"I leave the door open. The passengers get too hot," says our pilot, Tony, as we taxi down the runway in a tiny plane that has seen better days.
Just as the wheels lift off the airport tarmac at Providenciales in the Caicos Islands 575 miles southeast of Miami, Tony reaches across the "co-pilot" -- our 16-year-old daughter -- and pulls the door closed.
We are headed for the island of North Caicos, a 10-minute flight from the hub at Provo, the main port of entry for the Caicos Islands.
After skirting Parrot Cay and Middle Caicos the plane's shadow falls on a green lagoon, laced with strings of pink pearls. North Caicos' resident colony of hundreds of flamingos take no notice of yet another small aircraft, the only way to travel among eight inhabited islands in the Turks and Caicos island group.
Tony's method of air-conditioning his plane, as well as his inability to accept credit cards, is our first hint of just how far off-the-beaten-track these islands are.
Geographically and geologically part of the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos lie 90 miles north of Hispaniola in two groups separated by a 22-mile passage. But as far as tourism goes outside of the main island of Provo, these islands are indeed remote.
There is no pollution and little crime. The amazing sea ranges from shades of pale turquoise to deep cerulean around the reefs teeming with life, where underwater visibility is often 200 feet.
Known as the "garden island" of the island group, North Caicos receives 40 inches of rain annually, more than any other island in the group. Not tropical in the sense of swaying coconut palms, North Caicos is covered with dense scrub and silver-topped palmettos, and lined with snow-white beaches of soft sand contributed over the eons by coral and billions of shells.
The tiny airport on North Caicos consists of a small stone building under a tattered Union Jack waving in the breeze. There we said goodbye to Tony, who hails from Madrid, and $90 in cash to pay for the flight for three people. The two other passengers were off to Club Vacanze, an Italian resort a short walk from our condominium hotel, the Ocean Beach.
Mac's Taxi, a mustard-colored van with an interior completely covered by shag carpet (including the dashboard) delivered us to the Ocean Beach over narrow roads with whale-sized potholes and interesting road kill -- an occasional dead flamingo.
The Ocean Beach, managed by Canadian Karen Priekschat, is one of three accommodations on the almost-blinding white-sand north coast of the island. The others, Club Vacanze and the Pelican Beach, are within walking distance of each other.
The first bit of local color visitors notice is a rusty freighter foundered on a reef a mile offshore. The River Ark mysteriously appeared one night in 1985, minus a crew and cargo. The ship and the undersea life it draws are now a prime snorkeling site. The next day we hire Captain Poach and his boat, a flat pontoon drawing 18 inches that can go anywhere in the shallow waters of the Caicos. As we draw close to the "ghost ship," as residents call it, an osprey peers at us from her nest atop one of the masts.
"It's just a big huge aquarium down there," says Poach, whose surname is Misick, an old name dating back to the 18th-century Loyalist settlers in the Caicos.
Corals and colorful fish create an untouched, pristine undersea world. Good snorkeling sites abound off North Caicos, and Poach tells us about the Castle, another site near the ship, consisting of a chain of small underground caves infrequently visited by divers.
As the captain draws the anchor to leave I accidentally knock my husband's sunglasses off the boat's bench into the sea. They land on the white, sandy bottom near a pair of pink conch shells. The glasses stare back, teasing us through eight feet of crystalline water. There is nothing to do but jump in to retrieve them. As Philip is swimming back toward the boat, a dark, six-foot shape approaches, followed by another.
"Nurse sharks!" Poach says.
As we all freeze, Poach says casually, "They almost never attack."
After the two sharks and the lone swimmer observe each other from a distance of 10 feet, the sharks whip away, on to something more interesting.
Another day we sail with the captain to sparsely-settled, 48-square-mile Middle Caicos, the largest island in the group.
The journey there is slow through shallow water around the curve of East Bay Cay. We chug over giant rays and around sand bars and mangroves, where great blue herons waded. Jumping fish break the water all around us, and a flock of pelicans follow our boat, the only craft on the water. As we approach drier Middle Caicos, silver palmettos on shore give way to Organ Pipe and Old Man's Beard Cactus. (The beard grows only on the north, Poach says.)
