Tobago: The Caribbean’s Best Kept Secret

Flying into Crown Point airport on Tobago is one of my favourite travelling experiences. A $25 one-way flight gets you a 15 minute journey from Trinidad that includes vistas of the lush northern mountain range and the Caribbean Ocean. The final descent into Tobago feels almost as if you are landing on the beach itself. The airport is so close to the island’s most popular beach town that a five minute walk takes you to the city park, the beach, or to a wide number of hotel options. My accommodations for my first two nights in Tobago was a poolside room at the Toucan Inn, just off the main road into Crown Point. The place is modern, breezy and contains both a top class bar and a fully equipped dive shop.

After checking-in and a quick lunch, I made a phone call to a friend, Rebecca, to see what was happening up-island. Within an hour or so (it’s difficult to say exactly how long it was, because after all, time doesn’t really matter on Tobago), Rebecca, her husband Wise and their two beautiful baby daughters, Mya and Lily were out front of the hotel to take me deeper into this paradise island. Plymouth is a sleepy little community about 20 minutes north of Crown Point. I say sleepy, but I mean genuine and authentic Caribbean culture. Corner shops, open-air hangouts and welcoming homes. The sense of community translates strongly into these households. Once at Rebecca’s place, I was introduced to friends, both local and from overseas, simply having a “lime” in the backyard. I was instantly tasked with holding Lily, the littlest of the girls, while a meal of salt fish and bakes was prepared.

Life in Tobago moves at a different pace and beat than even in Trinidad. Trinidad has its uptempo soca and chutney, talk is fast and people are preoccupied with the worries and concerns of the nation. In Tobago, the chill-down mood of reggae dominates, along with all the associated attitudes. Positivity, happiness and a unanimous content for “simple times” pervade. It sounds all a bit too idealistic, but if things ever get too serious, a quick look across the backyard to the sun setting over crashing waves and silhouettes of palm trees brings all the priorities back to their rightful place.

Rebecca runs a delightful little shop in the heart of Tobago where she imports the trendiest fashions from Toronto and offers them to Tobagonian women at near-cost. It’s a niche market that the local women rely on, but the shop is so aesthetically put together that it’s worth stopping in regardless of whether you’re Trinbagonian, or an international tourist. Later that evening I was introduced to the Kariwak Village in Crown Point by Rebecca’s mom, Paula. Kariwak is off a side road in the main town, but so perfectly hidden that I had no idea it existed. The beautifully set cabanas surround the pool that just so happened to be lit up for dusk. The main attraction is the central dining area that seems to combine high-class and modesty with ease. Best of all, the food served is so incredible, it seems to just melt with flavour. One night of eating and catching up on ten years made things go by so fast that I know I’ll be back at Kariwak on a future visit.

R&Sea Divers is the resident dive shop at the Toucan Inn. Having been out of diving for just over two years, I felt comforted by the fact that my reintroduction was with a company that I had dived with before and enjoyed thoroughly. However, by diving with R&Sea again I broke one of my own cardinal rules of travel: never try to replicate a travel experience.

It all started out pleasantly enough. My dive buddy was a retired dive master from England, and the only other two divers on our trip were a pair of 20-something Swedish girls. My delight with this turn of luck quickly faded as I stood looking out the back of the dive shop at the waves pounding in on shore. It was a combination of luck and precision timing that we even got out of the bay. Then, once we were out at sea, competing with the waves made things difficult just to get to the dive site. However, we did get there and did manage to get two dives in, albeit in the most disappointing fashion I’ve ever had in the sport. Our guide was a local who had obviously been diving here for too long. He showed no enthusiasm, provided next to no information about the dive sites, the aquatic life that could be seen, and no direction about the dive. Then under water, he made no effort to spot anything of interest or show any excitement about why we were even there. He simply floated ahead of us, content to let us be bored, or die, or as it turned out, rely on each other to be the guide for the group. Our boat captain was a womanizing Rasta man, which is fine, and honestly, the par for the course on this island. He dominated the conversation above the water and naturally directed his attention to the Swedish girls. Again, fine. However, when I attempted to participate in the conversation, I was ignored and left to feel like the unwanted customer on board.

