Tobago’s flat, low-lying southwest tip is the island’s most heavily developed, accessible and populated region, with the Crown Point area around the airport home to the vast majority of its hotels, restaurants and nightclubs, as well as its most popular beaches – Store Bay is just a couple of minutes on foot from the airport, and Pigeon Point ten minutes further. The terrain between the two is jam-packed with all the familiar tourist trappings – craft stalls, restaurants, bars and endless hotels – and many people never make it any further into the island. This highly commercialized hotchpotch sometimes lacks aesthetic charm, but the concentration of facilities and activities offers practical convenience as well as Tobago’s most energetic vibe.
Directly east of Crown Point, Airport Road serves as a rough boundary line between Crown Point and Bon Accord, directly east and distinguishable only by its preponderance of residential streets threading towards the lovely Bon Accord wetlands. Airport Road leads into ruler-straight Milford Road, bisecting the southwest tip, and the main thoroughfare through the southwest. Trucks, cars and route taxis fly past a roadside lined with shops, fruit stalls and houses, and the whole stretch is the busiest you’ll find away from Scarborough. Milford merges into the Claude Noel Highway just before the sign for the pretty Canoe Bay beach. Running parallel to Milford Road, Store Bay Local Road is a quieter affair but still home to a fair few accommodation and eating options.
Milford Road becomes ruler-straight as it Crown Point slips imperceptibly into the BON ACCORD district, a mostly residential area whose main point of interest is the Bon Accord Lagoon, a sweeping oval of mangrove swamp and reef-sheltered, shallow water which forms one of the most important fish nurseries on the island. Though the marine life has been adversely affected by runoff from a nearby sewage treatment plant, the lagoon’s sea-grass beds remain a sanctuary for conch, snails, shrimp, oysters, crab, urchins and sponges.
Most of the land skirting the swamp is privately owned. You can get pretty close by turning down Golden Grove Road, the turn-off for which lies a couple of kilometres east along Milford Road, and taking the first dirt track you come to – passing the crumbling remains of a windmill and cocoa drying house, once part of the Bon Accord sugar estate (note that the road becomes extremely bumpy after the small bridge, and is best attempted with 4WD in the wet season). You can drive right down to the water by taking Gaskin Bay Road, a wide paved turn-off to the left from Milford just before the housing scheme. A better way to see the lagoon is on a Buccoo Reef boat tour that includes a barbecue at a deserted sandy spit on the lagoon’s north side known as No Man’s Land, an idyllic place to swim.
Covering around 12sq km of Caribbean seabed between Pigeon Point and Buccoo Bay, Buccoo Reef is Tobago’s largest and most heavily visited collection of corals, from hard stag and elkhorn varieties to waving purple sea fans and peach-coloured fire coral, patrolled by the brilliantly coloured trigger, butterfly, surgeon and parrot fish which thrive here. To the south of the reef is Nylon Pool, a gleaming coralline sandbar forming an appealing metre-deep swimming pool smack in the middle of the sea. It’s said to have been named by Princess Margaret during her stay in the 1950s; she supposedly remarked that the water was as clear as her nylon stockings – nylon had just been invented.
Sadly, however, human interference has taken a devastating toll. Carelessly placed anchors and thoughtless removal of coral souvenirs – not to mention the inevitable pollution – mean that many parts have been terribly damaged, and bear more resemblance to a coral graveyard than a living reef. Buccoo also took a pounding during the years when boat operators handed out plastic shoes to allow visitors to walk on the reef as a part of the glass-bottom boat tour. Large sections have died off completely, leaving white skeletons in their wake, while overfishing has reduced the fish and crustacean populations, and poorly aimed spear guns have ripped chunks from the coral. The situation became so bad that Buccoo was declared a protected national park in 1973, but with scant resources to enforce the law the legal status meant little and the damage continued practically unabated. Today, glass-bottom boat operators are more conscientious, no longer promoting reef walks and anchoring at designated buoys, as well as warning visitors that touching or removing reef matter and shells is illegal. The Buccoo Reef Trust (t 635 2000, w buccooreeftrust.org), meanwhile, is a local NGO working to help preserve the reef and educate boat operators and fishermen about sustainable practices. You can do your bit by standing on the seabed only and refusing to buy any coral trinkets.
Despite the damage, there’s still plenty to see at Buccoo, particularly at outlying areas such as Coral Gardens. You’ll have no difficulty in finding a glass-bottom boat to take you; most leave from Store Bay and, to a lesser degree, Buccoo and Pigeon Point. Two- to three-hour trips cost around US$25, and usually leave at about 11am and 2pm; touts prowl all the main beaches. The tours are often fairly raucous, accompanied by loud music on the way home, but offer a good glimpse of the coral as well as a pretty perspective back over Tobago’s southwest coastline and hilly interior.
From Airport Road, Store Bay Local Road runs west, past the small dead-end road that leads to Store Bay Beach, and threads around the headland to hotel-filled Sandy Point and the Fort Milford stockade. The ruins of gun-slitted coral stone were built by the British in 1777, and briefly appropriated by the French during their 1781–93 occupation of Tobago. Of the six cannons that remain, five are British and one French. Surrounded by well-kept gardens that make a quiet, shady chill-out spot, the fort gives a panoramic perspective over Store Bay Beach and Milford Bay right up to Pigeon Point.
