R&R in Turks & Caicos

Just a few feet off the powdery white sand of Grace Bay Beach, the swank set of this island south of the Bahamas has gathered to launch yet another gleaming five-star condo/resort development.

Women in flowing sundresses sip champagne while lounging in white cube-shaped poolside pavilions. Gift bags emblazoned with the resort name — CAYA, a sister property of the posh Grace Bay Club slated to open in 2010 — hold bottles of Grey Goose vodka. Fireworks light up the night sky as Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now booms from the sound system.

For the past decade, little has stopped growth on Providenciales, known as Provo. The most populated of the eight inhabited islands of the Turks & Caicos, Provo has evolved from an under-the-radar diving retreat to a luxury getaway namedropped in celebrity magazines.

All along Grace Bay Beach — a 5-mile stretch of postcard-perfect sand abutting gasp-inducing turquoise water — stroll bikinied tourists moneyed enough to pay $500-$1,000 per-night high-season prices at the resorts that now line the shore. A non-stop flight from several U.S. cities, the island draws those searching for ease with their relaxation: English is the official language, and the currency is the U.S. dollar.

But now, the world economic downturn is threatening the island's gilded outlook. As even the wealthy cut down on vacations, many resorts are being forced to offer extra incentives to lure travelers who frequent upscale Caribbean locales such as St. Bart's and entice return visits from those who have already discovered the 38-square-mile island's laid-back charms.

The Somerset on Grace Bay, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, is offering a fourth night free through April 17, for example, and the Regent Palms, home to a 25,000-foot stand-alone spa, has a 3-4-5 package, where guests receive a free night through April 14.

Even the just-opened Italian Village at Beaches, an all-inclusive resort aimed at families, is slicing rates through Feb. 26: 60% off and two nights free for those who book a week's stay at the luxury addition in the spring and fall season.

Still, don't expect prices to dip too low. While Grand Turk, home of the country's capital Cockburn Town, has chased mass-market tourism by building a Carnival Cruise Line hub, Provo hoteliers intend to keep their rates high enough to preserve their carefully cultivated luxury aura.

"We're having challenges," concedes Caesar Campbell, CEO of the Turks & Caicos Hotel & Tourism Association. During the first week of January, island-wide occupancy was between 40% and 50%, down 10% to 15% from last year, he says. "But we would never adjust our high-end, low-density image."

Opportunities for exploration

Dry, flat and scrubby, Provo shows its beauty through its beaches — Grace Bay was noted as one of the world's best by Condé Nast Traveler— and its clear waters, home to pristine coral reefs. Excellent snorkeling alongside angel fish and tang is available just steps from the beach in Princess Alexandra Marine Park. (Provo's entire shoreline is open to the public.)

For those with visions of being a tropical castaway, Turks & Caicos has plenty of opportunity: The British Overseas Territory comprises nearly 40 isles of various sizes, most uninhabited. Several Provo operators offer half- and full-day fishing and diving excursions, and it would be easy to while away a week lazily exploring outlying islands.

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