Written for and published in Caribbean Beat magazine (January/February 2017)
You may be forgiven for thinking that Carnival is an ever-present phenomenon in both Trinidad and Tobago at this time of year. But what if you’re a local or an international visitor who’s not really into Carnival? What if you’d much prefer to escape and recharge on the open water, under a waterfall, on a beach, or immersing yourself in culinary and cultural explorations? Then perhaps you’re best served avoiding Trinidad altogether — and giving yourself the gift of a Tobago escape. Your spirit will surely thank you.
By the water
Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit. This is for the beach bums. And beach bumming is a fully legitimate option in Tobago. Folks who love to fill their lungs with sea air, work on their tans (or snooze in the shade), and enjoy some leisurely swimming and snorkelling are unlikely to want for more.
The two staples around Crown Point, Tobago’s bustling southwestern hub, are Pigeon Point and Store Bay. The water at both beaches — like many bays on the island’s leeward coast — is generally calm, sheltered, and great for swimming. You’ll also enjoy the convenience of these beaches’ plentiful amenities, like eateries, craft shopping, parking, watersports operators, changing facilities, and bathrooms — even if you sacrifice a bit of the peace and quiet you’ll get further afield. Popular glass-bottom boat tours to Buccoo Reef and the Nylon Pool also leave from here. But an invigorating alternative for strong swimmers is to paddleboard or kayak to the Nylon Pool instead.
Now, those are the two go-to beaches in Tobago’s tourist centre. But there are many, many other beaches around the island which deserve your beach-bumming attention. If you’d prefer more quiet and privacy, you’ll want to venture up the Caribbean coast to gems like Englishman’s Bay, Parlatuvier, Castara, Bloody Bay, or Charlotteville. Canoe, Back, and Stonehaven Bays — still in the southwest, but much less frequented — are also solid options. At Buccoo Bay, you also have the opportunity to not just enjoy the beach and great swimming, but to ride on a swimming horse. If you could be convinced that would be amazing, make sure to check out Being with Horses. Last but not least, divers and birders will certainly want to head to Speyside — but more on that later.
On the water
Water babies and watersports fanatics will find no shortage of activities to take on in Tobago, especially at this time of year. The dry season means cooler, drier weather with bright blue skies and strong breezes — manna from heaven for those into wind sports like windsurfing and kitesurfing. Sailing enthusiasts also have the Tobago Carnival Regatta to look forward to in mid-February — that is, if they wouldn’t prefer to cruise up the leeward coast on a catamaran like the Island Girl. In addition to being relaxing and decadent, those sailing tours make stops at stunning beaches like Cotton Bay that are only (or mostly) accessible by sea.
But that’s not all there is: we’re talking an extravaganza of kayaking, kiteboarding, paddleboarding, snorkelling, stand-up-paddling, and surfing. Even if you’ve never tried any of these before, but they sound like a blast, this is a perfect time to learn, as lessons are also readily available.
If you happen to be on the island around the new moon, there’s one special experience you’ll want to consider. Conditions then will be perfect for you to do a bioluminescence tour in Bon Accord Lagoon. Phytoplankton in the water emit flashes of light to produce a bluish glow as you paddle through on your board or kayak. Stand Up Paddle offer tours.
And while it doesn’t involve a watersport — apart from swimming and snorkelling — those who love the water and coral reefs will want to make sure they get up north to Speyside. Glass-bottom boat tours out to Angel Reef depart at least once a day from Batteaux Bay, and there are also tours to the birding paradise of Little Tobago island. Angel Reef is perhaps the most abundant of the island’s many offshore reef systems, so is a must-see for those who’d like to get a look at Tobago’s rich marine ecosystem.
Under the water
Ever wanted to learn to dive? Or perhaps you’ve already learned, and have been meaning to upgrade your certification? Then Tobago is the perfect holiday location for you, with some of the Caribbean’s best dive sites. And that’s no hyperbole. The island’s nutrient-rich waters nurture an abundance of diverse aquatic life in offshore reef systems and strategically sunk shipwrecks. A few hundred species of coral — including what’s reported to be the largest living brain coral in the world — plus reef fish, manta rays, and sharks are among the main draws. Off Speyside, in the northeast, this is also the time of year when you might be lucky enough to spot an elusive whale shark. But whatever your level of ability, there’s a range of dive experiences to suit you. If you’re ready to take the plunge, make contact with a PADI/SSI-certified dive operator through the Association of Tobago Dive Operators (ATDO).
