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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Trinidad and Tobago: a tale of two cities

BC Pires takes you on an insider’s tour of Trinidad and Pat Ganase explores Tobago

  • Pulling seine. Photograph by Bernadette McKay
  • Photograph by Bernadette McKay
  • Idyllic Pigeon Point, Tobago. Photograph by Bernadette McKay
  • French Grunts under Elkhorn Coral. Photograph courtesy the Buccoo Reef Trust
  • Thriving marine life in Buccoo Reef. Photograph by the Buccoo Reef Trust
  • Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Photograph by Noel Norton
  • A gold and blue Macaw. Photograph by Stephen Broadbridge
  • Poui in bloom in the Savannah. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Port of Spain. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Rosary Church, Port of Spain. Photograph by B De Peaza
  • Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Port of Spain. Photograph by Noel Norton


Trinidad is transformed by its people. Dramatically. One person may come and be whisked from airport to hotel to conference room to restaurant to approved, sanitised nightclub and back to airport without ever being exposed to the real magic of Trinidad. Another much luckier person may wander into a supermarket and meet a Trini in the checkout line who will advise him not to buy those mangos because the Rastafarian fruit stand down the road is cheaper.

“Where you staying?” the Trini will ask the visitor.

“The Hilton? Man, that’s right near where I’m going. Come with me. I’ll take you to get some paw-paw and sapodilla by the Rastas. You have to go to the Central Bank? No problem, we’ll just stop by my office. I was supposed to go to the Ministry of Finance tomorrow but I can go today. Where you eating lunch? Hear, nuh, all you will get there is a big bill. When we finished at the Twin Towers we will walk across to the Breakfast Shed and eat there. What you up to tonight?”

Port of Spain is not user-friendly, but if you can set up an interface, the city will reveal its charms. If you make a single friend, the entire country changes. You are no longer a faceless telecommunications industry worker from Canada. You are introduced as “my pardner from Vancouver”. You will be served home-cooked meals and encouraged to date the recently-divorced sibling of your new friend. The next time you come to Trinidad, you will be met at the airport . . . if you don’t marry and settle down in Cascade, that is.

Although Port of Spain can be as fast-paced and indifferent as New York or London, it is usually the opposite: strangers are far more likely to enter your life in a small way than ignore you. Buy a newspaper from a woman on the side of the road two days in a row and, on the third, she will ask how you’re keeping. Make eye contact with a stranger walking the other way on the street, and chances are he or she will nod in simple recognition of another human being. Hop a route taxi and you may find a debate (on any topic ranging from globalisation to World Cup soccer) raging. Feel free to take a side; you will probably be brought into the argument anyway.

In a way that Dickens would have appreciated, Port of Spain combines the excitement of big city life with the good-natured nosiness of a sleepy village. By paying only minimalist attention, you can easily distinguish which side of the city’s duality you’re on at any given time and enjoy both.

Local celebrities

Like many other cities, Port of Spain’s heroes are drawn largely from sports and entertainment; but you are far more likely to meet Port of Spain’s elite in Maraval than you are New York’s in Manhattan. Cricket fans can normally find former West Indies captain Brian Lara at the Pelican after he’s done his day’s work at the Oval. V. S. Naipaul, the best writer never to have won a Nobel prize, can slip into town unnoticed once or twice a year. Ato Boldon, the Los Angeles-based Trinidadian runner, if he’s in town, will go to the mall to do his own shopping. You may bounce up David Rudder, Trinidad’s leading singer, at a bookstore. Nobel laureate Derek Walcott has been known to sip a coconut-water around the Savannah. Painter Leroy Clarke drives himself around town.

Supreme court judges and CEOs of important local and multinational companies walk or jog around the Savannah with everyone else. Part of this simplicity is due to the character of the famous folk; the rest of it is due to the character of the common folk: Trinidadians do not permit their celebrities to put on airs. “Eh-eh! Why he trying to be important so? He think he is the only man in Trinidad who could break a world record?”

Shopping and souvenirs

You simply will not get a Hong Kong-style bargain on electronic or computer equipment in Port of Spain. But Trinidad does offer amazing shopping to the consumer who prizes the designer or handmade article over even the best of factory-finished products. Though they are always willing to get out of them for a swim or a snuggle, Caribbean people love their clothes, and Trinidad’s designers make clothing that is as comfortable to wear as it is splendid to look at. Much of the design is dramatic. There is a proliferation of boutiques all around town where you can buy handmade clothes for about what you’d pay for the same mid-range, mass-produced item at home.

