Diving, Surfing and Biking on Three Caribbean Islands

Conde Nast Traveler
Photographer: Nick Onken

Photographer: Nick Onken

I have a problem with beaches. It's a fairly recent affliction. I spent childhood Christmases racing my younger brother across ragged white stretches of the Kenyan coast, and remember those vacations as periods of unfettered joy, untainted by sibling rivalry. I think of them frequently, and when I awake at 3 a.m. in New York, I often sling an imaginary hammock between coconut palms and settle down for the rest of the night, the breeze through the fronds masking the thump, clunk, thump of taxis crossing manhole covers on First Avenue.

But put me on a real live beach and I find it almost impossible to relax. It's that iPhone Tamagotchi, dragging in roaming data and winking it at me from my beach towel; the work-related thoughts which inundate when that daily grind–fueled adrenaline disperses, making me wriggle and worry and read the same page of my book fifteen times. These days, all that's racing across the sand is my mind.

Fortunately, I've found a cure, and it doesn't live on the Upper West Side, have a Ph.D. in psychology, or use the word journey to mean something that requires no physical movement. A few years ago, after I had spent a day cheating death on the black diamond ski trails of Park City, Utah, something occurred to me. Or rather didn't. I realized that I hadn't thought about work once. Okay, so it wasn't quite in the John the Apostle league of revelations. But it was a realization of sorts. And what I'd learned on the snow could, I decided, be applied to the beach.

Since then I've surfed, sailed, scuba dived, and cycled my way through vacations, had a prodigious amount of fun in the process, and achieved a temporary psychic state that a beach and a book can't give me. Because—guess what—you can't check your e-mail underwater, and a looming deadline is the last thing on your mind when a six-foot wave is yelping toward you. Action, it turns out, is the enemy of introspection. But until last summer, I had never made sport the raison d'être of a warm-weather trip. That was when I decided to discover whether doing something active every day would be a recipe for relaxation or too much of a good thing, and whether I'd take anything home other than great glutes.

"I believe that's what's known as shoulder season," said my friend Tom, rather superciliously, when I told him I was off to the Caribbean in early June. But that was the whole point. From mid-April through July, Zeus gives the Caribbean archipelagos a take-me-or-leave-me shoulder shrug, and you take your chances. You might get luminous sunshine, you might get rain. You'll probably get both: clouds alternately revealing and concealing the sun like an optometrist waving a lens over a patient's eye. The landscape develops a texture it lacks during high season—sea and sky are a Pantone chart of grays, blues, and greens in a single afternoon; the beach brilliant white one moment, dun the next. Being British, I have an innate respect for unpredictable weather, and I find the Caribbean's shoulder season intensely beautiful. And anyway, I wasn't there to sunbathe: It could rain all it wanted when I was one hundred feet below, prescription diving mask strapped tight, waiting for the next school of fish to swim by. Research had revealed that I would be able to cram scuba diving, mountain biking, and surfing into ten days by hopping between the Turks and Caicos, Jamaica, and Barbados—three islands I had never before set foot on. So I packed swimsuits, sneakers, and an umbrella and flew to the Caribbean.

My first stop was Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos. I learned to dive more than a decade ago off Koh Phangan in Thailand, and have since swum with the fishes everywhere from Belize to the Great Barrier Reef. The diving in Belize was sublime: The water teemed with leatherback turtles and stingrays. But my last scuba experience, off Cat Island in the Bahamas, had been disappointing—the coral looked jaded, the fish seemed not to have gotten the memo that I would be paying a visit. Perversely, I settled on the Turks and Caicos for diving, even though technically the islands are in the Atlantic and not the Caribbean: They are high on the best dives lists for their six-thousand-foot vertical walls and drop-offs adorned with coral and sponge—catnip for reef sharks, eagle rays, and tropical fish.

So preoccupied had I been with finding the perfect scuba spot—diving is actually listed as a “purpose for visit” on the Turks’ disembarkation form—that I had overlooked this British outpost’s other, arguably more significant, selling point: romance. “Honeymoon” was also an entry on that form. After I’d walked past five identical destination weddings on the impeccable stretch of sand that is Grace Bay (bougainvillea-strung matrimonial arch, check; sunburned best man, check); overheard an old married couple impart to a honeymooning duo the sage, albeit slightly contradictory, advice to never listen to anyone’s counsel on marriage; and decided against entering the ocean for fear of being arrested for not being entwined with another body, I began to wonder what the hell I’d been thinking coming here on my own. And that was before dinner.

Meals, it must be said, were not a highlight of my time on Providenciales. Each began with the following exchange:

Me: “Table for one, please.”
Maître d’: “Table for one?”
Me: “Yes, please, a table for one.”
Maître d’: “Just you?”
Me: “Just me.”
Maître d’: “No one else?”
Me: “No one else.”
Maître d’: “You mean there’s no one joining you?”
Me: “NO.”

My mood lifted when I went for a run along the bay the next morning. The sand was fine enough to snort, translucent crabs were sidestepping at the ocean’s cerulean edge, and the lovers were still in bed. It reminded me of the other benefit of exercise: the endorphin rush, powerful as that first amorous flush.

Overwhelmed by my surroundings, I came close to throwing down the towel and attempting beach oblivion one last time. But back at my hotel, the Dive Provo bus—which still bore the branding of its previous life as the wheels of a Japanese gynecological clinic—was waiting to pick me up for the day’s scuba dive. There were about ten of us, including the requisite honeymooners, but as we left port in our boat and streaked off across the flat ocean, I felt my solo status less keenly than I had over candlelit red snapper and couscous at the Grace Bay Club the night before. We were united in our fish-finding mission.

Our first dive site was The Chimney. I shuffled across the deck in my tank and fins, jumped into the Kool-Aid–colored Caribbean, deflated my life jacket, and sank, marveling, as I do every time I dive, at my sudden ability to breathe underwater and at the intricate sub-aqua landscape. The instructor led us to the site’s namesake, a channel in the reef, and we funneled down, one after the other, arms folded in an effort not to provide a finger buffet for the shiny, incisor-baring barracuda that hovered within.

There was something of the fashion show about the dive, with its parade of underwater posers: beaky blue-green parrot fish, flamboyant scorpion fish, their frilly headdresses waving from side to side, and my favorite, the black durgon triggerfish—a trim, flat model with electric-white piping, a Phillip Lim frock of a fish. Draped over the pale-violet fans and yellow brain buttresses of the reef were neon-pink strings of coral that looked like Tom Binns necklaces.

When I returned to the boat, the dive masters were talking lionfish. These highly poisonous Indian Ocean predators have been the scourge of the Caribbean ever since a few of them escaped from a Miami aquarium after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Now, thousands patrol the seabed, and because they have no predators, they ingest everything in their path. They weren’t the only killers the group had spotted in the big blue—two reef sharks had glided silently past the honeymooners. I was determined to bag my own on the afternoon dive.

I had spotted my first shark while snorkeling off Placencia, Belize, many years ago. Seeing a shark sharking around below when you’re paddling near the surface is a panic-inducing experience of the first order. At least it was for me. My flight instinct had kicked in with aplomb, and I’d swum at Michael Phelps speed toward the boat, only to be told by my Rasta guide that it was a nurse shark, which is about as dangerous as a cat.

To read more of this article, see the original version at A Guide to Diving, Surfing and Biking on Three Caribbean Islands.

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