Tobago is the relatively unknown little sister of bigger, brasher Trinidad. NICOLA GILL finds an unspoilt, hassle-free Caribbean haven where hummingbirds are the only distraction.
One could say that if an island can be laid-back to a fault, Tobago might be it. It’s so laid-back it’s traditionally struggled to find its place on the tourism map, compared with its louder big brother, Trinidad. But Tobago has entirely different charms, and if you’re after the unspoilt Caribbean as it used to be, before mass tourism took off and many of the islands became little more than westerners’ pleasure stop-offs, Tobago could be your personal paradise. The first European to sight this island – geographically closer to South America’s Venezuela than the rest of the Caribbean – was Christopher Columbus, in 1498. And sometimes it feels like only a handful have since set foot on it, so comfortable in its own skin does it feel. Many Trinidad and Tobago islanders are of East Indian as well as African heritage, so you’re as likely to see delicious Indian curries and rotis advertised at roadside shacks and on hotel menus, as you are Caribbean fare, and Hindi is spoken as well as English and the local patois. There are few of the giant hotel complexes that can dominate other islands, and Tobago is also very proud of having the world’s oldest protected rainforest in the 10,000-acre UNESCO-listed Main Ridge Forest Reserve. Teeming with exotic birdlife and towering palms, a guided tour is a must-do and it’s no surprise to learn Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson was filmed here. But if there’s one thing Tobago most definitely does share with its Caribbean cousins, it’s the proliferation of peaceful, icing-sugar bays, lapped by bath-temperature aquamarine waters, where even the most timid bathers might see a sea turtle gliding gently through the shallows. No wonder the loyal tourists who’ve already discovered this tucked-away jewel have kept it largely to themselves.
Take a Round-Island tour
Part of the beauty of Tobago is its petite proportions. There are not many tropical islands where you can enjoy a leisurely breakfast at a decent hour and then take a tour around the coast in an air-conditioned minibus, stopping at the lively capital, SCARBOROUGH, all the local HISTORICAL MONUMENTS, take in a visit to a RURAL BAKERY, enjoy some mountain RAINFOREST TREKKING and taking the plunge into a WATERFALL – all before dinner. The roads snake wildly up vertiginous hills before plunging down again at whiteknuckle angles. The Dutch, English and French all warred over Tobago before it gained independence in 1962 and this round-island tour gives you a real flavour of the myriad of influences that give the island its unique character.
Trip the light fantastic
If once-in-a-lifetime experiences are your thing, take either a KAYAK or STAND UP PADDLE BOARD NIGHT TIME TOUR from Pigeon Point to Bon Accord lagoon. Led by ebullient ownerguides Duane and Brett, you will navigate by the light of the stars on a magical journey to see NOCTURNAL FISHING BATS and HUNTING OWLS. But the real prize is running your hands through – or even better, jumping into – warm waters filled with rare BIOLUMINESCENCE, produced by a harmless kind of illuminating plankton. The water appears to catch fire with your every touch, and sea turtles and fish become underwater shooting stars or glowing meteors. The whole experience is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Party at Pan
Legend has it that calypso music, steel drumming and limbo dancing all began in Trinidad and Tobago, and there’s nowhere better to experience steel (or ‘pan’) drumming than at SUNDAY SCHOOL. The lively open-air setting, street food stalls and thronged bar couldn’t be further from a religious gathering; nevertheless, the reverence for this classically Caribbean music is real. Get there at about 8pm to grab a seat (though standing – and dancing – is also fun) and soak up the atmosphere.
Visit an uninhabited island
A place has to be pretty special to make it into a Sir David Attenborough documentary, and Little Tobago is just that. Just a half-hour glass-bottomed boat ride from Speyside in the far north, it’s hardly changed since the Ice Age. After landing, you climb through dry forest, dotted with jewel-like birds, before you reach the peak. Here, brown boobies, frigate birds, sooty noddies, bridled terns and red-billed tropicbirds soar and swoop on the thermals. Some dive into the sea, rising with fish in beaks, only to be grabbed by another and harassed until the prize is dropped and taken away by the victor. Most have no fear of humans, and with no natural predators here, you can walk up to, and among, huge, squawking colonies, which eye you with curiosity.
Lunch in a treehouse
JEMMA’S SEAVIEW KITCHEN IN SPEYSIDE, on the far north of the island, is an institution with locals and tourists alike. Dress as you like, come as part of a twosome or with a crowd, soak up the amazing ocean views and homely atmosphere while savouring classic local delicacies cooked to perfection such as breadfruit pie, grilled shrimp and lobster at very reasonable prices.
Hang with hummingbirds
Seeing hummingbirds in the rainforest makes your heart sing, but it can be a fleeting, elusive experience. At Adventure Eco Villas, however, a 12-acre working organic estate and slice of pristine rainforest, birdlife reigns supreme. Hummingbird feeders are hung prolifically around the pretty main residence, and you can stand just millimetres away as dozens hum, dive and hover fearlessly around them, colours flashing in the sun like swarms of giant turbocharged butterflies.
Where to stay
THE GRAFTON BEACH RESORT is a laid-back, low-key hotel, just above the beachfront, with a poolside terrace offering ocean views. There are a few steps down to the beach, where there’s great snorkelling in crystalline waters and where it also has a bar serving delicious food. Sea turtles haul themselves up here in the nesting season to lay their eggs – so your late-night cocktail could coincide with a moonlit visit from a female building a nest under your nose! The Grafton also shares a lovely spa with its slightly more upmarket sister hotel next door. Breakfasts and dinner are taken on the terrace, while watching the palm trees sway and pelicans fly past. Perfect!
CURRENCY Trinidad and Tobago dollars (though many establishments accept US dollars) TIME DIFFERENCE GMT -4 VISA Not required for short stays CLIMATE Located 11° north of the equator, Tobago is tropical and sunny all year round. The average daytime temperature is 29°C (84°F) with plenty of days in the mid-30s. There can be a brief tropical shower at any time. GETTING THERE A variety of airlines fly from most UK cities, but you’ll normally need at least one stop, and the minimum flight time is 11 hours as a result. Very few charters fly direct.
Cost and Contact
Seven nights at the Grafton Beach Resort starts from £1,349 per person, based on two adults sharing an Ocean View room on a half-board basis, including return flights from Gatwick. Price is valid for selected departures in June 2018. British Airways Holidays (ba.com/tobago or call 0344 493 0120)