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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Time for Tobago

Absolute peace and quiet — isn’t that why visitors go to Trinidad’s sister island? Actually, Tobago is buzzing with action, says Dylan Kerrigan.

  • Local craft. Photograph by Anton Modeste
  • Traditional fun: climbing the greasy pole. Photograph by Bertrand De Peaza
  • Photograph by Alex Smailes
  • Pigeon Point. Photograph by Seandrakes.com
  • Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Living it up, Tobago style. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Living it up, Tobago style. Photograph by Seandrakes.com
  • Say "I do", then celebrate with a magnificent feast. Photograph by Robert Pankin
  • Say "I so", then celebrate with a magnificent feast. Photograph by Seandrakes.com
  • Say "I do", then celebrate with a magnificent feast. Photograph by Robert Pankin
  • ... and many waterfalls. Photograph by Mike Toy
  • Tobago's terrain includes rugged coastlines... Photograph by Bertrand DePeaza
  • Red-billed tropicbird. Photograph by Anton Modeste
  • Photograph by Seandrakes.com
  • An artifact of Tobago's Amerindian past. Photograph by Alex Smailes
  • A wood sculpture by artist Luise Kimme. Photograph by Anton Modeste
  • At the Kimme Museum in Bethel. Photograph by Seandrakes.com
  • Fort King George. Photograph by Robert Parkin
  • Kaneisha Thom, Miss Trinidad and Tobago World 2004. Photograph by Seandrakes.com
  • Buccoo Reef is Tobago's most famous undersea location. Photograph by Mike Toy

Don’t be fooled into thinking Tobago is a slow, peaceful place with little for the adrenaline junkie. You couldn’t be more wrong.

From November to March, for instance, Tobago commands the respect of surfers from around the world. Spots like Mount Irvine Bay with its perfect right break, Crazy’s (aka Bacolet beach), and occasionally the breakers outside Pigeon Point, attract the best from the region.

Waves reach 12 to 15 feet in the back: it’s not a place for the faint-hearted. At other times of the year the waters are calmer. Lessons are available on Mount Irvine beach.

And Tobago is biking country. There are mountain biking adventures for all levels of proficiency, with guides who have discovered and named most of the trails themselves. Exhilarating summit-to-sea-level runs, laid-back short flat rides, trails called Coke Kills, Indian Walk, Gru-Gru Boeuf, Sky Loops, and Chocolate Cake — no biker could resist.

For the scuba enthusiast, is there a better Caribbean destination than Tobago? In the north of the island, Charlotteville and Speyside are the main diving bases, with plenty of different dive sites and types, wreck diving, some of the best coral reefs, and a sea shelf beyond Little Tobago dropping thousands of feet into deep offshore ocean. Good visibility provides perfect conditions for the underwater aficionado.

Other sea adventures to get the heart pumping include spear fishing, deep sea trawling, kayaking, and sailing. If you feel the need for exhilaration, look around and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at Tobago’s adventurous side.

FOR HISTORY BUFFS

Originally inhabited by Amerindians, who moved up the island chain from the South American coast, Tobago became a toy of the feuding colonial powers of Europe — the Dutch, French, British, all of whom occupied the island at some stage. So did settlers from Latvia. But it was the British who more or less maintained control from 1762. Slavery brought with it many African traditions which, after emancipation, became important parts of Tobago culture. These various traditions are etched into the island’s faces, place names, and daily activities.

There is no better way for history buffs to satisfy their curiosity than by exploring Tobago’s landmarks, festivals, and people.

In the last two weeks of July, the Tobago Heritage Festival brings history to life as village communities across the island present their own music, dance, storytelling, and food. Folklore returns to the streets with re-enactments like the Ole Time Wedding, the Salaka Feast, and the Belmanna Riots.

All around the island are physical survivals of an embattled past: Fort Bennett, Granby Point, Fort King George, Fort James, Fort Milford. Fort King George, high above the capital Scarborough, is Tobago’s largest fort. Standing by its cannon at the summit of the hill, near the military hospital and vine-covered cellblock and the museum in the barrack guardhouse, you can almost see the sentries watching anxiously for sails on the horizon.

In Plymouth, a “mystery tombstone” carries a puzzling inscription which reads, in part: “She was a mother without knowing it, and a wife without letting her husband know it, except by her kind indulgences to him.” Tobago has long delighted in puzzling its visitors with the meaning of the words.

ECO TOBAGO

Waterfalls, bird sanctuaries, the oldest rain forest reserve in the western hemisphere, amazing coral reefs, diverse wildlife . . . Tobago is naturally a favourite with eco-operators, magazine editors, and documentary directors, as well as travellers who care about the environment.

The island’s terrain consists largely of steep mountain ridges covered in dense forest, with rivers and unexpected waterfalls, and rugged coastlines. There are more than 200 species of birds in this small area (only 21 miles by seven). Wetland areas and the offshore islands of St Giles and Little Tobago, only ten minutes by boat from Speyside, attract many migratory species.

Near the southern end of the island, the Grafton Bird and Wildlife Sanctuary is situated on the grounds of an old Tobago plantation and is well worth a visit around afternoon feeding time. Look out for the cocrico, blue-crowned mot-mot, red-billed tropicbird, and white-tailed sabre-wing.

Hiking tours along the Main Ridge, inside the Tobago forest reserve, take you through rain forest teeming with birds and wildlife — and it’s far enough off the beaten tourist track to give you a real sense of escapism and discovery.

