INTO THE BLUE Drift away in the sparkling turquoise wa­ters of a Caribbean pri­vate-is­land par­adise

Seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion and re­ju­ve­na­tion, Jill Daw­son dives fath­oms down be­neath the Caribbean surf to mar­vel at dol­phins, coral reefs and shoals of trop­i­cal fish

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The first dive I ever did was in Par­rot Cay, a pri­vate is­land in the north­ern Caribbean, in the Turks and Caicos Is­lands. A friend had taken me as a birth­day present. I re­mem­ber get­ting kit­ted out, some rudi­men­tary teach­ing, then tum­bling back­wards off the boat as in­structed, plop­ping into the soft wa­ter, never sus­pect­ing what would hap­pen once I ven­tured into that blue world for the first time. Forty feet down, and the colours were daz­zling: furry pur­ple sea cu­cum­bers, vi­o­let sea fans wav­ing softly, a yel­low trum­pet­fish try­ing to hide be­hind the coral. Above me, an ethe­real blue sur­face. A soli­tary tur­tle scooped through it – I watched its slow pad­dling legs waft away from me. My buoy­ant body tried to fol­low and I felt like the bub­bles in a cham­pagne flute, want­ing to rise to the sur­face. Love at first sight. And a love that hasn’t let up 12 years later.

So, here I am again. I’ve had a crazy few weeks pub­li­cis­ing a book and I’m stressed and ex­hausted, and what I need is a com­plete over­haul: emo­tional, phys­i­cal, spir­i­tual. I’ve es­caped my fam­ily with the ex­cuse that the trip will be re­search for a new novel, but in truth I know that swim­ming, be­ing by my­self and na­ture are as es­sen­tial to me as breath­ing. This time the jour­ney is eas­ier. It’s seven and a half hours from Gatwick to An­tigua with Bri­tish Air­ways, a brief stop and then a fur­ther short flight to Prov­i­den­ciales, the tourist cap­i­tal of the Turks and Caicos Is­lands. With the time dif­fer­ence be­tween the UK and the TCI – they are five hours be­hind us – I can set off from Lon­don at the civilised time of 10 in the morn­ing and be in that blue, blue world by the evening of the same day. And the magic is still there: the oth­er­world­li­ness, the lost-in-space feel­ing, the in­stant let­ting go. Bob­bing like a cork over the coral.

Ac­tu­ally, the wa­ter at that hour fring­ing the is­land of Par­rot Cay is not so much blue as the palest green, like aven­turine crys­tals. A few min­utes of lazy breast­stroke and the light be­gins its work on my pineal gland: I can feel my mood lift im­me­di­ately. If you’re a ner­vous sea swim­mer, this is the place for you to try it. There’s hardly a breeze to ruf­fle the sur­face and the vis­i­bil­ity is so good, the sand be­neath me so white and pure, I might as well be swim­ming over a cloud.

The Turks and Caicos Is­lands boast the third-largest bar­rier reef in the world, mak­ing it a prime des­ti­na­tion for divers and snorkellers. Como Par­rot Cay ho­tel can or­gan­ise both, and the dive op­er­a­tors Big Blue will pro­vide you with fins, masks and the lovely and knowl­edge­able Ni­cole to ac­com­pany you, point­ing out (com­pletely harm­less) nurse sharks ly­ing near the bot­tom and the grouper you’re likely to en­joy grilled for your sup­per, while you drift over coral shaped like a brain one minute, antlers the next. It’s a world of mes­meris­ing beauty. Mid­night par­rot-fish, the vivid blue of lapis lazuli, rain­bow-coloured trig­ger­fish, and then a great shoal of black dur­gon all drift past, striped with fine bands of lu­mi­nous sil­ver.

The chan­nel that sep­a­rates the Turks is­lands from the Caicos is­lands is a deep pas­sage that is also a ma­jor route for hump­back whales, dol­phins and ea­gle and manta rays. Since that first dive and fall­ing in love with the Caribbean seas, I have swum in an area called the Sil­ver Bank be­side a huge hump­back whale – thrum­ming in the wa­ter with me like a jumbo jet – but that was a few years ago and I’m now vis­it­ing at the wrong time in the sea­son; hump­back­whale sight­ings in the TCI are be­tween Jan­uary and April. There is al­ways JoJo, a friendly lo­cal dol­phin that you just might catch a glimpse of. Dur­ing the same trip to the Sil­ver Bank, an At­lantic spin­ner dol­phin did sud­denly ap­pear in the wa­ter and stuck around for a while, frol­ick­ing with us the way some­one else’s pet dog some­times joins you and then takes off.

I could stay down here for ever but my eye is caught by some­thing glint­ing on the sur­face of the sea like a string of hot-pink bunting. I pop my head out of the wa­ter just in time to see five flamin­gos alight in front of me.

If you’re not as ad­dicted to the sea as I am, there’s plenty to keep you on land: Par­rot Cay has a mile of pri­vate beach with sand so fine it feels like bur­row­ing your toes into a bowl of warm flour.

There are bi­cy­cles to get around the is­land – there are no cars, only elec­tric golf bug­gies – as well as daily yoga, Pi­lates, ten­nis and the Como Shamb­hala spa, where Ba­li­nese mas­sage ther­a­pists will of­fer you treat­ments of in­com­pa­ra­ble grace and skill. My favourite, af­ter a day in salt wa­ter and sun, is the Ja­vanese Royal Lu­lur Bath: a mas­sage and body scrub fol­lowed by a wrap of cool­ing yo­ghurt that re­turns your skin to baby-soft­ness. It was tra­di­tion­ally of­fered to royal brides on their wed­ding morn­ing and yes, you do feel like Cleopa­tra as you are handed a tiny cup of honey-sweet­ened gin­ger tea to drink and the scar­let hi­bis­cus flow­ers and frangi­pani are scat­tered into your enor­mous bath…

It was the per­fect place to be by my­self, too: dis­creet, pri­vate, no sense of pry­ing eyes or other cou­ples or fam­i­lies think­ing you’re weird. My evenings were spent in Pi­rate House, a two-bed­room villa with a white-draped four-poster bed, colo­nial-style ceil­ing fans and its own pri­vate pool, in case I fan­cied more swim­ming. And, I ad­mit, I did, while drink­ing rum punch and eat­ing the lo­cal conch frit­ters and line-caught mahi-mahi – a restora­tive end to each day. As my skin turned toasty and my body seemed to vis­i­bly tone and lengthen in front of me, I re­flected on the de­pleted per­son who had be­gun the week on dry land. You could prob­a­bly do a year of ther­apy for the same cost as a week at Par­rot Cay. But seven days of swim­ming in the sea, loung­ing and think­ing on the sun-deck while lizards flick­ered in the cor­ner of my eye re­stored me to my­self. And yes, I did have an idea for a new novel while I was there, and that – as any writer will tell you – is price­less.

Como Par­rot Cay (­mo­ho­, from about £720 a room a night. Jill Daw­son’s trip was or­gan­ised by Heal­ing Hol­i­days (020 7843 3597; www.heal­inghol­i­ and she flew with Bri­tish Air­ways (www. britishair­ from Lon­don Gatwick to Prov­i­den­ciales. Her lat­est novel ‘The Crime Writer’ (Spec­tre) is out now.

Be­low: the pool deck at Pi­rate House in the Turks and Caicos Is­lands’ Como Par­rot

Cay re­sort

Be­low: the

mas­ter bed­room at Pi­rate House

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