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Tobago – stepping out of Trinidad’s shadow

Christopher Columbus sighted Tobago in 1498. Though he didn’t set foot on land, he did proclaim it to be “Bella Forma” which translates as beautifully formed. Over five centuries later, development has been kind to this island paradise and it’s not hard to see what he saw in the place. Unspoilt Tobago is lush, lively and easy to fall in love with.

Surprisingly, for such a small island, there’s plenty of diversity within its shores. Heritage, culture and natural beauty all combine to bring an increasing number of people to this delightful island year on year. Join them before it’s old news – here’s why Tobago is stepping out of Trinidad’s shadow to become one of the Caribbean’s most enticing destinations.

Outstanding natural beauty

While a string of palm-fringed sandy beaches line the shore, inland verdant rainforest carpets Tobago’s hills. The British officially protected Main Ridge Forest Reserve in 1776, making it the oldest legally conserved forest anywhere in the western hemisphere. Its most famous trail is the Gilpin Trace. To hike it you’ll need to allow a couple of hours, during which time you’ll walk right through the heart of this ancient woodland on a flat, relatively easy path. Take a guide and ask them to point out brightly coloured hummingbirds and Tobago’s national bird, the cocrico. Look out for armadillos, snakes, bats and agoutis too, who also call this rainforest home.

You’ll discover Tobago’s highest waterfall is also here. Set out from Roxborough on a marked trail and after 20 minutes or so you’ll reach the three-tiered Argyle Falls. Even in dry season, the rainforest lives up to its name and it’s a pleasure to wash the sweat off with a cooling dip in the pools beneath the falls.

The island’s highest point is Pigeon Peak, reached by a challenging trail following an old plantation track. Hire a guide who can lead you safely to the summit and back again. Mountain bikers will find Main Ridge Forest Reserve offers the most extreme cycling trails, such as the curiously named Elvis’ Goat which follows a narrow trail from Arnos Vale to Golden Lane above Culloden Bay.

Tobago Bay landscape view
Landscape view of Tobago Bay, image by awegner58

Tobago boasts some of the best beaches in the Caribbean

Countless great beaches are scattered across the island. Tobago’s location, just off the coast of South America and 22 miles north of Trinidad, puts it firmly south of the hurricane belt which lengthens its season. Though the weather is drier from January through June, even the wettest months are spared the wild storms that can affect other parts of the Caribbean. Year round temperatures fluctuate between 23 and 32°C with a pleasantly cooling onshore breeze to boot.

The north shore is Tobago’s Caribbean coast, while the south borders the Atlantic Ocean. Waves are gentler in the more sheltered Caribbean, a consideration if you’re keen to swim where it’s calmest. Broadly speaking, the south west of the island is the most developed, with the majority of hotels occupying this low lying area thanks to its excellent beaches, such as those found at Store Bay and Pigeon Point. If you like your beaches to be lively and at the heart of the action, this is where you need to be.

Generally speaking, the further you move away from these beaches, the quieter it gets. Englishman’s Bay, on the north coast is a secluded spot where you can drift off to the sound of gently lapping waves and the shrieks of wild parrots. The 157 step descent to Pirate’s Bay near the fishing village of Charlottesville keeps visitor numbers to a minimum. Pristine white sand and crystal clear turquoise waters reward those that can be bothered to make the trek. Stonehaven Bay and the aptly named Turtle Beach are best for turtle watching. Leatherbacks return to the beaches of their birth to lay their eggs from March to September; most nearby hotels run nightly excursions in season.

A rich cultural heritage

There is no shortage of festivals on the island’s annual calendar, giving visitors a chance to tap in to Tobago’s culture without too much effort. February, as with other Caribbean islands, is the month of carnival. As you might expect on an island renowned for liming, the revelries are a little more laid back than those of neighbouring Trinidad, but the party’s still a big deal and firmly rooted in tradition. To the rhythm of soca and calypso, dancers shimmy and masquerade bands strut their stuff.

A key part of the festivities is Mud Mas. During the traditional pre-dawn celebrations known as J’Ouvert, participants smear paint and mud over their bodies and parade through the streets of the capital Scarborough accompanied by steel bands and drummers. A dip in the sea afterwards ensures everyone’s cleaned up and refreshed ready for the next phase of the carnival celebrations.

Goat racing originated in Tobago

Easter brings with it a somewhat quirkier celebration. Goat racing originated in Tobago, though the first race was actually organised by a Barbadian by the name of Samuel Callender back in 1925. While the upper classes had horse racing, the working classes were excluded, and so Callender decided to create a rival event in which everyone could participate. The first races took place on what’s now Chance Street in the village of Buccoo but these days nearby Mount Pleasant also joins in.

Don’t be fooled: it’s serious business. Owners, trainers and jockeys put in months of hard work to ensure the goats are used to running in front of their barefoot jockey. Stamina and muscle tone is built up through swimming and a special diet enriched with oats, vitamins and pigeon peas is an equally important part of the preparations. The jury’s out as to whether you’re better off backing a billy or a nanny goat – the former usually live longer while the latter are generally held to be better runners.

Come in July for the popular Heritage Festival

The goats make a second appearance in July where they join in with Tobago’s Heritage Festival. This two week event takes place from the middle of July until August 1st, Emancipation Day, and showcases the island’s rich cultural heritage. Five villages took part in the first festival over 30 years ago, with others joining in over the years. Alongside Buccoo’s goat races, residents of Les Coteaux recount folk tales and superstitions and elsewhere performers recreate some of the best known folk dances of Tobago including the reel, lancers, jig, heel-toe, bele, quadrille, cotillon and tango.

Now – and then – one of the major draws of the festival is the “ole time” wedding in Moriah. Men dress in stovepipe hats and tails; the women in long bustle dresses and floral hats. They parade from the church through the streets accompanied by fiddles and drums. Everyone gathers in the recreation ground to hear the customary comic speeches at the reception and the jokes never get old.

Harvest festivals take place year round

Even if your visit doesn’t coincide with one of these festivals, it doesn’t mean you have to miss out. Harvest festivals take place on Sundays year round, with villages taking a turn in throwing open their doors to welcome visitors and give thanks for the previous year’s abundant harvest. What were once meals for friends and family are now massive village cookouts where food and drink is shared with anyone who shows up. If you think about it, what that means is that you have an open invitation for dinner and if that’s the case, it would be rude not to show up, wouldn’t it?

Julia Hammond

Written by Julia Hammond

Enthusiastic advocate for independent travel and passionate geographer, Julia considers herself privileged to earn a living doing something she loves. When not roaming the globe, you’ll find her windswept but smiling, chatting away to her two dogs as they wander the Essex marshes.

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