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Conched out: The festival dedicated to an ocean mollusc

By Kevin Pilley, for CNN
updated 1:30 AM EST, Thu November 28, 2013
November 30 sees the tenth annual Conch Festival on the islands of Turks and Caicos. There is a popular folk myth that if you hold a conch shell to your ear you can hear the ocean. Other times you'll hear the head of marketing and PR at the local tourist board punting upcoming events. November 30 sees the tenth annual Conch Festival on the islands of Turks and Caicos. There is a popular folk myth that if you hold a conch shell to your ear you can hear the ocean. Other times you'll hear the head of marketing and PR at the local tourist board punting upcoming events.
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Caribbean communication
Conch blowing contest
Face painting at the Conch Festival
Titan's edible trumpet
10 years strong
Musical performances
Caribbean "white meat"
Time to gather
Still time
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Conch Festival takes place on November 30 on Providenciales island in Turks and Caicos
  • Visitors can wave down a passing plane from the beach on neighboring Salt Cay
  • Columbus discovered the conch on Turks and Caicos in 1492, describing it as "the size of a calf head"

(CNN) -- Salt Cay, of the Turks Islands in the Caribbean, is the only place I've been told to keep to the left because livestock has right of way.

It's also the only place where I've had to wave down a passing airplane.

"Don't worry, man. You don't need a ticket to get back to Provo," I'm told as I stand on the beach. "Just stand on the airstrip, wave your hands in the air and the pilot will come and pick you up. No problem."

And he does.

I'm going to Providenciales ("Provo" to locals) island in the Turks and Caicos islands in the Caribbean to eat more than my fair share of trumpets.

"Titan's Trumpets," to be precise, also known as conch.

More: World's 100 best beaches

Conch fest coming up

November 30 is the date of the 10th Annual Turks & Caicos Conch Festival, held at Blue Hills, Providenciales, around the Three Queen's Bar & Restaurant (+1 649 941 5984).

This showcase of local culture will feature a conch-fritter eating contest, a conch-knocking contest, a conch-peeling competition and a conch-blowing tournament.

Blowing a conch is all about breath control. And trying not to suffer a pulmonary infarction.

The winner of the latter must produce a recognizable tune rather than a plumbing anomaly.

There's a popular folk myth that if you hold a conch shell to your ear you can hear the Caribbean -- as well as the head of marketing and PR at the local tourist board touting upcoming events.

On some islands fishermen announce they have fish for sale by sounding a conch sell.

When I attempt to play a conch during my time on Turks, all that comes out is a rather controversial "Wahoo."

There's no award for Best Conch Home Security Device.

But there could be.

In the Bahamas, up-turned, broken conches are used on walls to dissuade intruders.

Conch concoctions: the mollusc cooks up into many forms.
Conch concoctions: the mollusc cooks up into many forms.

Cookery categories at the festival include Best Conch Salad, Best Conch Chowder and Best Specialty Conch, as well as Best in Show.

One of the judges will be local radio personality Amishqua "Big Nish" Selver.

"Our islands really test your conch threshold," he says.

Cooking up a conch

Just about every local restaurant serves conch.

Stuart Gray's Coco Bistro (Grace Bay Road, Providenciales; +1 649 946 5369) offers conch ravioli with sweet pepper and rose sauce.

The Bay Bistro's conch crepes won Best in Fest 2009.

Chef Eric at Beach House (Lower Bight Road 218, Providenciales; +1 649 946 5800) serves a conch salad with heirloom tomatoes wrapped in rice paper.

Hemingway's offers conch fingers.

Blue Hills Road off the Leeward Highway has conch shacks where you "eat" rather than "dine." The menu includes conch sautéed in rum-and-butter sauce. Your waiter will even wade out to sea and select a conch for you.

Having eaten conch in its cracked (fried), frittered, sweet 'n' sour, smoked and most memorably, at Turtle Cove's Terrace Restaurant, in its pecan-encrusted and wonton form, I eventually developed many attributes of the celebrated Caribbean gastropod.

I didn't move very far.

Or quickly.

Along with the spiny lobster and flamingo, the conch has pride of place on the islands' coat of arms.

It must be the world's only heraldic mollusc.

Columbus discovered conch on the Turks and Caicos islands in 1492.

He described the shells as "the size of a calf head."

Provo has the world's only commercial conch farm and you can go on a tour and learn all you ever wanted to know about edible trumpets, like: all parts of a sea shell are edible.

Except the shell.

More: 50 most delicious foods

A bit about the islands

Provo is 550 miles from Florida.

It saw its first car only in 1964.

Mopeds can now be hired to tour the 30-square-kilometer island and some of the area's 230 miles of fairly empty beaches.

It's becoming increasingly known for its marina townhouses and "new paradigms of home ownership."

Musicians are a key feature of the Turks & Caicos Conch Festival.
Musicians are a key feature of the Turks & Caicos Conch Festival.

Accommodations range from five-star, all-inclusive stalags with well-rehearsed super-casual staff and as-much-as-you-can-heap-on-one-plate buffets to tidy B&Bs, such as Columbus Slept Here (+1 649 946 6587).

The Sibonne Beach Resort (Grace Bay Beach;+1 649 946 5547) on Grace Bay is surrounded by less intimate, more impersonal developments, such as The Sands, Somerset and The Palms.

The locals, or "belongers," are descendants of African slaves brought over by loyalists from Georgia and South Carolina to grow cotton and sisal.

Most visitors are divers; live-aboard dive boats are popular.

It's a sleepy place where a tailback means two bicyclists stopping to talk to each other on a main street.

There's more to see and do on nearby islands.

On Grand Turk, Pillory Beach is where Columbus made his landfall.

It's also home to the National Museum, which possesses the hull and rigging of the Molasses Reef, the oldest shipwreck in the New World.

For real exclusivity, there's Pine Cay, where airplanes are hailed like taxis.

The 800-acre privately owned island has its own airstrip and cars are banned. The favored mode of transport is electric golf carts.

On Pine Cay, iguanas outnumber humans 100 to one.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are great for water sports.

Between January and April, whales mate offshore.

Divers can check out the wreck of the British warship Endymion, which sank in 1790 and was discovered in 1991.

You might also bump into a Civil War-era steamer and blockade runner.

Life here is languid and un-hectic.

Especially when you factor in all the conch.

For more information visit Turks and Caicos Tourism.

For more information about the 10th Annual Turks & Caicos Conch Festival visit the official site.

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