SOUTH CAICOS, TURKS AND CAICOS — In May 2019 I was that person. The individual you didn’t want to be seated next to at a party because I’d be complaining about my heavy workload of travel to far-flung destinations, sounding insufferably snobbish and completely mollycoddled.
And then in May 2020 I was that person. A queen-size cliché who was hoarding hand sanitizer, wondering where the body of Carole Baskin’s second husband was located, and plotting a move to the suburbs because I was losing my mind living in the middle of the city.
So what kind of person am I in May 2021? Probably much the same as you. Anxious and hopeful, with enough bottles of hoarded hand sanitizer to clean a multigenerational family of dusty elephants. But more than anything, the 2021 version of me wants to travel. My running joke was that I’d be packing my suitcase with a syringe of the Moderna vaccine still stuck in my arm.
That was the joke, but the truth was that I was still slightly hesitant. I decided my first international trip should be somewhere low-key and remote. Also, a place open to Americans that didn’t require quarantining would be helpful. So two weeks after my second shot, I was on a plane headed to tiny South Caicos.
It wasn’t the flashy return to travel I had fantasized about for more than a year, but after reading about South Caicos, which is part of the Turks and Caicos archipelago, I thought I had found a good fit for my first vaxication. I understand that the term “vaxication” is as annoying as “staycation,” but I’m using it anyway.
The official website for South Caicos wonderfully undersells the 8-square-mile destination with a population of 1,100. “Due to the largely nonexistent tourism market on South Caicos, road signage and developed beach accesses are absent,” it read. My heart leapt with joy at the words. “Donkeys and horses still roam the island.” It sounded perfect. Donkeys in South Caicos would not give me a hard time for still wearing a mask outside, unlike some of the jackasses I know back home.
A few weeks later, as I bobbed in a clear-bottomed kayak in an empty sapphire cove known as Jerry’s Camp, I came to the conclusion that I had indeed made the right decision. I could feel the breeze on my face. My entire face. The sun shone so brilliantly on the water that I was squinting through sunglasses. No longer being cloistered at home was a beautiful feeling. Yes, getting here involved three flights on which I wore two masks and protective eyewear. It required getting preapproval from the island’s government after filling out paperwork and submitting a negative PCR COVID-19 test from an island-approved laboratory. But those hurdles were good. It meant fewer tourists would be here and I would ultimately be safer.
The beauty of South Caicos was that I could easily choose my level of social interaction. I stayed at a resort called Sailrock. At this moment in time, everyone deserves to escape in a manner which suits them best. The escape I needed featured a villa with its own pool, an ocean view, and a nearby beach bar where I could get plastered while watching the sunset, often on a hammock by myself. When I was around others, I was always outside, or wearing a mask. The town center of South Caicos has a handful of restaurants at most, so I took my meals at the resort. Sailrock had recently brought in a new chef, who was clearly having fun with the menu.
Sailrock Resort was destroyed by hurricanes Irma and Maria, and then rebuilt — just in time to be closed by the pandemic. I learned this as I toured parts of the island with a genial employee of the resort named Ben. Any guest can ask the staff to take them around the island. (I received no special treatment or freebies on my trip.) He took me to a cliff with sweeping views of the Atlantic and pointed to some deserted beaches in the distance.
“I’ll bet there are beaches on this island where no one has ever been,” he said with a sweeping gesture. “Except maybe donkeys.”
I also learned that the remote island lures celebrities because apparently the paparazzi finds the trip too arduous. Neil Patrick Harris and his family were recently at Sailrock, in addition to Justin Bieber, who stayed in a cliff-top suite. I was sworn to secrecy on the names of other celebs who have recently visited.
South Caicos wasn’t always luring celebrities. One reason why the island has remained so blissfully quiet is that it failed at so many things over the years. It was a major exporter of sea salt until the early 1900s. Sponge farming was big until a fungus outbreak killed the crop in the 1930s. A Canadian businessman tried to start a conch shell exporting business in the 1950s. The US Coast Guard decommissioned its small outpost on the north side of the island, leaving behind a few empty concrete buildings and not much else.
One of the downsides of being a travel writer (yes, there are downsides) is that when I’m in a tropical paradise I need to run around and partake of everything I can. But being here, where there is a blissful lack of recreational companies, meant I could just flop on the beach like the human walrus that I am and not worry that I was missing out.
Aside from kayaking, my big sporting activity was snorkeling. Generally when you’re at a resort and you head out on a boat trip, you’re part of a phalanx of watercraft battling for prime views of the reef and fish. There was none of that here. We went to a nearby cay which was uninhabited by people, but completely inhabited by Rock Iguanas, which are only found in Turks and Caicos and appear to enjoy Cheerios. The shoreline was piled with conch shells. The captain took me and the three other people on the boat to an area populated by starfish that looked as if they were plucked out of Jurassic Park. We were back in plenty of time for an important pre-cocktail-hour nap. I’ll stop before I revert to my insufferable 2019 persona.
Back to 2021. This trip was about traveling somewhere far away for the first time in a long time, obviously, but it was also about my state of mind. Getting my second shot was one of the first moments I felt as if I could breathe after a year of pure pandemic panic. But venturing to a tiny island in the Caribbean was one of the first moments I felt as if I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, or, more accurately, the donkey at the end of the dirt road.
A four-night, five-day stay in the patio suite at Sailrock Resort is $2,600 and includes the island-hop flight between Providenciales and South Caicos, all transfers, and $40 daily breakfast credits per person.