Don’t like to eat conch? Don’t go to Turks and Caicos. Just kidding. There are a million and one reasons to visit this gorgeous Caribbean island, namely its endless white sand beaches and clear, calm ocean that transforms from aquamarine to turquoise to cobalt, depending on sunlight and the time of day.
But if we’re talking food, indeed, you’ll find a ridiculous amount of this edible marine shell on island menus: conch salad, conch fritters, conch chowder… you get the idea. The clam-like food is plentiful, and good. It’s got a bit of a chewy texture, but it’s mild and doesn’t taste “fishy” at all.
On Turks and Caicos, you’ll find other yummy local specialties that don’t involve conch, such as grilled lobster, cod cakes, rice and peas, and johnny cake. Trust me, if you don’t like to eat the meat from queen conch you can still eat well on Providenciales, otherwise known as “Provo,” the most developed island in Turks and Caicos. And if you do like conch, well, you’ve just found your slice of tropical paradise.
Viewfinder Tip: Ask your hotel concierge or taxi driver for restaurant recommendations. They’ll tell you where the locals like to go for cheap eats.
On my recent trip to Turks and Caicos – when a girlfriend and I shared a spacious two-bedroom villa at The Somerset on Grace Bay – I indulged in plenty of local treats, as well as some international favorites. Oh, and a few rum punches, too. Consider these firsthand foodie suggestions:
Thursday Night Fish Fry
Hands down, this is a must-do on your vacation in Turks and Caicos. It’s an outdoor, festive, music-filled affair that is popular among island residents and visitors. In fact, we saw our hotel’s maintenance man on the dance floor (dirt ground). Local food vendors set up underneath tents and serve everything from jerk chicken to lobster claws to freshly grilled corn … and yes, fried fish. The food is wonderfully cheap: my friend and I bought a huge Styrofoam container filled with heaping cups of peas and rice and about six conch fritters (like hush puppies) for just $5. It’s the drinks that’ll cost you; our rum punches and Gully Washes (made with gin and coconut water) were $7 each.
The event is casual – expect to eat standing up or at crowded picnic tables that might be strewn with trash leftover from previous diners. (The park could use more evident and plentiful trash cans.) But honestly, in the festive atmosphere, it’s hard to get riled up about the crowds, the trash, or the heat and humidity (we were dripping sweat after dancing to DJ music for only a few minutes). An enthusiastic emcee led us through some funky dance moves; we bounced around like fools to the We Funk junkanoo band; and posed for silly photos with Henry the Conch, the island’s mascot. In high season, live local bands play, too.
The Fish Fry is held every Thursday night from 5:30 to 9:30 pm at Bight Park. Island taxi drivers know exactly where it is; the ride cost us $14 from our Grace Bay resort.
Bugaloo‘s Conch Crawl
Off-the-beaten path aptly describes Bugaloo’s Conch Crawl. The casual, oceanfront restaurant down a bumpy dirt road is a 20-minute drive from Grace Bay resorts, in an area of Provo called Five Cays, south of the airport. To get here, I suppose you could take a taxi, but I’d sooner visit the out-of-the-way spot via rental car or, better yet, scooter. Rent cute little red mopeds near the ice cream stand in the shopping center of Grace Bay.
Once you find your way to Bugaloo’s, plan to stay a while. The setting is sublime, with wooden chairs and tables built around the palm trees on a big shady deck. Or, settle into a table under an umbrella on the sand – or even out in the water. Just ask the staff, and they’ll set you up with plastic chairs and moveable table in about 10 inches of beautiful, clear water.
Here, all the conch items on the menu are made from queen conch caught fresh that day. Indeed, on the beach, you’ll see keenly adept men hammering just-caught conch and “twisting” out the snail. They trim it down to the edible white meat for the restaurant to use. Can’t get any fresher than that!
Though it’s not on the menu, we feasted on a sampler platter of conch fritters, cracked conch, coconut cracked conch, cracked lobster, conch salad, and sauteed conch. And because that wasn’t enough, we tried the coconut shrimp, too. We washed it all down with a couple of Turk’s Head lagers, brewed on the island. Yes, we waddled out of there.
Deck dining with twinkly lights at Mango Reef
By the fourth night of our vacation, my friend and I were ready for a sit-down meal that didn’t involve conch. We heard via other tourists that the Mango Reef at the Alexandra Resort was recommended for its varied menu, reasonable prices, and pretty outdoor setting. So, we walked down the beach to this resort – just two over from our villa at The Somerset – after watching yet another glorious sunset on Grace Bay. Here, we found plenty of available tables set on the sand on a roomy beachfront deck at 7 p.m. on a Friday night. (One reason to travel to the Caribbean in the off-season, when visitors are few: you rarely have to wait for a table.)
I dare say our relaxing meal at Mango Reef was the best of our trip. Service was quick, the view was outstanding, and we noshed on items like Crispy Brie Cheese Salad, Mahi-Mahi Risotto with shiitake mushrooms and grilled asparagus, and Spicy Thai Vegetable Curry. Indeed, the menu is vast, with items influenced by several cuisines: Caribbean, Vietnamese, Thai, and French, to name a few.
Our dinner at Mango Reef was a fitting, filling end to our outstanding stay in Turks and Caicos. However, I do vow to return to the islands for not only another super fun evening of dancing at the Fish Fry, but also to eat (and drink) at highly recommended Da Conch Shack and Rum Bar. Next time!
What foods do you like to eat in the Caribbean?