Off the beaten track in Tobago

History, hiking, ecotourism…and of course beaches. