Out and about - the Tobagonian wilds

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
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Trip End Nov 30, 2009


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Sunday, June 10, 2007

There were a number of reasons for coming here beyond azure waters and deserted palm-fringed beaches. Tobago has one of the oldest protected rainforests in the world as well as highly-rated marine environments for diving, one of the best golf courses in the Caribbean (Plantations), and importantly, a reasonably low key approach to tourism which makes travelling around the place a pleasure - plenty of local interaction which is generally free of the persistent hawking you get elsewhere.

So the below covers parts of the island further afield than the well developed north-western coast, travelling in geographical order clockwise from Turtle beach. We headed this way on three separate occasions - once by sea on the Island Girl catamaran, once on a Wayne's World rainforest tour and once by ourselves, pootling around in a hire car just going with the flow. It doesn't look like great distances on the map but all three ended up being intrepid, enjoyable adventures. It's easiest to just mix them up together. Hope you like it!



Once you leave Great Courland Bay and Tobago's second largest town - Plymouth - which overlooks it, you're quickly surrounded by a sprawling and sometimes oppressive 'countryside'. This generally means patches of argriculture and tiny towns fighting a losing battle with the dense tropical jungle, everything clinging to steep hillsides that are regularly punctuated by rainforest rivers that fall hundreds of metres down into the sparkling Caribbean Sea below.

Serpentine roads lead along this Leeward Coast, past overgrown sugar plantations like the one found at Arnos Vale and through hilltop villages with quintessentially British names like Culloden, Golden Lane and Runnemede. More on the history a little later but suffice it to say there were around 280 estates established here by 1780 and since the Brits won control of the island in the end, no wonder so many British names used across length and breadth of their territory. Mum will be particularly interested in the latter name, as it seems someone of distinction from her town of birth, Runnemede, was able to bring a little bit of Surrey with them to this steamy corner of the world.



With all the driving and cruising we did along Leeward Coast, we got to know these roads and the sea lining them quite well. To be honest I was a little disappointed in the coral quality after some of the reviews I'd come across in pre-trip research, including one that claimed it was one of Jacques Cousteau's favourite diving destinations. Maybe I missed the spectacular stuff, but whilst the range of fish I found was great (including one very groovy stingray and a diverse range of colourful tropicals), the coral was patchy and quite bland.



However that didn't stop Karen taking on a patch with her leg whilst learning to snorkel on the sailing trip, which seemed to reinforce her dislike of the sea and everything in it. Yar. I can't chuckle too loud - I was sunburnt to the point of blistering from my couple of hours bobbing around face down. Despite all that the sailing was great and we got to meet Caroline and Binny from Suffolk, with whom we hung out quite a bit towards the end of our stay. Thanks for the good company and please get in touch if you read this guys!



Castara Bay is a little further north along this coast and is where the laid back approach to Caribbean life really starts to kick in. The beach itself is gorgeous and serene, supporting a small fishing community and a handful of guesthouses and local restaurants which would be a delight to make home if we come back some time soon. Apparently property prices are on the rise here too, driven by foreign buyers. It really isn't hard to see why.

And Englishman's Beach at far right above is even more of a find - completely deserted most of the time and with just one food and souvenir stall at its entrance. It's about as pristine as a beach can be. No wonder it has ranked in the world's best beach experiences in times gone by.



One of the few French-named towns, Parlatuvier Bay is a little further along the coast, overlooked by a stripey safety wall tailor/welder/stonemason Wayne Gray helped build before he became an excellent independent rainforest guide. I'd argue that this is the nicest looking bay and town on the island, from the heights overlooking it at least, and suspect it would be as nice as Castara to stay in too if you came here independently. Hmmm, starting to daydream again...

Anyway, this is just around the point from Bloody Bay, so named because it was the scene for an intense battle between French, Dutch and English naval forces sometime in the 1660s. The English won that round and the result was so bloody that the bay's water stained red. Interesting in itself I suppose but more interesting as it illustrates the strategic importance of Tobago in the southern Caribbean. It was so important in fact that Spaniards, Dutch, French and English fought over it for more than 300 years up until being officially ceded (by the French) to the English in 1814. Must have been a very handy sea lane around the coast of South America in those times.



From here you can now travel two ways - along a new stretch of road linking Bloody Bay to Charlotteville (so new in fact that it still isn't properly marked on the tourist map), or the more traditional route of heading inland toward Roxborough (via the protected jungle). I would have liked to have tried the former as the new coast road would probably have some spectacular scenery as the terrain gets even more remote towards the north-eastern tip of the island, however we took the long way around instead. Either way Charlotteville is well worth the effort and yet another great place to consider if you're heading here without accommodation lined up. Just leave yourself half a day to get here after the plane lands!



