The Turks and Caicos Islands: Where Conch is King
Turks and Caicos Islands: Where Conch is King
by David McIntire
After seeing first Jerry do his act, I have to admit to at least a couple of pangs of guilt. In the last five days, we had eaten his cousins at every meal and spent an afternoon driving up his nephews and nieces, so actually coming face to face with Jerry and his better half Sally, certainly had an effect.
That is until I asked our tour guide at The Caicos Conch Farm whether he still eats conch. ‘Yah mon!’ was his incredulous Jamaican-accented response. It was like finding out that Shamu’s trainer eats Orca meat, but I at least started to feel that my moral slate was clean.
Providenciales is the most tourist-focused of the Turks and Caicos Islands, a chain of approximately 40 islands (of which 10 are inhabited) located 575 miles southeast of Miami – south of the Bahamas and north of the island of Hispaniola (the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
‘Provo,’ as it is commonly known, is a combination of tourist-focused resorts, shopping areas, restaurants and dive operators, and a local population who don’t have much to do with the tourists.
Without a downtown or a cruise port, the tourist area is centered on a seven-mile stretch of pristine white beach named Grace Bay. A reef located about a half-mile offshore blocks the waves and any sea debris that could befoul the sugar sand.
I came to Provo with my wife Jenn, and our friends Reg and Carolyn, and after a couple of days of getting acclimated (i.e. sitting on the beach, drinking fruity frozen drinks, and eating resort food) we decide to explore beyond our 100 yards of resort approved beach.
The Way to a Man’s Heart…
In the Caribbean, but especially from the Turks and Caicos up to the Florida Keys and over to the Bahamas where expansive shallow water flats spread from each island, conch is king. Over the first few days of the trip, we ate conch with just about every meal, but usually as an appetizer to the main fish entrée.
The third night, however, that changed. Van (a taxi driver and pastor) picked us up and we headed west on the Leeward Highway through multiple roundabouts to a road that quickly gave up being paved.
The water shows between the palm trees, but there are no resorts in sight. The buildings scattered along the road are the small brightly colored homes and local bar/restaurants that make up much of the Caribbean.
Shortly, Van pulls off the dirt road into a gravel parking lot. In front of us stand three open-air buildings surrounded by picnic tables and palm trees. Da Conch Shack couldn’t be named more literally: they serve conch — lots of it — with few other options. It is made up of three buildings (one open-air shack that houses the restaurant, another which houses the bar, and the nicest outhouse I have ever seen).
All of the benches located under the hurricane shutters of the open-air shacks or scattered among the palm trees have the constant rustle of the light wave break a few feet away.
Set immediately on the beach about 50 feet away, a small skiff is beached and a local fisherman stands at a large cable reel turned on its side, cleaning the fish and conch he has caught that day. A perfect reminder that there are still places that fresh can mean more than being from the produce section of the grocery store.
We claim a couple of picnic benches nestled between the food shack and the beach, order a pitcher of beer and after our waitress reads us the menu, we all order cracked conch, which despite its name is simply small pieces of conch deep fried (a tastier cousin of the fried calamari appetizer found throughout the U.S.).
After devouring everything in sight, the ladies go off to grab souvenir shells from the hundreds scattered around. A few beers later, Van pulls up and we reluctantly head back to our resort, vowing to make at least one return visit before we leave Provo.
Onward Christian’s Soldiers
With our experience at Da Conch Shack fresh in our minds, we decide it is time to go find our own conch. The next afternoon, a small boat from J & B Tours pulls up directly to our beach. With our guide Christian at the helm, we head out into the deep blue sea for a three-hour tour.
After stopping at a reef for the obligatory sight-seeing snorkeling, we head back into the sea grass and muddy sea floor just off the shore of an uninhabited island. This is where our tour differs from the usual snorkeling trip as Christian leads us into the water to look for conch.
The conch live face down interspersed within the grass, with grass growing directly on their shells to help camouflage them from their predators, including us.
Once we finish diving, Christian beaches the boat on a deserted beach and allows us to wander while he makes an impromptu conch salad. He taps a small hole near the tip of the shell and severs the tendon connecting the body of the conch with the shell. Reaching into the opening he pulls out a creature that wouldn’t have been out of place on the spaceship Nostromo with Ridley and the other Aliens.
Using a filet knife, he quickly removes a claw, some small nobs and the tough skin before pulling out a long thin translucent tube (the crystalline style, a protein rod from the conch’s stomach) which he quickly slurps as I would an oyster.
