Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Vacation to Turks and Caicos

Grace Bay Beach: It's a very long stretch of sand, and all of it quite nice and with very calm water.

I can't believe it's already been over a month since K and I returned from our vacation to Turks and Caicos! Our trip took place when I was 20 to 21 weeks pregnant, and in hindsight that was definitely the right time to travel on what you might call our "babymoon." Had I waited even two or three more weeks, air travel and even walking around in a new place would have been significantly less physically comfortable. (And well, little did I know I was about to be diagnosed with gestational diabetes, which would make eating a lot more complicated...) 

This post is sort of a review of both Turks and Caicos as a destination and also of our hotel, The Palms Turks and Caicos ("The Palms"), both of which we enjoyed and were quite happy with. I'd totally love to go back to both on a future vacation, though it must be said Turks and Caicos is generally a super-expensive destination, and I'm not entirely sure K and I's general career plans would make either place the most feasible trip price-wise for us once we are a family of three or more. 

My primary goal when selecting a vacation destination - it was K and I's first big trip together since the start of the COVID pandemic! - was total relaxation on a nice beach. When I started planning the trip this May, Turks and Caicos was one of relatively few Caribbean destinations that didn't require a negative COVID test result for entry, and that was a big part of why we selected it. Because I need to go to the office every day, and NYC doesn't have the lowest rate of COVID positives, it would've been too nerve-wracking to know our fairly expensive trip could be disrupted by a positive test. 

Getting There

JetBlue runs round-trip direct flights from JFK airport to Turks and Caicos basically every day, and that was the most convenient option for us. (United flies direct from Newark, probably the next best option for many NYC-area travelers.) We've heard a lot of horror stories about flight delays and disruptions recently, but I think the nature of JetBlue's JFK-Turks & Caicos schedule is such that any disruption more significant than an hour or so's delay here and there is relatively unlikely. Our flight home was delayed 40 minutes, and that was the only problem we encountered. 

I've been hearing a lot about how expensive air travel is recently from various friends who've flown often for both work and pleasure this year. I don't think that was too apparent with our tickets for this trip, maybe due to the location. We paid right around $395/person for our flights, which isn't too bad, I think?

Be prepared to wait a long time at both passport control and customs when coming in to the Providenciales airport, the main one for international tourists. (And also for a long wait at airport security when returning home.) It's a very small airport, and I think the international flight schedule is such that all big incoming and departing flights are generally around the same time as each other. We probably waited around two hours to get in to the country. K and I are generally pretty paranoid about getting to the airport early before international flights, so we chose to get to the airport around two and a half hours ahead for your trip home. It probably took around 50 minutes to get through security, so we spent a lot of time waiting for our flight.

The entry and exit experience from Turks and Caicos is significantly less efficient and comfortable than what I remember of travel through the big international airport in Grand Cayman. When waiting to go home, there aren't a lot of amenities at the Providenciales airport, and the seating is a bit limited and very uncomfortable. 

One way to try and get around the long waits at Providenciales airport may be to buy "Fast Track" services that will let you cut the lines at immigration/customs and airport security, but those are quite expensive. It seems prices start at $70/person each way, so that could add significantly to the cost of plane tickets. 

Getting Around

Taxis are fairly expensive in Turks and Caicos, with fairly standardized pricing set per person by destination. (I think it was $38/two people to go from the airport to The Palms, and maybe $20 to $25/two people to go from The Palms into the main tourist "downtown" area of Grace Bay near Graceway Gourmet.) Generally, taxi drivers have large vans so each taxi trip will be shared with multiple families/parties of travelers if departing from, say, the airport, or a hotel or restaurant that happens to have a few groups all leaving at the same time (and sharing the trip probably doesn't reduce the cost per person, as far as I could tell). Turks and Caicos isn't too big, so any given car ride probably won't take too much longer than 10 to 15 minutes or so. 

While The Palms doesn't look like it's all that far away from the main tourist "downtown" in Grace Bay on Google Maps, K and I found it was definitely too far to walk, whether on the beach or on local roads, with the considerable heat and humidity of late July and early August. (With my pregnancy and K's old sports injuries, we definitely have a harder time walking longer distances on the beach than most, however. We definitely saw many other tourists, including some families with young children, seeming to have an easier time walking.) The Palms provides bicycles that guests can borrow, but I don't know how to bike, so that wasn't an option. 

As far as I could tell, it could be really nice to be much closer to the tourist "downtown" while vacationing in Turks and Caicos and to have more options for restaurants not at one's hotel, or to buy groceries. I think the best hotel for that location preference in a similar-ish price point as The Palms might be Seven Stars Resort and Spa, but they seemed entirely sold out around the time K and I traveled! (The Ritz Carlton also has that good location, but would generally be more expensive and probably not come with free breakfast, which in Turks & Caicos will have a substantial effect on the total cost of your vacation!)  

Staying at the Palms Turks and Caicos

The main courtyard area past the hotel lobby at The Palms.

Hotels in Turks and Caicos are definitely on the expensive side relative to other destinations K and I have thought about in the past! The four and five-star beachfront hotels we were looking at up and down Grace Bay, the really popular beach in Turks & Caicos, probably all cost at least $400+/night (before local taxes and standard resort fees that'd probably bring it up to $500+/night) for a standard room. (Many properties there also do mainly apartment-style suites that can accommodate larger families more comfortably, but the pricing for those starts even higher.) 

