Tobago’s raucous, hot and dusty capital, precipitous SCARBOROUGH is a surprisingly appealing place, its houses and roads spilling higgledy-piggledy down a hillside, with the Atlantic providing a magnificent backdrop for Fort King George, perched at the top of the hill. The island’s administrative centre and its main port, Scarborough is a flourishing town, brimming with a brisk vibrancy. Devoid of any touristy pretensions, its street corners buzz with liming locals, while pavement stalls are perused by shoppers and the bars spill out onto the streets. Away from the bustle, the shady suburb of Bacolet is home to some of Tobago’s most upmarket hotels and the secluded Bacolet Bay Beach – in former times the playground of many a rich and famous visitor to Tobago.
Though the largest town on the island, Scarborough is still pretty tiny, with most of the commercial action spreading back up from the port and along the precipitous Main Street. The heat, traffic and steep climbs can make it a bit tiring to explore, but the cool breezes and views from the port and the elevated parts of town offer respite.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle what became one of Tobago’s most hotly contested pieces of land. They navigated the treacherous harbour rocks in 1654, and constructed a fort and a few buildings, naming it Lampsinsburgh. Around the same time, a group of Courlanders (Latvians) were building up their stronghold on the opposite coast at Plymouth. In 1658, the Dutch captured Plymouth – an act that led to the destruction of their own settlement when, in 1666, a British fleet came to the aid of the Latvians and blew Lampsinsburgh to smithereens.
The British officially won the island in 1672, but didn’t maintain a presence, allowing the Dutch to return and build Lampsinsburgh into a more substantial settlement, with houses, a single street and a church, as well as warehouses and wharves at the harbour and a new fort. However, during the French assault of 1677, the newly improved fortifications proved to be the undoing of the Dutch; a French cannonball hit the fort’s ammunition dump, and the resulting fireball destroyed the structure and killed all 250 occupants. Though still commemorated in the current name Dutch Fort Road, there’s nothing left today of that original settlement.
The British bestowed the name Scarborough when they regained control of Tobago in 1762, establishing the House of Assembly here and constructing Fort King George. The French returned to take control, after a bloody and prolonged fight, in 1781. Scarborough was renamed Port Louis, while Fort King George – with finishing touches added by French soldiers – became Fort Castries. The town ricocheted between the British and French until Tobago was finally ceded to the British in 1814.
As Bacolet Street eases east out of Scarborough along the coast past Sandy Hall and Fairfield Complex – the main administrative base of the Tobago House of Assembly as well as the Tobago Hall of Justice court and the island’s main cemetery – the roadside homes become noticeably grander. Though Bacolet suffered a lull when its eponymous street was replaced by Claude Noel Highway as the main route to the windward coast, this is still a suburb of choice for Tobago’s elite.
The area enjoyed a heady prestige during the late 1960s and early 70s, boasting a couple of luxury hotels, the Bacolet and Blue Haven. Rita Hayworth and Robert Mitchum stayed here while filming Fire Down Below, and the Beatles frolicked on Bacolet Bay Beach, which also provided the setting for Walt Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson. The Blue Haven was once part of Tobago’s battlements: a cannon still stands on the hotel’s grounds, the base of the hotel is surrounded by stone walls dating back to 1770 and the bay itself was the site of many sea battles. The hotels tried to cordon off the sand in the 1960s but Dr Eric Williams – the premier who once declared that he had no intention of ruling “a nation of waiters and bellhops” – intervened to keep the beach public. South of the beach, the houses thin out as Bacolet Street swings left to meet with the highway and the traffic on its way along the windward coast.
The best reason to linger here is the crescent-shaped Bacolet Bay Beach, a tranquil spot mostly visited by guests from the nearby hotels, with its yellow sand shaded by palms and Indian almond trees. A protective coral reef ensures good swimming despite the location on the Atlantic side of the island – but be aware of the occasional dangerous undercurrents and rough seas in winter. From the road, concrete steps lead down the cliff side to the sand, where a beach bar serves up drinks and snacks.
