Tobago is a Caribbean gem, with pristine beaches, protected rainforests, abundant bird life and great food. Above all, though, it has wonderful people keen for you to enjoy their fabulous island
Arriving at Tobago’s Crown Point International Airport is like pulling up outside someone’s house in a transatlantic jet. The arrivals hall is tiny, which means most passengers, having rushed off the aircraft desperate to don their beachwear, are instead left to queue in the stifling heat on the runway apron.
Then, after negotiating immigration, you rush through to baggage reclaim and there’s your next problem. The carousel can only hold around six suitcases and when they have been around once, they are removed and stacked to the ceiling. So despite the fact you can see your case, the wait can be considerable until the luggage mountain shrinks.
The problem is, the majority of visitors to Tobago (or, for that matter, most of the West Indies) arrive believing the world is governed by time. Well, forget that: relax - welcome to the Caribbean. Once you begin thinking in that laidback Caribbean way – and for some that can take days, while others never seem to manage it – the world is a different place.
But what of Tobago itself? Often referred to as Robinson Crusoe island, it’s incredibly lush and green. The majority of the villages and small towns are dotted around the coast and to the south. One of the world’s oldest protected rainforests fills the majority of the interior of the island, which is barely more than 20 miles in length and seven miles across. Tobagonians are immensely proud of their island and its unspoilt rainforest and wildlife, particularly the huge variety of bird life.
The Argyle Waterfalls are a must for any visitor to Tobago. Located near the village of Argyle, which is just before the town of Roxborough, the falls are spectacular and a great place for a refreshing dip in the heat of the day. There are plenty of guides ready to explain the history of the falls to visitors and point out the abundant bird life in the forest around the falls.
The French, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch have all fought over, and at one time or another ruled, Tobago, and the remains of numerous forts are dotted around the coast. The most spectacular and best preserved, Fort King George, overlooks the island’s capital, Scarborough.
Car hire is relatively cheap in Tobago, and you can tour the island quite easily in a day, although many roads are narrow and pretty rough the further north you get. At the far northern tip, there’s the tiny fishing village of Charlottesville, which is incredibly pretty and peaceful. This is the real Caribbean, far from crowded beaches, where local families share their evening meal of freshly caught snapper cooked over an open fire. However, a word of warning: if you do hire a car and park under a coconut tree, and a coconut falls on your vehicle, your insurance is invalid. And a falling coconut can do an incredible amount of damage to a car roof.
Taxis are plentiful, cheap and safe but expect drivers to pull up every few hundred yards to point out different species of trees, houses or features before giving long explanations.
The beaches are made up of yellow sand, as opposed to the white coral variety of many Caribbean islands, and all are public and free to all, with the exception of Pigeon Point, which enjoys wildlife park status and has a small charge for access. Some of the world’s best dive and snorkelling sites are to be found around the island, and Angel Reef, to the northeast, boasts the world’s largest known brain coral specimen. There are plenty of turtles and relatively harmless nurse sharks along with myriad colourful reef fish to be spotted, whether diving or snorkelling.
However, the Atlantic breakers can be much bigger than those on the Caribbean side, and a dip in the ocean, on either side of the island, should only be undertaken with caution. Visitors are also warned not to visit secluded beaches alone or in couples. Crime is low in Tobago but incidents of robbery and sexual assault have been reported from time to time, in particular around often deserted beaches such as Englishman’s Bay.
Where to stay
The majority of hotels and rental villas are concentrated around the south of the island and range from the cheap and cheerful to the hugely expensive, with the all-inclusive concept growing in popularity. We stayed at one such all inclusive, the Grafton Beach Resort at Stonehaven Bay. The rooms are spacious and most have an ocean view. Food is served buffet style and I was never disappointed with the quality and variety on offer.
Each evening there is entertainment in the bar area, and the clientele at the time of our visit was mostly British and Dutch, with the atmosphere very relaxed. The beach, which is reached by walking through the hotel grounds and across a small quiet road, has a beach bar that also serves lunches. The hotel also caters for wedding parties, and a wedding planner will take care of all the minor details of your big day.
Restaurants offer excellent seafood and, for meat-lovers, water buffalo steaks make a tasty change to beef, while chicken dishes are on most menus. The national dish, roti, which is a meat or vegetable curry served with a corn pancake, should be tried at least once – although beware the hot pepper sauce Tobagonians splash onto just about everything.
The Arnos Vale Waterwheel Restaurant is in a spectacular rainforest setting, overlooking the Franklin River at Plymouth. Housed in a former 19th-century water mill, which was once used to crush sugar cane, it‘s a delightful place to enjoy a romantic and relaxed dinner. The menu is extensive, with dishes including devilled chicken, honey-roast duck breast and grilled freshly caught fish. Three times a week there are performances of live Trinidadian and Tobagan music and dance.
And no trip to Tobago is complete without at least one stop at Speyside, and Jemma’s Treehouse Restaurant - yes, most of the restaurant really is housed in a huge tree. As Jemma is deeply religious (and, as a result, against alcohol), the restaurant isn’t licensed but that doesn’t stop her and her wonderful chefs producing fantastic home-cooked chicken and fish dishes and cakes to die for, all at reasonable prices. All the tour companies seem to stop their coaches at Jemma’s and it’s always pretty well packed to the rafters but hang around for 10 minutes and they always seem to find you a seat.
Meeting the locals
To really get to know Tobago and its people, you have to attend Sunday School at Buccoo. The locals just love this weekly festival of local steel bands. First, the bands play, then the dancing gets underway. It's a fantastic experience hearing 60 or more steel drums playing in harmony while you mix with locals of all ages who are just out for a good time.
For all Tobago's wonderful views, wildlife, beaches and tranquillity, it’s the islanders themselves who will leave you desperate to return to this Caribbean gem. Yes, they can be reserved, but strike up a conversation and the majority simply can’t wait to tell you all about their families, their way of life and, above all, their Tobago. “Welcome to paradise” is a favourite greeting from taxi drivers outside Crown Point Airport – and it’s impossible to argue.