March 20, 2010 12:04 am

The tranquil Turks and Caicos islands

 
A view of the beach on Parrot Clay at Turks and Caicos Islands

A beach on Parrot Cay in the Turks and Caicos Islands

“If a thought comes into your head, isolate it and let it drift away.” The soothing words of my yoga teacher filled the serene pavilion on the edge of the water in Parrot Cay, a resort in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Unfortunately, I was not able to follow her advice: having flown from New York only a few hours before, my meditation skills were not quite attuned to the peaceful vibe of the Caribbean archipelago.

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But even as I was disobeying the yoga teacher, I was able to savour the surroundings – and the rise in temperature. When my wife and I had boarded the three-hour flight to Providenciales – the dusty island that is the main gateway to the Turks and Caicos – in sub-zero temperatures, I was wearing clothes she had mercilessly described as “ridiculous” (a long coat hiding light trousers and summer shoes).

The 40-minute boat ride between Providenciales and Parrot Cay – a 1,000-acre sandbar – gave us views of the islands’ primary attraction: their turquoise waters. The sea surrounding the Turks and Caicos has a hypnotic beauty I had not found in other “beach paradises” in Thailand, Indonesia or even the Cook Islands. As I stared at the transparent water, engaging in a kind of “dry snorkelling”, I could not wait to shed my city clothes and dive in.

Thankfully, the Parrot Cay Resort is inches away from a pristine beach of fine white sand. And, just in case the salt water got a bit too much for us, the three-bedroom villa we were staying in had a heated pool large enough for 10 people.

The islands’ turbulent history – from pirates’ hideout to French, Spanish and, finally, British colony – has left few visible traces. And, according to the official tourist website, “the islands’ history over the past five decades has been quiet, though there was much excitement when astronaut John Glenn landed down just off Grand Turk in 1962”. The main feature of the archipelago, it seemed to me, is that it is virtually featureless.

Visitors to the TCI – as the locals call the Turks and Caicos – are “condemned” to relax, their urge to leave the islands’ many resorts offset by the lack of exciting alternatives. Escapees from busy lifestyles will appreciate a destination that does not tempt the tourist with much more than water and sun.

In Parrot Cay, leaving the hotel is physically impossible. The resort, run by the Singapore-based group Como Shambhala, has many Balinese stuff, and the place exudes an air of serene efficiency. Every whim is catered for. I enjoyed being ferried around by our “personal assistant” (the word butler is now firmly in the realm of the politically-incorrect) as we scooted between complimentary yoga and pilates classes, meals and the beach.

But don’t take my word for it. Ask Donna Karan, Bruce Willis, Keith Richards (whom I spotted drinking at the bar) and the other celebrities who have built sumptuous villas alongside – but at a safe distance from – the resort.

Following in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt III, grandson of the former US president, and scions of the Du Pont family who started vacationing on the islands in the 1960s, modern-day celebrities have turned Parrot Cay into a private playground. Close enough to the US but away from the paparazzi, the owners visit their expansive villas a few weeks a year and let them out at other times.

Karan’s stunning abode, which I visited, is a complex of villas with huge windows overlooking the ocean, filled with splendid wooden tables carved out of gigantic trunks, huge pieces of African art picked out by the designer on her travels, and cathedral-like ceilings.

Those who crave access to this lifestyle all year round will be pleased to know they can buy a villa on the Cay, providing they have $10m or so to spare. The rest of us have to make do with the resort, its two restaurants, and the dreamy massages (shambhala in Sanskrit means “sacred place of bliss”, and the spa attendants know it).

A few days into the holiday and time appeared to have slowed down: the frantic New York minute gave way to long, lazy Caribbean days. Just as we prepared to move to our second resort, we heard reports that the US East Coast was succumbing to a late-winter storm. Our Blackberrys filled up with e-mails from colleagues unable to make it to work because their suburban driveways had been clogged with snow. We lay on our loungers in the sunshine and thanked the Caribbean gods.

Our most taxing challenge was to compare Parrot Cay with our second resort, Amanyara, run by the Asian hotel group Aman resorts. Perched between a secluded beach and a rocky point at one end of Providenciales, the hotel has no rooms, only pavilions and villas. The former are airy assemblages of steel, wood and glass overlooking either the Caribbean Sea or tranquil ponds, while the larger villas are made up of several pavilions clustered around a pool and a huge, temple-like central hall for meals and relaxing.

The villas come with their own private chef and housekeeper, whose knack for appearing out of nowhere when you most need another drink or some freshly cut fruit is almost magical. An Asian sensibility, enhanced by the sleek architecture of the common areas and the sculptural, black-slated pool, permeates the resort. It is easy to forget one is in the West Indies.

Aman has a striking, if slightly sterile, design, while Parrot Cay might appeal to those who appreciate more homely luxury accommodation. The service at both hotels was superb.

Even in my new state of bliss, I was disappointed by Aman’s decision to offer just one restaurant to its guests: the resort is relatively far from the rest of the island and the only other dining option is only open one night a week. The in-villa menu, while good, is limited.

But as my personal assistant was packing my suitcase (I know, I know), I thought that, maybe, the lack of food choices was a clever move by Aman – a way of ensuring its city-dwelling guests would not feel heartbroken to be returning home. I had missed the spicy Sichuan noodles in my local Chinese restaurant in the West Village. That was the one consoling thought as we headed back to Providenciales airport.

Francesco Guerrera is the FT’s US business editor

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Details

Francesco Guerrera was a guest of Parrot Cay Resort & Spa and Amanyara resort. Rooms at Parrot Cay are priced from $696 per room per night (B&B, including airport transfers). One-bed beach houses start at $2,481 per night. www.parrotcay.como.bz

A pavilion at Amanyara starts at $1,200 per night. The price includes return airport transfers, all telephone calls, private bar (except spirits) and snorkel trips. Stay in a pavilion or villa for four consecutive nights and enjoy complimentary daily breakfast and dinner for two (excluding beverages) from April 12 to October 31 2010. www.amanresorts.com , +1 800 477 9180

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