Forgotten Turks & Caicos island exudes history and relaxation

Sunday, February 24, 2008
Greg Tasker / The Detroit News

BALFOUR TOWN, Salt Cay — The salt is gone from Balfour Town.

Once, mahogany-colored men and women in straw hats and barefoot, bent forward in monotonous drudgery, raking salt crystals into small piles. They did so without a sliver of sympathy from the blazing Caribbean sun or the balmy breeze blowing constant across this tiny, triangular island in the Turks & Caicos.

So strong is the sense of history on Salt Cay that it’s not difficult for the mind’s eye to glimpse images of the island’s past. Bicycling along a deserted, dusty road on the way to Balfour Town, I came upon the heart of the once-flourishing salt industry: a network of shallow ponds framed by low stone walls. These are the salinas, the drying pools from which salt was extracted from seawater over the centuries. Remnants of the past are everywhere. Dilapidated windmills, which controlled the water flow to these “drying pans,” stand like ghostly sentinels, guarding a forgotten fortress.

Beyond the salt ponds lie the crumbled stone ruins of homesteads and plantations. That’s not to say there’s no life on Salt Cay. The island is home to about 60 people, many of them descendants of salt rakers. Except for a few tourists and divers, the world, it seems, has forgotten Salt Cay.

“It’s the Caribbean of yesterday,” Porter Williams, a retired American salesman and owner of the Island Thyme Bistro, explained while I sipped on a concoctions of rum and juices called a Salt Cay Cooler. “If somebody wants to imagine what Salt Cay is like, think of the Bahamas 50 years ago. We have donkeys roaming loose, cows and chickens in the roads. You come here and you’re folded into the local culture. There aren’t too many places like that anymore.”

The salt industry vanished from Salt Cay three decades ago. But for about three centuries, salt was the island’s lifeblood, supporting the households of several hundred people and supplying the American and Canadian fishing fleets with salt to down their catches. George Washington used salt from these islands to preserve food for his army during the American Revolution. As I quickly learned during an afternoon exploring the island, almost everyone here remembers the salt industry.

“There were heaps of salt everywhere,” recalled Antoinette “Nettie” Talbo, who runs the island’s only grocery, a small store stocked with bananas, pineapple, canned goods, paper towels and toilet paper. “Sometimes there were two or three ships in the harbor and lots of salt piles. It was a much busier place. Life on Salt Cay in those days was good. Now, it’s quiet.”

There are few cars and pick-up trucks on Salt Cay; everyone gets around by bicycle, golf cart, boat or foot. There are few children – most of them attend school during the week on Grand Turk. Like Nettie, many islanders are in their 60s, 70s and 80s, living in the homes of their ancestors. It’s like a retirement community without tidy doublewide trailers, swimming pools, golf courses or tennis courts. Donkeys and cows roam the unpaved roads; they have the right of way.

“You live here, it’s very peaceful,” said Nettie, whose father and husband were sailors and whose seven children have scattered to other islands and the states. “You not have anything to worry about. You can go anywhere on the island and not have anything to worry about.”

History, of course, is only part of the appeal of Salt Cay. I had envisioned leisurely days swimming, snorkeling, and relaxing — days without an agenda. And that’s exactly what I found at Windmills Plantation, a whimsical seaside resort amid 15 acres on North Beach. It’s a colorful oasis on a flat, arid island – roofs and shutters painted in bright red, yellow and blue — and the only manmade intrusion on a 2.5-mile stretch of pristine beach.

With comfortable Bermuda stone cottages connected by walkways, gazebos and courtyards — built as a replication of an 18th-century plantation complex — Windmills is an inviting place that accommodates just 16 people. You can have anonymity here if you like, but it’s difficult to resist the carefree charm and attentiveness of the owners, Jim and Sharon Shafer, who spent years overseeing the Meridian Club on Pine Cay.

Sharon, who honed her culinary skills from visiting chefs on Pine Cay, oversees the kitchen. She uses island staples — conch, whelk, red snapper and Turbot — as well as other seafood and fruits and vegetables from the Caribbean. Particularly memorable were a chilled avocado soup, a curried banana soup and lobster salad. There were always freshly made desserts, including Pina Colada crème brulee, rum cake, and key lime pie.

Walking the beach is a necessary antidote to her wonderful, calorie-laden meals. During my four-day stay, I found ample time to roam the beach, swim, and snorkel. Coral heads ring the island, and they’re just yards off the beach at Windmills. Jim had suggested dropping me off at the farthest end of the beach and letting me snorkel my way back, with the currents carrying me along. I liked the idea but I found plenty to explore along the coral reefs outside Windmills.

One morning I joined other guests for a resort scuba diving course at Salt Cay Divers, one of the island’s two dive shops. My first scuba diving experience proved to be an exhilarating one, thanks to the patience and encouragement of instructor Debbie Been, a transplanted American. Been, like many on Salt Cay, wears many hats. I saw her again when I departed; she is the ticket agent at Salt Cay’s airport, a landing strip in the center of the island.

“Most people here work for the government or private businesses,” said Been’s husband, Olly, an island native who opened the dive shop 14 years ago. “I’ve been here diving for a long time. Most of our customers are Americans, and we get a few Europeans and some Canadians. They find us in diving magazines or through Internet searches.”

During my last afternoon, I joined Jim Shafer on a golf cart tour of the island. We passed the same landmarks I had seen on my own, but with Shafer at the helm, I was able to peek inside a few historic structures, including an original plantation mansion. Built of stone and stucco, the White House is owned by descendants of Bermudan salt rakers who settled the island.

Walking along its creaking wooden floors was almost like stepping back in time: 21st-century relatives may come and go but much of the furnishings of earlier centuries were still in place, albeit dusty. The house stands next to the last remaining boat house and salt shed on Salt Cay. The shipwright-turned-salt baron who built the White House also constructed the nearby Brown House, another historic plantation home with an open basement once used for salt storage. The Shafers have become island caretakers of sorts. The British government has granted them permission to restore a salina and begin making salt again. Their hope is to entice some of the islanders to rake salt and “maybe let the tourists do a little raking themselves,” Shafer said. The couple also has launched a fund-raiser to restore the windmills. They’d like to see people ‘buy a windmill’ and have their name placed on an engraved plaque. Shafer, too, is working to record the oral histories of the salt rakers and sailors, before the last of them disappear. As we headed back to Windmills, Shafer pointed out a new stucco villa along the shoreline and another under construction at the opposite end of Balfour Town. There also is talk of vacation condominiums being built elsewhere on the island.

Does anyone think hordes of tourists will come? Probably not, but there will be more.

“It’s a unique place. I don’t think there are many places left like Salt Cay anymore,” Shafer said.

I think he’s right, but I wonder for how long.

Greg Tasker / The Detroit News www.detnews.com/