The Provo Golf Club, Turks & Caicos Islands

Providenciales (“Provo”) in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) is one of the most overlooked golf destinations in the Caribbean, despite the fact that it has been home to a topnotch course since 1992.Prior to the 90s, the TCI were a well kept secret known only to divers and beach-loving purists who cared more for the barefoot lifestyle than traditional resort amenities. The 40 flat, dry islands—only nine of them are inhabited—hid in plain sight at the southeastern tip of the Bahamas, within easy reach of the Eastern U.S.That was the scenario, when my photographer  and I landed on Provo’s grass runway with dive gear and golf clubs in tow. (It was the good old days of no extra charges for sports equipment.) We were there for the diving, but had heard there was a new golf course. On an island with no fresh water, we didn’t expect to find a decent golf track, but we were game.

IMG_6468There were few hotels on the island, and ours was particularly forgettable. But Dive Provo (www.diveprovo.com) was—and still is–a superb company that delivers extraordinary underwater experiences on Provo’s pristine reefs. The locals were lovely people who delighted in feeding us their favorite dishes and showing us the island’s best features. We could have walked 12 miles on Grace Bay Beach, one of the world’s greatest strands, without seeing another footprint. We found incredible snorkeling just off that beach.

But the biggest surprise of all was the Provo Golf Club (www.provogolfclub.com), which the workers christened “Alcatraz” during construction. The course was still raw then, carved from terrain resembling a rock quarry, with colorful but immature plantings. It owed its existence to the company that also owned the island’s desalinization plant. But the Karl Litten design was fresh and imaginative—ranging from quirky to confounding to laugh-aloud fun. A stray shot into the rocky rough set off a pinball machine reaction, and the patches of green were sparse targets.

Fast-forward 15 years to Winter 2008. The Turks and Caicos—and Provo in particular—had long since been “discovered” and was in the midst of a resort and real estate development boom. I arrived at the modern airport (sans clubs and dive gear, opting for rentals) and was stunned by the paved highways, the prosperous-looking shops and restaurants, and the luxury resorts lining the once-deserted Grace Bay Beach. I felt a twinge of regret for the lost isolation, but joy for the now-prosperous islanders.

Once again, the biggest surprise was the golf course. I know how quickly things grow in the tropics, but I was still stunned at the way “Alcatraz” has grown into a lush oasis with its own eco-system. Fed by six million gallons of water per month, its lakes and wetlands are now home to all sorts of tropical birds. More than 2,500 palm trees and lots of dense native foliage add to the track’s visual impact and the physical challenge.

It’s not long—6,705 yards from the tips—but it’s tough, with a slope rating of 136. You’ll often need to leave the driver in the bag and practice your best course strategy. That’s what Litten intended when he crafted those narrow fairways and devilish doglegs, and managed to incorporate water on 10 holes—six on the front nine and four on the back. Not to mention the copious waste bunkers.

The par four first hole has one of those huge waste areas off to the right on your second shot–just where your fade, with help from a headwind, will likely end up. Anyone who’s played in the Caribbean knows how difficult it is to make a delicate approach shot from hard sand and make it stick on a fast green. There are plenty of opportunities to practice that shot on this course. Holes two and three have water on the left, but are mere warm-ups for hole four, the toughest par three on the course—200 yards into the wind over water to a large green. Six, a par four, is a severe right-angle with an approach shot over a large lake to aProvo GC Hole 4. Courtesy Provo Golf Club stingy green.

As the round unfolds, each hole presents a unique strategic test, usually with varying wind factors. Playing directly into the wind is hole 14, the hardest par four. It tees off over water to a right-sloping fairway with a lake on the right, followed by a long approach to a green guarded by sand and water. Holes 16 and 17 are watery gauntlets leading to 18, a comfortable par four with a small green for “show-off” birdie putts.

The “nineteenth hole” is the colonial-style clubhouse with its vaulted ceiling and open-air Fairways Bar & Grill and terrace overlooking the 10th tee, 18th hole and practice areas. The pro shop is also on the upper level, with locker rooms and club storage down below.

The Grill has a great menu and has become one of the island’s most popular gathering places, especially during Provo GC Hole 14. Courtesy Provo Golf Clubtournaments and social events. I was also impressed with the Nike top-of-the-line rental clubs, which were available for lefties–both men and women. Amenities like these—and the beautiful condition of the course—are due to the diligence of Director of Golf Dave Douglas, who knows that word gets around. Travel & Leisure has touted the Provo Golf Club as one of the top ten in the Caribbean.

IMG_6477Though there are several five-star resorts on the island, I opted to stay at the four-star, 114-suite Sands at Grace Bay (www.thesandsstc.com), which was one of the island’s original resorts. Following a $6 million renovation, the Sands now is an all-suite hotel. The suites are large (1,000 to 1,600 square feet), with sumptuous travertine baths, modern kitchens and screened patios—perfect for the families who favor the resort. A short swim from the beach, there’s still good snorkeling, as there was on my first visit.

A large freshwater swimming pool overlooks the beach, but my favorite is two river pools that meander through the central courtyard, dropping over waterfalls and eddying in secluded plunge pools next to shady arbors with lounge chairs. The casual resort restaurant, Hemingway’s, features a large dining deck just off the beach, and serves great steaks and seafood. The Sands at Grace Bay. Courtesy of The Sands

There’s no lack of fine dining—or high living–on Provo these days. A short walk along the beach from the Sands is the Somerset on Grace Bay (www.thesomerset.com), a complex of luxury suites and cottages, pools and gardens with the gourmet O’Soleil restaurant at its heart. The “O’s” white-on-white setting is ethereal by candlelight, but my attention was on a plate of the best Chilean sea bass I’ve ever tasted.

Also on Grace Bay is the Regent Palms (www.regenthotels.com), a 72-suite property with a signature restaurant, Parallel 23, where we dined al fresco on delectable tropical fusion cuisine. Determined to graze my way around the island, we also dined at the Anacaona at the Grace Bay Club (www.gracebayclub.com), one of the island’s first luxury properties and a perpetual star in Travel & Leisure’s top 25. At the Anacaona, my tempura tuna roll was followed by Australian rack of lamb. Yum.

My checkbook can’t take too much dining “high on the hog,” so to speak, so I also sought out places the locals go, like the open-air Las Brisas Restaurant at Neptune Villas (www.neptunevillastci.com) on Chalk Sound. It’s the place for finger-licking Mediterranean/Caribbean dishes and irresistible desserts before a boat ride on the Sound. The Sands GM, Pierre Beswick, introduced me to what would be my favorite lunch place–Da Conch Shack, where we devoured conch salad and conch fritters on beachfront picnic tables, just like in the old days.

There’s a lot of growth on Provo—even a casino, the Casablanca–and on neighboring Grand Turk and the Caicos islands. There’s even talk of another golf course. But in my opinion the region already has everything it needs for a perfect winter escape.

For more information on the Turks & Caicos Islands, go to www.turksandcaicostourism.com.

About Dale Leatherman

In the course of her life she has exercised racehorses at New York’s Belmont Park, showed jumping horses on the A Circuit, driven a race car with the late Paul Newman and played the world’s most famous golf courses.

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