Feature Travel Archives

TOBAGO: Serene, Spectacular, and Spirited

By Patricia Keegan

My five-hour, nonstop flight to from Washington Dulles toTobago on BWIA (Bee Wee) seemed an unusually quick, pleasant and efficient flight. Since developing an addiction to the beauty of the Caribbean 10 years ago, I have experienced trips which seemed to take forever, especially to the more remote, less visited islands. Most connections take you through San Juan, St. Thomas or Barbados, and may include a second or third leg, or even a boat ride. By the time you reach the destination, you’re tired and frustrated with having wasted a vacation day. Having the convenience of BWIA’s non-stop, five-hour flight is a gift to Washingtonians. Our flight in a new 737 was on time, hassle-free, with an above average meal, and so relaxing one could feel the intensity of Washington just drifting away.

Arriving at Tobago’s Crown Point International around 7 p.m., we rented a car and drove directly to Stonehaven Villas (see Hotel Spotlight column). On our way out to explore the island the following morning, I spotted a tiny ant crossing our doorstep carrying a huge chunk of banana leaf. I wondered if everyone received this flag-waving welcome in homage to Tobago’s ecotourism. 

Considered the last undiscovered island in the Caribbean, Tobago is looked on as the serene, little sister of bustling Trinidad, one of the better known islands in the world. Though very near, they are very opposite. Trinidad is densely populated --1.3 million spread over 1883 sq. miles -- with a cosmopolitan population and strong regional influence. Tobago is a largely rural, undeveloped island of just 117 sq. miles with some 50,000 inhabitants. Both islands are proud of a history of commitment to the openness and interests of many creeds and colors. Its population comprises African and East Indians, with significant European, Chinese, Syrian, Lebanese and Carib components. Trinidad and Tobago are one country under one government in Trinidad, an independent republic within the British Commonwealth. With a GDP of over $9.4 billion, its major export is petroleum.

The National Anthem of Trinidad and Tobago has a few descriptive lines about its vision of diversity:

This our native land

We pledge our lives to thee.

Here every creed and race

Find an equal place,

And may God bless our nation.

The national anthem was written to celebrate Trinidad and Tobago’s independence from Great Britain on August 31, 1962, by native composer Patrick Staniclaus Castagne. Trinidad and Tobago became a republic in 1976.

It is possible to drive around Tobago in one day, but to get to know the natural beauty, the friendly people and their island lifestyle requires taking it day-by-day, enjoying all the diverse activities the island offers. One of the major attractions is a tour of the Tobago  Rain Forest Reserve, the oldest forest reserve in the Western Hemisphere. The biologically diverse forest spreads along the island’s spine with ridges rising to 1,890 feet.  Declared a Crown Reserve in 1776, it is great adventure terrain with many rivers and falls, plenty of hiking trails, and fantastic bird watching.

Adventure comes in all forms. My husband and I were driving north to explore the fishing villages of Speyside and Charlottsville, with a plan to stop for lunch at the famous Jemma’s.  Suddenly, as we came around a bend, a man stepped in front of our car and signaled us to pull over.  He acted like a policeman. We hesitated, but we stopped. He said he worked in the forest and needed a ride. We were driving next to the forest and saw no reason not to take him to his workplace. During the drive we saw a small section of the lush and tranquil forest, with an amazing variety of plants, trees, and exotic birds.

There is a real sense of peace emanating from the trees, some have the worn look of centuries. It is rough terrain, however, with deep ruts in the dirt road. The young man, who introduced himself as Horace, never did find his work area but proceeded with his tour anyway. We also might not have found our way out if he hadn’t decided he wanted a roundtrip and then a big tip. Later, we had a good laugh at ourselves and at Horace, the roving entrepreneur, recalling the uncertain moment when he took a knife out of a pocket, looked at us, and then up at a papaya tree. We said, “Yes,” we would like some fruit. To really explore the forest one needs a proper guide and a four-wheel drive jeep.

Heading toward Charlottsville, we found Jemma’s Seaview Kitchen along the main road in Speyside. The tantalizing fragrance of herbs and spices reached us before we even saw the restaurant. This is a hot spot and does such a great business that Jemma’s footprint in the sand keeps growing. We found a table in the restaurant’s treetop overlooking the sea with a strong breeze that felt as though you were aboard a ship. From an immense choice, we selected kingfish with vegetables, potato cakes, yucca, a salad and homemade bread. The service was great, and the food kept coming, served on huge platters to satisfy huge appetites.   Later, I went back into the garden to meet Jemma, sitting under a tree with her two daughters, Sherrere and Neile, busily shelling green peas. All three were the picture of contentment. Jemma Sealey had worked at the Blue Waters Inn, a lovely hotel nearby, and at other hotels on the island since she was a young girl, learning all aspects of guest service. But what she liked best was preparing unique and flavorful dishes to please. About 10 years ago she went into business for herself, opening Jemma’s Seaview Kitchen, now one of the island’s great success stories.

In the search for dream beaches, everybody we asked gave us the name of a different beach and we tried them all. Pigeon Point, where you can take a glassbotton boat out to Nylon Pool and the Buccoo Coral Reef; Castara Bay and Bloody Bay; or Englishman’s Bay, with its blue crystalline waters, which we thoroughly enjoyed.  At this tranquil, secluded beach, snorkelers must be alert to surges that wash up on the beach and steal your snorkeling gear. The reef is just 20 meters offshore with a depth of 10-30 feet and excellent visibility. It was our number one choice for a picnic, snorkeling and a relaxing afternoon. The dream beaches are on the northwest coast from Plymouth to Bloody Bay Outlook. When brochures tell you that Tobago has beautiful beaches, they are not overstating that fact.

