Cockburn Town is the capital and seat of the Government of the Turks and Caicos. This small coastal settlement is found on the western side of Grand Turk, the second-most populated island in the Turks and Caicos.
The town is named after Sir Francis Cockburn, then governor of the Bahamas in the early 1800s. Cockburn Town is the oldest permanent settlement in the country, having been initially settled by sea salt producers from Bermuda in 1681 (the same year Philadelphia was founded), and predates many other European settlements in the Caribbean, including Kingston and Nassau.
History and Architecture
The rise of the town was mainly due to the sea salt industry that once operated on Grand Turk, Salt Cay, and South Caicos. At a time when salt was a valuable commodity, the natural shallow ponds in the Turks and Caicos were easy to adapt to the evaporation of ocean water. The income from salt exports and the necessity of infrastructure were what created Cockburn Town.
The architecture of the older structures in town was heavily influenced by the British Colonial Bermudian style. Construction of these buildings would typically be of formed limestone blocks mortared together, with an interior and exterior coating of smooth stucco to prevent the soft limestone from deteriorating. Roofs and floors would usually be made of wood planks. Many of these old buildings have been restored and converted into villas and inns.
As to be expected with a low-lying tropical coastal town, the rare hurricane was often devastating, and Cockburn Town typically had to largely be rebuilt every decade or two. An example was the September 1866 Hurricane, which destroyed most of the buildings in the country, sank many ships, and washed away one and a quarter million bushels of sea salt that was waiting for export. More recently, Hurricane Ike in 2008 caused quite a bit of damage, some of which is still being slowly repaired to this day.
Exploring Cockburn Town
As the oldest town and the center of government in the Turks and Caicos, Cockburn Town definitely has the most character of all the settlements in the country.
The historical part of Cockburn Town is not extensive. It mainly follows the coastline for about one mile (1.6 km), with the majority of sights on either Queen Street or Front Street, both of which run parallel to the beach. Access to the beautiful Cockburn Town Beach can be found at many spots along both of these roads and off of Duke Street.
When exploring Cockburn Town, we recommend starting at Duke Street on the southern end of the town and heading north along this coastal road. You’ll mainly see quaint vacation villas, and a few small inns and restaurants.
After about half a mile (0.8 km), Duke Street merges with Queen Street, which fronts the ocean. After a short distance, Queen Street becomes Front Street at some indiscernible point. Many of what used to be the important government and social buildings in the Turks and Caicos stand along Queen Street and Front Street.
Next to Her Majesty’s Prison and at the northern end of Front Street, small outdoor gift and souvenir stalls can be found.
Main Sights and Attractions
The Turks and Caicos National Museum is the top attraction in the area. On display are Taino artifacts, recovered objects and an exhibit from the oldest excavated European shipwreck in the New World, and many fascinating curios from around the country. There’s also an old Fresnel lens from the Grand Turk Lighthouse, artifacts from the famous Molasses Reef Wreck, and memorabilia from state visits to the Turks and Caicos by members of the British royal family. The small shop at the museum is also a great place to find a souvenir, get island information, or purchase a printed travel guide.
Open for tours, H.M. Prison is another interesting site. Restored, this historical compound houses exhibits on pirates, crime, and punishment. The entrance to the prison is found a short distance off of Front Street on Victoria Street.
St Mary’s Anglican Church is one of the most beautiful churches in the country and one of only two that are beachfront. The bright red trim and beautiful trees at this small church are one of the most photographed spots in the town.
The scenic Cockburn Town Beach can be found fronting the entire old part of Cockburn Town. Small concrete seawalls and jetties break up parts of the beach but are easily crossed. As with all beaches in the country, access is free. To the south Cockburn Town Beach becomes English Point.
On the eastern outskirts of Cockburn Town is the tranquil Pillory Beach.
The Grand Turk JAGS McCartney International Airport (GDT) is located about 3 miles (4.8 km) away, and as such isn't within walking distance of the town.
Cockburn Town is not very large, and most visitors will have no difficulty exploring the old part of the town on foot. All main sights are on a strip with a length of less than one mile (1.6 km), and typical progression is linear with very little backtracking. Although not needed, bicycles can be an excellent way of getting around. It is possible to drive a car through Old Cockburn Town, however many streets are one-way and parking is limited.
Unlike much of the Turks and Caicos, Cockburn Town has signage for streets and historic locations and landmarks, which simplifies navigation and provides interesting insights into the history of the town.
Cruise Center Visitors
Traveling between Cockburn Town and the Grand Turk Cruise Center is a bit more of an issue. If you don’t have a rental vehicle or scooter, the only other option is a taxi.
Taxis to and from the Cruise Center cost $5 per person each way.
Due to the intense sun and lack of sidewalks, we do not recommend walking the 3-mile (4.8 km) distance between the Cruise Center and Cockburn Town.
Hotels and Villas
Many of the old colonial buildings in Cockburn Town have been restored and converted into small bed and breakfast, hotel, and villa accommodations.
These quaint lodgings are just steps from the excellent patches of beach that front the town. Grand Turk’s overnight tourism largely caters to the scuba diving market, and many of hotels offer combined packages that include accommodation and dives.
Several of the hotels offer kayaks and paddleboards for guests. This can be an interesting way to see the town from the water, and there’s often high visibility in the water for excellent snorkeling. Be advised that this is near the ocean wall and the wind and currents may push you out to the open sea.
Cockburn Town Weather and Climate
At less than 100 miles (160 km) across from the westernmost point of land (West Caicos) to the easternmost (Martin Pinzon Cay), the Turks and Caicos is quite a small country. As such, there isn’t a huge variance in weather and climate throughout the Turks and Caicos.
Due to their direct exposure to the eastern trade winds, Cockburn Town and Grand Turk generally see less cloud cover and rainfall than the Caicos Islands experience. This dry and sunny weather was perfect for sea salt production.