South Caicos, Turks and Caicos Islands (CNN) — With about a thousand locals living on just over eight squares miles of land, the island of South Caicos is a delightfully sleepy Caribbean retreat.
Yet this pristine paradise is slowly waking up to its travel potential.
Life unfolds on the water here with livelihoods largely tied to fishing, so it's no surprise that visitor pursuits are also centered on the cobalt Atlantic Ocean to the east and the calm turquoise shallows of the Caicos Banks to the west.
South Caicos is one of the eight main islands that make up the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British Overseas Territory located 575 miles southeast of Miami.
There are just three resorts on South Caicos, two of which have opened since 2016.
There's nearly nothing in the way of souvenir shopping and only a handful of local restaurants. Rental cars are few and far between. So are people, outside of the main settlement of Cockburn Harbour -- the territory's fishing capital.
Outside town, you're as likely to see donkeys, horses and flamingos as you are to spot other people.
South Caicos has welcomed only about 7,500 overnight visitors so far in 2018, according to the Turks and Caicos Islands Tourist Board. By comparison, there were more than 415,000 visitor arrivals last year at the international airport in nearby Providenciales and more than 830,000 cruise visitor arrivals at the port in Grand Turk.
But there are big plans afoot for South Caicos.
East Bay Resort, with 86 beachfront suites and 16 traditional rooms, opened at the beginning of 2016 along a 1.5-mile stretch of white sand beach. In January 2017, Sailrock Resort opened its doors, bringing a new level of accommodation to South Caicos.
The laid-back luxury resort -- centered around a ridgetop Great House, complete with infinity pool, gourmet restaurant and bar -- is just the first phase of a much larger plan to develop South Caicos in its low-density, eco-friendly image.
Sailrock is proud of the relaxed privacy it offers guests.
"I've actually had people say to me, 'we were the only guests at the resort,' when I fully well know that there were 28 people here," said Matt Bywater, Sailrock's executive director.
A gradually expanding property, the resort currently offers 29 units -- from airy multi-bedroom beachfront villas with private pools to ridgetop suites with panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean and Caicos Banks.
The two bodies of water also afford the resort two beaches, and the Cove Restaurant + Beach Bar overlooking Caicos Banks provides a second on-site dining option.
Snorkeling, guided paddleboard and kayak tours, airboat bonefishing charters and offshore fishing charters are among the experiences offered at Sailrock.
The island is home to three national parks and reserves and offers spectacular reefs for snorkeling and diving. While there are currently no dive operators on South Caicos, Sailrock can arrange excursions through off-island operators until local outfitters are up and running.
Bell Sound and waters to the north of the island are excellent for bonefishing. The local small-scale fishing industry revolves around conch, lobster, grouper, snapper and more.
Guests can also take a more languid approach to vacationing, lounging by the water with a cocktail in hand. Massage treatments are currently available, with a full spa slated to open in 2019.
The spa will offer signature salt scrub treatments in a nod to South Caicos' key role in the Turks and Caicos Islands' now-defunct salt industry.
Its sheltered natural deep water harbor made South Caicos attractive for the production and export of sea salt, an industry that began in the Turks and Caicos in the 17th century.
The salt was produced by evaporating sea water in shallow ponds toward the center of the island. The industry ground to a halt in South Caicos in the 1960s, but many of the ponds are still visible today and are frequent gathering spots for delicate pink flamingos.
Boiling Hole, an underwater tidal cave that fed the salt ponds, serves as a reminder of the once-thriving industry. Donkeys and horses -- descendants of the animals used in salt production -- still roam the island.
The reefs surrounding South Caicos offer excellent diving and snorkeling.
Courtesy Sailrock Resort
Sailrock's own history starts with salt. In addition to the central resort, Sailrock Development Limited has long-term plans for additional hotels, a golf course, overwater bungalows and a collection of residential neighborhoods, with Peninsula homes starting around $750,000.
Much of the land held by the company -- 2,400 acres or about 3.75 square miles -- was purchased in the mid-2000s from salt company heirs decades after the business died out.
A key part of the vision for development in South Caicos is "blending it in with the existing beauty of the island," according to Scott Hoskins, president of sales and marketing for Sailrock.
"It's unspoiled. It really gives you that level of seclusion ... that authenticity that you don't normally see in a lot of other Caribbean destinations." The community is a key piece of that, Hoskins said.
Some residents, called Belongers, are pleased to see change on South Caicos.
"I'm happy to see that we are moving ahead," said Darell Forbes, chef and owner of the popular Sunset Café in Cockburn Harbour. "This have always been a dream to me, and probably to many of our native people, to see South Caicos move ahead. So we embrace this opportunity."
Others are taking more of a wait-and-see approach, as there is some skepticism about how integrated Sailrock developments will ultimately be with the rest of the island.
For their part, Sailrock leaders say they're committed to doing right by South Caicos.
"We're not going to forget about the community. The community is the foundation of South Caicos. That's what makes it special. The town, the people," said Bywater.
"We're just here trying to develop the island a little bit. But we know where the island started and we're not looking to change that culture."
Restoration and improved infrastructure
Some of Cockburn Harbour's historic buildings are slated to be refurbished.
Courtesy Sailrock Resort
Sailrock has joined the Turks and Caicos government in pledging $4 million toward restoring historic structures in Cockburn Harbour and revitalizing the Queen's Parade Grounds, the waterfront site of Queen Elizabeth's visit to South Caicos in 1966.
Cockburn Harbour sustained extensive damage from hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Sailrock formed the South Caicos Heritage Foundation to provide supplies to repair and replace more than 100 damaged roofs in the community, and the foundation has more initiatives planned for 2019, Hoskins said.
A picturesque Anglican church, a harbor and fish processing facilities, some vacant buildings associated with the salt industry, small all-purpose grocery stores, a few local eateries and modest homes make up the town, where the majority of locals live.
Outside the sleepy settlement, the South Caicos airport has a new runway and control tower, and there are plans for a new terminal.
The current terminal building is a very laid-back affair with a bar serving soda, beer and snacks and a dozen or so chairs for departing passengers.
Things slow down as soon as you set foot on the island. And the South Caicos welcome will be warm and friendly, Sunset Café's Forbes said.
"You know, we haven't changed our culture in terms of our hospitality and our way of life."
Sailrock Resort, Front Street, South Caicos; 1-649-946-3777. November rates start around $600 per night.