St. Croix Is the Caribbean Island Where Celebrities Go…and You Can Too!

CheapOAir Miles Away. July 2019.

The island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a quick escape for those looking for beach, sun, and anonymity. At first glance, the former volcanic island may look like a quiet town with neglected neighborhoods and abandoned buildings (mainly due to frequent hurricanes and closing of the Hovensa oil refinery). But as you drive past the flatlands into the two main cities of Christiansted and Frederiksted, the scenery changes to colorful Danish-style buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, art galleries, and fine boutiques selling handmade jewelry and duty-free products.

Continue reading on CheapOAir Miles Away.

Your Guide to Visiting the Island of Malta

Cuisine Noir Magazine. June 2019.

If you have watched Gladiator, Game of Thrones or Troy, you will recognize the towering fortresses, medieval cities, rustic villages and rocky formations that make up the dramatic backdrops. A popular filming destination, Malta is an island country located in the Mediterranean between Europe and North Africa. Fishing boats on turquoise-blue waters, dry countryside landscapes, ornate palazzos, colorful balconies and Maltese Baroque architecture feel like a mix of Italy and Morocco.

Malta
Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Being at the crossroads of ancient trading routes, Malta has a rich history influenced by the Greeks, Romans, Normans, French, British, Arabs and Phoenicians.

Although Malta is a popular port of call for cruisers and day trippers from southern Italy, it is best to spend a few days soaking in the scenic rolling hills, isolated beaches, ancient towns and friendly locals.

Getting There

The easiest way to get to Malta is via Europe. Connect through Rome with a low-cost flight directly to Malta. Alternatively, combine a visit with Sicily, the Italian island known for its delicious cuisine, picturesque countryside and an active volcano. A ferry from Pozzallo arrives in Malta in less than 2 hours.

The people are friendly and everyone speaks English very well with Maltese (which sounds like Arabic) and Italian spoken widely on the island.

Getting Around

Although Malta has several islands, only three of them are inhabited. The airport is located on the main island, Malta, which is the point of arrival for most travelers. There are many resorts and boutique hotels on the island of Gozo, but Comino is mostly a nature reserve.

The easiest way to see the small country is by renting a car and driving. Be careful of narrow streets and traffic jams in the city centers. Public buses are budget-friendly and well networked.

Lodging 

The luxurious 5-star Phoenicia Hotel has guestrooms commanding glorious views of the Grand Harbor, cathedral and city. Maltese tiled floors, crystal chandeliers and lush gardens make this an ideal place to get a glimpse of the royalty that made Malta home. The Phoenicia has hosted a number of distinguished guests, including Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Jeffrey Hunter, Gérard Depardieu, Joaquin Phoenix and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

To be in the midst of activities, stay at Domus Zamittello, a restored 17th-century palazzo, located at the beginning of the bustling Republic Street inside the cultural capital city of Valletta. Grab a drink at the rooftop balcony overlooking an outdoor theater and watch the vibrant streets from the 16thcentury.

Dining

There is a wide range of culinary options in Malta, from family-run bakeries and food markets to upscale restaurants, and they are a lot less expensive than mainland Europe. Maltese cuisine, like it’s culture, draws on influences from the Mediterranean. Must-try dishes include Gozitan cheeselet, pastizzi, ftira sandwiches, stewed rabbit, and prinjolata. Meals are complemented by locally made wine, cheese, bread and olives.

Farm meal with wine in Malta
Photo credit: Suchata Rawal
Things To Do

With hiking spots, beaches, museums, cathedrals, cafes and festivals, Malta offers something for every kind of traveler. Must-see attractions include the UNESCO World Heritage sites —Hypogeum and the megalithic temples — that are some of the oldest in the world.

The ancient capital of Mdina, with its sandstone and marble buildings, is a delight for admirers of Arabic architecture.

One can easily spend an entire day in the current capital of Valletta, a World Heritage Site, soaking in the scenery from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, admiring the works of local artists at National Museum of Fine Arts, or simply strolling through the narrow streets filled with cafes and shops.