K and I booked our stay at The Palms with Chase credit card points accumulated over each of our many years as Chase Sapphire Preferred ("CSP") cardholders - I'm not sure this is the best-value way to use those points if you ask people more knowledgeable about credit card rewards programs - but it made sense for us because we didn't think we'd be trying to get business or first class international long-haul plane tickets with our points anytime soon - so we didn't pay money this time around.* 

Chase priced out the cash equivalent of our stay at The Palms at ~$650/night total (including resort fees and local taxes) for a "junior suite," a standard room with kitchenette with mini fridge, extra sink, and microwave. From my research before we decided to book with Chase points, I think if we'd booked directly with the hotel instead, there would have been other discounts available when staying seven nights or longer, such that the actual price would have been somewhat lower than what Chase quoted. 

The beachfront area at The Palms, with sun-beds and beach umbrellas for hotel guests.

We enjoyed our stay at The Palms. The bed was comfortable, the room a good size, and I thought the decor was nice in a casual beach house way. There wasn't a "do not disturb" sign and the exact times they came by to clean our room changed a bit throughout the week and wasn't the most predictable, but that's a fairly small quibble that didn't affect our enjoyment of our stay. Like a few reviews on Tripadvisor mentioned, the hotel Wifi was too slow for remoting in at work or to reliably watch YouTube or Netflix, which also didn't affect our enjoyment, just something to keep in mind if that would be important to you. 

The hotel has a free breakfast buffet, which I thought was good, especially the omelette station for fresh made-to-order eggs. (It's not the fanciest breakfast buffet I've ever seen though, definitely not as nice as the ones I'd generally encounter when traveling for business.) Many dining areas at the hotel are outdoors, including the breakfast area - and the indoor dining areas at one of the restaurants and the bar have large windows that they keep open - which certainly feels more COVID-safe. 

And between my business trips this year and our vacation, I've found I don't actually feel strange now about eating at hotel breakfast buffets due to the recent COVID pandemic. So that's one prediction about how things would change after the pandemic that I was wrong about. (I might also have been wrong about their being a big change to American culture around taking sick days off from work or school, unfortunately. People stay home from work in my industry if they're COVID-positive, of course, but generally not for other times they have cold symptoms...) 

K and I always found that there were enough free sun-beds and beach umbrellas at The Palms's beach area, regardless of when we dropped by. Though there's a little trick to it if you feel strongly about being in the front row nearest the water: Many of the bigger suites at the hotel may come with butler service, so they get first dibs at reserving front-row sun-beds and umbrellas - and that's often for fairly large families or groups - so anyone else that wants in needs to wake up early to make a claim and maybe leave a book or beach items out to "reserve" the sun-beds before breakfast. I've read from Tripadvisor reviews that seating around the pool feels in much shorter supply, but K and I always prefer the beach, so that didn't affect us. 

Dining in Turks & Caicos

Food is generally extremely expensive in Turks and Caicos, particularly when eating on-property at a hotel like the Palms. I didn't fully research this before we arrived, and even for NYC dwellers who've observed the effects of inflation on increased prices at restaurants in NYC, we were initially a bit taken aback. Though we understood it's in the nature of a location that basically needs to import all food items period, except for maybe some local seafood. 

I did at least find that restaurant food portions were all quite generous compared to what people come to expect when dining out in NYC. All the lunch and dinner food at The Palms was quite good, and portions were big, so it definitely felt fine to mostly dine on-property during our vacation. 

For the restaurants at The Palms and similar hotels, after factoring in local tax and tip, I'd expect to pay $55/2 people for a light lunch (e.g. salad without chicken or shrimp, or an appetizer-sized dish) or up to $75/2 people for a heavier lunch with someone ordering a drink. We went into the tourist "downtown" area one day and paid around $60/2 for a heavier lunch at a more casual sit-down restaurant (at Thai Orchid, which is pretty good). 

We also walked off-property along the beach to Hemingways at the Beach for dinner a few times, typically paying around $110/2 including tip and tax for two entrees and an appetizer. For dinner at restaurants at The Palms and similar hotels, the price for dinner would be closer to $175/2, or $200/2 if we decide to get both a desert and appetizer, or maybe a more splurge-y entree or if K had a glass of wine. 

Given the need for basically all food items to be imported, I think food would still be quite expensive if one relied more on buying groceries and cooking while in Turks and Caicos. I saw a few fairly jaw-dropping prices in photos from Google reviews of Graceway Gourmet, though well, still more affordable than prices at sit-down restaurants, naturally. 

Anyway, we had a very wonderful and relaxing time in Turks and Caicos and a great stay at The Palms! I would totally go back, though not sure it's in the cards for us - too fancy! - for quite some time after our little bean is born and with our current plans for our careers and potential pay-cuts relative to biglaw compensation. 

* I had my CSP for at least a year longer than K, I generally spend more because of shopping, and I've also been a little more aggressive about churning other Chase cards over the years, including the United MileagePlus and a Chase Freedom. So I still have around 220,000 United miles transferred from Chase Points left, which I transferred to United before 2020. K's pretty much drained his points now.

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