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Caribbean beach vacations top many travelers bucket list. But have you visited Tobago?
If you hear wide, sandy beaches, tropical rainforest, and mountains calling you, then you’ve arrived in Tobago. Considered by many as the true Caribbean, Tobago is the smaller of the two islands consisting of the nation of Trinidad and Tobago.
Kickin’ Back in Tobago
My 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 bobbed 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 snorkeled 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, a 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.
Check into The Palms Tobago Resort
Summoned forth from the bedroom of our villa, my wife, Leslie, and I stood at the edge of the veranda and watched water descend in sheets. Ten minutes later it subsided. The westering sun returned, and steam spiraled 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). Each guest 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.
Even though there’s A/C, we shunned the contrivance of machine-cooled air for the calming swish of the fan, turned the slats of the louvers down, and revived 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. Another Tobago hotel to consider is the Magdalena Grand, an idyllic beach golf resort.
Snorkeling in Bucco Reef
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.
Hiking and Cliff Diving
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 decided on my way up the cliff, but I do make my way to a logperch about a dozen feet high. I gathered my wits and dived. 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.
Start with rainbowlike blue-crowned motmots, red-capped woodpeckers, ruddy ground doves, orange-winged parrots, yellow warblers (winter vacationers from the United States), and tropical mockingbirds.
And let’s not forget to mention 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.
Tobago’s English Dialect
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.
Get a Taste for Tobago
With its unique cultural history, your culinary experience in Tobago is a mixing pot of flavors, including Asian, African, Oriental, Creole, and European. And of course, sampling the freshest catch of the day is always a good decision when on an island.
We stopped at a fish stand on Pig Point Road to buy fresh grouper, caught that morning, and filleted on the spot as we watched. While not the equal of the lobster the night before, it was splendid nonetheless.
We slung the fish in the fridge and enjoyed a snack of fresh papaya. Then we retired to the cool vastness 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 watched the moon’s silver wrinkle the pool while music drifted 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.
Book This Trip
Time to start planning your next Caribbean adventure to Tobago? First, you’ll want to be extra prepared with hotel or VRBO options, local restaurant favorites and best birdwatching hikes on Travelocity and TripAdvisor. When you’ve picked your dates find the best flight deals and travel hacks through Kiwi.
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