Tobago is situated in the West Indies at 11° 00N, 61° 00W. It is often seen as the less important half of the twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, but anyone who visits both will easily be able to differentiate between the two.
Its closest neighbour is, of course, Trinidad, but slightly further to the south-west is Venezuela on the coast of South America.
How To Get There
From the UK the best way to reach this island is definitely to fly. For a more scenic passage it is also possible to fly to Trinidad and then take the ferry to Tobago but, if you're impatient, bear in mind that this takes around five hours on the new ferry - MV Sonia - and up to five and-a-half on the older boats. There is, however, a faster alternative. The Lynx is a high speed catamaran that takes roughly two and-a-half hours port-to-port.
The Amerindians settled on Tobago some two and-a-half thousand years ago. There are still remains on the islands, although the passage of time and the salty atmosphere haven't helped preserve any artefacts. A number of the words still in popular use include those for foods such as cassava (Manihot esculenta1), maize (Zea mays) and everybody's favourite, chocolate (Theobroma cacao).
More recently the English 'discovered' Tobago in 1508, after which the island was fought over by all the usual suspects (ie, the English, French, Spanish and Dutch) until it finally fell back into the hands of the English in 1814. It was then used as an outpost for growing sugar cane, with Englishmen running the plantations and commanding groups of slaves who carried out the labour and ran the mills. A number of such sites have been preserved for historical interest and can still be visited, most notably The Arnos Vale Waterwheel Restaurant.
In 1962 the islands finally gained independence from the UK and now rely on ecotourism as the main input of capital for the vast majority of businesses.
If you fly to the island you will arrive at Crown Point Airport. Please note that this is not a Western airport. You are likely to step off the plane into the year-round 28-degree heat and then get on to a bus that will drive you the hundred or so metres to the airport. After standing in line for ten minutes or so for the passport check you will enter the luggage hall. This is a small room with a conveyor in one corner and bags likely to be coming through a hole and being stacked up. If you can't find yours, try digging through the pile behind the conveyor belt.
On leaving the airport you will come face-to-face with a number of locals trying to give you a ride in their taxis. If you have the chance, it is wise to hire a car before you get there. A word of warning: open-top cars may look very cool, but get a closed car with air conditioning. It'll make driving much more pleasant.
The island is 26 miles long by seven miles wide, with one 'proper' main road, the Claude Noel Highway. This runs up the east or 'windward' side of the island until it becomes the Windward Road. You can follow this right up to Charlotteville on the north end of the island with the Atlantic Ocean to your right-hand side.
Taking a left off the Windward Road near Roxborough and then following the road to the Carribean side of the island will eventually get you to the Northside Road. Follow this back south along the coast and you will reach Castara, which is a great place to stay - you will feel like a local before two days have passed!
On the 'leeward' or west side, the roads are a little less predictable and a little more exciting. You occasionally find yourself coming to dead ends and meeting lamp posts planted in the middle of the carriageway. However, the scenery on this side can be breathtaking. Black Rock is notable for its fishing, as well as having a Pizza Boys restaurant where you can get something to eat if you don't catch anything.
Being in the West Indies, cricket is of course played around the island, both on beaches and on the pitches that are dotted around. Football, cricket and athletics are played in the Dwight Yorke Stadium at the top end of the Claude Noel Highway.
Of more amusement are the goat and crab races, which take place at Buccoo, a little north of Crown Point. This involves 'jockeys' driving their goat (or crab) along a course, attempting to be the first to finish. Goats, being slightly less than helpful, often stop to eat some grass on the way. The crabs are less inclined than the goats, even though they don't like grass! Takes place on Easter Tuesday, but can be caught at other times as well.
A very popular pastime in Tobago is limin'. This involves lying about on any available surface, occasionally with company, chatting, watching the world go by and generally relaxing.
The Tobagonians are always helpful and you can easily find yourself becoming more and more like them the longer you stay. Most of the islanders have 'handles'2 such as Anaconda or Alibaba, and after a while you may find yourself being referred to by something other than your own given name.
Everyone in Tobago likes to talk and it is easy to find people to chat to at any one of a number of bars, beaches or shops.
The capital town of Scarborough is where most of the actual business is done. There are supermarkets, banks and clothes shops as well as shops selling local specialities in the way of food, drink and gifts.
If you're self-catering the best place for grocery shopping is the supermarket. A new and very large supermarket is set to open around 2005 and is likely to change shopping habits for tourists and locals alike. As you come away from the airport on the Claude Noel Highway, go past the turning for the Shirvan Road and you'll reach a small strip of shops, a garage and some bars in Carnbee. The supermarket is on the left with its own parking lot at the rear of the shop. It is just after a fruit and vegetable stall where you can get some interesting and exotic ingredients.
The north of the island is pretty sparse in the way of places to buy things, although there are small shops dotted about on the roads as you drive a little further south.
