Cruise Center. It is located near the tour and taxi departure area. You can also rent jeeps, golf carts, scooters, 4 X 4 buggies and ATV’s. There is very little off-road driving on Grand Turk, so take that into consideration when making your choice.
Do not drive on the beach or wetland areas. This causes damage to these environments.
You will need to have a valid photo driver’s license and a major credit card. You must be 21 years of age. The minimum age to rent a golf cart is 18. The car service may also require a 50% deposit. Be aware that donkeys, ponies and cattle roam free on the island. Many of the narrow roads in Cockburn town are one way.
Driving is on the left hand side of the road. Seat belts are mandatory and the maximum speed limit is 40 mph on the island.
Here are two rental car services on Grand Turk:
Tony’s Car Rental (cars, scooters, snorkeling gear)
Sunshine Auto Rental +1 649-348-0387
Shopping In Grand Turk – Turks & Caicos
The shopping opportunities in Cockburn Town are limited. The stores there are geared mainly to those who live on Grand Turk. There is Gibbs Variety Store, Quality Food Mart and Been’s Variety Store. Cee’s Grocery is the one most of the islanders use for everyday needs.
The largest shopping area is located in the cruise center. It is a 45,000 square foot shopping center. Within this center is also a duty-free shop.
The merchants in the cruise center include:
- Colombian Emeralds
- Effy Jewelers
- Goodmark Jewelers
- Ron Jon Surf Shop
- Diamonds International
- Piranaha Joes
- Dizzy Donkey
- Silver Emporium
- Del Sol
- Tanzanite International
- Joelle & Jake (Life is Good)
- Indigo Pearls
- Margaritaville’s The Trading Post (pictured below)
Dining In Grand Turk – Turks & Caicos
According to their own guide, Grand Turk Restaurants and Dining offers a limited yet interesting selection of restaurants. When a cruise ship is not in port, these restaurants are not open.
Because the main visitors to the island are cruise ship passengers there for a few hours, lunch is the main focus for restaurants. If you will be in port at dinner time, it is best to call ahead and make reservations.
Most of the restaurants in Cockburn are located on Duke Street.
Jack’s Shack Grand Turk: In the Cruise Center
This island cuisine uses Jamaican and local spices. Some secret family recipes make their signature Jerk chicken a favorite. Also on the menu is local fish, burgers, cracked conch, hot dogs, conch fritters, french fries and peas and rice. When available they have grouper and lobster. It’s a popular spot, so get there early after you dock!
Margaritaville: In the Cruise Center
This is the one and the same Jimmy Buffett’s trademark restaurant. It is also the main restaurant at the cruise center. There is a restaurant, bar and tourist shop all in one spot. The menu is American favorites with a Caribbean and Mexican slant. You will find burgers, sandwiches, seafood, jerk fish and chicken, nachos and the chef’s special “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
Turks Head Inne: Duke Street, Cockburn Town
This hotel has an on-site restaurant that offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. Coconut French toast, or an omelet are good options. Fresh caught fish dominates the menu for lunch and dinner. They also have salads, sandwiches, chicken wrap, conch bites and a fusion burger.
Sandbar Restaurant – Manta House: Duke Street, Cockburn Town
Right on the water just a few steps from Manta House, this beach bar is open for lunch and dinner Sunday through Friday. On the menu (when in season) is fresh caught grouper, lobster, conch, wahoo and mahi mahi. The Sand Bar also offers burgers, shrimp quesadillas, chicken and ribs and peas and rice.
Osprey Beach Hotel: Duke Street, Cockburn Town
The Osprey Beach Hotel has a restaurant that offers poolside dining for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all with a fantastic view of the ocean. The menu changes daily but offers fresh fish as well as steaks, lamb, chicken, pasta and local dishes and salads. The Birdcage Bar has beer and cocktails.
The Salt Raker Inn: Duke Street, Cockburn Town Cockburn
Tucked into a courtyard behind the Salt Raker Inn is the Secret Garden restaurant. Here you will find simply prepared local dishes like grilled grouper, snapper, conch and (when in season) lobster. They also have burgers and fish and chips and ice-cold beer.
Things To Do in Grand Turk – Turks & Caicos
There is no charge to use the facilities (the pool, beach and loungers) at the Grand Turk Cruise Center. Snorkel Equipment, beach floats and shade “clam shells” can be rented at the Beach Rental Hut on the beach. Private air-conditioned pool cabanas are also available for rent through your cruise line.