Some 200m north of the Store Bay turn-off, where Airport Road swings right to become Milford Road, the left-hand turn-off onto Pigeon Point Road leads to the spot where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea. The shoreline here – unlike the majority of Tobago’s rugged beaches – is definitively Caribbean: powdery white sand with calm turquoise sea on one side and the ubiquitous swaying palms on the other. Lauded as the island’s best beach, Pigeon Point has shady picnic gazebos, shower blocks and a weathered wooden pier topped with a thatch-roofed hut that’s easily Tobago’s most photographed spot. The gentle shelf and tame currents make swimming benign, and there’s ample space on the sand to stake out your niche without feeling cramped – though it can get busy on a cruise-ship day. East around the headland, the wind whips over the Bon Accord Lagoon, providing a welcome respite from the steamy heat of the beach as well as ideal conditions for kite-boarding and windsurfing – there’s an outlet offering lessons and equipment rental. Close to the entrance, shops sell beachwear, clothes and souvenirs, while the two bars at each end of the beach are popular liming spots at sundown; like Sandy Point, the sunset views here are magnificent. A handful of food outlets sell inexpensive roti and other snacks, and a branch of Rituals/Pizza Boys dishes out iced coffees and pepperoni slices. If you want something more substantial, there’s a restaurant at the Bon Accord end of the beach selling Creole lunches.
Picturesque as it is, Pigeon Point is not without controversy. It was the first beach on Tobago (and still the only one) to charge an entry fee, much to the consternation of locals and the fishermen whose right to walk and fish freely from the beach has been curtailed. Equally, many bemoan the water quality, thanks to runoff from the area’s many hotels, and lack of water circulation following constriction of groynes.
South of Fort Milford, Store Bay Local Road swings left before meeting the fences of the airport runway, encircled by narrow NP Road. Obscured by trees and shrubs, pretty and often deserted Sandy Point Beach is easy to miss; take the first dirt road off NP into the bush (just opposite the end of the tarmac) and you’ll emerge onto a picturesque and completely undeveloped strip of fine white sand and translucent sea bordered by sea grapes and palms. Swimming is safe if you stick to the left of the beach; currents get strong around the headland to the right. Sandy Point is a popular lunch spot and a great place to watch the sunset, with cars parked up at a small paved area next to the sea wall.
A two-minute walk from the airport brings you to Crown Point’s best place to swim, Store Bay Beach. Named after early Dutch settler Jan Stoer, this is some of the most popular sand in Tobago, and deservedly so; it’s close to the main hotels, has tasty and inexpensive local food and is a great place to buy crafts from the many huts behind the beach. Store Bay offers up a lively scene: holidaymakers (many of them from Trinidad) consume vast quantities of curry crab and dumplin’ and keep the beach-chair operators busy, while glass-bottom boats load and offload groups of visitors in the bay.
Though fairly small and hemmed in by the Coco Reef hotel and the rocks, the beach is excellent: tides govern the extent of the fine, off-white sand, and lifeguards patrol the area flagged off for safe bathing. With a gentle shelf and crystal-clear water, a calm Store Bay is a good choice for adults and children – though be careful on rougher days, when waves get pretty big. Store Bay is the finishing point for the Great Race powerboat contest each August, as well as a venue for open-air parties around Easter weekend, and the bars opposite are a popular liming spot, particularly during and after sunset.
Opposite the beach there are a couple of bars blasting reggae and soca, an ice-cream kiosk and the row of shacks housing the irresistible cookshops where most people purchase their lunch.
An essential part of any visit to Tobago is a plate of crab and dumplin’, macaroni pie with callaloo, or fresh fish with provisions from one of the row of food huts facing Store Bay Beach. This strip of cookshops (from right to left there’s Miss Jean’s, Miss Trim’s, Miss Joycie’s, Alma’s, Sylvia’s and Miss Esmie’s) offer tasty, inexpensive local cuisine, and the covered sea-facing gazebo with seating and tables is an attractive place to sit, eat and watch the world go by. Prices and food vary little from stall to stall: bake with fish or eggs, buljol and smoked herring for breakfast; while for lunch, there’s goat, beef, chicken or vegetable roti, stewed beef or chicken, conch or crab and dumplin’, pelau, vegetable rice, stewed lentils, macaroni pie, callaloo and ground provisions. Most stalls also make juices such as mauby or grapefruit, and perhaps peanut or sea-moss punch. All are open daily from around 8.30am to 8.30pm, but the flow of custom dictates business hours.
The southwest is the best place to indulge in watersports, with a large variety of outlets and operators. Jet-skis have gained in popularity, and you can rent them from operators working the sands at Store Bay Beach and Pigeon Point for around US$40 per half-hour. Many also rent snorkel equipment for around US$10 per day (though if you plan on snorkelling a lot, it’s best to bring or buy your own). For kite-boarding (1hr private lesson US$90), windsurfing (equipment rental US$45/hr or US$83/day, 1hr lesson US$70), kayaking (US$20/hr) and sailing on a hobie cat (1hr rental US$45, 1hr lesson US$65; 2 people TT$300 per flight), check Radical Watersports (t 631 5150 or t 728 5483, w radicalsportstobago.com) on the Bon Accord side of Pigeon Point beach, which is also the best place for the above sports. Radical also offer stand-up paddleboarding and an array of paddleboard tours.
During the season (Oct–March), there’s excellent surfing at Mount Irvine Beach – early morning often sees twenty to thirty surfers riding the waves. The southwest is also ideal for scuba diving, with a host of operators, many of whom rent snorkelling gear. Fishing is also lots of fun, whether you opt for deep-sea sport fishing or throwing a line from a pirogue, which you can do with several of the island’s tour operators.