My family of four is in quarantine at the Beaches resort in Turks and Caicos, unable to return to Canada from a very extended vacation until the end of January because our children tested positive for COVID-19. They’re fine. Our modest inconvenience seems almost leisurely compared to what we’ve been hearing from fellow vacationers stranded abroad after ignoring the government of Canada’s advice to avoid non-essential travel.
As the Omicron wave spread globally, the vacation horror stories mounted. Back in December, people reported testing positive and being stuck in hotel isolation wings at their own expense or dank government-run facilities with no hot water and “indigestible food.” In Facebook groups created by guests at the resort we originally planned to attend, people stuck in quarantine would share every miserable detail while begging fellow guests to sneak some fruit from the buffet to their isolation corridors. These vacation quarantine accounts persisted, but Canadians continued to jump on planes, escaping the -30 degree weather and 55 cm snowfalls.
We did too. But our story ended up being one of luck, comfort, some guilty feelings and extreme privilege. We had a minor brush with COVID-19 despite our best efforts to avoid it, and that resulted in an extended stay on the island and – thanks to the Beaches’ vacation assurance program – a free vacation for next winter.
Deciding to vacation during a pandemic
We had already cancelled two vacations to Jamaica, both booked at least seven months earlier in the hopes that COVID would clear up or the vaccine would protect everyone enough so that we could travel without worry. We held on till the eleventh hour to that second vacation, scheduled to depart on January 4. I was selfishly and stubbornly holding on to taking that break.
But on January 1, Jamaica reported 729 new COVID-19 cases (the daily cases would reach almost 2000 in a couple weeks). The Omicron variant seemed to be taking hold in a country that only has a 20 per cent vaccination rate. Over fear of quarantine and overwhelmed hospitals, we cancelled on January 2, losing what we paid on insurance but retaining the remaining cost of the vacation.
Then, on January 3, Ontario announced lockdowns. Schools, gyms, restaurants and movie theatres would be closed. We no longer had any physical reason to be in Canada. So we said “Fuck it, let’s get out.” Our kids, 11 and 10, could skip the whole disrupted school schedule. And we could work from quarantine if we had to. (Spoiler alert: I am doing just that.)
But what country felt safe? We were thinking of ourselves when asking that question, of course. A more empathetic soul would also consider the safety of locals at these destinations who have no choice but to welcome tourism because that’s what their economy relies on. Jamaica’s lax policies allowed unvaccinated travellers to arrive with only a negative antigen test. The Bahamas and Aruba were the same. Antigua at least required adults to be fully vaccinated. And then there’s Turks and Caicos, which has an 80 per cent vaccination rate and requires two doses for visitors over 16.
At the time, entry into Turks and Caicos also required a PCR test gathering a nasopharyngeal sample to enter the country. That’s the one that reaches towards the back of your throat and searches your soul for COVID (afterwards, they updated the requirements to allow antigen tests but with a nasopharyngeal sample). Those extra precautions motivated us. We booked a 15-night stay at Beaches, arriving January 5, while packing to ride out the entire winter.
Turks and Caicos
Turks and Caicos are a collection of islands southeast of the Bahamas that have frequently flirted with the idea of becoming a province or territory of Canada. The British Oversees Territory with serene white sand beaches, turquoise waters and not much by way of vegetation relies almost entirely on tourism.
One of the most famous and frequent visitors to Grace Bay is Drake. The day before we arrived, the OVO rapper posted thirst traps of himself soaking it up on Grace Bay. According to locals, Drake pretty much lives on the island when he’s not in LA or his Bridlepath mansion. They’ve grown accustomed to spotting him at the casino, the Provo golf course or a famed local restaurant called Mr. Grouper’s. Every evening we’d hear about a new Drake sighting, an indication of the kind of shadow he casts over these islands.
A young woman from the island who asked not to be identified finds that annoying, pointing specifically to the photo of Drake wearing a PROVO Golf Club shirt and hat modified to say OVO Golf Club. “He acts like he owns the place,” she snaps.