Central Scarborough constitutes the area around the market and the port and is where you’ll find most of the action, with shoppers, office workers, taxi drivers and street vendors giving the place a hectic feel. Entering via car-choked Wilson Road, a left on Darrel Spring Road and then a right down Gardenside Street will take you past the back of NIB Mall to the right, and the Botanical Gardens (and a car park) to the left. Behind the mall is the capital’s market. Main trading days are Friday and Saturday, but throughout the week vendors sell every tropical fruit and vegetable imaginable. The indoor meat section is an odoriferous melange of goat, beef, lamb, mutton and chicken, while fish on ice gleam at the back section, where stallholders attract customers by blowing on a conch shell. It’s a friendly and absorbing scene, great for bargains and a chat with the stallholders, who can explain how to cook any unfamiliar produce. If you’re after souvenirs such as knitted Rasta hats, sandals and woodcarvings, or cheap CDs and DVDs, check out the stalls lining busy Wilson Road and the western side of NIB Mall.
Forking off Main Street, Fort Street twists its way up a steep hill past the imposing Methodist Church and some attractive but dishevelled colonial architecture on its way to one of the most prominent sights in town, Fort King George. If the precipitous fifteen-minute walk looks too much and you decide to drive, you can almost always find a parking space in the car park adjacent to the museum and main fort. The complex is the largest fortification in Tobago, built by the British in 1777 and initially composed of some thirty buildings, but reduced to around ten by an 1847 hurricane. It was occupied by French troops between 1781 and 1793, who built the solid stone perimeter walls. Inspired by the French Revolution, the soldiers mutinied in 1790, imprisoning their officers and razing the town below. There are several signs dotted around the complex giving some background to the buildings, and you can also get a guided tour from one of the THA personnel in the Tourism division, to the left of the car park at the top of the fort area.
Laid out in the cool confines of the refurbished Officer’s Mess, the Tobago Museum has a small but fascinating collection of idiosyncratic artefacts, with displays on everything from Amerindian society to life in the nineteenth century (as well as, rather incongruously, many pieces of Nigerian sculpture). There’s an extensive collection of pre-Columbian axe-heads, chisels, cooking ware and talismans, known as adornos, found at Amerindian sites across the island, as well as three skeletons unearthed at Amerindian burial sites. Look out also for satirical prints depicting the exploits of “Johnny Newcome in Love in the West Indies”, and a copy of the second edition of the Pleasant Prospect of the Famous and Fertile Island of Tobago by John Poyntz, the pamphlet which local legend claims Daniel Defoe used as the inspiration for the setting of Robinson Crusoe.
West of Scarborough, Old Milford Road was the main thoroughfare through the southwest before the construction of the highway, which it connects to opposite the Lowlands shopping mall. Now little more than a backroad, Old Milford cuts a winding and scenic route along the coast, with lovely views of the wind-whipped Atlantic peeking between the palms and houses, and salt spray crashing onto the tarmac thanks to the constant ocean breeze. Around halfway along, the venerable Shore Things offers meals and drinks, and some of the best craft available in Tobago.
There’s an “official” beach facility by the side of the road at Little Rockly Bay, which was used as a site for horse racing before the construction of Shirvan racetrack, but the ruggedness of the coastline, the strong undercurrents and murky waters mean it’s not a great place to swim. At low tide, the wide swathe of compacted yellow-brown sand makes for a fabulous beach walk, while the constant wind makes this one of Tobago’s top spots for kitesurfing and windsurfing. The most scenic part of the beach is adjacent to the Petit Trou car park, with its grove of swaying palm trees. Locals often park up here to eat lunch or just enjoy the breeze.
Comprising the hilly streets on the eastern side of the town, Upper Scarborough is a busy area with plenty of shops and banks, but gets steadily quieter the higher you climb. Proceeding east from the ferry terminal along Carrington Street, you soon reach a junction known as King’s Well, originally the site of the town’s main watercourse, but now home to an excellent Italian café. A sharp left here takes you out of town along Northside Road and the edge of the Botanical Gardens, while the sharp right is Castries Street, the route to Main Street. Between the two, steeply inclining Burnett Street is one of Scarborough’s best places for knick-knack shopping – anything from T-shirts to lingerie.