Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Snorkeling Reef Reviews: Providenciales, Turks and Caicos

Coral Gardens Reef
Princess Alexandra National Park is the official designation for the Grace Bay coastline on the north side of Providenciales. The majority of the resort properties line Grace Bay. The crown jewel of Princess Alexandra National Park is the Coral Gardens Reef, directly offshore from Coral Gardens resort. A large rope rectangle of white buoys outlines the swimming area. Inside the rectangle is a large circle of red buoys that are off-limits to swimming and intended to protect the small reef. Everywhere we went, tourists were funneled here to experience the reef. It is the de facto recommendation. I'll bet that 90% of visitors who snorkel during their trip to the island, only snorkel here. In some ways, this is great because it keeps people away from all of the other reefs and consequently protects them. It is also the perfect spot for beginners and small children.

Once you learn how to snorkel at Coral Gardens however, it is time to move on to a real reef. One with healthy, living coral and abundant life. One that will actually inspire you to appreciate one of the greatest ecosytems on the planet.

Smith's Reef
On the west-end of Lower Bight Road, take a right on Bridge Road. You will dead-end into Coconut Road where a sign will point you to the right for public access to the beach. This sign funnels most visitors to this end of Grace Bay to the right. I recommend that you take a left instead. At the end of the paved Coconut Road is an unassuming dirt road that only goes for 200 feet to a "secret" beach access known as the West Access to Smith's Reef. The walk to the beach is even shorter at this access point than the East Access. Look to your right and you will see the red and green navigational buoys that lead boaters into the Turtle Cove Marina. Just to the east of the green buoy, you will see a larger white buoy just off from the beach point. This white buoy should mark the border of your swimming area. Nothing is roped-off here like Coral Gardens. Just stay out of the navigational channel! If you are still learning about reefs, take a moment and notice the color of the water. Aquamarine water clearly designates where there is a sandy bottom. Dark, almost black water indicates turtle grass fields. Brown water indicates coral.  The difference between turtle grass and coral can be subtle, especially during choppy weather. If you pay attention, you will figure it out though. Don't be scared. This is a safe and beautiful reef.

We noticed many of the snokelers only swimming over the sand and turtle grass and never actually snorkeling the reef. Don't be like that! 

The best part of Smith's reef is about 100 yards off the point. You will have to swim across a narrow channel of thin turtle grass about 25 feet deep. You will think you have gone too far because of that depth. But the reef beyond the turtle grass is filled with lots of living coral, sea turtles, eagle rays, and countless varieties of fish. This is definitely one of the best off-beach snorkeling sites in the Carribean. We were very impressed with the diversity of living coral (getting rarer by the year) and fish species that we have never seen before. Wander eastward along the beach for a break from the action and find several other reefs. Chances are pretty good that you will be the only one there! You will know when you reach the East Access point because there will be a pile of people on the beach. That is a good time to turn around and spend the rest of the day exploring.

As an added bonus, you can get the best salad on the island at GreenBean Cafe at the corner of Bridge and Lower Bight on your way home!

Northwest Point
Drive though Blue Hills along the Millenium Highway. The paved road will turn to dirt. You will see signs pointing to the Northwest Point Resort. You won't likely see any cars or people. This drive is the most remote and natural part of the island. You will eventually see the resort on your right. Keep going straight. You will see a small sign pointing ahead to the National Park. The road gets sandy and constricts to one lane. Go slowly in case someone is coming the other direction. This will seemingly go on forever. If you are interested in island botany, you will see lots of beautiful plants from your car though. Eventually, you will come to a "parking area" consisting of impossibly deep and loose sand. A small handmade sign advertises a towing company. This is a good indication that you shouldn't go into that deep sand and just park on the small patch of grass. Should be easy to find a safe spot because you will be the only one there.

The reef is wild and beautiful. It is easy to imagine what the rest of the island looked like before it was populated. Contrary to another review I've seen, I didn't notice any significant currents here. But I do agree that this reef is only for experienced and advanced snorkelers. You don't want to learn how to snorkel when you are miles away from the nearest person.

If there is a problem with Northwest Point, it is that you are truly alone out there. If you have problems in the water, with your car, or if someone actually wants to rob you, this wouldn't be a fun place to get help. If you are afraid of any of these things, you shouldn't even drive out there.

West Caicos
Caicos Adventures will take you out on a snorkel trip without all of the painfully touristy beach BBQ and rum punch. How refreshing to go on an excursion that delivers simple, utilitarian snorkeling for the full allotted time! This was the best value excursion we've ever had. You will not regret the experience on the pristine reefs around West Caicos. During the winter season, you may even see a humpback whale.  These reefs are wilder than Smith's Reef. The diversity and health are even better.

We ran out of time before we had a chance to visit North Caicos and the reefs there. I guess we will just have to go back!

Overall, Turks and Caicos was the equal to snorkeling in Culebra. They both have advantages that I can't decide which is best so I'm calling a tie. Both are better than USVI and Bahamas.

Miles of aquamarine water await you in Turks & Caicos


  1. This is great! We are headed to Turks/Caicos for 5 days. We have spent 12 years going to Culebra but for multiple reasons are unable to get there this year and decided to give TCI a try. Thanks for the off the beaten track snorkeling tips. Can't wait to go now!

  2. I hope you had a fantastic trip. Culebra has amazing snorkeling too!

  3. We are just finishing a week at RWI Resort on Grace Bay. We snorkeled the local beach (saw random fish, couple of rays), then we went to Coral Gardens. Sadly, much of the reef is dead, although there are some pockets of activity, with small reef fish (sgt majors, clown fish, angels, parrot fish) and we even saw a couple of turtles (!). Then we tried Smith Reef, and had a little more success, once we made it out to the further rocks. Again, we saw much of the reef coral has died, but there was more to see in the way of marine life. One note about Smith Reef, what is described as a "tower" above is really just a raised wooden platform or raised deck. But the best "action" was straight out from that landmark.
    THEN, we happened to go out to Pelican Beach in Leeward, where there are numerous rock outcroppings on the beach, and piles of rock just a few feet from the water line. We entered the water, and immediately were completely surrounded by hundreds of thousands of sardines, literally so thick in the water that we couldn't see more than a few feet in front of our masks. Several VERY large fish cruised through the school, probably feeding, although we didn't see that actually happen. It was quite an experience!
    BTW, the MOST incredible snorkeling experience we ever had was when we went to Grand Bahama Island and drove to Dead Man's Cove at the East end of the Island. There is a series of "tipped" reefs that form the cove, and once you swim out over about a 1/4 mile of sea grass in 4' of water, you reach the reefs where the depth drops off to about 30' and there are literally RIVERS of fish of every kind, swimming around the reefs. We saw everything up to a 7' barracuda grinning on the ocean side of the reef, and it made any Jaques Cousteau documentary look like a goldfish bowl. I only hope that it's still that way, as we were there about 6-8 years ago.