Port of Spain is a T-shirt paradise and a better functional souvenir is difficult to find. Hand-painted tees are sold in many stores but are cheaper when their makers sell them from fences or makeshift booths, often near malls. Excellent leather work — sandals, belts, handbags, wallets, even baseball caps — is dirt cheap. Design, however, is often replaced by simple decoration, and discernment on the part of the purchaser is required and repaid. Stalls spring up anywhere, including on the Savannah at Carnival time, but the Drag Brothers Mall on Independence Square South is a must-visit. There are innumerable small mementos on sale all over town, but the best souvenirs of Trinidad aren’t found on the shelves of coconut-shell ornaments, miniature steelpans and island- and steelpan-shaped ashtrays, though those will do at a pinch.

The best way to remember Trinidad is to take its music and literature with you. You cannot go wrong if you close your eyes and pick any CD by David Rudder, Machel Montano and Xtatik, the Mighty Sparrow, the Shadow, the Lord Kitchener or any of the Rituals and Sanch label compilations.

Port of Spain and Trinidad have been immortalised in literature by the man taken to be the best living English-language writer, Trinidad’s V. S. Naipaul, who is better known to the world as England’s Sir Vidia. Miguel Street is the definitive description of Port of Spain, though it gets stiff competition from The Dragon Can’t Dance, Earl Lovelace’s masterpiece about the city, and Minty Alley, C. L. R. James’s lesser-known but magnificent account of life in a mid-century urban barrack-yard. No one wishing to understand Trinidad should fail to read A House for Mr Biswas, Naipaul’s magnum opus. Other excellent, though difficult, books by Trinidadian authors are Earl Lovelace’s Salt and Robert Antoni’s Divina Trace, both of which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Derek Walcott, the 1992 Nobel prize winner for literature, honed his craft in Trinidad. Dream on Monkey Mountain is the most important piece of literature to come out of the Caribbean so far and is a must-read. Walcott’s poetry is usually available. Other acceptable poetry can be found in The Stone Rose, by James Aboud, the winner of Walcott’s Rat Island Foundation’s inaugural prize, and Wesley Gibbings’s Lost in the City. Wayne Brown’s poetry volume, Voyages, and his collections of columns A Child of the Sea and Landscape With Heron are good, but difficult to find.

Port of Spain architecture

Port of Spain’s architecture is a mixture of wonderful old Spanish and functional modern rubbish. Voices in the Street, Olga Mavrogordato’s book about Port of Spain’s old houses, is an excellent souvenir, as are the drawings and paintings of John Otway and John Newel Lewis. The old Red House, the seat of Parliament and, until the late 70s, the Supreme Court, with its  pre-air-conditioning high doors, ceilings and windows,  contrasts with the totally enclosed Hall of Justice across the street.

The Rosary Church at the corner of Henry and Park Streets uptown could have come out of Frank Miller’s Batman’s Gotham. The Catholic and Anglican cathedrals on Independence and Woodford Squares respectively are both worth visiting. The old police station on South Quay is now an art gallery. Port of Spain’s bus and maxi taxi terminus, City Gate, is housed in the old railway station, and could have been transplanted directly from London.

Many delightful old houses and shops have escaped the developer’s eye but, sadly, many buildings that would be listed and protected elsewhere have been torn down overnight and replaced by horrible (but far more lucrative) new structures. Port of Spain’s “development” invokes the lyrics of King Austin’s calypso: “the price of progress is high”.

The art of Trinidad eating

In Trinidad, a cheapskate can afford to eat like a gourmet. It is no exaggeration to say that two grown men in Trinidad can enjoy a delicious, satisfying and (at least fairly) nutritious meal for less than the price of a movie ticket in North America or Europe, including drinks. People on a shoestring budget are almost better off than those who can afford five-star restaurants. To fully experience Trinidad you must eat a doubles (yes, the singular is also “doubles”) from one, or several, of hundreds of roadside stands.

Everyone in Trinidad has their favourite bara-man whom they support with the partisan fervour you normally associate with national sports teams. Trinis will fight for UWI Doubles near the university, or Red Box Doubles at the airport, or Sleepy of St Helena, or Georgie in front of Woodbrook’s Brooklyn Bar, or any doubles from Debe, San Juan or Curepe, or even the franchised Ali Doubles, which have spread from San Fernando all over the island.

Enjoy your doubles one at a time, hot from the box, at the side of the road, washed down with a red Solo or Apple J or coconut-water. Two or three doubles will usually be enough. Ask for “slight pepper” (the vernacular for a small amount of hot sauce) at first. Use one hand-held bara to scoop the channa out of the other. The smell of doubles will give your taste buds a rush, but slow down long enough to scrutinise the operation for cleanliness. Once everything is clean at point of sale, you need not worry.

