Northeast of Plymouth, the dramatic and sparsely populated leeward coast feels more wonderfully remote than any other part of the island; here, the claim that Tobago is not just paradise, but the capital of paradise, begins to ring true, lapped by the Caribbean Sea and drenched in tropical greenery. Apart from at the lovely coastal village of Castara, tourist development is very understated, with the ravishing beaches at Englishman’s Bay, Parlatuvier and Bloody Bay much the same as they were decades ago. Locals still make a living off the land and sea: clusters of bobbing pirogues in every bay and seine nets drying in the sun reveal the importance of fishing to this area, and you’ll often see machete-wielding fellows trudging the route to small-scale plantations or meandering along with a pack of hunting dogs.
Although you might assume the most direct way to the leeward coast would be the coastal Arnos Vale Road from Plymouth, this is actually the slowest route, due to its twists and turns; a better (if less scenic) bet is to take the Northside Road up from Scarborough, which meets the coast just before Moriah.
The last accessible beach on the leeward coast before Charlotteville is Bloody Bay, roughly 2km beyond Parlatuvier and named after a battle between English soldiers and African slaves in 1771 that was fierce enough to turn the sea crimson with blood; Dead Bay River, which runs across the sand and into the sea, is named for the same event. The beach itself is fine brown sand, strewn with pebbles and driftwood and frequented by no one except the odd fisherman. From here, directly opposite the bay and clearly visible 5km out to sea, the Sisters Rocks form an attractive cluster of tiny, verdant islands; it’s also fun to explore the river which flows into the sea at the north end of the bay. The Tobago House of Assembly have constructed a string of luridly painted buildings on the beach which house changing facilities and a restaurant, but do detract a bit from the formerly unspoilt beauty of the place.
A picturesque fishing village, with terrific beaches and a laidback vibe that have made it increasingly popular with visitors, CASTARA is the busiest “resort” on this coastline – though don’t expect anything as packaged and touristy as Crown Point. Although the number of guesthouses has grown exponentially in recent years, Castara’s remote location has so far saved it from being eaten up by resort hotels, and there’s an appealingly harmonious balance between visitors and locals. Fishing remains the main earner, and the beach is one of the best places to participate in the pulling of a seine net, still in constant use by the posse of Rasta fishermen. The village abandons its languid air each August, when the beach is packed with revellers attending the Castara Fishermen’s Fete, one of Tobago’s biggest; the drinking, dancing, eating and swimming start at about midday and continue until well after dark.
To get your bearings before you enter the village proper from the west, pull up in the layby to the left just before the Northside Road makes its final steep descent – there’s a postcard-perfect view of the village and the main Big Bay beach, separated from the smaller Little Bay (also known as Heavenly Bay) by a rocky outcrop, and all framed by the lush green tips of the rainforest.
East of Castara, houses, shops and most of the traffic melt away, and the Northside Road is flanked by enormous tufts of whispering, creaking bamboo, broken occasionally to reveal marvellous jungle-clad hilly prospects. The next worthy beach, about 3km along the Northside Road, is Englishman’s Bay, hidden from the road by a thick cover of bush; look out for the blue and white sign, opposite a WASA building, marking a left-hand turn and the gravel track which leads to the beach’s small car park. Utterly ravishing and virtually undeveloped, the bay offers a perfect crescent of pure yellow sand, deep blue water and offshore reef – from the sea, the forested hillside appears completely untouched, as the bush drips right down to the sand. The bay remains delightfully remote, the quintessential “deserted beach” destination of many a pleasure boat cruise. For this reason, there have unfortunately been a few thefts from tourists at Englishman’s Bay; the crime and safety box, for some general advice when visiting Tobago’s more isolated beaches. There are no lifeguards here, but beach chairs can be rented from Eula’s.
The coast road climbs upward and inland east of Englishman’s Bay, passing through the diminutive community of Parrot Hall after about 3km before descending to reveal one of the most arresting views on the island: Parlatuvier is another crescent of pearly sand flanked by an absurdly pretty hillside scattered with palms, terraced provision grounds and ice-cream-coloured houses; you can get a great view over the village from the car park adjacent to the Glasgow Bar. The pier in the middle of the bay is testament to Parlatuvier’s dedication to fishing, as are the gulls that roost on the rocks at either side of the bay, patiently awaiting the return of the boats. Swimming here is a vigorous experience as waves are usually quite strong and the water deepens sharply from the sand; be careful as there is no lifeguard on duty, and what with the fishing paraphernalia, it’s not really a place to lay down a towel and sunbathe.
