An elongated oval just 41km by 14km, Tobago manages a surprising diversity within her craggy coastal fringes. Rich in natural allure, from deserted palm-lined beaches and lively coral reefs to a wealth of lush rainforest, and with plenty of tourist infrastructure in its southwest corner, the island offers something for every taste. Tobago’s greatest appeal, however, is its relatively unspoilt feel. Although tourism has definitely taken root here, development has so far been fairly low-key when compared with many other Caribbean islands. There are few all-inclusive resorts and none of the high-rise hotels that have blighted many other tropical paradises – and the hustler mentality that exists on more touristy islands is less intense here.
A place where locals and tourists tend to co-exist in an easy equilibrium, with everyone frequenting the same beaches, bars and nightclubs, Tobago’s overall vibe is overwhelmingly laidback and relaxing. Moreover, celebrations such as the Easter goat races are attended by more Tobagonians than tourists, and local culture is honoured at the annual Heritage Festival each August. The uniquely friendly mentality here is best expressed at the year-round Harvest Festivals, where entire villages open their doors to passing revellers.
Tobago is breathtakingly beautiful; heavy industry is confined to Trinidad, so the beaches here are clean and the landscape left largely to its own devices. The flat coral and limestone plateau of the southwest tip is the island’s most heavily developed region, with the majority of hotels, bars and restaurants as well as the best – albeit most commercialized – beaches such as Pigeon Point and Store Bay. There are also quieter stretches of sand along the area’s smart hotel coast, where glass-bottom boats head for Buccoo Reef, palms sway over the Mount Irvine golf course, and hotels around Plymouth run night excursions to watch giant turtles laying eggs on the beach. Strong currents in this area provide some excellent surfing possibilities, with the rough seas between November and February (the height of the tourist season) producing big breakers at Mount Irvine Beach.
But Tobago isn’t just sun, sand, surf and the tourist dollar. The commercial clamour of the southwest tip is kept in check by the capital, Scarborough, a lively, picturesque port town tumbling down a fort-topped hillside. Pummelled by the dark-green, wave-whipped Atlantic, the island’s rugged windward (south) coast is lined with appealing fishing villages; Speyside and Charlotteville in the remote eastern reaches have coral reefs as ornate as you’ll find anywhere in the Caribbean and scuba diving is a burgeoning industry. Tobago is an excellent and inexpensive place to learn to dive, and there’s plenty of challenging drift diving for the more experienced, while the many fringing reefs within swimming distance of the beaches make for fantastic snorkelling. Coral sands and glassy Caribbean waters along the leeward (north) coast provide some of Tobago’s finest beaches; some, like Englishman’s Bay, are regularly deserted, while at Parlatuvier and Bloody Bay, you’ll share the sand with local fishermen. Castara, meanwhile, holds the only real tourist infrastructure along Tobago’s Caribbean coast, with a host of guesthouses and places to enjoy the excellent fresh fish meals.
The landscape of the eastern interior rises steeply into the hillocks and rolling bluffs which make up the central Main Ridge. These mountains shelter the Forest Reserve – the oldest protected rainforest in the western hemisphere – an abundant tangle of mist-shrouded greenery dripping down to fabulous coastlines, often with neither building nor road to interrupt the flow. Ornithologists and naturalists flock in for the bird– and animal life that flourishes here; David Attenborough filmed parts of his celebrated Trials of Life series at Little Tobago, a solitary sea-bird sanctuary off the coast of Speyside. For slightly less committed nature-lovers, the island’s forested interior offers plenty of opportunities for birdwatching or a splash in the icy waterfalls.
Tobago has long been a hotly contested property. The original Carib population fiercely defended the paradisiacal island that they called Tavaco (the name is derived from the Indian word for tobacco) against other Amerindian tribes, and thwarted European colonization throughout the late 1500s and early 1600s. English sailors staked Britain’s claim in 1580, tacking a flag to a tree trunk during a water stop en route to Brazil; and in 1641, England’s King Charles I presented Tobago to his godson James, the Duke of Courland (in modern Latvia). A group of Latvians arrived a year later, but their settlement at Plymouth suffered constant attacks from the Caribs, and in 1658 was taken by the Dutch, who called it Nieuw Vlissingen. Twenty years later, the Courlanders left for good, and in the following years, the Amerindian population slowly petered out. Meanwhile, the belligerent shenanigans of the Dutch, English and French turned the coasts of Tobago into a war zone, with the island changing hands 31 times before 1814.
Pirates and plantations
During the eighteenth century, forts sprang up at every vantage point, and Tobago descended into turmoil, plundered by pirates and officially declared a no-man’s-land in 1702. In 1762, however, the British took decisive action and sent a powerful fleet to Tobago, taking possession of the island with swift precision. Sustained by the promise of stability that came with firm British control, plantation culture began in earnest, with the island transformed into a highly efficient sugar, cotton and indigo factory. Africans were shipped in to work as slaves, with around 3000 toiling on the plantations by 1772, under the control of less than three hundred Europeans. The economy flourished and, by 1777, the island’s eighty or so estates had exported 1.5 million pounds of cotton, as well as vast quantities of rum, indigo and sugar. The numerical might of the slave population led to many bloody uprisings, with planters doling out amputations and death by burning and hanging to the rebels.
Emancipation and beyond
Once the Act of Emancipation was passed in 1834, most of Tobago’s African population took to the interior to plant small-scale farms, and also established coastal fishing communities. Some continued to work the estates as free men and women, but when Britain removed its protective tariffs on sugar sales, Tobago’s unmechanized industry was unable to compete with other, more efficient producers. A severe hurricane in 1847, along with the collapse of the West India Bank (which underwrote the plantations), marked the beginning of the end for the island’s sugar estates.
In the aftermath of the Belmanna Riots, Tobago’s Legislative Council relinquished its tenuous rule, and the island became a Crown Colony in 1879. Having reaped all it could from the island and its sugar industry, England had little further need for this troublesome, ailing dependency. In 1899, Tobago was made a ward of Trinidad, effectively becoming the bigger island’s poor relation with little control over her own destiny. With the collapse of the sugar industry, the islanders fell back upon other crops, planting the acres of limes, coconuts and cocoa that still remain in patches today. Boosted by the arrival of free Africans in the mid-1800s, the black population clubbed together to farm the land, tending their food crops in the efficient “Len-Hand” system of shared labour that is still celebrated during Harvest Festivals. By the early 1900s Tobago was exporting fruit and vegetables to Trinidad, and was granted a single seat on the legislative council in 1927.
In 1963, Hurricane Flora razed whole villages and laid waste to most of the island’s crops; the ensuing restructuring programme saw the first tentative steps towards developing a tourist industry. By 1980, the island had her sovereignty partially restored when the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) was reconvened, but it had authority only over the island’s more mundane affairs while the main decisions were still made in Trinidad. Although Tobago now has a stronger profile in the republic’s affairs, the island is still perceived to be looked down on by bigger Trinidad, much to the resentment of the local populace.
In terms of economy, tourism remains the island’s main earner, and development projects abound, many slated for some of the island’s most pristine and lovely stretches of coast. It remains to be seen whether all this construction will erode the very things that attract tourists to Tobago in the first place.