Paradise found in Tropical Tobago
Looking for the picture-perfect white sand beach and glistening ocean? Jane Doran found just that, and a lot more besides, on the tiny unspoiled island of Tobago
The sky is several shades of pink as the sun sets on Castara beach. A young mother, her baby strapped to her chest, dances at the shoreline to the live jazz drifting from the nearby stage.
Around bonfires, people are having picnics of crab and dumplin’ and barbecued pigs tail. Cold beer and rum punch are close at hand. Raucous, uninhibited, laughter is everywhere.
I hear the the expression, “tings just cool man”, sung out again and again in a melodious, soothing English. And indeed they are, in beautiful, dreamlike Tobago.
English-speaking Tobago, and its bigger sister island Trinidad, is located just off the coast of Venezuela. Tiny Tobago - less than half the size of Louth - is flanked by the wild Atlantic and the cool Caribbean. Due to its tropical location, It’s about 30 degrees all year round
Tourism is not crucial to its thriving economy, so unlike some Caribbean nations, the industry has been developed thoughtfully, with eco-tourism and environmentally friendly building the norm.
There are only 1,500 hotel and B&B rooms on the island and 50,000 inhabitants. Buildings are not allowed rise beyond two storeys, or a palm tree as the locals like to say. Nicknamed ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island, Tobago has huge tracts of undeveloped beaches. There are no tourist ‘zones’; the visitor’s Caribbean experience is authentic. You won’t find an Irish bar.
I’m here for the sixth Tobago Jazz Experience, a two-week jazz, reggae, soca and calypso extravaganza. The concerts are dotted around the island but the big stars such as John Legend, Keisha Cole and show-stealers Earth Wind and Fire perform in the Pigeon Point Heritage Park.
Pigeon Point is home to Tobago’s most breathtaking beach - and it’s got tough competition. With miles of dazzlingly white sand and aquamarine waters, it is the ultimate Caribbean cliche.
In a beach bar shaded by palm trees you can take a break from paddle-boarding or kite-surfing to gaze upon the most famous jetty in the world. When I first saw the thatched creation, so familiar from photographs, I laughed. It was just that ridiculously beautiful.
If you want to laze around for your whole stay, you will have the time of your life, but there is so much more to this tropical paradise.
A glass-bottomed boat tour of Buccoo Reef is a non-taxing way of seeing Tobago’s marine life. If that gets too easy, jump in and snorkel. The highlight was a visit to the Nylon Pool - a hip-height, turquoise pool in the middle of deep sea where pelicans lounge about on a nearby sandbar. Legend has it if a woman bathes here, she emerges ten years younger, while men gain wisdom.
Only one road, with breathtaking coastal views and “feminine curves” as our driver Hans puts it, winds around the island’s mountainous centre, the oldest protected rainforest in the western hemisphere.
Guide Newton George has been bringing visitors into his beloved Main Ridge Forest Reserve for over 20 years. After our two-hour fairly gentle but still sweaty hike, I joined some kids who were jumping into one of pools of the magnificent Argyll Waterfall.
Perhaps my favourite outing was a coastal tour on the Catamaran ‘Island Girl’, which leaves from Mount Irvine, yet another beach of staggering beauty. For about €50, you get a half day of heaven.
We snorkelled, sunbathed, attempted backflips off the boat, saw dolphins and flying fish, sipped cocktails from the onboard bar and had an impromptu soca and calypso dance session.
Danny the captain is a man of many talents - his barbecue of mahi mahi (which the locals alarmingly call dolphin) and spicy chicken was one of the best meals I had.
A friend I made in Tobago told me: “There are no mistakes to make with food here”, and he’s right. Street stalls selling goat curry roti, pone - a delicious sticky cake made from cassava or potato -, the national dish crab and dumplin’, shark and bake, flying fish sandwiches and barbecued fish and chicken tempt you everywhere you go
Jemma’s Seafood Kitchen is a popular beachside tree-house restaurant where you watch fisherman bring your lunch to the cook. I ate the biggest lobster I have ever seen (a reasonable €30) and gorged on cassava and macaroni pies. This is also where I first encountered Mauby, an addictive drink made from tree bark and spices. I was never happy until I had my next one.
The Fish Pot in Black Rock is one of the island’s most acclaimed restaurants. There are no menus, just a chalkboard with the day’s options. I had a perfectly cooked tuna steak with fried plantains. The woman who took my order spoke in the Tobago singsong accent but there was something familiar about it.
Twenty years ago, Fiachra Vaughan from Ennis, Co Clare, and his wife Erica visited Tobago from Bermuda where they were based, and like everyone else with the good fortune to step foot on this island, they fell in love with it and its philosopher-like inhabitants. They set up The Fish Pot 16 years ago and have been living happily ever after since. So have their customers.
Derek Chung is another man living the dream. In 1987, he gave up a hectic life as a banker to become a scuba instructor. He owns Undersea Tobago, a very professionally run dive shop based in the Coco Reef Resort. Two fun dives here will cost you about €50. If you can’t dive, you can learn for the great price of €400. Even the kids can learn.
Scuba diving is a big draw to Tobago due to it’s pristine waters, top-notch reefs and wrecks, excellent drift dives and abundance of marine life. The highlight for me were the elegant nurse sharks.
Known as the Disneyland of diving, the Atlantic waters off the village of Speyside on the sparsely inhabited south-west tip of the Island have the best dive spots. My favourite hotel is nestled there in the stunning Bateaux Bay.
The Blue Waters Inn is a luxurious yet simply furnished family-run hotel with an extravagant infinity pool. It has a dive shop, free kayaks and organises hugely popular birdwatching tours. With 270 species of birds, many of which are extremely rare, Tobago is one of the best birdwatching places in the world.
For those wishing to be centrally based, the four-star Magdalena Grand Beach and Golf Resort is a good option. Set in the Tobago Plantations Estate along two and a half miles of coastline, the grounds offer canopy walks through a mangrove forest. With 178 sea view rooms, three pools, tennis courts and seven bars and restaurants, it is by far Tobago’s biggest resort.
The Turtle Beach Resort lived up to its name. One night, the staff turned off all the music and lights, hushing the guests so as not to disturb the huge leatherback turtles ambling up the beach to lay their eggs. This incredible sight is a regular one on the island between February and May.
Next to Tobago’s minuscule airport, there’s a beach where reluctant passengers wait to fly home. After a week on the island, I sit there, forlorn, as the Caribbean twinkles at me. I learned a new slang word in Tobago: Tabanca. It’s the unbearable grief people feel at the end of a passionate love affair. Says it all really.
Monarch fly once a week direct from London Gatwick for, on average, £450 (economy) and £650 (Premium Economy). From December this year Monarch will operate an additional weekly flight.
Flight and hotel package deals
Blue Waters Inn: from £716, 7 Nights Half-Board, Other Meal Plans available
Turtle Beach By Rex Resorts, From £770, 7 nights All-lnclusive
Magdalena Grand Beach and Golf Resort, From £675, 7 nights B&B, Other Meal Plans available