Tobago Thrills

Tobago has a different kind of excitement, one that makes the tiny island overflow with unexpected delights. It's full of life – human, animal and bird– and its natural wonders surpass those of much larger islands. It's hard not to have a good time in Tobago. Donna Yawching explains

  • There's a wide range of good accommodation for visitors in Tobago. Photograph courtesy Blue Waters Inn
  • Barracuda blue. Photograph by Alex Smailes
  • Photograph courtesy Blue Waters Inn
  • Children's carnival. Photograph by Sol McCants
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  • Members of the Baptist religion on their way to church. Photograph by J. Alleyne
  • Old water wheel, a relic of plantation life. Photograph by J. Alleyne
  • A pink riot of bouganvillea. Photograph by Ean McKay
  • Pretty post. Photograph by Ean McKay/ Adventure Farm and Nature Reserve
  • Restaurant chic, Pigeon Point. Photograph by J. Alleyne
  • Painting of a Tobago beauty by Martin Superville. Photograph courtesy M. Superville
  • Pigeon Point, one of the most recognised scenes in the Caribbean. Photograph by Ean McKay/Adventure Farm and Nature Reserve
  • Beach at Plymouth. Photograph by J. Alleyne
  • Shopping for a little bit of Tobago to take home. Photograph by Alex Smailes
  • Pulling in the seine: an ancient method of fishing still seen in Tobago. Photograph by Ean McKay/Adventure Farm and Nature Reserve
  • Tobago is a "snorkeller's dream". Photograph by Alex Smailes
  • Adventure Eco Villas, overlooking Adventure Farm and Nature Reserve, Plymouth. Photograph by Ean McKay/ Adventure Farm and Nature Reserve
  • Underwater riches. Photograph by Alex Smailes
  • Blue Tanager pecks at a paw paw. Photograph by Ean McKay

It’s a brilliant sparkling day. The twin-engined dive boat roars through the water, cresting blue swells and leaving a churn of white froth in its wake. Suddenly: “Look!” cries someone, pointing; and there, far to starboard, a dozen large shapes are leaping into the air and plunging into the waves, leaping and plunging and leaping again. It takes me a moment to focus; to understand that a school of dolphins is moving toward us at a tremendous speed.

The boat slows down to watch; the sun beats fiercely on our shoulders; the seascape is broken by the jagged rocks of St Giles Islands thrusting upward with their swirling coronas of seabirds. It is a magic moment; then the dolphins stream past, and are gone. We look at each other: laughing, exhilarated. Seconds later, we’ve reached our dive site; and as my partner adjusts his mask and prepares to roll backward into the waves, he grins at me and exclaims: “Let’s have fun!” Splash.

Let’s have fun. If Tobago had a motto, that would probably be it. Below or above the waterline, this is a place where it’s almost impossible not to have fun. This tiny island offers some of the best scuba diving in the Caribbean, with the possibility of seeing anything from a whaleshark to giant manta rays, not to mention (at Speyside) the largest brain coral in die world. Virtually every rocky point is a snorkler’s dream- though it is wise to be careful of currents at the mouth of the bays. A massive flow of nutrient -rich effluent from the rivers of South America feeds the reefs and waters of Tobago, to produce an unusually rich diversity species – and exceptionally rewarding underwater adventures.

On terra firma, the adventures are no less intriguing. Birdwatchers revel in the 200-odd species that live on or frequent the island, including the majestic frigatebirds that swoop and sore around the crags of St Giles, off Tobago’s north coast; and the rare Red-biIled Tropicbirds that nest on the cliffs of Little Tobago Island, an easy 10- minute boat-ride from the Speyside coast. Deep in the rain forest, the Collared Trogon lurks amidst the leaves; on the outskirts, the Motmot (known locally as King of the Woods) sits boldly on the low branches, his distinctive racquet- tail rendering him unmistakable.

And if, hiking through the bush, you should hear a tremendous racket, like dozens of badly rusted gates desperately in need of some oil, that’s probably the cocrico (or, more properly, the Rufous-vented Chachalaca), Tobago’s national bird and considered by frustrated farmers to be Tobago’s national pest. They travel in groups, and are large, brown and clumsy; you’ll see them, if you look carefully (they’re not as easy to spot as you’d expect), striding along the branches of trees. A loud clattering noise could be the unusual wingbeat of the cornbird or yellowtail (Crested Oropendola), exiting its even more unusual, three-foot-long, hanging nest.