St John’s Co-Cathedral, built by the Order of St. John in the 16th century, is one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in the world, also located in Valletta.

A cruise to the Blue Lagoon or a small boat to the Blue Grotto is a relaxing way to spend the day. Enjoy some quiet time on the sandy beaches and swim in the clear blue waters.

Maltese people love to celebrate and villages often compete to see who has the biggest merrymaking. There are patron saint feasts held practically year-round with fireworks, music, parades and food.

With 300 days of sunshine and mild Mediterranean climate, you can visit Malta any time of the year. It’s location, history and mix of cultures make it a unique and exciting travel destination.

To plan your trip to Malta, visit www.mta.com.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. June 2019.

History Lessons at a Slave Village in Martinique

For Cuisine Noir. September 2018

The French Caribbean island of Martinique sits just north of the sovereign island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean Sea. Best known for its laidback European-style fishing villages, black and white sand beaches and the bustling capital of France-de-Fort, Martinique also has a long dark history.

The Dutch, English, Portuguese and French fought over the island before total control was traded to France in 1815.  When sugar prices rose, sugarcane was established as the main crop and slaves were brought over from Africa to work in the fields. In fact, during its peak, 16% of Martinique’s population was African, as the slave population rose to 60,000 by 1736. It was ultimately the French government that abolished slavery in 1848.

Unfortunately, a lot of that history is buried in complicated history books and often doesn’t reflect the everyday struggles of the people today.

Gilbert Larose, a descendant of slaves, took it upon himself to educate people about the history of slavery on the island. Remembering stories passed down by his forefathers, reading historical documents, and traveling to West Africa, he put his research together to recreate the slave village, La Savane des Esclaves (The Savannah of the Slaves).
Photo: Go Eat Give

Larose started building the small open-air village museum in 1999 on a two-hectare of land in the forest near the town of Les Trois-Ilets. He worked from sunrise to sunset cutting trees to clear the land. Piece by piece, he assembled each clay floor, cane leaf roof and medicinal garden to recreate the traditional huts and houses from the 1800s. Fruits, vegetables and herbs were planted around the homes to show how the dwellers used the land for survival. Paintings of their struggles, mahogany wooden sculptures, original photographs, and tools used for torture were later added to the ‘Memories of Our Ancestors” exhibit. Larose calls his place, “The Antan Lontan Village” and sheds light not just on the history, but on the culture and art of the island as well. He meets groups on a large deck with dried palm leaves tiki and a mural of the village scene where he makes fresh juices and hosts cooking demonstrations and food tastings.

Larose’s ancestors were Nèg’ Mawon or slaves who fled the plantations to live freely, relying entirely on the land. As Larose grew more fascinated with his past, a genetic test determined his ancestry to be 25% from Togo, 15% from Congo, 11% from South Africa, 12% from Nigeria, and 13% from the UK. “I’m a mixed man. I am not white or black. When you understand this, you are not racist anymore,” says Larose. Though still a part of France, Martinicans call themselves “crossbreeds” and don’t identify themselves with one race over another, my translator/guide Leslie Ferraty from Beyond the Beach explained to me.

Larose also wants younger generations to learn about Martinique’s history, as told by a slave descendant, so he published a comic book, “Ti Gilbe Présente l’Histoire de la Martinique.” The French/ English book depicts the tales of the Arawaks, the Caribbean Indians, the French colonists, the Bretons, the Africans, and the Indians who came to live in Martinique from its earliest inhabited times through the abolition of slavery. Larose says, “When you go to school, you learn French history. You don’t study the slave history in Martinique. I wanted kids to discover the real culture and history of the island.” The book is written simply and is graphically intense with illustrations by Bordeaux-based Jojo Kourtex. It documents how the Carib men married Arawak women and how people from Brittany and Normandy were brought over as the first slaves, thus reminding readers of how far back mixed races have been around on the island.

