Turks and Caicos Islands (CNN) — You won't find butler service or a sunset concierge on North Caicos or Middle Caicos. What you will find is powdery sand, blissful quiet and just enough off-beach activity to interest the less languid day tripper.
These side-by-side islands are accessible via a 25-minute ferry ride from Providenciales, the Turks and Caicos Islands' international gateway and tourism hub. Provo, as it's known, is an easy direct flight from many US East Coast cities (less than two hours from Miami; just over three hours from New York).
Providenciales is home to its own array of beautiful beaches -- including the spectacular and award-winning Grace Bay Beach -- but North and Middle Caicos deliver a far more rustic Caribbean travel experience plus some of the Turks and Caicos' most mesmerizing scenery.
The rugged, sparsely populated islands make an ideal day trip or overnight complement to a longer stay in the islands.
Regular ferry service ($50 round trip) runs from Walkin Marina in Leeward Provo to Sandy Point Marina in North Caicos. From there, a rental car or hired guide is essential to making the most of the causeway-linked islands. (Cars should be arranged in advance so that they're at the marina when you arrive). Helpful signs along the main road remind drivers to stay on the left in this British overseas territory, and cars are few and far between. A map and a sturdy vehicle are musts at these destinations; signage is easy to miss and most of the roads off the main thoroughfare are pitted gravel.
A coastal stunner
Fisherman, taxi driver, tour guide and Middle Caicos native Cardinal Arthur offers personalized island tours for travelers who'd rather let someone else do the navigating -- on water or land.
Arthur, who's in his late sixties, traces his roots back five generations to slaves brought to the islands by Loyalists around the time of the American Revolutionary War.
He talks about the islands' original inhabitants, the Taino Indians, the arrival of Columbus and European colonists, the establishment of Loyalist cotton and sisal plantations run by slave labor and the farming and fishing economy that followed the failed plantations on North and Middle Caicos.
Arthur will tailor tours to visitors' interests and also organizes boating expeditions on the waters around the islands.
Outfitters including Big Blue Unlimited also offer tour options featuring activities such as kayaking, cycling or stand-up paddleboarding.
Guided tour or not, Mudjin Harbor Beach is Middle Caicos' don't-miss stop.
A sun-toasted crescent punctuated by sea caves on one end and a dramatic offshore rock formation known as Dragon Cay on the other, Mudjin Harbor is arguably the archipelago's most scenic spot.
Sea cliffs dotted with tangles of vivid vegetation offer sweeping sunrise and sunset views, and the Mudjin Bar & Grill at the recently renamed Dragon Cay Resort provides an unparalleled terrace from which to sip a beer or cocktail and take in the whole turquoise-and-emerald-green scene.
Mudjin Harbor is not far from the causeway that links Middle Caicos to North Caicos, so if your aim is to soak up the scenery from one spot, beelining your way across North Caicos from the marina, crossing the causeway and parking at Dragon Cay Resort is a winning strategy.
Farther down the road past Mudjin Harbor, Middle Caicos' Bambarra Beach offers an often-deserted sandy paradise where the surf is calmer for swimming and trees along the shoreline shade picnic tables with daydreamy views.
Off the water
Wade's Green Plantation gives visitors a look into the era of Loyalist plantations.
Middle Caicos is also home to Conch Bar Caves, the largest non-submerged cave system in the Bahamas-Turks and Caicos island chain. The cave system is a national park and tours are offered for $20 per person, but if time is limited, a free look at the nearby Indian Cave is a better bet before heading back toward North Caicos. North Caicos' own pristine, rarely visited beaches, including Pumpkin Bluff and Three Marys Cays, are also well worth lounging upon. But for visitors who are curious about island history, Wade's Green Plantation offers a window into the short-lived era of Loyalist plantations in Turks and Caicos.
Located in the North Caicos settlement of Kew, not far from the ferry dock on the island's western side, the plantation was founded by Wade Stubbs in 1789 to grow cotton and sisal. Stubbs, a Loyalist, was awarded land by the British monarch after he lost his Florida property during the American Revolutionary War. He owned more than 300 slaves.
The plantation was only in operation for 30 years before a variety of issues including insects and soil degradation shut it down. Many Turks and Caicos Islanders have ties to the original plantation families.
Guided tours (call +1 649-243-6877 for access) are $10 and involve a walk through several of the ruined limestone buildings, including the great house and the kitchen, as well as information about plants including sisal, guinea grass and moringa.
Moringa has been used for generations in bush medicine, long before there was a resident doctor in North or Middle Caicos.
Donna Gardiner uses hand-picked and locally grown moringa, mint and fever grass to make tea blends with healthy benefits at Caicos Tea Company.
Soon, visitors to North Caicos will be able to sample locally grown moringa mint tea at Donna Gardiner's tea cafe in Bottle Creek.
Gardiner is the founder of Caicos Tea Company, which is producing locally grown herbal tea blends handed down for generations -- including the popular Caicos Sunshine -- that are currently available in Provo gift shops and hotels.
Her cafe was slated to open for the 2017-2018 winter season, but hurricanes Irma and Maria set the date back. Now the plan is to open along the main road in North Caicos in November 2018. The cafe is currently open to groups by appointment.
Refreshments with a view
Gardiner's parents are the proprietors of Pelican Beach Hotel in Whitby, North Caicos and its Barracuda Beach Bar, a prime spot right on the beach for a cold beer or rum punch. Last Chance Bar and Grill, about a mile past Bottle Creek Village on the way to the causeway, offers a hypnotizing view of impossibly aqua Bottle Creek Lagoon, which gets its hue when light reflects off fine limestone particles.
Serving a tasty fish sandwich and other local specialties, Last Chance is open for lunch everyday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for dinner by reservation. Most North and Middle Caicos restaurants are only open regularly for lunch because many visitors are day trippers.
Back on Middle Caicos, Dragon Cay Resort's Mudjin Bar & Grill perched above Mudjin Harbor is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., serving burgers and local seafood including battered and fried conch and grilled snapper and grouper fillets. Dinner hours are added when there's high demand.
The cottages of Dragon Cay Resort are among the few buildings on the Middle Caicos coast.
Dragon Cay features a handful of one- to three-bedroom cottages with sweeping views of Mudjin Harbor and amazing star-gazing potential. Two-night stays are generally required, with a significant upcharge for a single night. The Pelican Beach Hotel on North Caicos offers no-frills rooms and suites with an on-site restaurant as well as the Barracuda Beach Bar.
The undeveloped coastline is what makes North and Middle Caicos so special. That means few hotels, stores or restaurants. You won't find glitzy resorts -- nor will you run into crowds of sunseekers.
Pelican Beach Hotel's website puts it well: "The North Caicos lifestyle is simple and relaxed. Sometimes, you'll find, doing nothing is wonderful."