You often find other Indian-styled foods in the same place as doubles. Aloo or potato pies may also be filled with curried channa at no extra cost. Saheena is made with split peas and dasheen. Kachourie is made with split peas, chives and saffron. Phulouri are seasoned balls of dough. All taste great and sell for about a dollar. All, however, are deep-fried.

Trinidad is not a haven for dieters. Trinidadians make great fried and baked pies, filled with anything from mashed, seasoned potato through vegetables to beef. In Port of Spain, men and women on bicycles sell pies from boxes mounted on handlebars or from baskets on foot. Bakeries abound in Port of Spain (but stay away from the ones that sell everything for a dollar — their quality is usually poor).

Roti comes in three main forms: dhalpuri, paratha and sada, all baked over an open flame on a circular griddle called a tahwah. The most convenient roti — a one-handed meal — is dhalpuri, a flat, circular, split-peas bread folded into a rectangular pouch filled with a choice of curries, including chicken (boneless or “bone”), beef, shrimp, chickpeas and potato, pumpkin and bodi (string bean), bhaji (spinach) and more. Paratha (or buss-up shot — burst-up shirt for the wannabe refined peasant) is a heavily buttered bread, clapped and torn up immediately after baking, eaten with the fingers, using the paratha to scoop up the curry. Sada roti, traditionally a breakfast meal, is sliced along its diameter and filled; try “a tomato choka sada roti” or a mix of plantain and potato.

At the Breakfast Shed at Port of Spain’s wharf, a stone’s throw from the Crowne Plaza’s front door, if you don’t mind sitting on wooden benches at communal tables, you can get all the local news and excellent breakfasts (from $TT6) and lunches (at a standard TT$16) from an array of open kitchens.

Downtown Port of Spain is littered with food fairs selling good local (including Indian) meals, cafeteria style, for around $20. The choice of Chinese food at food fairs is very limited and is nowhere near as good (and often just as expensive) as any sit-down Chinese restaurant in Port of Spain. Pay a little bit more and get real Cantonese cuisine served at your own table. Lemon and oyster chicken, char sui pork and pepper shrimp are highly popular Trinidadian choices and it is difficult to get a bad helping of these dishes.

Even if there wasn’t a glorious beach, it would be worthwhile driving to Maracas just to sample the shark-and-bake. The “bake” is actually deep fried and the shark can be anything from king fish to dolphin, but it is excellent however called. So many tasty condiments (up to a dozen) are offered that you could have excellent shark-and-bake without the shark. The chadon beni (a relative of coriander), mango and garlic sauce are de rigueur; everything else, particularly the tamarind sauce, is for individual palates to select.

Try the crab back — seasoned breaded crab — in any sit-down restaurant in which you can get it. Callaloo soup, often served with crab, is excellent. Many Trinidadian delicacies — ox-tail soup, pig-foot souse, cow-heel soup — do not sound particularly choice at first blush but they are indeed specialty dishes, developed over many generations. Do yourself a favour and put your prejudices aside. You won’t regret it.

Trinidadians meld partying and food, two of their greatest loves, with ease. Vendors selling burgers, barbecued or grilled chicken and corn soup can usually be found on the pavements outside large public parties or in the car parks of popular bars and clubs. Try the corn soup. On any night of the week, on the perimeter of the Queen’s Park Savannah, you can find boiled and roasted corn, corn soup, coconuts, oysters, phulouri, pies, burgers and barbecued chicken and ribs.

Drinks, vegetarian and sweets

Trinidadians love juices and punches, and most food fairs have a fresh juice bar. Portugal juice is the liquid version of a sunny day at the beach; it is, however, seasonal. Peanut punch and sea moss — made from a moss-like plant harvested from the sea — are local specialties. Mango, guava and pawpaw (papaya) juice are as delightful as the fruit.

Coconut water can be had in bottles in restaurants and food fairs and out of the nut around the Savannah. (Don’t be embarrassed to use a straw if you are well-dressed: coconut water stains.) Try a medium-jelly nut and give it to the vendor when you’ve drunk it; he’ll cut it open for you to eat the jelly with a wedge of shell as a spoon. Mauby leaves a bitter aftertaste that delights some palates but devastates others. Sip it cautiously. Trinidad produces excellent local coffee but, mysteriously, most Trinidadians drink only, and most inexpensive eateries serve only, the imported instant stuff; boggles the mind and the taste buds.