As for Larose, he spends most of his waking hours in the village. Each year, he expands the site, adding signs in English and offering cultural programs. “I want Westerners as well as Martinicans to know about our past. This is the most important thing to me.”

For more information or to look at booking a tour, visit https://www.lasavanedesesclaves.fr/.  You can also connect with Larose on Facebook.

Read the original post on Cuisine Noir.

 

Conversation with Pro Boxer and Caribbean Chef Julius Jackson

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. June 2018

At age of 30, Julius Jackson is a professional boxer, chef, cookbook author, model, and actor. He is a light-heavyweight Olympic qualifier and plays a boxer on the Telemundo series El Cesar based on the life of Julio Cesar Chavez. Born and raised on the beautiful island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Jackson maintains a delicate balance between his professional life, his passion, family and serving the community.

I met Jackson at the St. Croix Food and Wine Experience’s “The Giving Table,” a community-centric private gourmet dinner prepared by celebrity chefs to raise funds for the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development and rebuilding St. Croix after the destruction from two hurricanes in 2017. Jackson carefully plated about 40 servings of pumpkin fritter with a salmon croquette and micro-blended creole sauce, topped with a thyme and parsley garnish. It was an instant crowd pleaser.

How did you get involved with St. Croix Food and Wine Experience?

The St. Croix Food and Wine Experience works with a lot of nonprofits in the USVI, one of which I am closely involved with. I am the head chef and manager of the charitable café/ bakery called My Brothers Workshop which focuses on mentoring and job placement for at-risk youth. We help kids get diplomas online, provide job skills, counseling and mentoring and give them hope to overcome their situations and become better citizens of the island. I also spend a lot of time volunteering at schools and summer camps to talk about boxing and cooking.

What’s your history with boxing?

My dad, Julian “the Hawk” Jackson, was a 3-time world champion boxer and Boxing Hall of Fame recipient. Boxing was huge for our family, but I did not care much for it. I saw my dad get injured and go for surgeries towards the end of his career, which turned me away from the sport. I liked baseball better.

My brothers, on the other hand, did box and would come home and teased me for being fat and lazy. So, I decided to just go to the gym with my dad to get in shape, but I didn’t want to punch or fight anyone. When my brothers started competing in tournaments and needed a sparring mate, my dad asked me to do it. They would beat me up but I couldn’t hit them back, so decided to box. Soon enough, I realized that I was a natural at it and started liking it. I began my amateur boxing career at the age of 13, competed in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China and won the title of WBC (USNBC) Super Middleweight Champion in 2012. I am currently fighting with a professional record of 20-2 with 17 KOs (knockouts).

How did you get into cooking?

When I was a kid, I hated being hungry. I would stay in the kitchen to help my mom cook mostly because I wanted to be the tester and take the first bite. One day, when I was about 10, I was home and hungry, so I decided to cook myself fried chicken. It turned out nice but I remember putting too much Goya adobo! All my brothers wanted some, so I started cooking for everyone. I watched them enjoying what I prepared and it made me feel good. Then on, I would make pancakes, scrambled eggs and Johnny Cakes on the weekends for everyone.

Until high school, I never perceived a career in culinary arts. My counselor advised me to take home economic courses in 8th grade and after graduation, I went to Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach. I worked with a catering company, hotel, restaurant and did some pop-up dinners while maintaining my pro boxing career.

What’s your cookbook about?

Whenever I get a chance to talk with the women in my family, I am always learning how they cook certain Caribbean dishes. Keeping true to my roots, I wrote my Caribbean fusion cookbook focusing on traditional Caribbean recipes across the different islands, with classic French and Italian twists I learned through my training. Some of the recipes include Caribbean quesadillas with fresh mangoes and focaccia bread with avocados. I am Caribbean by blood but I love mixing with other people and cultures.

I wrote “My Modern Caribbean Kitchen” (releasing July 2018) through the two hurricanes Maria and Irma. It was dark everywhere and I had to look for light and internet. I dedicated the book to the victims, while I was also working through the time feeding people at the bakery.

