Just before Milford Road widens into the highway, the left-hand turn-off of Shirvan Road is the route to Tobago’s northwest coast, home to Buccoo Bay and its famous reef, the golf course and surfing beach at Mount Irvine and, ultimately, Stonehaven Bay, Turtle Beach and the neat town of Plymouth, from which the Northside Road threads along the Caribbean coastline through Arnos Vale and the pretty hilltop villages of Golden Lane and Les Coteaux. In easy driving distance from the beaches, restaurants and nightlife of Crown Point, but with a much more laidback and sometimes upmarket feel, this is a great area in which to base yourself, with plenty of lovely, less high-octane beaches and a smattering of great places to eat and drink.
Arnos Vale Road meanders through the greenery towards Arnos Vale, one of the few former sugar plantations to keep its land, part of which is taken up with a resort hotel, which has long been in decline and has now closed to the public, as has the adjacent waterwheel and museum, which you can just see through the trees from the main road. Arnos Vale Beach is very pretty, though the crumbling hotel buildings behind add a very Marie Celeste air, and the snorkelling just offshore is some of the island’s best; however, its secluded nature and lack of security mean that robberies have occurred here, so unless you’re in a big group it’s best visited as part of a boat trip; many day-cruises stop here for snorkelling.
Northeast of Pleasant Prospect, the main road narrows as it swings through Black Rock, a busy, friendly village with a couple of nice rum bars and a sprinkling of grocery stores. On the western outskirts of town, where Old Stonehaven Road loops back up from the sea, is a signpost for Fort Bennet, a still-intact stockade built by English mercenary Lieutenant Robert Bennet in 1680. During the plantation era, the fort was expanded by British troops, who built a brick oven to heat up the metal used to make cannonballs and placed two cannons here to defend the bay against US privateers during the American War of Independence. There are benches and a couple of gazebos, and the views – over Stonehaven Bay and down to the Pigeon Point headland to the west, and over Turtle Beach to Plymouth to the east – are spectacular, particularly at sunset.
The seaward turn-off from Shirvan Road at Buccoo Junction runs past a small supermarket and into BUCCOO village, haphazardly built around the calm and beautiful bay that shares its name. Fishing remains a major industry here – the day’s catch is cleaned and sold next to the beach when the boats return in the late afternoon – but this close-knit community is best known for the weekly Sunday School shenanigans and for the annual Easter goat races, now held at a smart purpose-built track and pavilion behind the new Buccoo Integrated Facility, a rather incongruously large concrete complex just back from the beach which encompasses a dancefloor used for Sunday School, an upstairs seafood restaurant, craft vendors’ booths, a rather desultory tourist information kiosk and a big car park.
The beachfront immediately in front is primarily the preserve of fishermen and not really a place to swim, but the undeveloped, palm-lined western fringe of the bay is gorgeous, with clean water and plenty of shells and coral fragments to collect. Trees and mangroves separate the beach from the Bon Accord Wetland, and if you walk right to the end of the sands and clamber into the bush, you can explore the remains of the house that Britain’s Princess Margaret stayed in during a Tobago sojourn in the late 1950s. Note that many of the coastal trees here are toxic manchineels; offenders have a white strip painted around the trunk.
The swaying palms and shaven greens of Tobago’s first golf course herald the outskirts of MOUNT IRVINE, the next coastal village north from Buccoo, a scattered community of luxury villas around the golf course that’s centred around its gorgeous main beach, home to Tobago’s surfing scene and one of the nicest spots in the southwest to spend a day by the sea. Beyond the golf course, the hitherto hidden Caribbean Sea coast swings spectacularly back into view; yachts bob on the waves and craggy volcanic rock formations bordering Booby Point make an arresting backdrop to the west. There’s a lovely section of undeveloped beach known as Grange or Mount Irvine Wall behind a low concrete bulwark just past the golf course; it’s very popular with locals who often sit chatting in the emerald-green water.
Roughly a kilometre past Turtle Beach, Grafton Road meets a junction: going straight will put you on Wilson Road to Scarborough, while to the left, a narrow bridge over the Courland River brings you to the outskirts of PLYMOUTH. Tobago’s first European community, Plymouth was settled by a group of roving Latvians, usually referred to as Courlanders, then by the Dutch and finally by the British. Today, it’s an attractive little town, predominantly residential, with neat board houses lining the grid-patterned streets and a handful of very low-key historical sights, including the so-called mystery tombstone, the grave of an African slave and her child, and Fort James, the oldest stockade in Tobago, dating from 1650, which commands an excellent view of Turtle Beach from the lawns in front.
Past Mount Irvine, Shirvan Road becomes Grafton Road. Its narrower forefather, Old Stonehaven Road (marked by a flurry of signs advertising villas and hotels) turns off to the left and runs along almost the whole length of Stonehaven Bay (also known as Grafton Beach). A glorious, wide swathe with coarse sand that attracts the turtles that lay their eggs here in the March–August season, the beach offers some great swimming, and is deliciously uncommercialized. The presence of two large hotels overlooking the sand detract little from the beauty of the scene, particularly pretty at late afternoon as the sun sinks behind the black volcanic rocks that punctuate the seashore.
North of Black Rock, the road swings around a blind bend before entering a straight stretch. Trees mask lovely Turtle Beach (officially Great Courland Bay), a picturesque kilometre of coarse yellow sand flecked with the occasional swathe of volcanic grey; there are several dirt tracks from which to enter the bay from the road. The water shelves steeply from the beach and the waves are large, making for exhilarating swimming, while a river at the western end can sometimes be nice for a freshwater dip, but it’s often dammed up and stagnant in the dry season. Jealously guarding pole position in the centre of the bay (only guests are allowed to use the thatched sunshades), the two-storey all-inclusive Turtle Beach hotel dominates the sand, and the constant presence of its guests has generated an ideal captive market for vendors selling sarongs and crafts or touting an aloe massage.
Turtle Beach acquired its colloquial title on account of the leatherback turtles that still lay eggs here in the dark of night. The main laying season runs between March and August, and six weeks after the eggs are laid, hatchlings make a dash for the sea; both equally moving sights. All of the hotels along this stretch organize a turtle watch during the laying and hatching seasons, but if you’re not staying in the area, contact one of the tour companies listed on. Save Our Sea Turtles Tobago (t 328 7351, w sos-tobago.org), a locally run charity, often do free lectures on turtle nesting during the season, and their website has plenty of more detailed information.