Because of Trinidad’s large Hindu population, vegetarian eating is easy and cheap. Virtually all local vegetables are curried, but a pumpkin and bodi dhalpuri is hard to beat.

Trinidadian sweets are excellent souvenirs with a real taste of the islands.  “Sugarcake” is made from coconut and sugar, “toolum” from coconut and molasses. “Tamarind balls” rely on sugar (and often hot peppers) to counteract the sharp, sour tamarind taste; it works. “Bene balls” define Tobago, though they are also available in Trinidad. Trinidadians also love salted prunes and sweet-and-salt prunes, which are Chinese in origin. Indian sweets, particularly kurma, are also popular.

A Trini night out

Alcohol is a huge part of any night out (and most weekend mornings) and the only limitation on public excess is personal choice. No bartender in Trinidad ever refuses to serve an already-inebriated customer; it is considered both bad manners and a breach of professional irresponsibility: he could lose his job (but has no chance of losing his tip, since he wasn’t getting one anyway).

This is not to say that you cannot have a good time without drinking, only that people expect you to drink at virtually any opportunity. You will be pressured to join in. The extravagant Trini approach to imbibing does not, however, translate into a benefit for the overworked bartenders. Even the super-rich in Trinidad adamantly refuse to tip bartenders since “it would spoil them”. Accordingly, a single dollar tip (US 16 cents) per round will buy you excellent service all night long; five bucks will turn you into royalty.

St James and beyond

If you have no interest in seeing the high and mighty simply high, head down to St James. In St James you enter another world. If the night is young, save the St James stop for when you’re on the way home. Drive instead to the western peninsula for the best of Trinidad’s clubbing. If you’re in Chaguaramas in the late afternoon, you can begin your night out at this end: there are a couple of marinas in Chag and most have bars on the water where you can sit with yachties and other salty types and sip sundowners while watching the sun go down.

St James is Trinidad’s answer to New York’s East Village or London’s Soho, but without the complication of art or antique dealerships. What you will find in St James is lots to drink and eat and loads of people to hang with at any time of day or night. But night is better. Most of the action is concentrated on a stretch of road that Ato Boldon could cover in under 10 seconds. The heart is Smokey & Bunty, a no-frills bar on the corner opposite the girls’ school, where either Smokey or Bunty himself may serve you from behind the bar.

St James is the place to be if you want to eat excellent food that really costs next to nothing. Around Smokey & Bunty you will find everything from Chinky’s vegetarian delights sold out of the back of a pickup truck (the hungriest person would probably find the $12 meal to be filling) to rotis prepared as you watch. Think of a meal you can eat with your hands (chicken and chips, barbecued ribs, rotis, burgers and fries, doubles, pies, phulouri) and you can get it within a stone’s throw from anywhere you stand in the action section of St James. You can even get homemade ice cream for dessert. In St James, overly-enthusiastic or friendly females may be working. It isn’t you, it’s your wallet.

Out of town

Though people from Port of Spain scorn anywhere south of the Central Market as “the Deep South” and anywhere east of Despers’ panyard as “behind God’s back”, there are places outside the city well worth visiting.

Trinidad’s best malls are all located beyond Port of Spain proper. The Long Circular Mall is, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the Long Circular Road. The West Mall is in a western suburb called Westmoorings. The first mall you’ll see driving in from the airport is the Trincity Mall, at Trincity. Valpark Shopping Plaza is in Valsayn. You may begin to see a pattern of nomenclature emerging here. The Grand Bazaar Mall is, however, not located at Grand Bazaar, but at the junction of the Churchill-Roosevelt and Uriah “Buzz” Butler Highways. In San Fernando, the big mall is Gulf City; reassuringly, it is on the edge of the Gulf of Paria.

Some of Trinidad’s most happening bars are outside Port of Spain. On Fridays, the Red Parrot (at Grand Bazaar) rivals the Pelican and Jenny’s on the Boulevard for its sumptuous displays of good-looking drunk people. The Tunnel in Chaguanas is probably the biggest University of the West Indies student hangout off-campus. The newest nightspot in Trinidad, Club Liquid, is at the Maritime Centre at the end of the Beetham Highway, Barataria.

At Gulf City, you will find both Club Celebs, which bills itself as the South’s answer to Club Coconuts, and Hi RPM, a supporter of the live original local rock music scene, which is larger than you’d think. One of Trinidad’s leading pop rock bands, jointpop, is based outside Port of Spain; their main rival, Orange Sky, the Beatles to their Rolling Stones, is based in town.