Then there’s the “neither fish nor fowl” category of nature: the giant leatherback turtles that crawl up onto the beaches of the west coast each spring to nest. It may take some effort (and several very late nights) to see this amazing spectacle; but it’s worth it. The leatherbacks are endangered, and wanton hunting makes them more so each year; but those that do survive and return offer a rare glimpse into the prehistoric past.

Tobago, in short, is custom-made for eco-vacations, as an increasing number of canny entrepreneurs is realising. It offers good weather, spectacular scenery, diverse eco-systems, and relatively uncrowded beaches. Development is still in the early stages: the island can boast only about 1,900 hotel rooms. While this might be considered a downside in business and governmental circles, it is a big plus as far as the average traveller is concerned, since it means there is still a fair amount of indigenous culture left, and most of the attractive spots have not yet been spoilt by over-development.

Still, development is inevitable in Tobago. A recent boom in hotel and expatriate housing developments means that available beachfront property is more than just scarce on the real estate market: it is virtually impossible to find. At one end of the spectrum are small-scale, intimate eco-resorts which are closely linked to the surrounding communities these include Kariwak Village Holistic Haven and Footprints Eco-Resort, resorts with an emphasis on nature and inner healing. But several huge high-end projects are in the works. Phase One of the massive Tobago Plantations project, for example, opened earlier this year with a 200-room five-star Hilton hotel; future phases will include villas, bungalows, luxury condominiums, a golf course, a marina, and two more hotels, as well as ancillary services, on a 750-acre site. The villa sector is also growing, providing luxurious accommodation for visitors who want the intimacy of a private home, with all the details taken care of: Stonehaven, Plantations and Sanctuary Villas are fine examples.

Despite an influx of outsiders both transient and semipermanent, Tobagonians have taken change largely in their stride. This, after all, is an island accustomed to invasions: during the course of its turbulent colonial history, it changed hands more than two dozen times, bouncing back and forth between the French, the English and the Dutch like a crazy-rubber ball. The island’s place names reflect this diversity of ownership, with villages being called anything from Castara to Auchenskeoch, Glamorgan to Les Coteaux. The coves of Charlotteville were once the lair of notorious pirates: territorial battles gave Bloody Bay its name and left, reputedly, dozens of sunken warships in the Scarborough harbour. With so much drama in their past, what’s a few sunburned tourists to the average Tobagonian?

Well, a source of income, for one thing. Tourism only really swung into high(ish) gear about eight years ago, when liberalising legislation removed previous restrictions on land ownership and foreign exchange: but in the past few years, what was formerly a rural-agrarian economy based largely on market gardens and artisan fishing has begun to lean slowly and inexorably upon the tourist dollar. Older pursuits are gradually being discarded in favour of new, more lucrative occupations: at an exchange rate of $6 to $1, a U. S. dollar goes a long way here; so tour-guiding, for example, is a growth industry, and in some areas craftsmen are almost as plentiful as mangoes.

The more entrepreneurial Tobagonian – those with access to cash or credit – are building guest houses, opening restaurants, acquiring glass-bottom boats: in short, buying into a piece of the action. The less endowed are finding jobs in the expanding hotel and restaurant industries. It’s the first step along a part of irrevocable development – a step away from the plantation economies of the 19th century, and the virtually non-existent economy of most of the 20th. Whether it proves to be a step up or a step down is debatable; and remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, however, the visitors are arriving in increasing numbers: in 1998 (the last year for which figures are available), there were 56,001 direct arrivals, as compared to 17,438 in 1993. Hotel rooms back then numbered about 700, a figure which has almost tripled. From being a destination where, 10 years ago, the only international access was via Trinidad and an unreliable air shuttle service, Tobago’s small airport is now serviced directly by BWIA, the national airline, and several foreign airlines. Air shuttle services between the two islands now run approximately every two hours until 9 p.m. Plans are on the table to revamp and expand the airport, in an attempt to improve its efficiency and expand its capacity to handle big aircraft. As for sea access, cruise ship arrivals have risen from 8,678 in 1990 to 22,270 in 1996, representing a bonanza for taxi drivers and tour operators – not to mention innumerable craftsmen, food vendors and entertainers.