Apparently, this is Provo Viagra.
What is left of the conch meat is an oblong white block. Christian tenderizes and chops the meat, adds some onions and peppers and tosses it in a bowl with lime juice. With a dash of the optional hot sauce, lunch is served. While Da Conch Shack may have been a better meal, sitting on a deserted island eating a fresh conch salad that was sitting on the ocean’s floor 20 minutes ago is hard to top.
A Thirst for Adventure
In addition to conch, there was one other constant companion for us at meal time – beer. While a certain Mexican beer advertises itself as the beer of the islands, I am a big believer of drinking the local beer, wherever I am.
On Provo that beer is Turk’s Head. Made in a small brewery on the island, we discovered it on our second day, and, literally, had it at every meal afterward (breakfast optional). To commemorate we agree we need Turk’s Head t-shirts.
In our rental car, we turn off of Leeward Highway and head back toward a series of industrial parks. Unable to find any street names, we drive back and forth until Jenn suggests a dirt road between several large warehouses.
A quarter mile down, hidden next to Caicos water and behind the empty trailer of a semi we see the small Turk’s Head Brewery sign. Success!! Well, almost… it’s closed.
Back the next day, we open the door to a small, cluttered office; this isn’t the Coors brewery we have toured back in Colorado. The manager explains there is no tour (waving an arm toward the large stainless steel holding tanks visible through a side window he says ‘That is where the magic happens.’ Tour over), but thankfully, they do have several souvenirs available for purchase. A couple of t-shirts and a beer cozy later, we head back outside; mission accomplished.
The University of Providenciales – Marine Agriculture Department
What do you really know about a conch? By the time a conch makes its way into our consciousness it typically has one of two appearances. It is either a small chunk of white, slightly rubbery substance buried in chowder or a crispy shell of fried stuff or it is a large beautiful shell stuck to the side of someone’s head as they try to hear the ocean.
After engulfing conch for four days and even diving up our own, we decide it is time to get smart and visit one of the few conch farms in the world. The Caicos Conch Farm is located at the very eastern tip of Provo. When we arrive mid-afternoon, we walk into the one room visitor center/gift shop and sign up for the tour.
Our tour starts in a back room where our guide uses diagrams to show the conch’s lifecycle and then heads out back. We walk through an enclosed room where the conch start their journeys to our stomachs and we notice that even at only a couple months old and no bigger than a piece of gravel, the unique conch shell is clearly recognizable.
Walking back outside, to our left is the open Gulf. Spread for probably a quarter mile is a series of circular pens. To our right on land, are several more circular pens that vaguely resemble holding ponds at a water treatment plant.
Our guide explains that as the conch mature they are moved from pen to pen until they reach about two years of age when they are put up for sale to places all over the U.S. Few are sold on Provo, as the restaurants here rely on local fishermen diving up wild conch in the surrounding waters.
Because the conch is becoming endangered, however, the farming is becoming increasingly important to sustain the natural fisheries in the face of wider demand for the meat and shells.
As our tour ends, we meet Jerry and Sally, the performing conchs. Living in a small aerated bin (kind of like a conch hot tub), both animals allow their bodies to flop down out of their shells when picked up, as our guide explains how to tell a boy conch from a girl conch (yes, you use the sexual organ).
How they both knew that this unique talent would keep them from the frying pan I don’t know. Maybe there was some sort of Conch Idol contest. After my crisis of conscience, we head back inside to pick up some postcards and leave all of the little farm-raised conch to continue growing so we can meet them again someday at a stateside seafood restaurant.
After days of eating, drinking Turk’s Head, and learning about conch we sit at Hemingway’s (the good restaurant at our hotel) and enjoy our last lunch before heading to the airport.
It is only appropriate that the last meal consist of conch fritters (basically hush puppies with bits of conch in it) and a couple last Turk’s Head lagers.
The Sands at Grace Bay – The summer low season offers discounted rates. Our room was a two-bedroom suite with a full kitchen and large screened porch offering views of the beach and ocean. There is a very good on-site restaurant (Hemingway’s) but this isn’t an all-inclusive club like Sandals or Club Med (both of which have a property on the island).
J&B Tours (conch diving tours)
Da Conch Shack
David McIntire is a freelance writer based in Denver. He is still trying to figure out how he can spend six months in the islands and six months in the mountains every year. If you have any suggestions, email him.