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) coastprovide 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.

Brief history

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-Handsystem 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.

Tobago today

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.

Charlotteville

Tumbling willy-nilly down a hillside to a horseshoe bay of calm Caribbean waters, where frigate birds swoop over the fishing boats, the absurdly pretty CHARLOTTEVILLE looks its very best as you approach the village on the Windward Road. Snugly situated under the protective cover of Man O’ War Bay, Charlotteville is one of Tobago’s foremost fishing communities – more than sixty percent of the island’s total catch is brought in by local fishermen. Bordered on each side by steep forested hills, the village has an isolated feel, although this is in fact one of Tobago’s biggest communities with around 5000 inhabitants. It is also one of its oldest, first settled by Caribs and then by the Dutch in 1633 – for many years the bay was known as Jan De Moor Bay after an early Frisian occupant. During the plantation era, the area was divided into two successful estates, Pirate’s Bay and Charlotteville; sugar shipments made regular departures from the bay, and the village prospered. In 1865, both estates were purchased by the Turpin family, who still own much of the surrounding land. Today, tourism plays its part – albeit as second fiddle to fishing – in sustaining the local economy, and the village is increasingly popular with independent types who come for the quiet beaches and laidback charm. If you’re seeking peace, quiet and great beaches, it’s hard not to become utterly besotted with Charlotteville.

The hole-in-the-wall shops and sprinkling of restaurants that make up Charlotteville’s centre line the road along the beach, while the streets that stretch inland and uphill, spreading back from a central playing field, are mostly residential. Slap in the centre of the village is the Fishermen’s Co-Operative, where the day’s catch is weighed, scaled and sold (and in the midst of an upgrade at the time of writing); adjacent to it is the proposed site for the controversial new Charlotteville Beachfront Mall. Beyond the site, the bay view opens up, the sea wall dotted with benches and the beach mostly taken up with fishing boats and nets drying on the sand. The long concrete pier offers a lovely perspective back over the village, and is a great spot from which to watch the sun set.

Bustin’ the bamboo

In Charlotteville and other rural Tobago communities, music at open-air celebrations and Christmas/Old Year’s festivities is often given an ear-splitting percussive accompaniment. Loved by small boys for the incredibly loud, cannon-like explosion that’s produced, the tradition of “bustin’ the bamboo” remains a popular – if rather dangerous – sport. To achieve the desired earth-shaking report, the prospective buster must have the know-how to first select a piece of bamboo of the correct age and durability with at least four or five internal joints, and then cut the section so that joints seal each end. A hole is pierced at one end, and the bamboo is filled with pitch oil (kerosene) from a slit at the opposite end. The fuel is lit and fanned until it heats up sufficiently to blow out the remaining joints, which creates the resounding boom and often results in the loss of eyelashes and moustaches.

Pirate’s Bay

Charlotteville’s main street veers away from the coast at the eastern end of the village, but a dirt track continues along the shoreline to the town’s – and, for many, Tobago’s – most attractive beach, Pirate’s Bay. After walking for about fifteen minutes along the steep track you’ll come to a long concrete stairway, at the bottom of which you’re rewarded with a stunning horseshoe of calm emerald-green water and fine yellow sand, with a backdrop of trees, ferns and foliage. A tumbledown fisherman’s hut is the only building in sight, and there’s even a freshwater rinse, courtesy of a stream trickling down from the hills. The bay’s translucent waters offer fantastic snorkelling, especially on the left-hand side. The seventeenth-century buccaneers after whom it was named may have gone, but the bay still has its freebooters, a large colony of frigate birds, which feed by snatching recently caught fish from the beaks of smaller sea birds. These, and other birds such as terns and pelicans can be found at St Giles Island a few kilometres to the north, but strong currents make it difficult for small boats – and thus birdwatchers – to get there. If the walk (or the stairs) are too much for you, you can usually arrange for one of the village’s fishermen to drop you at the beach and pick you up. Though the track is partially driveable, it’s best to leave your car in town – the only place to park is also the only turning spot, so leaving your vehicle there means anyone else will have to reverse back down the hill.