To learn more about Jackson, visit  http://juliusthechef.com and follow him on Twitter.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine

 

Bonaire’s Top 10 – Must See for Cruisers and Travelers

huffpost-travel

 

June 2015

Turquoise blue water, picture perfect sunsets, Dutch Caribbean architecture, landscapes that vary from lush green hills to barren desserts, and not to forget some of the best dive sites in the world – Bonaire is a dream destination for nature lovers.

Located south of Aruba and 50 miles East of Venezuela, Bonaire is part of the ABC islands in the Dutch Caribbean. Whether you are docking for the day, or staying a week, here are some sights and activities you don’t want to miss on the island.

1. Shop and Dine in KRALENDIJK

With colorful buildings, downtown Kralendijk is a charming area with a cruise port (operating 6 months of the year), gift shops, restaurants and central amenities like tourist office, post office, police station, city hall. Surrounding residential neighborhoods and streets have theme names after musical instruments, names of countries, etc. making the city easy to navigate without many signs or even traffic lights.

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Downtown Kralendijk

Taste artfully created fresh catch of the day at At Sea French restaurant (Rated #1 on the island) or try the famous pasta flambéed table side in a huge block of cheese at Ingredients Mediterranean restaurant located at Buddy Dive Resort. Browse around the boutiques and souvenir shops. Pick up locally made dichroic glass jewelry at Elements, and Bonaire’s famous salt mills, grinders and bath salts at Sea Salt Bonaire.

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Elements jewelry store

2. Relax at HARBOUR VILLAGE RESORT AND MARINA

Many cruises choose to get a day pass to enjoy the nicest private beach on the island, where they can get access to hammocks, beach lounges, refreshing drinks, dive shop and turquoise warm waters of the Caribbean. Harbour Village Resort and Marinaoffers guests a charming Caribbean Bohemian style retreat with a private villa feel, surrounded by a burst of colorful flowers, yellow stucco facade, red terra cotta roofs, and golden tiled floors. There is also a spa, restaurant, swimming pool, gym and yacht club on premise. Overnight guests can choose from luxurious ocean front rooms and suite to family villas equipped with kitchens, dining areas and patios.

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Harbour Village Resort and Marina

3. Tour the island in an ELECTRIC VEHICLE

The coolest way to explore the tiny island of Bonaire is aboard a self-driven electric vehicle. Road Runner Bonaire offers tours of the North and South, which begin in the capital Kralendijk. South tour proceeds along the coast passing by famous diver spots, Cargill salt hills, abandoned slave houses, Atlantic Beach and Jibe City. On the way, you can stop to take photos, swim, dive, windsurf or kite board.

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Red slave houses

4. Take photos at WASHINGTON SLAGBAAI NATIONAL PARK 

A fifth of the island of Bonaire is a nationally protected nature sanctuary where visitors can spend an entire day hiking, walking, snorkeling, diving, swimming and bird watching. Expect to see more secluded beaches, caves, tall cactuses, giant windmills, goats, iguanas and hundreds of elegant pink flamingo parties. The geology of the coral island is also visible inside the park, forming interesting patterns and colors, making it a photographer’s paradise.

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Flamingos at Washington Slagbaai National Park

5. Enter the dessert and lagoons HORSEBACK RIDING

Horseback ride through a private ranch passing through cactus trees, dessert landscapes, open fields, and along the coast. Take a break at a secluded lagoon where you can go swimming along with your horse. Rancho Washikemba offers horseback riding lessons, tours and parties and since horses are not native to the island, this is the only official, fully licensed and certified horseback riding ranch on Bonaire.

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Sucheta horseback riding at Rancho Washikemba

6. Learn to WINDSURF 

Take a windsurfing lesson with one of the oldest companies on the island, The Windsurf Place. Here you can rent gear and lockers, eat lunch, and practice on your own or with an instructor. The waters are warm, shallow and picturesque, resembling a vast swimming pool.