Karen Priekschat is there to meet us in her van, after riding the car ferry (which runs only on weekends) from North Caicos to take us around this island, which in the 1640s was a hideout for pirates Ann Bonny and Mary Reade.
We eat a picnic lunch in the shade of a limestone cliff on the talcum powder-soft sand at Mudjin Harbour, looking out on Dragon Cay. Frigate birds with seven-foot wingspans wheel overhead. There is not another human being in sight.
Archaeologists estimate that 4,000 Taino Indians settled on Middle Caicos around the year 750, leaving behind a ball court and thousands of artifacts in 38 separate sites.
Many traces of this old civilization, along with bones from extinct birds, were discovered in Indian Caves, not far from the ferry dock. A 50-foot-high, dome-shaped ceiling hangs overhead, perforated by the aerial roots of fig trees.
The entrance to the Conch Bar Caves, farther inland, doesn't hint at the extent of these caverns. Inhabited by giant white owls and thousands of bats, Conch Bar Caves are some of the largest in the Caribbean. The caves extend for miles, underscoring almost the entire island, Poach said, and are only partly explored. Visitors should not enter without a guide.
Near the tiny settlement of Bambarra we pick small pomegranates, with delicious, pale seeds. Bambarra is said to have been named by slaves captured from Africa's Bombarra people, all survivors from the 18th-century shipwreck Gambia.
There are only two or three places to stay, including the Blue Horizon Resort at Mudjin Harbour, on Middle Caicos.
Attractions to see on North Caicos include Flamingo Pond -- actually a mud flat where hundreds of flamingos flock -- and Wades Green Plantation, founded by Loyalists from the United States in 1789.
Miles and miles of amazingly intact stone walls are the first sign of the Plantation, located on a dirt track three-quarters of a mile off a mud road west of the small settlement of Kew. This 2,000-acre farm grew long-staple Sea Island cotton, producing more than half of the cotton output for the entire Bahamas around 1800. Cotton and hemp, run wild, dot the landscape today.
Resourceful slaves ran the Wades Green Plantation for 30 years after the death of its owner, living on in the rows of slave houses, still standing today. Six thousand artifacts were excavated in 1989 by a team of archaeologists from UCLA, revealing a uniquely Bahamian culture.
Wades Green Plantation is well worth exploring, although an air of sadness permeates the old buildings overrun by fig trees, which whisper and sigh against the stone walls.
Because there are no tourist facilities outside of the hotels on North Caicos, most visitors spend lazy days on the beach, arranging car rentals, snorkeling, diving and sightseeing trips through their hosts. About a thousand people live on North Caicos, and everybody seems to know everybody else. Visitors are often a topic of conversation.
Dinners at other hotels can usually be arranged with some advance notice at a fixed price of $25 per person; $50 at Club Vacanze. Aside from fresh fish, lobster and a few vegetables, most food is imported from Miami, through Provo, and is far from a bargain.
Turks and Caicos (pronounced KAY-KOS) are two island groups separated by a 22-mile passage. The Turks are on the east and the Caicos on the west with a total population of 14,000; 7,000 on the island of Providenciales. The Caicos are strictly for visitors who want to get away from it all.
The U.S. dollar is the official currency in the island group and English is spoken. Credit cards are accepted at hotels on North and Middle Caicos, but most airlines and car rentals demand cash. Visitors from the U.S. and Canada require a passport or birth certificate.
Flight time from Miami is one hour, 20 minutes. The airport at Provo is served by American Airlines, Turks and Caicos Airways and charter flights. Visitors on their way to outer islands can simply arrive at the airport at Provo and look around for an airline representative. Small airlines, like Global, recruit arriving passengers. Better yet, have your outer island hotel arrange to have a pilot meet you.
For more information on the Turks and Caicos write the Turks and Caicos Tourist Office, 11645 Biscayne Blvd., Suite 302, North Miami, FL 33181 or call the tourist board at (800) 241-0824. Visit on the Web at www.turksandcaicostourism.com.