Crime and safety in Tobago

There was a time when crime of any sort was virtually unheard of in Tobago, but several high-profile robberies and attacks in recent years have tarnished the island’s reputation as a safe haven in the Caribbean. Most of the victims have been expat residents rather than people on holiday, and many put these crimes down to disputes and simmering tensions between the newcomers and their local neighbours rather than opportunism. Nonetheless, it has to be said that crime statistics have risen here in recent years, and while some Tobagonians still leave their front doors unlocked and their parked cars open, visitors are well advised to take the common-sense precautions to avoid potential problems.

Another main concern of late has been break-ins at villas, whose often-idyllic locations – in the middle of nowhere with only the birds for company – are irresistible to tourists and criminals alike. If you do stay in a villa, bear in mind that those clustered together in a resort-style complex, complete with gates and security guards, are obviously the safest choice. Always ask about security measures such as outside lighting and window locks or grilles before renting, and make sure that you lock doors and windows securely before going out and when retiring for the night. Should the worst happen, don’t offer any kind of resistance to thieves; and call the police on t 999 as soon as possible; in addition, there are police stations at Scarborough (t 639 2512), Crown Point (t 639 0042 or t 639 9872), Old Grange (t 639 8888), Moriah (t 660 0029 or t 660 0100), Roxborough (t 660 4333) and Charlotteville (t 660 4388).

Getting around

Given Tobago’s small size, public transport can be a useful option for short journeys, particularly in the southwest, with plenty of route taxis, maxis (with blue bands in Tobago) and buses plying the main roads. In remote corners of Tobago, and on Sundays throughout the island, waiting times can be long. All public transport to outlying spots such as Castara, Charlotteville or Speyside departs from Scarborough; bear in mind that it’s best to get an early start, since many of the services to outlying towns and villages leave early in the morning, with a significant lull during the middle part of the day. Renting a car is by far the easiest way to explore the island, even if you just rent one for a day for a round-Tobago whirlwind trip.

Goat races

Easter weekend is to Tobago what Carnival is to Trinidad: an unofficial national holiday when hotels are filled to the brim and the island erupts with festivities. A succession of huge open-air parties and well-attended harvest feasts culminate on Easter Tuesday at the Buccoo goat races, a tradition since 1925. Though attempting to race one of the world’s most belligerent animals may seem a little ridiculous to the uninitiated, these tournaments are taken very seriously by aficionados, who study the form (and character) of the sleekly groomed animals and place bets on their favourites. Raised separately from the run-of-the-mill roadside grazer, racing goats undergo a rigorous training routine and return to the tracks year after year. Prize specimens live out their days as stud goats to breed more potential champions.

The preliminary round at the Mount Pleasant Family Fun Day on Easter Monday gives everyone a chance to see which goat is running best, but the main event is at Buccoo on the Tuesday. Food vendors and craft stalls line the streets and a carnival atmosphere builds as fast as the crowds, who are kept entertained by dancing and drumming in between stakes. Smartly attired in white shorts and coloured vests, the jockeys limber up by the side of the tracks, a necessary exercise, as their ability to keep up with their goat (and keep hold of it) over the 150m race has more influence on their success or failure than the capabilities of the goat itself: animals are raced at the end of a rope, and kept on course via taps from a long switch. Once the jockeys manage to manoeuvre their malignant charges into starting position, the actual races are a joy to watch. With wild-eyed stares, the goats tear haphazardly down the track, often taking a diagonal course that trips up competitors and runners alike, to the delight of the spectators. The best of the bunch battle for supremacy in the final “Champ of Champs” race, while “Champion Jockey”, “Champion Trainer” and “Most Outstanding Goat” prizes are also presented.

Once all the races are over on Tuesday, the final all-night party swings into action, and the dancing continues until dawn.

Organized tours

Tobago has a bewildering number of tour companies and guides, with options ranging from the highly qualified and experienced to the downright charlatan (note that certified guides have an ID badge issued by the Tobago House of Assembly). It’s worth spending time considering the options before parting with your cash. Several established companies offer standard island tours covering Tobago’s main sights, which are great if you want a hassle-free overview of the island. A boat ride is one of the best ways to appreciate Tobago’s gorgeous coastline and get some excellent snorkelling. Several operators work the waters, and trips usually include lunch, snorkelling at Englishman’s Bay or other similarly deserted coves, and an open bar; half-day, or sunset and moonlight dinner trips are also on the roster of most operators.

Full-day tours (land or sea) of eight hours or so almost always include lunch and cost US$70–90 per person; half-day tours hover at around US$50 for four to five hours. Most people book through reps who visit the main hotels or trawl the beaches, but you can sign up independently as well. Note that the prices given here are for adults; all companies offer reduced rates for children.