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The Windsurf Place

7. DIVE and volunteer to restore coral

Beginner and expert snorkelers and divers will enjoy watching the underwater Coral Restoration Project at Buddy Dive. Help plant, cut, and clean the coral farm, while enjoying a swim in the Caribbean waters. The dive shop offers classroom training, certifications and personal instructors. It’s a great way to give back your time and skills while on vacation.

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Coral restoration project

8. Get lost in KLEIN BONAIRE 

An undeveloped little island makes for a perfect day out. Pack your picnic and beach gear for trip to Bonaire’s west coast. Water taxis and dive boats transport passengers who want to swim, snorkel, or explore the beautiful beaches and clear blue waters. Some natives claim this is their favorite spot to getaway.

9. Step back in time in RINCON 

Rincon is the only other city on the island. Once a town inhabited by the salt slaves who worked on the island, now Rincon is mostly a quiet residential area. Visit Mangazina di Reicultural center in Rincon to get a feel for Bonaire’s history. Aside from the nice views of the valley, you will also find a museum, gift shop, live music and interactive tours. Taste the local cactus liquor at the Cadushy Distillery.

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Mangazina di Rei

10. Pet the DONKEYS

Donkey Sanctuary Bonaire provides a sheltered, protected life to over 400 stray donkeys in Bonaire. It is open to tourists, schools and community members who want to know more about donkeys, have a fun day sightseeing, or want to volunteer. Visitors can drive through the sanctuary in their vehicle (very slowly to avoid accidents) or walk around and be greeted by hundreds of donkeys.

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Sucheta with friendly donkeys

* All photos and words belong to Sucheta Rawal.

Escape the Winter Blues in Turks and Caicos

huffpost-travel-logoWant to escape the cold winter chills this season? How about trading in those snow flurries and cranked up heaters for blue skies, white sand beaches, cool ocean breezes, rum punches and lobsters? While there are lots of options in the Caribbean, the islands of Turks and Caicos (TCI) remain a popular choice among the luxury travelers looking for a winter getaway. Reasons to go include to dive, swim and snorkel in the world’s third largest coral reef system; enjoy the diverse culture; dance to ripsaw music; and eat lots of fresh seafood. English is the main language, and the U.S. dollar is the local currency, which makes travel in TCI relatively easy.

Two groups of tropical islands in the Lucayan Archipelago, namely Turks Islands and Caicos Islands, together make up Turks and Caicos. Technically, the Turks and Caicos are located in the Atlantic Ocean, not the Caribbean Sea. Avoid Grand Turks, a popular cruise ship stop on Eastern Caribbean cruises. Instead, fly into Providenciales, the largest island with over 23,000 residents, but still quiet, charming, and well-developed enough to support tourism without looking very commercialized. In fact, all the resorts have condo-style hotel rooms, and building heights are regulated to maintain the beauty of the island. Another option is to rent a private villa, most of which are owned by investment bankers and celebrities. The villas come with multiple bedrooms and a garden, swimming pool and butler.

Arrive at Providenciales International Airport and pick up a car at Grace Bay Car Rentals. The family-owned company representatives will meet you right outside the arrival area with your set of wheels. Note that the driving rules follow the British style: driver on the right side of the car, and vehicle on the left side of the road. But don’t worry – there are hardly any drivers on the road to watch out for.

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Beach preservation at Providenciales

Grace Bay is the most exciting part of the island, lined with restaurants, resorts and boutiques. Here you will also find one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Stay at the Beach House if you want the seclusion of a residence with the comforts of a hotel. There are 21 spacious 1,000-square foot plus suites with daybeds on the terraces and balconies. The guests also get a dedicated pampering pod on the beach overlooking the warm turquoise waters of the Atlantic.

Kitchen 218 at the Beach House is one of the most popular TCI restaurants and serves refined Caribbean food with global influences for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Chef Cristian Rebolledo of Kitchen 218 creates 7-11 course tasting menus that make a special occasion even more memorable.