Tea at the Pax Guest House, Mount St Benedict, is an unusual delight. You can watch boys playing cricket on the pitch a couple of hundred feet below the restaurant while you eat. Since light travels faster than sound, you can see the batsman smite the ball to the boundary before you hear the thwack! of willow on leather.

At times of important Hindu festivals, the Divali Nagar at Chaguanas is a must. The Waterloo Temple in the Sea is visually splendid and offers spectacular views of the Northern Range mountains; the original temple was built single-handedly by Siewdass Sadhu over 25 years.

For nature lovers, there is far more to be done outside of Port of Spain. The Asa Wright Nature Centre is deservedly world-famous and, in the high season, booked up weeks in advance. It welcomes day visitors all year round, however, provided they book the day before. The Lopinot Complex is picturesque. The Caroni Bird Sanctuary is worthwhile, even though the birds are sighted from a distance. The largest regular sightings of laying leatherback turtles take place at Grande Rivière Beach, where Pierro Guerrini’s hotel offers rustic, comfortable rooms that sleep up to six; again, in the turtle season, the hotel is booked for weeks in advance.

For those who like it, there is an abundance of good hiking, to the Aripo Caves, El Tucuche (Trinidad’s second highest peak) and to the Paria and Maracas Falls. The Madamas Beach, between the ends of the roads at Blanchisseuse and Matelot, remains unspoiled.


School on Sunday?

Tobagonians go to church on Sunday mornings, then they head for the beach; later in the evenings, they go to “Sunday school”.

The Anglican church is emptying. The main street is filled with people in their Sunday best: stylish gowns crowned with African headwraps, boys and men dressed in white shirts neatly tucked into dark trousers, girls in pink satin and flowers. Tiny tots are decked with braids and plastic bows. A girl is wearing a plaid mini-skirt. The dresses are as vivid as the crotons and exuberant tropical blooms found in Tobagonian gardens.

In another village, the Pentecostals are still raising the rhythm, lifting spirits and bodies and arms to the ceiling. Methodists, Baptists, Catholics and other Christians all celebrate on Sunday, in as soul-stirring a way as possible, for Tobagonians are deeply religious people. Syncretism with more ancient African deities persists in many villages, and daily life is steeped in customs and beliefs that came with ancestors from far away. Like Gang Gang Sara, the African witch, they have all eaten salt, and must make the best of life on this little island.

The village streets are quiet. It’s a good time to head for the sea. Store Bay is festive. Craft vendors are putting out bright shirts and hand-painted wraps, trinkets and knitted  “rasta” caps, leather sandals and carved driftwood. A pungent aroma rises from the food stalls, and your mouth waters for “curry crab and dumpling”. The ever-blue sea laps the shore, and you are offered beach chairs, umbrellas, or a trip to the reef on one of the glass-bottomed boats before you settle in a little shade from the overhanging cliff.

Along the coasts, fishing boats ride the swells on their moorings. Few fishermen go out on a Sunday, unless it’s St Peter’s or some other festival day. For sublime peace and tranquillity, head for Englishman’s Bay or Parlatuvier. “This is my place of worship,” says an old Tobago hand who likes to park his car on the bluff overlooking Parlatuvier’s perfect crescent, “let the others go to church, I spend an hour or so just meditating here, then I’ll go down to the water.”

Tobago has some of the best beaches in the world. None are exclusive. All are free and open to anyone, as varied and welcoming as the churches, and you’re never more than 15 minutes away from the nearest beach, no matter where you are on the island.

By mid-afternoon the villages are alive again: there’s football, cricket or basketball being played, depending on the time of year. In some places, it seems that nature has conspired to locate these open fields in the most sublime settings between sea and sky. Walk the Plymouth ground, where Dwight Yorke got his start, overlooking the serene expanse of Courland Bay. The games of the Under 17 World Cup will not be played here, but in the modern Dwight Yorke stadium in Bacolet,  named for Manchester’s star striker.

By late afternoon it’s time to head for Buccoo, the home of the original Tobago “Sunday School”. The heart of Buccoo village is the edge of the sea where the goat race track, fishing depot and a cluster of restaurants and pubs crowd the end of the road. Maybe it started with a customary end-of-the-weekend lime, but Sunday School has spread to surrounding villages, wherever the residents gather to “fire one” and watch the sun go down, and frequently features a deejay with jamming sounds. Special acts, or a live band, might be advertised for weeks. Everyone goes to Sunday School, and the sly euphemism is now well entrenched in local — including Trinidad — parlance. But Buccoo’s Sunday School was first and is still the most popular. This beach faces west, and in the last rays of the sinking sun, there’s drinking and dancing, flirting and partying.

