Kickin’ Back in Tobago: Rhythms of Island Life

leadtobagoMy favorite tropical-reef denizen is a triggerfish, an aptly named confection of nature whose geometric lines and color zones resemble a Joan Miró painting. The specimen before me right now is the largest I’ve ever seen, dinner-platter size. It and I are bobbing gently in the rhythmic swell of the south Caribbean in Tobago’s Buccoo Bay.

In fact, somewhat disconcertingly, the fish is gazing straight at me — I’m used to reef fish that dart away as I snorkel near. Perhaps this one has assimilated the Tobago ethos, which is as laid-back as Sunday morning pancakes. Tucked in the sea 50 miles (80 km) off the coast of Venezuela, Tobago is a lush garden of humid jungles, gay-songed birds, rich foods, equatorial weather and easeful life.

Its unique character is composed of equal parts tropical island, former British colony and Afro-Caribbean rhythm. It’s the antithesis of its better-known neighbor and national companion, Trinidad, a carnival of life. Tobago’s a place where visitors cannot evade midday naps, and equally cannot sleep the afternoon away beneath the symphonic drumbeat of rain torrents on tin roofs.

The squalls roll through on what seems like a schedule: An hour of bright sun followed by quickening skies, sudden dark, big-drop tattoos on the patio, then a tempest of rain. Summoned forth from the bedroom of our villa, my wife, Leslie, and I stand at the edge of the veranda and watch water descend in sheets.

Ten minutes later it subsides; the westering sun returns; steam spirals up from the poolside tiles. Into the pool we tumble, chasing the fresh rainwater.

We’re at The Palms, the finest resort on Tobago (or Trinidad, for that matter), where each party gets its own deluxe villa complete with pool, wrap-around veranda, kitchen and bedrooms with king-size beds, and the tropics’ greatest spiritual amenity, ceiling fans.

The hilltop villas are surrounded by beautifully manicured grounds filled with tropical plants; guests can pick their own papayas and bananas.
The hilltop villas are surrounded by beautifully manicured grounds filled with tropical plants; guests can pick their own papayas and bananas.

Even though there’s A/C, we shun the contrivance of machine-cooled air for the calming swish of the fan, turn the slats of the louvers down and revive our naps. An hour later, the next squall calls us to the kitchen to cook dinner: fresh spiny lobster tonight, with a side of curried rice.

The Palms is not bargain lodging, but at US$ 500 a night for villas that match those you’ll find at twice-the-price resorts, it has its own economy. We’re here to splurge on relaxation and warmth, and Tobago’s a peach of a place for that.

Maybe “papaya” would be a better analogy: The fresh one we pick off a tree about 30 feet (9 m) from our patio is the best either of us has ever had. It matches the watermelon, red bananas and pineapple we’d bought that morning at a beachside fruit stand, all fresh as the rain that grows them.

After that, we cruise out on a tour boat to snorkel the Buccoo Reef, possibly the most-visited single spot on the whole island: Our guide pleads with the passengers not to let their feet touch the coral, which is dying from over-use as a sidewalk.

A wide spiral that holds off the Caribbean swells, the reef is a maze of star-brain coral; potato coral, which looks ever so much like its namesake, baked; sea whips, jocularly called “dead man’s fingers” in local parlance; and a floating zoo of parrotfish, wrasses and angelfish.

A ridgeback above Castara Bay offers a splendid view of the aquamarine Caribbean.
A ridgeback above Castara Bay offers a splendid view of the aquamarine Caribbean.

Though Tobago’s bays are wondrous, gentle spots for dallying, the 25-mile-long (40 km) island is also a mecca for jungle hiking and birdwatching. The next day we head up the Castara River into the tropical forest, flushing a flock of parrots from the trees by the trail.

A quarter mile (402 m) up, as if the director of our vacation movie had set the scene, we round a bend to find a sapphire splash pool beneath a 50-foot (15 m) cliff. Halfway up the cliff, a local youngster is poised to dive. Lean as a vine, with coffee-colored dreadlocks and a shell necklace, he grins at us and plunges.

“I’ve got to,” I announce. Leslie rolls her eyes, bemused.

I don’t have to do the whole 25-foot (7.6 m) vertical, I decide on my way up the cliff, but I do make my way to a log perch about a dozen feet high, gather my wits and dive. The water feels like sherbet tastes, cool and clean.

On down the coast, we hike up the trail at the Eleanor Alefounder Bird Sanctuary, an old plantation turned into a refuge for the hundreds of types of avian islanders. Curtained by lantana and red-flowering ginger, dotted with indigo and amber butterflies, the trail climbs a ridge to a spectacular view of Buccoo Bay in the distance.

Along the way it’s almost impossible to keep track of all the birds we see — rainbowlike blue-crowned motmots, red-capped woodpeckers, ruddy ground doves, orange-winged parrots, yellow warblers (winter vacationers from the United States), tropical mockingbirds and Tobago’s quintessential birds, bananaquits.

These yellow mites, which sing to our veranda breakfasts at the villa, are as cheery and vivid as their names. The island’s colorization of English is one of its delights. It became independent of Britain in 1962, but the colonial heritage abides in place names: Scarborough, Plymouth, Charlotteville and Speyside are the main towns, and in the island’s musical dialect they assume notes rounder and lighter than ever heard in the UK. When someone says “half-three,” we learn, that means 3:30, and it’s pronounced “hawlf-th-r-rree.”

Half-three’s about the right time for our after-hike nap. We’d stopped at a fish stand on Pig Point Road to buy fresh grouper, caught that morning and filleted on the spot as we watched — not the equal of the lobster the night before, but splendid nonetheless.

We sling the fish in the fridge, have a snack of fresh papaya, and repair to the cool fastness of the bedroom to wait for a rain squall to wake us for dinner. The rhythm of the ceiling fan seems to pick up the constancy of the Caribbean swells at the beach nearby.

That night at dinner on the veranda, with candles set out on a rattan coffee table, we watch the moon’s silver wrinkle the pool while music drifts up from a distant steel drum concert.

Fireflies wink in the meadow surrounding The Palms, and the last flickers of lightning from the last squall of the day tickle a distant sky.

Those are the illuminations we swim under later, counting fireflies and savoring the moonlit warmth.

If You Go

Trinidad and Tobago Tourism

Tobago Tourism Guide

The Palms Villa Resort


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