Tobago is known for world-class diving with some of the best diving areas located in Speyside. Many deep-sea fish are found much closer to the surface than normal because of the Guyana current which moves slowly up the eastern coast of South America, washing the south and east coasts of Tobago. Fed by the Orinoco River, the water is warm and rich in nutrients, ideally suited to sustain a wide variety of marine life. For the expert diver, an exciting underwater experience is drift diving, where you are taken along with the current and a boat picks you up at the other end. Divers have little difficulty sighting barracudas, dolphins, whale sharks, turtles and porpoises, as well as manta rays. Even in a glass bottom boat the variety is continuous -- butterfly fish, queen and French angels, damsels, spotted moray eels, parrotfish and grunts -- and even rarer species of tarpon and triggerfish are regular residents. Tobago’s underwater visibility regularly reaches 130-150 ft. Below the surface, cliffs form rocky canyons, underwater tunnels, deep and shallow caves, and currents drift past sheer walls and giant rock faces. Here you will find every known species of hard coral, most of the soft corals, as well as the world’s largest known brain coral, 12 ft. high and 16 ft. across. Guides seem to do a good job of advising tourists to avoid stepping on the live coral and asking them to respect Tobago’s one-of-a-kind ecosystem.

As the capital of Tobago, Scarborough is the only large town on the island and it seems unwieldy and untidy until you know your way around and learn how to avoid falling off the sidewalks. There must have been a reason for constructing them so high above street level, but I couldn’t figure it out. Nevertheless, Scarborough is a capital with tremendous potential. Since Trinidad and Tobago have depended mostly on oil revenue, one feels that this little sister has been a bit neglected. With its tremendous potential for attracting tourists, it would be great to see more restaurants, boutiques, art shops, etc, along the waterfront. There sits an investor’s dream waiting for some polish and sparkle.

A trip to Tobago without a visit to the Tobago Museum would be a great loss, for here the heart and history of Tobago come together. Located on a strategic promontory within Fort King George, the small, but densely packed museum, houses a substantial collection of Pre-Columbian Amerindian Artifacts from 2500 BC all the way to 1792. Beautiful clay pottery, animal and human forms document a rich cultural history. Carib hunting gear, spears, and grave remains are displayed. Here you can also see a Joupa, a circular Amerindian house. There is so much interest in this museum that there are plans for a major extension.

One of the great pleasures of Tobago is meeting and talking with the people. A prime example of Tobago friendliness, graciousness and subtle wit is Edward Hernandez, the curator/trustee of the Museum. Hernandez, an artist, takes time to answer questions and  tells wonderful stories about Trinidad and Tobago’s unique history and its rich treasure of folklore and legends.  He mentioned a history book :Tobago: Melancholy Isle,  Vol. 1, the years 1498-1711 and Vol. 2,  1712-1814, by Douglas Archibald.  Written in three volumes, the third volume, which continues from 1814 to the present period, is still waiting to be published. It was completed shortly before the author passed away.

Evenings in Tobago bring out the spirit of the islands. On Saturday night we had three choices for entertainment -- the Buccooneers steel band at Sandy Point Village, a band at Turtle Beach Hotel andSoul Expression at Pelican Park. There was jazz at the Hilton on Sunday.

The  Buccooneers, a 16-piece steel orchestra, were fabulous. Playing again in their home village of Buccoo on Tuesday. they bring out the dance bug and free spirit in even the most reluctant dancer, and they have a following of energetic dancers who are hilarious to watch on the dance floor. With an eclectic variety of tunes, from Frank Sinatra’s My Way to the Merry Widow Waltz, all performed with a ripple of sound that echoes across the island and lifts above the waves. The Buccooneers started as an unsponsored band in the village of Buccoo in 1967. They have played in the U.S. and won many competitions.

On this beautiful, untamed island there are many hotels, villas, and bed and breakfasts to choose from. If you want the very best, my top three recommendations would be Stonehaven Villas, Villa Being, or the new Hilton Hotel. But it is also possible to have comfort while sticking to a modest budget. Moderately priced small hotels and guesthouses are abundant in Tobago.

Almost every month holds a celebration or carnival. From New Year’s Day onwards activities on the island start swinging into full gear, culminating on Carnival Monday two days before Ash Wednesday. The renowned Trinidad Carnival, with its fantasy costumes, floats, steel bands and calypso is imitated in hundreds of cities around the world. Carnival fever brings together all the talent of the islands culminating in a glittering 'theater in the streets.”  When Christian Lent is over, Hindu  Phagwa arrives, with celebrants happily squirting purple dye at each other. In contrast, the quiet beauty and spirituality of Divali, an East Indian Festival held in November, ignites thousands of flames that flicker across the island.

Getting there:  BWIA has one non-stop flight every Thursday from Washington Dulles, returning every Thursday from Tobago, at very reasonable prices:

From Dulles: Flight 705 departs at 2:00 p.m. and arrives in Tobago at 7:45 p.m. (1 hr. time difference).

From Tobago: Flight 704 departs at 8:45 a.m. and arrives at Dulles at 12:45 p.m.

For travelers who prefer a shorter stay, connections to Trinidad on an island hopper are frequent, with connections to Washington on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

For more information call BWIA at (800) 538-2942.