On the shoreline along the road to Pigeon Point, sunset-seekers face west, as chutney music rises from the corner pub and restaurant. On balconies overlooking the sea, the sadness that marks the end of Sundays is washed away with rum and laughter. It is one of the oldest rituals in the world: gather close, invoke spirits with a libation and pass the bottle around. Celebrate life!

Ten typical Tobago things

• Curry crab and dumplings; eat it on the beach at Store Bay

• Chenette: fruit encased in green shell; sweet juicy pulp around a large single seed; in season July to September

• Cedarwood chairs and household items sold in craft shops

• Swim with the Manta Rays over the reefs at Speyside; contact licensed scuba operators

• Tobago Heritage Wedding: old-time customs and traditions, music and dance are enacted in one of the high points of the Heritage Festival

• Home-made and home-grown cocoa. Balls or sticks of pure chocolate are available in most supermarkets; grate into simmering milk, sweeten and enjoy “cocoa tea” or use as you would unsweetened chocolate

• Goat and crab racing. Hilarious sports and fun at Buccoo mainly on Easter weekend

• Tambrin and fiddle. Music to accompany the jig, belé and festivities of the Heritage Wedding. Radio Tambrin is the unique Tobago community radio station

• Luise Kimme’s studio and museum at Mt Irvine. Tobago personalities lovingly sculpted by a German artist

• Bird watching at Little Tobago, Main Ridge Nature Reserve and sanctuaries and reserves all around the island

Ten Tobago beaches

You’ll find more than ten. But, if you don’t have time to explore every track and side road, check these out:

• Buccoo Bay. The beach extends west from the end of the road and fishing depot. Great for sunset

• Back Bay. Not just sandy shore; you’ll find interesting tidal rocky pools and waves. Follow an unmarked track off the road, just east of Plymouth. It’s a deserted beach that’s better to visit with your own crowd

• Mt Irvine Bay. There’s the busy public beach facility with its shops and beach bars, surf board and snorkel rentals. And there is Mt Irvine “by the wall”, a clear expanse of sandy shore, with hardly any shade trees

• Englishman’s Bay. A sublime crescent of golden sand lapped by calm turquoise water. Turtles nest here

• Store Bay. It is the most accessible beach with excellent public facilities, and the calm blue water makes it great for children

• Parlatuvier. A typical Tobago village rings the picture postcard circle of beach with jetty

• Man-o-War Bay. A deep-water bay with fishing village at one end and resort on the other

• Speyside. Scuba, snorkel or take a glass-bottom boat to the deep reefs offshore. Swimming, fishing, restaurants

• King’s Bay. Near Delaford, on the windward coast. Peace and quiet, calm sea and soft sand

• Great Courland Bay. Turtle nesting site. A long pleasant beach lined with coconut palms.

Famous Tobagonians

• Gang Gang Sara, the “witch” who flew over from Africa, ate salt and lost her power to fly back, is supposed to have her final resting place under a silk cotton tree near Moriah

• Betsy Stivens. Her mystery tombstone attracts the curious to puzzle over its meaning, in Plymouth

• Dwight Yorke. Star striker at Manchester United

• Arthur N. R. Robinson, President of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago

• Calypso Rose, Calypso Queen of the World

• Shadow “was going to plant peas in Tobago” but was recalled to the calypso kingdom when he scored a hit with his Bassman song in 1974

• J. D. Elder. An historian and cultural philosopher

• George Leacock. Activist and historian.

Gardens of Tobago

You awaken to birdsong. At breakfast, small yellow-breasted birds and bolder black ones steal sugar from the table. When you wave your newspaper at them, they flap a few feet away, waiting.

There are birds all over Tobago. Even when you don’t see them, you hear them warbling and whistling in the trees and vines, among the red, yellow and mauve flowers tumbling exuberantly over walls, beside pathways, everywhere. And there are gardens that nurture birds everywhere in Tobago. From your villa or hotel, the work of Tobago’s gardeners is understated but evident.

The humblest home is festooned with ornamental plants carefully tended in painted pots, or crowding the narrow walk to the front door. You detect the loving hands of many gardeners.

At the 750-acre site of the Tobago Plantations resort, where the Hilton Tobago was recently opened and golf courses have already been planted, full-grown trees were relocated rather than cut down, and bird life thrives in the mangrove lagoon that is being conserved as a sanctuary.

In the heart of the capital Scarborough, take time off at the Botanical Gardens, or at sprawling Fort King George overlooking Scarborough harbour and port. And don’t forget the dominant and most enriching feature of this island, the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. Recognised in the 1700s as the source of all the water resources of the island, the Main Ridge today prevails against all human interference.