The Beaches resort is a few miles down the beach from Drake’s villa. The place ain’t cheap, which isn’t a surprise for anything Sandals-owned. Turks and Caicos itself is already ridiculously expensive, since everything has to be imported. Canadians who own a $4 million villa on the beach tell me they would pack a cooler full of meat before travelling to avoid paying local prices.
At Beaches, you can see where the money is spent. The service is exceptional. And the food is miles above what you would expect at an all-inclusive. You could spend an entire vacation avoiding buffets, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner at à la carte restaurants, gorging on rack of lamb, conch ceviche or escargot, while sipping on unlimited Black Label.
You’d also have a hard time getting bored. Our days were kept busy between the beach, the inclusive sailing and scuba lessons, the glass-bottom boat visiting nearby reefs and a waterpark for the kids featuring slides, a small lazy river and a surf simulator. These activities are essential since there isn’t a whole lot more you can do on these tiny islands besides visiting more beaches, reefs and restaurants.
The place is wonderful, but we enjoyed it with a certain amount of anxiety. Vacationing during COVID isn’t exactly stress-free. There are too many unknowns that play with your nerves, putting a damper on paradise.
Early on, we enjoyed as much as we could, while trying to be mindful about masking and social distancing. For the most part we were outdoors and isolated, staying clear of the crowded hot tub full of unmasked Americans.
But there were those moments where we let our guards down. An indoor teppanyaki restaurant where people like to scream at each other over clanging utensils wasn’t a great idea in retrospect. Finding our children dancing the night away at the kids’ club unmasked added to our worries. And there were a handful of casual conversations where folks just got a little too close. We don’t know if our kids caught COVID from one of these instances or somewhere else. All we know is they caught it.
My son got mild symptoms, leading to one of the worst nights of my life.
I embarked on this vacation fearless of catching COVID, banking on the odds that we would recover quickly if we caught it while rationalizing that we would probably catch it in Ontario anyway. But when the kids had COVID, I couldn’t stop thinking about how bad things could get. I listened to my son breathe all night, jumping at every quiver or tremble to make sure he wasn’t deteriorating. I hated myself for stubbornly insisting on going on this vacation and putting my children’s lives at risk, however minimal it seemed at the time. Weighing the worst-case scenario against a desperate craving for some sun and saltwater leads to the most potent case of self-disgust.
Again, this is a story of luck and privilege. The kids bounced back quickly. And somehow, my wife and I keep testing negative.
The horror stories we were reading from other travellers about their quarantine experience contributed to our anxiety. But once our quarantine at Beaches began, those anxieties melted away.
The resort kept us in our room, all expenses paid by their insurance program. Room service delivered food from the restaurants within the hour. The meal quality didn’t suffer at all. The lovely hotel staff and even the resort manager would check in on us periodically to make sure we had every comfort, like memory foam pillows or board games for the kids. I was able to continue working. Mom and the kids binge-watched shows, played games and got their vitamin D on the balcony.
Five days later, we were allowed to leave our room because of our vaccine status and an all clear on antigen tests. But we couldn’t return home to Canada since we require either a negative PCR test or a 10-day old positive test. PCR tests, which measure the antibodies your body creates to fight COVID, can stay positive months after infection. So we’re now here waiting for those 10 days to pass, the family enjoying an extended vacation while I carry on working from warmer climes.
And we are already planning our return trip to Turks and Caicos, which is also fully covered thanks to the Beaches vacation assurance program. Despite catching COVID near the end of our 15-day stay, Beaches makes up for the interruption by providing a credit voucher equal to what we originally paid, which is the kind of perk that helps us leave with no regrets.
Now I feel a new kind of anxiety brewing, a dread about returning to Toronto. We’ll be back this weekend after a nearly month long escape. Unless my wife or I end up testing positive.