Imagine a tropical Caribbean paradise and you might not be too far from picturing the dazzling Turks and Caicos Islands. Often referred to as TCI, the 40 plus low-lying cays within the archipelago are actually located in the Atlantic Ocean, not the Caribbean Sea.
Of the nine inhabited islands of this British Overseas Territory, the gateway island of Providenciales is the busiest. Large, luxurious resorts are scattered across the eastern side of the island providing shops, restaurants and hotels, plus access to the 14-mile barrier reef on the north shore.
Amidst the barren wilderness of the west is the stunningly beautiful Chalk Sound National Park. Hire a kayak or paddle board to float across the azure waters of this natural lagoon as you keep a watchful eye out for native iguana. Birdwatching is a popular pastime in the saline lakes of the Northwest Point Marine National Park, which attract breeding and migrant waterfowl.
If you prefer your desert islands to be even more tranquil, catch a plane or ferry to one of the nearby islands. Middle Caicos and North Caicos offer lush woodlands and cave networks, plus handicrafts woven by talented locals. Fishing is the main industry in South Caicos, though most visitors come here to relax on one of the soft white sands of a secluded beach.
Grand Turk Island is thought to be the place where Columbus first set foot on the New World and was put on the map as the birthplace of the salt industry. Learn about its past at the Turks and Caicos National Museum in the country's capital of Cockburn Town. Away from land, Grand Turk offers spectacular dive sites, such as a dramatic coral wall and, from January to April, lucky visitors may catch site of a passing humpback whale. Some of the smaller islands, such as Parrot Cay and West Caicos, are privately owned resorts.
Most TCI natives, known as 'Belongers', are the descendants of slave populations, making their culture a unique combination of African, British and Caribbean. Local cuisine revolves around seafood, particularly fish, lobster and the unusual aphrodisiac of queen conch, which is farmed here. The weekly Island Fish Fry on Providenciales is the place to sample such delicacies, as well as to experience the extravaganza of Junkanoo. Dressed in colourful costumes adorned with dangling strips of ribbon and cloth, Belongers dance and gyrate to the sound of Ripsaw music.