Still, the jungle trekking along the Roxborough road was a good compromise indeed. This is where the mountains rise to around 600 metres and the temperature cools somewhat from the steamy heat along the shoreline, and even more so when you plunge into the rainforest and find yourself under Amazonian old-growth canopy.



We had found Wayne's details on the internet (Wayne's World Tours) and he turned out to be very good value, simply because he pointed out a lot of things that we would have walked straight past otherwise (in and out of the jungle). As we weren't twitchers (bird watchers) we got the full round up including tail-less whip scorpions, trapdoor spiders, tree snakes, giant land crabs (well spotted by Karen actually) as well as dozens of colourful bird varieties that Tobago has become famous in the birdwatching community for.



The trapdoors were most interesting of the crawly jungle critters, completely camoflaged into the environment and only really noticable because the trapdoor lid is just a little too symmetrical. The hole it constructs is a work of art - black as hell in its depths, silky smooth and perfectly circular from the tapered mouth. It is here that the spider sits, just inside its doorway, awaiting vibrating sensations in its legs which indicate prey is unwittingly passing by. Then with lightning speed the spider bursts from its bolthole and the hapless victim is drawn into the darkness to its death... Muhahahahaaa.



Speyside is the first major town you find driving south along the Windward (Atlantic) Coast as you head back home towards the capital. It's here that lucky divers get to swim with massive manta rays around huge brain corals, whilst the less adventurous relax over steak and lobster dishes at Gemma's Kitchen overlooking the bay and Little Tobago island across the way. Gemma's place is quite a structure, somehow at one with the gnarly old tree it sits on and that copes with busloads of cruise boating tours in the high season (Oct - Apr). Fortunately it was a little more sedate at this time of year allowing Karen to thoroughly enjoy the lobstery produce of the local seas.



Not much further down the Atlantic coast you find the entrance to the Argyle Falls. This is one of the only regulated, pay-per-use attractions we found here but it was worth the fiver to get in (which basically pays for the 'guide' to walk you up the path). Once you're up there it's an impressive three-tiered waterfall cascading 30-40 metres in total, with a small pool at each level to dip in. Karen wasn't so impressed with the crayfish that tried to get into her bikini bottoms (the local creatures have such good taste) but the hour or two spent up there was a blessing after a day's tropical heat in and around the forest. If only the refreshment didn't evaporate by the time you got back to the car!

The rest of the Windward Coast to Scarborough is a series of small coves and local houses clinging to the ridges that line them. The drive is certainly a challenge, as the tempo of the local traffic noticably increases as you get closer to town. All we'd say is don't let anyone tell you the drivers here are on Caribbean time! Also at the island's south western extremes, there is apparently some very nice beaches surrounding the Hilton Plantations and the main shopping districts, but as you'd expect they are more developed in this mature area, so we left them be.



Leaving the best until last for dedicated readers, one place that I have to mention is Mt Irvine beach which is actually a couple of clicks down the road on the airport side of Turtle Beach. If you want a mellow relaxation, lazing under coconut palms and pretty Indian almond trees on a lovely snorkelling beach mainly frequented by locals - all topped off with a cheap and chilled beach bar - then this is the place to go. We only discovered it late in our stay, but we came back a number of times, including the day of our departure.

It was a case of simple wonders here - one day a noisy bunch of evangelical born again Christians decended on the beach for a full blown singin' and preachin' full immersion baptism service. The pastor, with possibly the worst hymn singing voice bestowed by God on any man, was beating out religious fervour over the portable PA as at least a dozen blue-robed converts were led into the gently lapping water. The congregation, all in Sunday best, sang along as the converts were fully dunked and confirmed as part of the flock, whilst we watched in bemused wonder. As Karen said, it was quite a touching experience.

More simple were the 'rotis' we also discovered here - the Caribbean equivalent of a meat/shrimp/potato etc pie. If we'd found these, and the whole Mt Irvine experience a lot earlier, we would have been even happier with the trip. Regardless of that however, Tobago is a great place to visit and I'd highly recommend it to anyone wanting a Caribbean experience with a diverse range of attractions, but without the glossiness of many resort islands that seem to be found elsewhere in the region.

Drop us a line if you head down here - we'd like to hear any tips for when we go back!

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