Set up by enterprising locals, Top River Falls offers an easy-access cooldown. From the car park, a path winds down through frothy stands of bamboo to the river, from where it’s a five-minute walk along the bank to the waterfall, a three-tiered affair with two deep pools of clear, cold water. There are basic changing rooms at the bottom, and a couple of barbecue pits popular with local families who come and cook by the water. Soft drinks are available from the ticket booth at the entrance.
Swinging inland from the Northside Road at Bloody Bay, the Roxborough–Parlatuvier Road connects the leeward and windward coasts, running straight through the Tobago Forest Reserve and the central mountain range. Construction of the road began in 1958, prior to which the two sides of the island were only linked by small trails. However, Hurricane Flora ravaged it mercilessly five years later, and the road was not repaired until the mid-1990s. Now it’s a beautifully quiet half-hour drive through the rainforest; lined with pioneer ferns and parrot-apple trees, the tarmac is in generally good shape (though watch out for a few water-damaged spots) and traffic is rare.
The reserve itself acquired its status as the oldest protected rainforest in the western hemisphere during the plantation era, when British scientist Stephen Hales began researching the relationship between rainfall and trees and communicated his findings to Soame Jenyns, a British MP responsible for the development of Tobago. At the time, plantations were concentrated in low-lying parts of the island, but the estates began encroaching on the more precipitous forest areas, felling trees for fuel or clearing land to make way for yet more sugar cane. It took Jenyns ten years to convince Tobago’s planters that if they continued to cut down the forest, the island would soon be incapable of supporting the smallest of shrubs, let alone a massive sugar plantation. Ultimately, he was successful, and on April 13, 1776, 14,000 acres of central Tobago were designated a protected Crown Reserve.
The main point of access into the Forest Reserve is the Gilpin Trace, marked by a painted sign 3km along the Roxborough–Parlatuvier Road. The 5km trail which strikes straight into the forest from here is well marked and maintained, though often very muddy regardless of the weather – the forest gets around 380cm of rain each year. You’ll be offered rubber boots to rent for TT$20 on the approach to Gilpin Trace, and it’s a good idea to take a pair (bring your own socks). The trail takes about two and a half hours to walk at a leisurely pace, taking you through some spectacular forest dotted with huge termite nests, with lianas and vines blocking out most of the light. The birdlife in the forest is most active early in the morning, so birdwatchers should aim to be on the trail by about 6am. Later in the day, you might see the odd hummingbird, mot-mot or woodpecker, if you’re lucky. Typically, tour guides will take you past three small waterfalls – none are suitable for swimming – before turning back. If you follow the trail to its end, you’ll come out of the forest just after the reserve boundary, towards the windward side, approximately 3km north of Roxborough – remember that it is a steep uphill walk along the road back to the start of the trail if you’ve parked there.
Tempting as it may be to walk through the Forest Reserve alone, it’s far better to hire a guide: you won’t lose your way, guides can point out things you may otherwise miss, such as bachac ants carrying their leaf shreds back to the nest, and you’ll learn a lot more about forest dynamics. If you do decide to walk alone, remember that the sun sets quickly on the island, resulting in a rapid drop in temperature and the increased possibility of getting lost. Since this is an isolated spot, you should also be mindful of the security risks of walking alone in the forest. During daylight hours, registered guides (usually ex-foresters) wait at the entrance to Gilpin Trace (registered individuals all have an ID badge), and you can also visit as part of a longer tour. Most forest guides are from nearby villages such as Parlatuvier and Roxborough, and all of them are far cheaper than the hotel-arranged guides. Reliable, certified guides include Dexter James (t 660 7852 or t 757 0761), who lives in the second house after the Northside Road/Parlatuvier–Roxborough Road junction; Fitzroy Quamina (t 660 7836 or t 344 1895), Junior Thomas (t 660 7847), Darlington Chance (t 660 7828 or t 660 7823) and the only female guide, Shurland James (t 660 7883 or t 294 3470). All guides also offer walks to local waterfalls, and night walks into the Reserve (prices negotiable).
In addition to the local guides mentioned above, there are several other reputable guides who offer rainforest tours.