While cruise ship visitors must cram all of Tobago’s attractions into a single day of sightseeing, the long-stay vacationer can take a more relaxed approach, one more in tune with the general tenor of the island. Tobago is small in size, but big in attitude: it takes a full hour and a half to drive from one end to the other, a distance of about 41 km (26 miles), as the crow flies. Roads are, for the most part, narrow and winding; and the concept that a road is for cars is not one that has taken root in the minds of the local population, human or animal.

Goats, schoolchildren, and “limbers” (young men passing the time of day) wander across the streets with blissful insouciance: it’s up to the cars to watch out. Driving habits are ad hoc: Tobagonians drive on whichever side of the road has fewer potholes at any given time; and trucks drive right down the middle, even around blind corners. All the more reason for the uninitiated visitor to take his time getting from A to B. There’s no point rushing, in any case: you’re never all that far from your home base. And a leisurely drive allows you to discover unexpected views, shady nooks, hidden waterfalls. Countless rudimentary roads invite exploration: more often than not, they lead to a silent cove where your only company is the seabirds.

One of Tobago’s greatest charms is its virtual lack of obligatory “tourist attractions”. For an island with so much history, this one has curiously few historical artifacts. Apart from Fort King George, which overlooks the capital Scarborough and which features a small indigenous museum (two birds with one stone, from the visitor’s point of view), there are few remaining fortifications that amount to much more than a heap of stones or the odd cannon. The remnants of Fort James, at Plymouth, are better preserved than most, and offer a splendid view down the west coast, all the way to Pigeon Point. Plymouth, as it happens, was the site of Tobago’s first permanent settlement; the fort’s wonderful vantage point explains why.

Few forts, one museum, no historical houses to visit – this is a place to have fun! A place to spend one’s time, guilt-free, on the beaches – one for every mood. Choose a beach to match your sarong! Today, perhaps, the cheerful, tourist-resort atmosphere of Pigeon Point, with its silken turquoise water protected by the embrace of Buccoo Reef: this is where you sign on for a party cruise, a reef tour, a sunset sail. Tomorrow, the wild seclusion of Englishman’s Bay, approached through huge stools of bamboo and fringed from end to end with deep green woods. Or the enchanting Pirates’ Bay, where the snorkelling never fails to enthral. Or how about Store Bay, near to the airport: Tobago’s party beach where you can buy almost anything.

Other possible activities include golf, at the scenic Mt Irvine Golf Course: horseback riding at Inn on the Bay (formerly Palm Tree Village); deep-sea fishing with charter boats leaving from Store Bav; jet-skiing at Pigeon Point, watersports at Mt Irvine; hiking virtually anywhere on the island: and helicopter tours from the airport area. Shopping is less than compelling in Tobago, with the “quality” stuff mostly to be found in the high-priced hotel boutiques, and local craftwork flooding the beaches and the streets of Scarborough.

Shoppers seeking “serious” artwork will find their choices limited; but interestingly enough, this is a commodity that has finally started creeping into a previously art-starved community. Martin Superville’s oil paintings at the Art Gallery (which he owns and runs with his wife Rachael, a watercolourist) are powerful and evocative; while Jungle Art, near Grafton Hotel, exhibits a range of work by local artists, from quality woodcarvings to oils and watercolours. Planet Ceramics, near the airport, turns out artistic clay and ceramic items; and the recently opened African Art Gallery offers a veritable treasure-trove of imported African artifacts, from hats and masks to batik cloth and ebony carvings. For artwork that won’t fit into your suitcase, visit the Bethel studio-cum-gallery-cum-home of Luise Kimme, a German sculptress who has lived in Tobago for many years, and who often uses an entire tree trunk to create her visions of sleek dancers and feisty village maidens.

If daytime offers a plethora of choices, Tobago’s evenings can be equally varied: from the starlit hammock under the trees, to the lively bars and restaurants of the Crown Point area. The bigger hotels present “cultural shows” alongside their dinners; the trendier places – including Bonkers, 11 Degrees North, Shirvan Watermill, Indigo, Seahorse Inn and Le Beau Rivage –offer stylish food, sometimes with live entertainment, sometimes not. One of the best restaurants in Tobago is Rouselle’s, which, with absolutely no gimmicks or come-ons, serves up exquisite cuisine on the verandah of a charming old house near Scarborough. The small and intimate Kariwak Hotel is also known for its excellent kitchen, and its carat-roofed dining area is more picturesque than most. The House of Pancakes and La Petite Patisserie are good choices for light fare, breakfast and tea. At the other end of the spectrum, hearty indigenous food can be had in any number of small local establishments, including the well-known and popular ladies at the Store Bay beach facility. Their curry crab and dumplings (the latter, though, could double as a lethal weapon) have become a tasty Tobago tradition.