Don’t forget to check out the various nature parks and retreats with their gardens, tours, and close encounters with wildlife. Between March and August, Tobago is an important site for nesting sea turtles: tours can be arranged with the game warden organisation SOS Tobago.

For eco-accommodation, Tobago has a number of down-to-earth options, including rustic eco-lodges and intimate beachfront hotels tucked away in secluded bays.

ROMANTIC TOBAGO

But you don’t have to be a human dynamo. With its mixture of simple and sophisticated charms, Tobago is ideal for romance.

Sunset cocktails, barefoot strolls on the beach, moonlit dances, picnics under the arch of a waterfall, playful rock pools, horseback rides through sandy shallows, enchanting gardens to get lost in – what sounds like a Hollywood love story happens effortlessly and in many different ways.

Some of the wonderful restaurants have fantastic views, others are a stone’s throw from the beach. You might find yourself dining to soft steelpan tones and flickering candlelight, menus overflowing with seafood aphrodisiacs and tropical cocktails to wash them down.

Look out for the marriage bug — Tobago is its natural habitat, and its bite has no known antidote. Tropical weddings are conducted in a variety of settings: on a boat out at sea, barefoot in the sand, under the shade of a giant samaan tree. They are all popular and surprisingly easy to arrange.

The local authorities, aware of Tobago’s romantic heart, amended the law in 1996 to allow couples to get married in Tobago as soon as three days after their arrival. Certain conditions apply and specific documents must be produced — for example, both parties must be non-residents of Trinidad and Tobago, and produce their passports. There is a wedding licence fee of TT$337.50.

Wedding organisers Tobago Weddings can answer all your questions.

LUXURY LOVERS

Tobago does luxury well. It has beauty in abundance, magic in the air — and some of the most enchanting villas in the Caribbean.

Traditional Caribbean plantation homes, designed with modern architectural features to a high standard of luxury, are tucked away on hillsides or old estates, with breathtaking views of the Caribbean Sea. Expect pavilions and gazebos, infinity pools and hillside perches, jacuzzis and plunge pools. Tobago luxury villas take unashamed advantage of climate, beautiful vistas, and seclusion.

Most come fully staffed with a team that can include a cook, housekeeper, gardener, driver, and security guard, not to mention private access to quiet beaches and coves.

If you can drag yourself away from the lap of luxury, your private villa is also a great base for golf, sailing, private picnics by lagoons or out at sea, a little casino gambling, or whatever other diversions may take your fancy.

In addition to the private villa scene, some of the newer hotels offer luxury packages where everything comes at the touch of a button, and those wanting to be pampered really don’t have to move a muscle.

Newlyweds and those wanting to get married in Tobago will find luxury packages designed especially for them. These can include the services of a wedding co-ordinator, a bougainvillaea-decorated wedding arch, a romantic candle-lit dinner, and champagne breakfasts.

SUN SEEKER’S TOBAGO

In Tobago all roads lead ultimately to the beach.

In the south-west of the island, the Crown Point area contains some of Tobago’s most famous beaches; with many amenities close by, this is the best area for those without transport.

Pigeon Point is a longtime favourite with visitors. Sun-loungers, bars, watersports, and shops make it the perfect place for sun worshippers — if only because their partners are always entertained. Nearby is Store Bay with its many eateries within sight of the white sand — great if all you want to do is sunbathe and eat. Beach days can be exhausting, after all!

Canoe Bay, a little distance north of Crown Point and before Tobago Plantations, is a good place to while the day away, with only sunscreen between you and the rays. It has a small bar, cabanas for shade and calm, and shallow water — ideal for sun seekers with kids.

Other enjoyable beaches include Back Bay (small, serene, isolated, great for tanning); Grafton Beach (good amenities, less crowded than Crown Point); Englishman’s Bay (accessible only by car, often empty, great sun trap); and Pirates Bay (just beyond Charlotteville, a breathtaking beach surrounded by fruit trees, seemingly untouched by the modern world).

Don’t limit yourself to the beach — there are day trips by boat, catamaran tours, pools to laze beside at many hotels and villa resorts. In Tobago, the sun shines everywhere, and getting away from hot sand underfoot can even be a welcome change.

PARTY ANIMALS

Heavy doses of sun, sea, and sand can tire even the most heat-starved vacationer. But there are alternatives to going to bed early in Tobago, if you can shake off the day’s lethargy, and the prospect of rum punch, music, and a party sound interesting.

“Sunday School” in Buccoo village is a good place to start. This open-air bash has lots of bars, food vendors, and a couple of dance floors to keep you absorbed. Each Sunday night, this is the place to be in Tobago. Mini roulette tables spring up, and everybody from tourists to tour operators and village residents mingle and dance the night away to blaring Caribbean rhythms.

During the week “Scouting for Talent” at the Golden Star and Karaoke at Divers Den bring out the crowds, and are great for a laugh. Both go on until early in the morning, with proceedings getting more comical as the night wears on.

For the die-hard party fan, there are certain times of the year when Tobago just heaves with action, discos, beach parties, and outdoor sound systems multiplying around the island. New Year’s Eve is one time. The Great Fete Weekend and Great Race (both in August) are others, bringing hordes of Trinidadians to the island to keep trade brisk at bars and discos.

Tobago Fest too, the Tobago Carnival held in September, is a great time to visit. The activities may be on a smaller scale than at Trinidad’s Carnival, but with their soca concerts, music trucks taking over the streets, and glittering costumes adorning bodies, they are certainly part of the same spirit.