Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
Only a 20-minute flight away from frenetic Port of Spain, Tobago is an oasis of calm in a bright blue sea of tranquility, offering copious white beaches, sheltered coves, and a wild forest interior.
Tobago Cocoa Estate
Tobago Forest Reserve
Trinidad’s other half in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, this small tropical island, 21 miles (34km) to the northeast, provides a complete contrast to its twin’s cosmopolitan bustle, industrialization, and magnitude. Rural tranquility and Caribbean enjoyment of life go hand in hand in Tobago, and the magnificent beaches and colorful coral landscape just offshore are an effective means of dispelling stress.
Parlatuvier Bay, Tobago.
At only 26 miles (42km) long and 7 miles (11km) wide, Tobago is a continual feast for the eyes: picturesque, bumpy roads wind around the coast past unspoiled bays of white sand and bright blue sea, and climb up across the mountainous backbone through high stands of creaking bamboo and dense rainforest, alive with colorful birdlife, before plunging into panoramic views on the other side. No wonder Columbus named it Bellaforma (Beautiful Shape) in 1498.
Tobago does not share the cultural mix that enriches Trinidad, despite having changed colonial hands 29 times in 160 years; the population of around 62,000 are mainly descendents of African slaves and make a living from tourism and agriculture. Despite the steadily increasing flow of visitors to their island, Tobagonians are friendly and development remains notably low-key.
Tobago’s colonial past
Hope, Courland, Shirvan, Les Coteaux - the place names are all reminders of Tobago’s colonial past. In the early 17th century, the first Dutch and English settlers arrived, only to be wiped out or chased off by the Caribs. Eventually, 80 families from Latvia succeeded in settling on Courland Bay in 1654 and planted sugar cane, tobacco, pepper, and cotton. Adventurers, smallholders, and pirates from all over Europe followed in their footsteps; many were killed by tropical diseases or by Carib arrows.
Tropical idyll at Pigeon Point.
Trinidad & Tobago Tourism Development Company
Slaves were set to work on the first sugar-cane and cotton plantations 100 years later. In 1793, when the English had managed to seize control of Tobago yet again, the island was inhabited by 14,170 blacks, 850 whites, and five Amerindians. Numerous slave rebellions were dealt with ruthlessly by plantation owners - Tobago became one of the most profitable colonies by area, with around 80 estates.
After full Emancipation in 1838, most of the plantations went broke as freed slaves left to begin subsistence farming. French planters in particular took the opportunity to buy up land very cheaply and started several coconut plantations - later settling very comfortably on Trinidad.
Delicious soursop ice cream and many other homemade specialties can be bought from the market women in the niches at the large round market building in Scarborough. Fresh coconut water, and ice cream coated in syrup are just two of the many delightful ways to refresh yourself around here.
To save money, the British decided from 1888 onward to treat their two southernmost islands in the Caribbean as a collective administrative unit. In 1962, the twin-island state was given independence, and since 1987 Tobago has had internal autonomy separate from Trinidad, although it is still heavily dependent on subsidies from Port of Spain.
A village capital
The little town of Scarborough 1 [map] (pop. 25,000) on Rockly Bay is Tobago’s main harbor as well as the island’s center of trade and administration. It was founded by Dutch settlers (who named the site Lampsinburg) in 1654, and has been the island capital since 1769. A dusty, commercial place, the center consists of two road junctions and concrete structures housing the post office, the market, the ferry and cruise ship harbor, Scarborough Mall, and the bus station. On market days half of Tobago meets here to go shopping.
An oasis of calm behind the mall is the Botanic Gardens (free), where native trees, bushes, and flowers can be found in graceful and shady arrangements. From the harbor, Carnett Street leads up steeply past several tradesmen’s stands to James Park; at the top end is the imposing-looking, Georgian-style Court House (built 1821-25).
Follow Fort Street uphill past the hospital and prison, and a few steep curves later you reach the impressive Fort King George, built in the late 18th century 490ft (150 meters) above Rockly Bay. Severely damaged by a whirlwind in 1847, the fort was rebuilt according to old plans. Today, the complex contains the excellent Tobago Museum (Mon-Fri 9am-4.30pm) in the Barrack Guard House, holding Amerindian artifacts, military relics, and documents; the Officers’ Mess is now a craft shop and the former Military Hospital contains the National Fine Arts Center.
Along the rugged coast
Windward Road winds its way along the southeast coast of Tobago in steep curves. Spectacular views of the Atlantic, potholes that are often knee-deep, and idyllic roadside villages make this an unforgettable experience. Leave Scarborough via Bacolet Street and Gun Bridge, named after the two old cannon there. The only reminder that Mount St George, 4 miles (6km) along the road, was once the British seat of government is the renovated court building dating from 1788. A left turn shortly afterward leads inland for 2 miles (3km) to the Hillsborough Reservoir 2 [map], an artificial lake providing drinking water and also the natural habitat of many rare species of bird; the dragonflies are very colorful, and you may even see a cayman (alligator).