Serious party animals will feel at home at Lush, off Shirvan Road; the Copra Tray on the Old Milford Road; and the rowdy Golden Star, where amateur talent competitions and karaoke nights are major attractions. All these establishments, of course, are at the south (read, noisy) end of the island: in the north, a good time is watching the full moon silver the Atlantic as it rises over Little Tobago Island; and bedtime can be as early as 9 p.m., with the trade winds as a lullaby.

A study in contrasts? That’s one way to describe Tobago. A community in transition? That’s another. As the forces of the future face off against the habits of the past, only one thing is sure to remain constant: the spirit of Tobago, a spirit of good fellowship and pure. unadulterated … fun.


Cigar-shaped Tobago lies 21 miles north-east of Trinidad. Seven miles wide and 26 long; a central forested ridge rises to 1,800 feet (570 m). Population 50,000; English-speaking; an integral part of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago.

BWIA operates daily return flights between Crown Point, Tobago, and Piarco International Airport in Trinidad. BWIA also offers convenient connections from Miami, New York, Toronto, London and Caracas, as well as Caribbean countries.

Crown Point International Airport, on the southwest tip of the island, must be one of the friendliest in the world; 10 km from Scarborough, Tobago’s capital. Taxis and car rentals. Most hotels and resorts pick up their guests. Direct international flights to and from Europe.
• Departure tax TT$100 for international passengers.
• Passports and onward tickets required by all visitors on international services.

Tropical, daytime temperatures of 30°C (86°F); cooler nights. Even through the rainy season (June to December), there is sunshine every day. January, February and March are cooler.

Trinidad & Tobago dollar ($6.25 to US$). Major credit cards are widely accepted.

English, with lyrical Tobagonian singsong. Heritage events feature “speech band” performances.

Tobago’s largely Christian population worships in Methodist, Baptist and Roman Catholic churches.

10% government tax at hotels and restaurants; 10% service charge.

Atlantic Standard Time (EST + 1, GMT-4).

• Electricity 11 0v/50 cycles.
Telecommunications include international direct dialling, credit card calling, phonecards, cell-phone and pagers; international access code 868.

Tobago offers a wide choice of luxury all-inclusive hotels, exclusive and elegant villa resorts, apartments, and bed and breakfast guest rooms.

Trinidad & Tobago Hotel & Tourism Association (Tobago Chapter): tel./fax: (868) 639- 9543.

• Department of Tourism, Tobago House of Assembly NIB Mall, Carrington Street, Scarborough
Tel.: (868) 639-2125/4636,
fax: 639-3566
Crown Point Airport
Tel.: (868) 639-0509,

• Tourism and Industrial Development Company of Trinidad and Tobago (TIDCO)
Head Office: 10-14 Philpps Street, Port of Spain
Tel.: (868) 623-1932/4
623-0022/3, fax: 623-3848
TIDCO Mall, Sangster’s Hill, Scarborough
Tel.: (868) 639-3668/3151,

• USA: 1-888-595-4TNT,
(305) 663-1660
• Canada: 1-888-595-4TNT,
(416) 485-8256
• .UK: 0 800 960057,
(208) 350-0225
• Germany: (49) 06-131-
• Italy: (39) 1-678-77530.

• Crown Point International Airport; tel. 627-BWIA (2942) (reservations),
639- 8741/  2 (flight information).


• Carnival season

• Turtle nesting, March to August
• Shouter Baptist Liberation Day, public holiday (30)

• Good Friday, Easter Monday, public holidays
• Carib International Game Fishing Tournament

• Angostura/Yachting World Regatta: four days of racing on Leeward coast between Crown Point and Grafton; with races for Tobago’s traditional “bum boats”
• Indian Arrival Day, public holiday (30)

• Labour Day, public holiday, (19)
• Corpus Christi, public holiday (22)
• St Peter’s Day: fishermen’s festival at Charlotteville (29)

Tobago Heritage Festival, recreating Tobago’s traditional arts – story-telling, dance, drama and music–starts mid-July and culminates in street carnivals at Plymouth and Scarborough at month-end. Ask about the Saraka Feasts and Old Time Tobago Wedding
• Great Race, annual powerboat classic, from Carenage in Trinidad to Store Bay in Tobago (29)