There are also several guides who specialize in the Forest Reserve, and who are usually to be found at the main entrance, Gilpin Trace. Glass-bottom boats to Buccoo Reef are one of the most popular tour options on Tobago; all leave from Store Bay. Other more active tour options include fishing, mountain biking, golf, horseriding and scuba diving.

Scuba diving

Tobago is one of the best scuba-diving spots in the southeastern Caribbean, yet it has relatively few divers visiting its dazzling coral reefs, volcanic formations and marine wrecks. The island is internationally recognized for the exciting and challenging drift dives caused by the Guyana current, which results from the confluence of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The seas around Tobago are home to 300 species of South Atlantic coral and a variety of spectacular multicoloured fish, not to mention larger species such as stingrays, manta rays, sharks, dolphins, turtles and squid. Rarer species such as toadfish and shortnose batfish are also occasionally spotted. Adding a touch of history to underwater encounters are the sunken ships that litter the sea floor.

There are many dive shops in Crown Point thanks to the sheer volume of visitors in the southwest, but Speyside is the island’s premier diving destination, with a variety of spectacular sites surrounding the offshore islands: Goat Island is popular for drift dives; St Giles for its rocky pinnacles and underwater canyon; and there’s a reasonable chance of seeing manta rays on dives around Little Tobago. Popular dive sites in the area include London Bridge, Bookends, Angel Reef, The Cathedral and Kelliston Drain – the site of the single largest brain coral in the Caribbean, and possibly the largest in the world. For more advanced divers, Sisters Rocks, offshore of Bloody Bay – with the sea shelf falling to 667m – is especially popular for larger species of fish including hammerhead sharks.

Tobago’s diving industry was only established in the 1980s but since then scuba-diving operations have multiplied with many hotels, beaches and guesthouses sporting their own centres. Prices vary slightly between operators; in general one to three dives cost about US$50 each, half-day resort courses US$65, five-day PADI open water certification courses US$480 and advanced open water from US$385. When deciding who to dive with it’s worth contacting the Association of Tobago Dive Operators (t 660 5445, w tobagoscubadiving.com); they can provide a list of certified scuba-diving operators. Always check for the prominent display of a dive affiliation, such as NAUI, PADI, SSI or BSAC. A good operator will always ask you to fill in paperwork and present a diving certification card. The rental equipment should be well rinsed; if you see sand or salt crystals this may indicate careless equipment care. Inspect all equipment thoroughly, check hoses for wear, see that mouthpieces are secure and ensure they give you a depth gauge and air-pressure gauge. Listen for air leaks when you gear up and smell the air, which should be odourless. If you smell oil or anything else, search for a different operator. In case of accidents, Tobago has a recompression chamber in Roxborough (t 660 4000).

Tobago festivals

Though Carnival in Trinidad tends to take precedence in the T&T festival calendar, Tobago more than holds its own in terms of celebrations, and even if your visit doesn’t coincide with some of the bigger events, there’s almost always a beach party or fete to liven things up. Of the annual festivals, August means Great Race, when a flotilla of high-powered speedboats compete to be the first to cross the waters between the two islands. This being T&T, there’s more concentration on partying than maritime action: the whole shebang kicks off with the massive Great Fete outdoor party and stageshow at Pigeon Point, and on race day itself, huge crowds gather at the Store Bay finish line, all the while entertained by blaring soca, rhythm sections, pan bands and copious quantities of rum and beer. A similar scene unravels at the annual round of fishermen’s festivals, which celebrate patron of the trade St Peter by way of friendly beach parties at Castara and Charlotteville: vats of pacro water (shellfish soup) simmer and stacks of speakers get everyone in the mood for dancing. For something gentler, you might check out the Harvest Festivals held in the island’s villages throughout the year, which feature folk singing and dancing, heaps of “blue food” such as dasheen and tannia, and a friendly, community vibe. But the most hyped event on the island these days is the Tobago Jazz Festival, held between April and June by the sea at Plymouth and featuring international acts alongside the best of local talent – past performers include Diana Ross, Elton John, Sting, Emile Sandé, Erykah Badu, John Legend and, of course, T&T’s own Machel Montano.

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Andy Turner
10/16/2020
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