Back on Windward Road, a weathered gravestone is all that remains of Fort Granby. During the 18th century this once-proud structure, looking across Barbados Bay, was home to the English 62nd Regiment; now it makes a perfect picnic spot. The road winds along the coast, between the dark fringes of the rainforest and the spray of the Atlantic, passing through picturesque villages like Pembroke and Belle Garden. Outside village bars, at road junctions, and in mini-markets, Tobagonians enjoy their spare time “liming” - the local word for hanging out.
Fort King George.
Standing among the tropical greenery high above the rocky coast (just before you reach Belle Garden) is Richmond Great House, a renovated manor house dating from 1766. Just before Roxborough, 3 miles (5km) on, the road branches left to Argyll Waterfalls 3 [map] (9am-5pm; charge), the highest on the island at 177ft (54 metres), which pour out of the mountainside in two separate cascades during the rainy season. Even though they’re reduced to trickles at other times of year, there’s still enough water for a refreshing shower after the muddy 15-minute walk to get there.
When driving in Tobago remember that the locals are familiar with every pothole and hairpin bend and are prone to overtaking at dangerous places. To avoid stress, slow down and, when it’s safe to do so, cheerfully wave past any traffic behind you.
Also in the area, you can tour Tobago Cocoa Estate (Cameron Canal Road; tel: 868-788 3971; www.tobagococoa.com; tours Fri 11 am), learn about the chocolate-making process, buy their single-estate fine chocolate, and try other local culinary delights. Longer tours with meals are available.
Another 3 miles (5km) past Roxborough, the largest settlement on the southeast coast - black workers led the Belmanna Uprising in 1876 - is King’s Bay 4 [map], a picturesque coconut plantation and waterfall with a cool, wild beach nestled beneath.
In the village of Speyside, 3 miles (5km) away, in a beautiful broad blue bay, excursions are offered to the bird sanctuary on Little Tobago 5 [map] just offshore. There are 58 species of birds on this tiny island, including a large nesting colony of red-billed tropic birds. Tours are best in the morning and usually include a snorkeling stop. Marine life here is truly spectacular with most species of hard and soft corals and even an enormous brain coral, thought to be one of the largest in the world. Glass-bottomed boats (plenty to choose from) are the most comfortable way on calm days to admire the underwater world. For experienced divers there is exciting drift diving and you can see manta rays feeding in the Guyana current. There are several small hotels, restaurants, and dive shops in Speyside and Batteaux Bay, the next bay along the coast.
Goat racing in Buccoo village.
Trinidad and Tobago Tourism
The picturesque northeast
Windward Road leaves the coast at Speyside and winds up a steep incline to a viewpoint over the northeastern tip of the island. The houses of Charlotteville 6 [map] on the other side cling to the steep slope above Man O’War Bay. The 600 or so inhabitants live mainly from fishing and tourism, and visitors appreciate the tranquility, although the introduction of a proposed small cruise ship terminal may change that. A flight of 68 steps leads down to Pirates Bay, where local women spread their washing on the rocks to dry. Just offshore is a reef teeming with life, and elegant yachts moor in the bay.
A windsurfer shows off his skills.
Tobago Forest Reserve
From Charlotteville, a winding stretch of road navigates the northern Caribbean coast to Bloody Bay, from where another route cuts back across the island through the Tobago Forest Reserve 7 [map]. This thick jungle in myriad shades of green spreads along the Main Ridge between Hillsborough and Charlotteville and is the oldest section of protected, unaltered rainforest in the world; the British declared it a nature reserve on April 8, 1776. The road and several hiking routes only allow visitors to cover a very small proportion of the area; the green thickets contain black-and-yellow weavers, green parrots, and dazzling hummingbirds, and the tropical vegetation is fascinating. Yellow poui and red flame trees stand out against the forested hillsides. The paths are sometimes steep and muddy, so it’s best to go with an experienced guide.
At Bloody Bay, the road follows the coastline west for 2 miles (3km) to Englishman’s Bay 8 [map], a magnificent beach where the forest comes down to the edge, coconut palms wave in the breeze, and the waves lap against the (usually) deserted beach. Almost as enchanting are the sands at pretty Castara, which also has a smattering of guesthouses and holds the Fisherman’s Fete in August. A track branches off at Runnemede, 2 miles (3km) down the coast, to stunning panoramic views over King Peter’s Bay.
Several more small bays are tucked away at the end of Arnos Vale 9 [map], down a small road farther west, which offer excellent snorkeling and birdwatching.
An endangered reef
Black Rock marks the beginning of the southwest side of Tobago. There are several expensive hotels as well as rooms for rent around the broad beaches, including Mount Irvine Bay ) [map], where there is a championship golf course and good surfing waves. Locals and tourists meet up in Buccoo every Sunday evening for the “Sunday School” open-air disco - especially lively at Easter when the goat races are held.
The cocrico is the national bird of Tobago and tends to descend on gardens in enormous flocks. When the pheasant-like bird starts squawking loudly it is considered a sure sign that rain is on the way.
At idyllic Pigeon Point ! [map], one of the most-photographed beaches in the Caribbean, glass-bottomed boats take snorkelers to the largely destroyed coral gardens at the now-protected Buccoo Reef @ [map]. Boats offer trips that include a barbecue and a wallow in the shallow turquoise waters of the Nylon Pool. However, this is one place where it is obvious that tourism hasn’t always been in the best interests of Tobago.
Flamencos on the beach.