• Emancipation, public holiday (1)
• Independence, public holiday (31)

• Tobago Fest, Carnival-style festival
• Carib Tobago Cycling
• Tobago Open Golf Tournament

• Christmas Day, public holiday (25)
• Boxing Day, public holiday (26)


• First settled by Amerindians
• Constantly fought over by European powers; among them British, French and Dutch
• Courlanders (from what is known today as Latvia) settled in 1642
• The island changed hands 31 times before being ceded to Britain in 1814
• British Crown Colony in 1879
• Attached to Trinidad in 1899
• Trinidad & Tobago became an independent state in 1962; adopted a Republican Constitution in 1976
• Tobago House of Assembly was restored, with a degree of self-government in 1980.



All around the island, from Charlotteville in the north to Store Bay in walking distance from the airport. Other suggestions: Mt Irvine Bay with surfing and water sport facilities; Grafton/Stonehaven; Englishman’s Bay; King’s Bay; picture-perfect Pigeon Point; snorkel or scuba at Speyside; hike from Man-o-War Bay to Pirate’s Bay.


Buccoo Reef is the most accessible and popular of Tobago’s many reefs, but there are also well-established reef tours from Speyside. Birders head for Little Tobago Island, the Giles Islands, the Grafton Nature Reserve near Black Rock, and the Bon Accord lagoon. The best hiking area is the forested Main Ridge – Gilpin Trace is the easiest entry point. Argyle Falls, just south of Roxborough, are the most easily accessible of waterfalls, but there are plenty of others. There is no zoo, but several small projects are building animal collections, and there are pleasant Botanic Gardens in Scarborough. David Rooks, president of Environment Tobago, Adolphus James and Keston Thomas offer some of the best nature tours.


Carnival (not officially a holiday), Shouter Baptist Liberation Day (March 30), Good Friday, EasterMonday,lndian Arrival Day (May 30), Labour Day (June 19), Corpus Christi, Emancipation Day (August 1), Independence (August 31), Christmas Day, Boxing Day


All Tobago’s military forts are worth visiting- not because there’s much left of them (except for Fort King George, above Scarborough, which houses the Tobago Museum and an art gallery), but because they all have superb views and are lovingly maintained, signposted and landscaped. Fort Bennett is just outside the village of Black Rock, Fort James is on the headland at Plymouth, Fort Granby is on a breezy peninsula at Studley Park, Fort Milford is the most peaceful spot in Crown Point, and Flagstaff Hill, high above Charlotteville, has the best panorama of them all.

The Courland Monument in Plymouth is a striking 1978 sculpture commemorating the Latvian settlers who occupied the area for much of the 17th century, and the site of Tobago’s oldest colonial fort and settlement. The Mystery Tombstone, also in Plymouth, is the 1783 tomb of Betty Stiven and her young baby, with the inscription that “she was a mother without knowing it, and a wife without letting her husband know it, except by her kind indulgence to him”. This has puzzled generations of visitors, though the meaning is obvious enough.


World-class diving with good visibility, rich marine life, wreck dives, plentiful reefs, manta rays at Batteaux Bay, and a wide range of dives from easy to very difficult. The most popular sites are off Speyside and Charlotteville, the west coast from Mount Irvine to Englishman’s Bay, and the south-west tip. There are well-equipped professional dive shops and a decompression chamber.


Though on a much smaller scale than Trinidad’s, Tobago’s Carnival is a lively community event, and the Heritage Festival in July is a showcase of authentic Tobago tradition. There are major sporting events during the year – golf in January, an international game fishing contest in April, an international regatta in May, and a power boat race from Trinidad to Tobago at the end of July or early August. Tobago Fest in September livens up the quiet post-summer season with seaside sporting events, feasts and a Carnival-type street parade. If you are in Tobago at Easter, don’t miss the goat and crab racing at Buccoo and Mount Pleasant.


Self-drive rentals at the airport or from your hotel or villa. Drive on the left. Your country’s driving permit is valid.


For nightlife, try Bonkers, Lush, Copratray, The Deep or JG’s, all in the Crown Point area, or Buccoo’s Sunday night party, Sunday School. Local art can be seen at The Art Gallery just off the Claude Noel Highway. The African Art Gallery is right next door, offering a wide assortment of imported African art and artifacts.

