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By Chris McBeath
For Travel Writers' Tales

When I think of the Turks & Caicos archipelago, captivating images of coral reefs, dazzling white sands, aquamarine waters and cerulean blue skies seduce my thoughts. Naturally, my imagination has photo shopped them to a perfection that reflects reality. Or does it?

In truth, donkeys, horses and cattle still have right of way on many of the region's islands, cays and spits. The tempo is soft and easy, though in Providenciales, aka "Provo", times - they are a-changing. Construction cranes kick up the dust of new infrastructure, building shells line the waterfront with an eye on tourism, and newly minted lots beg for development. Yet through it all, one mistress remains unruffled. She is the Caribbean Queen, sovereign of all conches, and a curly-cued mollusk that almost defines the lifestyle here. Conches might be an endangered and threatened species in other parts of the world but on Provo, they are a cultural icon, viewed with the same kind of stature that traditional fish 'n chips once enjoyed in England.

At first blush, I thought touring a conch farm might hold greater interest for a naturalist or an epicurean, but when I learned it was the only place in the world where you can witness the life cycle of a conch, my curiosity piqued. I am now a walking wiki-companion of molluskular detail.

Every year, a conch lays nine masses of 500,000 eggs (that's a whopping 4.5 million eggs a year) from which, in the wild, only one per cent is likely to survive to maturity -- conchs are among the lowest of the food chain. The farm, however, has raised the survival rate to almost 25 per cent by nurturing the metamorphosis of eggs to larvae, to free swimming veligers (baby conch), to slow-growing bottom dwellers. It takes a conch three years to reach adulthood but even then, their shells measure only six inches long. Since conchs can easily double that size during their 20 year life span, you can start to guess the age of some of the discarded shells you'll find along the shore. Old age, however, makes their meat too tough and chewy to be considered good eating. The farm harvests around 4.5 million of their young conchs each year, and releases 500,000 to the wild as part of a sustainability program for the species.

A highlight of the tour is a performance by the farm's two featured entertainers, Sally and Jerry. Each is more than seven years old; they are the oldest conchs in residence and if asked nicely -will emerge from their shells for petting and some terrific photo opportunities. The kids will love them. And if you want a shell to take home, there are piles to sort through though beach combing for these treasures is way more fun.

Eating conch, however, is what these islands are all about whether as fast-food options at roadside eateries or in resort restaurants that insist on styling the food au couture. For my money, it simply doesn't get any better than Da Conch Shack - a local favourite that's worth the drive if words like 'indigenous' and 'authentic' are in your vacation vocabulary.

Set on the sandy shore of Blue Hills Beach, meals are served at picnic tables beneath the shade of grass-woven umbrellas with the ocean a mere footstep away. The shack itself is more like a concrete bunker and although dining inside can be welcome respite from the heat, as well as sudden gusts of wind, it comes with a battalion of flies that seem to hover, though never land, in and around the kitchen. If this thought leaves you queasy, stay outside and adopt an ostrich attitude because eating here redefines the meaning of fresh. Select any one of the conch dishes, such as the island's best fritters, and the staff will retrieve your meal directly out of the ocean, and then cracks, cuts and prepares it to order. The just-caught grouper, snapper, and lobster are equally mouthwatering. I only hope that new tourism regulations don't sanitize this place out of existence because when all is said and done, it is quintessential Provo ... and epitomizes the Caribbean's conch culture.

If You Go

Located 85 minutes from Miami, American Airlines has daily nonstop flights from Los Angeles, connecting to Provo. As the most established multi-resort operation, Ocean Club offers a choice of beachfront rooms, suites and apartments; ( For information:

Photos: 1) Da Conch Shack on the beach
2) Dining at Da Conch Shack
3) Conch performance at Conch Farm
4) Conch farming pens
5) Beachcombing for Conch Shells

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