Eating and Drinking
There are two places that can't go unmentioned. Eula's Roti Shack is at Englishman's Bay, above Castara. Drive carefully or you'll miss the small, weathered sign pointing to the beach. Eula is a local who makes potato pies with various interesting ingredients. You may have noticed the word 'shack'; the reason for this is that it is made from about ten pieces of corrugated aluminium in a rather ramshackle manner. But the look belies the taste of the products available.
'Fraser' lives in a house on the hillside around two miles up Roxborough Parlatuvier Road. On the opposite side of the road is his Juice Bar. Park on the side of the road nearby, wander over to the bar and Fraser will fill a blender with whatever seasonal fruits are available at the time and serve up a drink which is a meal in itself. Very tasty!
Other than these two attractions, there are many, varied places that are worth visiting, such as MeShells, Shirvan Watermill, the Indigo Tobago and La Tartaruga (Italian). But the best advice is to stop when you see somewhere that looks interesting and eat there. Ask their advice and they will tell you what they think is good at the minute.
The main event of the week is Sunday School, a club run every sunday night at Buccoo. There are stalls selling jewellery and food and drink, as well as a number of people with games of luck on which you can fritter away some pennies.
There are a lot of bars around the island; again, stopping and trying them is a good tactic. It doesn't really matter which you go to, as the staff will be friendly and helpful and be happy to engage in conversation, telling you other good places to visit and drink.
If you are in Castara then you will fairly quickly find the 'Cascreole Restaurant & Beach Club' run by Dexter and Debbie. It is made up of a couple of pool tables and a table-tennis table and on Fridays there is usually a band. Outside the bar is a raised, covered wooden platform where you can sit in the shade and drink Carib3 until the goats come home.
A good man to know is Brian 'Alibaba' Taylor, who has his finger in a large number of pies, so to speak. Alibaba started off as a guide employed by a company showing people round the island, but decided he could do it better himself. He now runs a flourishing ecotourism business and has recently got into the property market, buying some land and building Alibaba's Sea Breeze holiday apartments near the beach in Castara.
There are a number of Hotels run by people who don't live on Tobago, but it is better to do a bit of research before you go, and stay somewhere where your money will go back into the local economy. Having said that, there are two hotels worthy of note. The Arnos Vale Hotel sits on the edge of the beach in Arnos Vale, and has its own nature reserve as well as a cove where you can go snorkelling and see large numbers of astounding tropical fish and invertebrates. The Coco Reef Hotel is similar, again having a reef, but this time it is a man-made one. The animals you see here will be completely different to those at Arnos Vale, but just as spectacular!
Things To Do and See
You can't visit Tobago without going into the rainforest. There are many companies offering guides who will take you up some of the more deserted and interesting routes. There are also a number of nature reserves where it is fairly safe to walk round on your own or, preferably, in a small group.
Grafton, on the south-west side of the island, is a nature reserve, and close by is Turtle Bay, where it is possible to see turtles - mainly leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea) - nesting between March and August4. A little further south, Back Beach is another good site for turtles, while Cuffie River is a great place to see many different types of birds and wildlife.
In the centre of the island is the Tobago Forest Reserve. Again, it is wise to hire a guide, as there is a lot of forest. There are also a large number of mosquitoes and other biting insects, which it is best to protect yourself against. If you get the chance, visit the rainforests at night because the fireflies can be spectacular. This is also the best time to see the tailless whip scorpions5 (Heterophrynus cheiracanthus), a scary looking but harmless creature that seems to be a cross between a big spider, a scorpion and the face-hugger from the Alien movies.
Head up to Roxborough to see the Louis D'Or Nurseries, which have lots of indigenous fruits, vegetables and flowering plants. If you are really lucky you might strike up a conversation with Sylvester Smith, who works there and enjoys telling people about the plants, where you can see them growing wild and which ones are best to eat.
Nearby is the Argyle Waterfall. You will need some stout walking shoes or boots, but getting to the top is well worth the effort. After walking uphill for over half an hour you come to the first of the waterfalls. At the bottom of each waterfall is a pool, increasing in size as you get higher. Take your swimming gear, because on a nice day it is really refreshing to hop into the cold fresh water and have a swim.
Little Tobago or Bird Of Paradise Island is two miles off the north-east coast. It is uninhabited and the wildlife there is often completely different to that found on the main island. Most of the ecotourism companies run trips there to see the Tropic Birds (genus Phaethon), but the boats tend to leave from Speyside, right on the end of the west coast, which is a bit of a hike. Most of the hotels, and even the local fishermen, will be able to offer tours there, but choose carefully; try and scope out their biological knowledge before leaving if possible to get the most from the trip.
Finally... if you like beaches there are quite a lot of these. The water tends to be calmer on the leeward side, but there are a few interesting coves on the windward coast too. Pigeon Point at the south-west corner of Tobago is a fine beach. There is a charge to get in, although the coconut ice cream easily makes up for this. Like many of the other attractions in Tobago, you are best just to make your way around the island until you find a beach that looks pleasant and stop there until it's time to go get another beer.