If you want to do some of the excursions at the Grand Turk Cruise Center, those need to be purchased through your cruise line. They can’t be purchased any other way.
If you want to go further afield of the cruise port and see what life in Grand Turk is really like, here are some things to see and do:
Visit Cockburn Town
A taxi ride away, this is the capital and seat of government for Turks and Caicos. It is a small coastal settlement on the western side of Grand Turk. It is also the oldest permanent settlement in the country, dating back to when sea salt producers from Bermuda settled there. The architecture is influenced by the British Colonial Bermudian style. While the town is not extensive, it follows the coastline for about a mile, it is still an interesting place to see. Most of the island’s restaurants are on Duke Street in Cockburn.
Grand Turk Lighthouse
The most famous landmark in the Turks and Caicos is the Grand Turk Lighthouse. The only lighthouse in the country, it was prefabricated in England and brought to the island and assembled in 1852. The lighthouse was erected because so many ships in the early 19th century were wrecking off the northern coast of Grand Turk. While you are not allowed into the lighthouse, the grounds are open. There is also a small snack and gift shop in the house that had been the light-keeper’s residence. There is a scenic coastal path that leads along the top of the marine limestone cliffs of the coastline.
The museum is open on cruise ship days, and open times are based on the ships arrival and departure times. Small, but fascinating, this is the country’s only museum and is located on Front Street in Cockburn Town.
The main exhibit is the Molasses Reef Wreck. This is the oldest European shipwreck excavated in the western hemisphere. Likely made in either Spain or Portugal, this caravel (a light sailing ship used for long voyages) wrecked on the barrier reef at the edges of the Caicos Banks south of Providenciales.
You will also learn about the indigenous people of Turks and Caicos, the Tainos, also known as the Lucayans. You will also see old Spanish coins, postage stamps, historical flags, primitive diving and wreck salvaging equipment and more.
Head To The Beach
With the exception of the cruise center beach and Boaby Rock Point, you will need to take a taxi or rent a car to get to the beaches on Grand Turk.
When at any of the beaches on Grand Turk do not:
- Touch fish or coral
- No fishing
- No lifeguards
- No littering
- No open fires
Cruise Center Beach (also known as SunRay Beach)
This beach fronts Grand Turk’s cruise port. There can be large crowds when a ship is in port as it is just steps away. The water in this area is almost always calm and clear.
Boaby Rock Point
Located at the southernmost point of Grand Turk, this secluded beach is within walking distance (⅓ of a mile) of the cruise port. The white sand is interspersed with low rocky outcroppings. There is also good snorkeling here where there are two mid-sized reef systems in shallow water that extend out about 300 feet. Just know that this is not going to be a “pretty” beach because the ocean topography and waves bring up flotsam and seaweed. It also means that you will have much less competition exploring the sands and under the waters.
Between the cruise center and Cockburn Town, this is considered the best beach on Grand Turk. The area is sheltered from the typical east southeast trade winds.
Usually calm, this is not an ideal snorkeling spot, but good for swimming with beautiful views and fewer people than the cruise center beach.
Cockburn Town Beach
This beach is interspersed between jetties and seawalls, so it is a series of small beaches. There can be a bit of surf here when the ocean swell is high. But typically it is calm and easily accessed, just find a spot that suits you. This is not the best sport for snorkeling, though.
There are several other beaches on Grand Turk:
White Sands Beach
East Side Beach
These beaches are either difficult to get to, have rocky beaches or do not offer the best swimming conditions. Some are covered in dense seaweed that makes even a stroll on the beach less than desirable.
Top Tours & Excursions In Grand Turk – Turks & Caicos
Take a short boat ride to Gibbs Cay, a beautiful uninhabited island, then snorkel and swim with stingrays in its shallow waters and after lounge on the white sandy beach. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can take a hike to the top of mountain for some amazing views. ...
- Duration: 1.5 hours
- Activity Level: Moderate
Avoid the crowds at this small, secluded beach resort. You will be welcomed with a rum punch, pointed to your beach chair where you can relax the day in the white sand and then enjoy a seafood lunch (included)....
- Duration: 2 hours minimum
- Activity Level: Easy
On this small group tour, your knowledgeable guide will show you all the sites of interest in and around Grand Turk such as the US Air Force Base, the Lighthouse, Salt House, among others. ...
- Duration: 1.5 hours
- Activity Level: Low