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Beach at Blue Haven Resort and Marina

Tucked away at the northeast side of the island in a predominantly residential area is the Blue Haven Resort and Marina. There is a small beach and a view of the mangroves, but that’s not the only reason to stay here. The marina at Blue Haven is one of the only two on the island that can accommodate yachts, sailing and deep sea fishing boats arriving at the official port of entry into the Caribbean. Blue Haven Marina is an Island Global Yachting (IGY) destination, offering gas, utilizes, customs/ immigration and all hotel amenities to the guests.

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Infinity pool at Blue Haven Resort and Marina

Each room at Blue Haven is a condominium with a spacious bedroom and separate living and dining areas, walk in-closets, huge bathrooms, a sleek kitchen equipped with contemporary dinnerware and a private balcony with breakfast tables and lounge chairs. Guests don’t need to leave the resort, as it’s well-equipped with necessary facilities, including an infinity pool, swim-up bar, spa, gym, marina, dive shop, Wi-Fi, business center, grocery store, coffee shop and restaurants. There are also beach volleyball courts, bocce ball, a horseshoe’s court and open-air movies. Beat the crowds and enjoy a relaxing massage, facial or body treatment side-by-side with that someone special at the hotel’s Elevate Spa.

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Kayaking with Big Blue Unlimited

Make some time to visit Big Blue Unlimited, a water sporting facilities located at the property that offers stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, kiteboarding, snorkeling, diving, private boat charters, biking and cultural eco-tours across the islands. Also, Caribbean Cruisin offers day trips to other islands, North and South Caicos ferries, fishing charters and Jet Skis right off the hotel’s lagoon.

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Jet skiing with Caribbean Cruisin

Breakfast is served at the MARKET, a casual self-serve restaurant where you can get fresh smoothies, cappuccinos, pastries and breakfast plates. A quick lunch of salads and sandwiches can be enjoyed sitting by the marina on a beautiful sunny afternoon or boxed to-go if you are venturing out for some water activities. In the evening, locals and guests flock to Salt Bar and Grill for drinks and snacks or to Fire and Ice, a casual-yet-sophisticated restaurant which is already becoming the talk of the town.

Want to know where to find the best corn chowder, conch fritters, chopped lobster, Thursday fish fry or rum cake? A good way to explore the culinary background of Turks and Caicos is with a Taste of TCI Food Tour. The tour is more like a progressive meal with TCI native Mrs. Sheniqua, who has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the local cuisine, chefs and restaurants. She handpicks her favorite dishes and takes you on a half-day culinary journey around the island, showing you popular restaurants, festival sites and farmers’ markets.

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Sheniqua of Taste of TCI Food Tour with famous chef Mr. Bugaloo

Other options to eat on the island are locally-owned restaurants that serve Caribbean and international flavors using local ingredients as much as they can. There are no fast food or franchise restaurants on the entire island. De Conch Shack, mentioned in “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” by Patricia Schultz, is an open-air casual restaurant with an exhaustive rum selection and harvested-to-order conchs. One of the best meals you will find on the island is at Coco Bistro, one of the oldest restaurants on the island to blend the flavors of the Caribbean with the world. Dine al fresco among the luscious tropical gardens, savoring delicate flavors of whole spiny lobsters with drawn butter and tuna tataki on crispy wantons.

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Conch three ways – fritters, curry and salad

TCI is one of those places that has managed to preserve its natural and cultural wealth. Along with ongoing food and music festivals hosted throughout the year, there is a strong attitude towards protecting the mangroves, corals and beaches. Be prepared to party in paradise along with a diverse crowd, including people from Britain, Canada, America, France, the Bahamas, Hispaniola and virtually everywhere else in the world that now call TCI home.

~ Words and photography by Sucheta Rawal. To read more about her travels to Turks and Caicos, as well as 50+ countries, visit her blog, Go Eat Give.