The Main Ridge Evergreen Rainforest rises to almost 1,900 feet (580 m). The reserve has been protected since 1776. It extends for some 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres), covering the main mountain range, and though it is now bisected by the Roxborough to Bloody Bay Highway, where cows sleep in the middle of the road, the Reserve remains green and serene.

“You can go in on your own,” says Selwyn Davis, Head of the Wildlife section in the Tobago House of Assembly, but it is wise to have the advice of forestry officers who are generally stationed on the reserve, or may be contacted through the main office. Davis advises the use of knowledgeable and licensed tour guides if you want to explore the several trails through the forest.

If you are a serious birder, arm yourself with a copy of Richard ffrench’s Birds of Trinidad and Tobago. There are over 200 species of birds, hundreds of species of insects, as well as hundreds of species of flora, including hard and softwood trees, palms, vines and orchids. And yes, there are snakes. Just remember that most snakes are as afraid of humans as we of them!

Most of Tobago’s rivers rise in the Reserve, including the Courland Catchment, an important source of potable water. To some extent, the Reserve is also responsible for the health of the reefs that fringe the shoreline. The thrust to economic development has almost doubled rooms in Tobago over the past decade, and construction projects are evident everywhere. But as the House of Assembly logo declares, Pulchrior evenit, she grows more beautiful.

Vacationing in Tobago

There’s a villa for me in Tobago, a place “where the weather suits my clothes”. Our place happened to be on Man-o-War Bay, one of the oldest villa resorts in the Caribbean, simple, rustic and, best of all, on the beach. Find your own Tobago villa for a family vacation that will live forever in your heart.

“Where are we going, Mummy?” The child’s voice is curious. Night is falling, quickly the sun disappears under the horizon. The little family has not yet made it to the cottage that was promised after the plane landed at Crown Point airport on the south of Tobago two hours before. But they had to stop several times as each bend produced a new,  more breathtaking vista.

Man-o-War Bay at Charlotteville is on the north-western tip of the island, a village that grew up to serve a cocoa plantation and turned more and more to fishing after the cocoa was devastated by Hurricane Flora in 1963. The village, the bay, the resort, and the ring road that goes around the park, police station, school, library and health clinic, lie cupped in a circle of mountains that separate Charlotteville from the rest of Tobago, but which  opens on the north-west to the Atlantic. Into this bowl we descend. The car winds down the hillside through a stand of tall trees to a garden hugging the shore. There is the smell of the sea and the murmur of waves.

The house is simply furnished. There is a kitchen that has everything we need to prepare a simple supper. There is hot water, comfortable sea grass chairs, and a bookshelf with books! It’s hard to see beyond the big tree trunks, but the sea is a brooding mass of water that is very close. We fall asleep in an instant.

Next morning, as the sunlight dances across the walls,  we awaken. Where we could only hear and smell the night before, we now see the green-blue sea, the almond trees, and the lip of beach curving to buildings, a jetty and the wooded bluffs on each side of the bay. We go barefoot on the sand to the village shops. And soon a breakfast of bake and fried fish is sizzling on the stovetop. A keskidee calls and countless unseen birds make a musical response.

In the week that follows, each morning is magic. My personal joy is the leisure to knead and bake fresh bread, to listen for the conch shell and run to the village with a bowl to buy fish fresh off the boats, wahoo, tuna and, sometimes, lobster. (Cooks are provided for those who may prefer to take a rest from preparing daily meals.) Everything tastes wonderful, and the children develop hearty appetites.

“What we gonna do today then?” becomes the morning refrain. Daily adventures await the villa vacationer. Hike up to Fort Cambleton for the reward of sitting on a cannon and surveying the bay and its inhabitants from high up. Or take a brisk walk up the north side road and down more than a hundred precisely built steps to Pirate’s Bay, a hidden cove of such soft sand and quiet turquoise water that no one wants to leave, or to face the hundred or so steps back up the mountain and the trek to home and lunch!

You can choose active pursuits, or lie blissfully under a tree all day. For those who want to get up close to the fish in the ocean, visit Man Friday, or the diving operators at Speyside. We ventured over the mountain to Speyside where Frank Wordsworth’s (that’s his real name!) boat heads for Little Tobago. Spectacular deep coral reefs shelter schools of colourful fish, wondrously large coral formations, sponges and manta rays. Divers are invited to dance with the manta rays, which are gentle plankton-eating creatures.