German artist Luise Kimme, who creates life-size wooden sculptures based on Tobago life and tradition, has a studio in Bethel which can be visited on Sundays (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) – you can see examples of her work at Fort King George. Eleven Degrees North features old-time calypso two nights a week; and Kariwak Village Hotel offers light jazz on weekends.


Dining out in Tobago is an open-air experience. Ten years ago, there were barely half a dozen good independent restaurants: now there are over 30, quite apart from hotel restaurants, many of them lovingly converted houses with tables on balconies and verandahs, open to the evening air and the breeze, with views of the sea or forested hills. Some offer local entertainment. Menus are basically creole in style, with some specialist cuisine: good fresh seafood is everywhere (lobster and crab, kingfish, grouper, dolphin – which is the local name for mahi-mahi, and no relative of Flipper), and there are tasty steaks and chicken dishes, plus rewarding desserts (homemade ice-creams, cakes and caramels, fresh fruit and fruit juices). A few restaurants offer indigenous dishes like curried crab and dumplings.


There is a good range of visitor accommodation in Tobago, from family-run bed and break-
fast guesthouses, to luxury hotels, eco-resorts and exquisite villas. For more information on accommodation, contact the Department of Tourism, Tobago House of Assembly; TIDCO or the Tobago Bed and Breakfast Association.


Only three full working days’ residence are required to apply for marriage licence. Remember to register your arrival with Registrar’s Office on Jerningham Street in Scarborough. Application for a special marriage licence at the Warden’s Office at the IDC Mall costs TT$300 (cash only). Make sure you have a valid passport for identification; and documentary evidence if you are divorced or widowed.

Several hotels offer wedding and honeymoon packages. There have been beach and boat weddings, as well as one performed underwater!


• Daily newspapers: Newsday, Trinidad Guardian, Trinidad Express. Weekly: Tobago News
• Radio Tambrin is the “voice of Tobago”. Numerous other stations are Trinidad-based
• Local and cable television channels.


• Cricket: the most popular land sport, January to June
• Cruises: sailing and powerboats available for charter
• Fishing: there’s great deep-sea fishing especially around the islands off the north coast, near Charlotteville. Some operators offer day charters and fishing trips with equipment provided. The Carib Game Fishing Tournament is held in April-May.
• Football (soccer): widely played, July to December. Dwight Yorke’s home town is Plymouth.
• Golf: the loveliest golf course – 18 holes – in the hemisphere at Mount Irvine
• Health clubs and spas: no” available in some hotels
• Hiking: excellent trails through Main Ridge, to waterfalls and Little Tobago. Go with a guide
• Riding: horseback riding available

• Watersports: windsurfing, water-skiing, parasailing, sailboats, sunfish, powerboat trips, snorkelling, sailing trips at some beachfront resorts.


Private cars, auto rentals, taxis, buses, and maxi taxis.



Fishing is a long-standing tradition in Tobago and fishing villages can be found in several parts of the island, especially the Caribbean coast. Pass through a seaside village in Tobago and an unexpected sight might meet you. On the beach, two groups of villagers, perhaps 20 metres apart, are hauling – with great effort – two ropes out of the sea. A closer look will reveal a deep “U” of floats far out in the bay, slowly edging toward shore as pelicans, boobies and frigatebirds squabble in the middle over the occasional flash of silver. The villagers are using one of the oldest methods of fishing, seine fishing, which is still widely seen in Tobago. The method is simple: a long rope, with a net attached, is towed out to sea to encircle a shoal of fish (jacks, small bonito, cavalli) that has been spotted m the bay. One end of the rope remains fixed on shore, the other describes its arc, then returns to the beach.

Now the hard work begins. To haul in – against the pull of the sea – a 150- metre, lead-weighted net requires muscle, particularly when the net may have snared more than a tonne of fish. Fellow villagers – men, women and children – flock to assist, while the “Captain” of the seine bellows instructions.

When finally the catch is on the beach, the volunteers are usually rewarded with a fish or two: the regular “crew” share the rest according to rank. The fish may be sold there and then on the beach, or it may be loaded onto open-tray pickups to be driven slowly through the neighbouring villages. The rhythmic blowing of conch shells announces to all and sundry that there’s fresh fish for sale.

Don’t be shy about joining in and lending a hand – it’s a Tobago tradition.

Crab and goat racing

Crab and goat racing are uniquely Tobagonian and great fun. These events, which attract sizeable crowds, resemble large village fairs, with everything on sale from handicrafts and local delicacies to ice lollies and cotton candy.

