When Spanish sea captain Juan de Bermudez first set foot on the shore of Bermuda so named after him, little did he know the repercussions of his discovery and how it would influence and set in motion the future economy and lifestyle of the Turks and Caicos Islands some 740 miles away..
The early pioneers of Bermuda were excited to cultivate the land as tobacco plantations to meet the demand of British merchants that sold the highly prized tobacco as a medicinal cure for almost every ailment. Books were written on the magical properties of tobacco and throughout the 1600s it was so popular in Europe that tobacco was synonymous with money as a trading mechanism.
Unable to compete with the North American that could cultivate tobacco more cheaply, the settlers and adventurers turned their attention to the Turks islands where they saw a great opportunity to harvest salt which formed naturally in the many shallow Salinas on the island of Grand Turk and the adjacent island of Salt Cay.
And so it was that the pioneers along with their established boat building skills, excess slaves, will and determination settled the Turks Islands in their quest to capture the salt market and become rich by supplying the world with ‘white’ gold.
Despite the many ferocious hurricanes, invasions, wars and plagues the settlers persevered in this quest for over three hundred years building a rich and colorful culture. A culture that bonded the mixed races through elaborate storytelling, days salt raking in the ponds, building sloops, drinking bush tea and practicing bush medicine all inspired by the old negro slaves captured from the shores of Africa and beyond.
Music and dance was an integral part of daily life. The players would use every day objects to strike up a cacophony of sounds that later became known as the Turks and Caicos ‘ribsaw’ music.
In fact the main instrument of the ‘rib saw’ band was and still is a common hand held carpenter’s saw, stroked across the serrated teeth with a metal object creating an unusual melody in harmony with the syncopated beat of the “rim,” a simple drum made from stretched cowhide.
Accompanied by shakers and whistles and anything else that would produce sound, the men would often serenade the ladies providing entertainment and a much needed distraction from the sometimes hostile and harsh environment, overseers and salt merchants that kept rigid time.
Bermudan style salt merchant homes were built in the early 1800s. The salt was stored in vast basements for protection from the rains and the white merchants lived on the second floor with many windows that would catch the breeze from the constant trade winds, providing respite from the midday sun.
From the wide East verandas the merchants would look out over the vast Salinas and watch the raker’s gather salt, shovel it on the mule and cart and move the heavy load along the ‘pickle’ packed roads to the salt houses and wharfs.
From the West veranda the ladies would sit with their crochet, reading Longfellow and sipping their afternoon teas from delicate willow pattern teacups brought in by the sailing ships and steamers from England.
They watched the fishing boats and lighter boats struggling out to the larger vessels to offload their salt and often times turtles which were also in great demand for their pretty shells that were used to make combs, hairbrushes and jewelry in the European markets.
Meanwhile the salt raker wives were gathering wood to light their fire wearing simple white dresses and handmade straw hats often brought to Salt Cay on sloops from the Caicos Islands where an abundance of Silver Top and White Top palm trees provided the raffia for the local women to weave shade hats.
This cycle of life continued until the mid 1900s when heavy competition from other countries closed the salt raking industry down and forced the men to find work on the large cargo ships carrying iron ore and other commodities round the world.
However sitting on a stone wall outside his salt raker cottage most every day we find 84 yr old ‘Prince Albert’ reflecting on days gone by when he would wake at the crack of dawn and walk out into the Salinas to rake one of the most precious commodities in the world.
Prince Albert is now one of the last salt raker’s standing!
Today the island of Salt Cay has a population of fewer than eighty residents living on a land mass of less than 3 square miles and is ranked one of the most unique and least inhabited islands in the world.
Salt Cay is without a doubt an ideal vacation spot, off the beaten track and only a 25 minute airplane ride from Providenciales the main tourist area of the Turks and Caicos Islands located less than a 90 minute flight from Miami, Florida.
It is certainly worth the extra $180.00 dollar island hop with the airline carrier “Caicos Express” to Salt Cay if only to experience the history and culture of these islands. The salt pans glimmer and shine as they have done for centuries and the pace of life has a slow natural rhythm.
The roads are unpaved and there are only two or three cars. One is more likely to encounter the offspring of donkeys that once pulled the carts and hauled the salt . Today they wander freely through the small settlement of Balfour Town and amble on across the dunes to the watering holes.
It’s like stepping back in time, very romantic, brilliant for nature photographers and the shoreline has some of the quietest, powdery white sandy beaches in the Turks and Caicos. An added attraction is the coral formations which are within easy swimming distance from the shore.
Divers particularly enjoy the wall diving overhung corals, ledges and crevices and with weather permitting can explore the HMS Endymion, a 44 gun frigate which was shipwrecked in 1790 after hitting a coral head. It’s amazing to see the huge cannons and, attractive fish life that weave around the massive chain and anchor.
The local dive shop ‘Salt Cay Divers’ has been established for over sixteen years bringing a wealth of experience and knowledge of the marine life. Non divers often take a ‘Discover Scuba” course for a day to see if they would enjoy diving. The professional guidance and clear water makes the participation easy and fun and leaves the trainee longing for more.
Now the very best time of year to come whale watching is during the months of February and March. A charismatic local man of the sea, Captain Allan Dickenson has an eye for spotting whales at a distance and will take you out for an enjoyable sea voyage so that you can see these magnificent creatures breach and frolic in their natural environment.
The trips are $125.00 dollars per person with young children enjoying the adventure free of charge.
There is a small choice of comfortable lodgings on the island each with their own style, quirks and benefits each providing personal friendly service and all excellent for families, small groups and friends.
However I would be remiss if I did not mention my own friendly well established guesthouse ‘Pirates Hideaway’ with its clean comfortable, spacious en suites, internet, whale watching deck and fresh water, free form swimming pool nestled in a tropical garden.
There is a barbecue on the deck, bottled water in the fridge, fresh coffee brewing, assortment of books and easy conversation! One of the en suites has a full kitchen in case you are bringing your own gourmet!
The price of the en suites average $175.00 dollars a night inclusive of the 11% Government tax.
An adjacent modern salt raker home ‘Blackbeard’s Quarters’ is perfect for a family or group of friends and can comfortably sleep six. With a full kitchen, breezy living room, four bedrooms and two bathrooms this house is ideal for a short or long term rental.
At the high end of the price spectrum is ‘Sunny Side,’ a lovingly restored majestic Georgian colonial salt merchant home directly overlooking the ocean. The house is tastefully decorated in a classic style with high ceilings, three large bedrooms each with bathrooms, hot showers and luscious towels.
There is a spacious reading room and library. The sweeping verandas provide superb views from every angle and with comfortable soft sofas is the best location on the island for spotting whales.
A state of the art kitchen is set in the old Bermudan ‘buttery’ with access to an open romantic dining area overlooking the sea.
The house rents for $850.00 dollars a night with daily maid service, bicycles and the option of a golf cart, the preferred means of exploring Salt Cay. Upon request groceries and beverages can be stocked ahead of time.
There are three restaurants and two bars on the island full of character and charm and each with a varied menu. Naturally the main theme centers around fresh fish, conch and lobster, peas and rice …but the meat and spud man will also be happy with his choices.
Salt Cay is a superb vacation spot for the intrepid traveler who enjoys a peaceful natural environment away from city life.
About the author: Candy Herwin is a published author, veteran traveler and local historian.
If you mention that you have read this article on Escape Artist I will offer a 15% discount on accommodations at ‘Pirates Hideaway’ and ‘Sunnyside’.