The saving grace of the whole operation was the teenage dive master who probably wasn’t even being paid to be there. While quiet and polite in the boat, he took the time to monitor us under the water, remove any man-made debris from the dive site left by fisherman who had been in the area before, and actually pointed out some animals! In part due to his dilligence, we did spot a variety of wildlife, including several moray eels, a couple sting rays and a ten foot nurse shark that I came so close to touching, but chickened out at the last second. It did make it worthwhile getting back in the water after such a long time. However, after the adrenaline rush of the nurse shark and the episode of getting back to shore before the waves crashed apart the boat, there was no debrief of the dive or sense of comradery that is usually associated with diving. We were simply sent on our way, and for me at least, it’ll be the last time I dive with R&Sea.

That afternoon I set out on foot to visit the usual sites in Crown Point. What was unusual about this time was that there was nobody in the ocean. The waves had closed down the beaches and the tides has overtaken the sand. Therefore, I decided to take a swing by the most imperialistically colonial place in town – the Coco Reef Hotel. Likely intended for tourists who wanted to avoid the local culture that makes Tobago what it is, or those who want to relive the era of plantations and slavery, the ground are appropriately gardened and manicured. The long approach from the main road to the entrance allows the visitor to truly feel like they are being transported to a different world (for better or worse). Coco Reef even has its own wall of rocks, deliberately built up a few hundred meters into the ocean to separate the elitist swimming area for guests and the rest of the ocean…from everybody else. Normally this feature has no interest to me, but today the water was crashing over this wall, and I wanted to see the ocean so mischievously overcome this man-made barrier.

Coco Reef

Coco Reef

I visited the vendor stalls at Store Bay and picked up the usual ubiquitous souvenirs: the beach towel, the flag, etc. My eye was however caught by one artist producing original artwork right there in the plaza. I chatted with him, looked at a variety of his artwork and finally settled on perhaps his most simplest piece, done on the bark of a coconut tree. As we talked, he mentioned coming to Tobago from one of the other islands. So I asked which island, to which he responded, “Cuba”. Of course. The one artist in the place that I was inspired by, and he had to be Cuban! Grrr.

Despite the rough seas, the weather was hot and dry; somewhat unusual for the humid, breezy island. As I watched the sun set over the hundreds year old Fort Milford, it was a reprieve from the heat, but I could already feel the effects of the day catching up to me. I went back to my room and went straight to bed, but the damage had already been done. Either from the sun, the surge of the sea, or the seawater, I woke up in the morning sick and nauseous. After briefly attempting to choke down breakfast, I decided that I would have to cancel my dive trip that day. It was somewhat disappointing to only have one day of diving, but based on the experience from the day prior, I wasn’t too heartbroken. Instead, I moved to the accommodation I had planned in Plymouth – the Adventure Eco Villas. A simple set of wooden cottages set amongst a nature reserve, I spent the rest of the day doing exactly what I was meant to do here: nothing. Known for being the best place to see hummingbirds on the island (and arguably the world), I spent the day either wandering through the gardens or sitting in a lawn chair as hummingbirds buzzed around me like mosquitos. I sat there until the buzzing and flapping of hummingbirds was replaced with the screeching and flapping of bats. Then it was time to go inside.

Adventure Eco Villas

Adventure Eco Villas

The next day I joined Rebecca, Wise, Mya and Lily on a drive to the northern end of the island. Having not been to this side of Tobago since I was a child, I played typical tourist and took pictures of the idyllic Castara Bay, the movie-setting of Englishman’s Bay, and the views of the Little Tobago bird sanctuary island from Speyside. Lunch at Jemma’s Kitchen and Restaurant was the perfect piece of local cooking before the scenic road back through the Central Rainforest Reserve.

Englishman's Bay

Englishman’s Bay

My time in Tobago always seems too brief and more so, every time I come here I wonder why this island isn’t more of a tourist attraction. While future flights direct from Toronto to Tobago excite me, I’m also quite glad the place hasn’t blown up into a major tourist trap. A bit like Guyana (but infinitely more peaceful and comfortable), it’s relieving to know that I can keep returning here and it always has that familiar feel.

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