But we are landlubbers at heart, and Little Tobago is just right for exploration by a group that now includes a family from Denmark that moved in next door, and children all under seven. We trek through gently undulating woods to the cliff faces where the wind catches our breaths and takes away our words. We watch Red-billed Tropicbirds plunging off the rocks, diving for fish and gliding on the updraft. Here come the pirates! Larger aggressive Frigatebirds swoop in to seize the catch in mid-flight. It’s an exciting air display as the wind drives into our faces. After a beach picnic, we drag our feet back to the boat. The tide has changed, the wind has risen. And we understand that the Atlantic waters this side of Tobago sometimes get rough.

Morning after morning we watch the fishing pirogues bobbing on the bay, their bamboo poles arching like delicate whiskers. We hear them go out and wait for them to return with the catch of the day. One morning, Sy agrees to take the man on a day trip. Though they leave in the early morning, the overhead sun demands a hat and t-shirt. Skilful solo fishermen are able to trawl two lines, manage the rudder and the engine, and when a bamboo trap “clacks” to indicate a bite, can bring six- or ten foot-long wahoo aboard single-handedly. Plying the waters between Sisters Rocks and St Giles Islands, Sy knows when he has paid for his gas and which fish starts to be profit. Six large wahoo later, there’s hardly room to stand in the open boat, he returns to the depot where willing hands help bring the catch ashore, gut and slice, and deliver to customers waiting with bowls in hand. You dine on a fish that early that morning was swimming in the deep streams that run offshore in the mid Atlantic.

In a week we have reverted to an absolute simplicity. Wake, eat, sleep, read, swim, laugh, play cards and tell jokes. What will we remember? Walking barefoot all the time. An outdoor shower with the afternoon sun warming our backs. Coconut tarts and home-made ice cream prepared and sold on the edge of the bay.

We never remember the day we pack the car, or how we got back to the airport and the busier “civilised” end of the island. Even after the newness has worn off, there is deep contentment each time we re-connect.

Buccoo Reef: Tobago’s fragile treasure

The approach into Crown Point airport affords a magnificent view of Buccoo Reef, the largest of a number of reef systems surrounding Tobago. The seaward limits of the Buccoo Reef Complex are clearly defined by the surf breaking over the fringing reefs, but invisible from the window of the airplane are the boundaries of the Buccoo Reef Marine Park. The borders of the park enclose an area stretching from Booby Point in Buccoo Village to Store Bay at Crown Point.

Glass-bottomed boats leave daily from the beach at Store Bay or the Pigeon Point dock to take visitors out to Buccoo Reef. The glass bottom allows a clear view of the reef.

But at a designated point, the boat is anchored and passengers are invited to jump in and observe the fish and corals first hand. This is a traditional but now illegal aspect of the day’s activities.

According to Dr Arthur Potts, Director of Marine Resources and Fisheries at the Tobago House of Assembly: “The unintentional but almost inevitable breakage of the coral compromises the very reef that the tourists have come to observe.” On a recent visit to the site where people walk on the reef, it is clear that the rate of damage exceeds the ability of the corals to rejuvenate, but even in these areas there appears to be an abundance of small fish. Fishing is banned in the Park.

The Bon Accord Lagoon is an ecosystem as diverse as any other on the Reef. It is bordered by a tangled and virtually impenetrable belt of mangroves, whose branches serve as home to a variety of birds, while the submerged roots, together with the turtle grass that covers the sea bottom, form an important nursery system for young fish.

Buccoo Reef evolved over millions of years, long before jet skis or plastic sandals. Allowing recreational activities to occur in and around the reef while maintaining a healthy ecosystem is the biggest challenge facing Tobago’s marine tourism industry.

The Buccoo Reef Marine Park management plan is the first step in protecting Buccoo Reef. The plan was commissioned by the Tobago House of Assembly and developed by the Institute of Marine Affairs. It attempts to accommodate the many different demands on Buccoo Reef, while ensuring that this island treasure remains one of the many natural attractions for the thousands of visitors to the island annually. It defines a multi-disciplinary approach to increase the quality of the marine environment that, in turn, will result in local economic growth.

To achieve this the activities on the reef have been restricted to zones. Some activities, such as reef walks, will have to be eliminated completely to protect the remaining corals, but this establishes a natural experiment in reef regeneration that is expected to capture people’s imagination as they appreciate both the fragility and resilience of Buccoo Reef.

Reef Rules

• No operation of boats in restricted areas where coral can be damaged

• No collecting of coral, fish, turtles or turtle eggs or any other flora and fauna

• No walking on coral reefs

• No removal or cutting of mangroves

• No digging, dredging or otherwise disturbing the seabed

• No littering.

– The Buccoo Reef Trust