The best-known venue for these sports is Buccoo Village, at Easter-time. This is where the tradition started, almost 75 years ago, a grassroots response to the upper-class pastime of thoroughbred horse-racing. Horse-racing didn’t survive in Tobago – but the goats and crabs are still going strong, and thousands turn out each year to cheer them on.

The goats are beautifully groomed, coats smooth and shining, horns bright, trailing coloured ribbons. A jockey runs alongside each animal, guiding it with a rope (and a whip for coaxing); the race is as much a test of his speed as of the goat’s. Brisk betting on the outcome is all part of the fun.

Crab races are even more eccentric. Crabs tend to run sideways, and don’t usually stick around when there are humans about. The crab’s jockey guides it with a string, trying to prevent it from seeking refuge down the nearest hole. A light stick is used to urge the crab along to the winning post; but there are many detours, as might be expected.

Eventually the race ends, to general hilarity. And the crab? Well, curried crab and dumplings is a favourite Tobago dish!

Market days

On Friday and Saturday mornings, Scarborough Market is bustling with activity. Vendors are dealing with several customers at once, weighing fruit and vegetables, mentally totalling the cost, calling out to their neighbours for change, chatting and sometimes arguing with customers and other vendors.

The market women are brisk and strong, their colourful dresses and aprons part of the lively scene. Some wear head ties and balance goods on their heads to free their hands. They barter over bundles of blue crabs destined for the callaloo pot or for curried crab-and-dumplings.

Market days are social events, and everybody loves to talk: don’t let yourself be confused by the different types of root vegetables, the many varieties of mangoes, or the mysterious little packets of spices – just ask. The vendors will be happy to tell you.

Many people head for one of the food stalls after a successful shopping expedition for a traditional Tobago breakfast of buljol (salt-fish dish) and bake. It goes down very well with a mug of hot “cocoa tea”.

Harvest festivals

Traditionally, Tobago society has been solidly based on agriculture, fishing and religion. It is not surprising, therefore, that harvest festivals are celebrated with enthusiasm in village communities throughout the island. In most instances, they have evolved into a kind of “open day”, with house-to-house visiting, partying and a getting-together of old friends.

The religious aspect is still very much observed: a church service and the blessing of produce usually take place in mid-morning. This is followed by generous cook-ups of fish, wild meat, goat and ground provisions (yams, tannia, etc.) in various houses, back-yards or beach huts. Rum, beer, mauby and home-made wines flow copiously.

Friends and relatives from other villages are welcomed and entertained throughout the day. Though not all communities follow the same routine, time is usually set aside for children’s sports, the blessing of a new boat or seine net, or a cantata performance by the local church choir.

Tobago’s harvest festivals can take place throughout the year, in accordance with village tradition. Some harvests concentrate mainly on the religious aspect; others are more exuberant and go into the night with music and dancing. Some villages celebrate more than one harvest festival, depending on the dominant church groups.

While not exactly a private affair, a Tobago harvest festival is not a general invitation to all comers. Some communities may be more welcoming to outsiders than others. But if you are invited to a Tobago harvest, it’s an experience you won’t forget.

Tobago Heritage Festival

Many of Tobago’s folk traditions come together in this important festival, held from mid-July to the beginning of August. When in the 1980s other Caribbean islands sought to create carnivals and jazz festivals to encourage visitors, Tobago looked to strengthen its own traditions at home. The re-establishment of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) in 1980 had given the island some measure of autonomy. Dr J. D. Elder, one of the THA’s nominated members, a noted anthropologist and authority on Tobago culture, argued that there should be a strong emphasis on culture, that the new festival shouldn’t become just another carnival party, but a means of reviving customs, ceremonies and traditions which were in danger of being forgotten or diluted into tourist attractions.

The idea caught on very fast, and now the Heritage Festival is a Tobago tradition celebrated all over the island – the island’s biggest festival. Between the gala opening and the closing performances and street parade in “old time” traditional wear, the crowd moves from village to village to re-enact and celebrate traditions of music, dance, story-telling, cooking. There’s the Bele Festival, showing off a traditional Creole dance, Rites of Passage or Courtship Codes, a Harvest Festival, Sea Festival, the grand Old Time Tobago Wedding, and an Old Time Carnival parade, among other folk traditions.

Tobago has always been one of the most rooted and hospitable places in the Caribbean; if you visit the Heritage Festival you’ll experience what makes its people the way they are.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.