Two of Tobago’s tallest and most dramatic waterfalls are Argyle (near Roxborough), and Highland (near Mason Hall). There’s a gentle hike to Argyle, the taller and more visited of the two, but what you save in strength en route can be spent climbing to the top of the falls’ three tiers, some 450 feet high. Your reward, other than bragging rights? Three levels also means three refreshing pools to enjoy on the way back down. The trek to Highland waterfall is more challenging, but equally worth it. Highland is also a good option for those who love roads less travelled, as you’re unlikely to find many other visitors. So: here’s to all-natural, high-intensity waterfall massage jets…!
You could actually skip all the sun, sea, and sand stuff altogether and just — well, eat. Tobago food is divine, especially if you don’t limit yourself to any particular niche.
For a thoroughly local experience, stop in at roadside eateries and beach bars, and chow down on Tobago’s signature dishes, like crab-and-dumpling, oil down, bake-and-buljol, or any of the delicious fresh fish that comes straight from the sea. What’s more, there’s a range of fine-dining establishments serving up international and fusion cuisine, local dishes, or regional fare — even tapas. You’ll have a particularly wide variety of options in the southwest (Crown Point, Black Rock, and Lowlands), with many fine restaurants attached to popular resorts. And luckily, at a healthy number of them, sites steeped in history or beautiful ocean views are an aperitif.
We’ve also got some recommendations for the dessert course: make sure to sample some premium chocolate made from locally grown cocoa at the Tobago Cocoa Estate. Free samples are a benefit of touring the estate, but bars are also available for sale across the island. You might also want to try some local specialties: benne balls, toolom, paw-paw balls, tamarind balls, sugar cake, cashew cake, cassava pone . . . Just take care with your teeth!
Birds and other natural encounters
Other than diving and turtle-watching (typically from March through September, though you might be able to catch some early nesters around now), birding is one of the most popular and rewarding eco activities in Tobago. There are over two hundred recorded bird species on the island, including bananaquits, boobies, cocricos (one of T&T’s two national birds), frigatebirds, hummingbirds, rufous-tailed jacamars, kiskidees, blue-backed manikins, blue-crowned motmots, pelicans, tanagers, tropicbirds (which nest in Little Tobago from December to July), woodpeckers, and many others.
Two of the best spots for bird-watchers are Little Tobago island, and the central Main Ridge Forest Reserve — which is also the oldest protected rainforest reserve in the western hemisphere (designated in 1776). Other rewarding sites include the Adventure Farm and Nature Reserve, a twelve-acre property in Arnos Vale — where birds swoop in for feedings at the ring of a bell; the Grafton Caledonia Wildlife Bird Sanctuary, with daily bird feedings; and the recently opened Corbin Local Wildlife Park. This flagship project of the International Natural Forestry Foundation (INFF) occupies twenty acres in the hills near Mason Hall, and incorporates captive breeding areas for rescued animals and threatened species.
The historic view
Historic sites are not only boons for heritage buffs — many also offer the most breathtaking views in the island, often out over the Caribbean Sea. In the hills above Scarborough, just over 450 feet above sea level, head up to Fort King George — the most impressive of Tobago’s forts, and perhaps the best preserved of the island’s historic sites. Here you’ll find the Tobago Museum, housed inside the old guard barracks, which displays relics from the island’s ancient and colonial past, including First Peoples artefacts, maps, photographs, and military memorabilia. Keeping company with the museum are cannon, a military cemetery, the old chapel and cellblock, and stunning views of Scarborough, Bacolet, and up the windward coast.
Other forts that boast relaxing sea views include Fort Bennett (overlooking Stonehaven Bay), Fort James (overlooking Great Courland Bay), Fort Milford (overlooking Store Bay), and Granby Point (overlooking Barbados and Pinfold Bays).
But old military sites aren’t the only spots laying claim to picture-postcard views. Among my favourites is the view of Parlatuvier Bay as you drive north along the Northside Road (on the leeward coast). Further north, near Charlotteville, there’s Flagstaff Hill. This was once a Second World War American military lookout and radio tower. It has an appropriately panoramic view, encompassing Charlotteville, the St Giles Islands, and further south along the leeward coast.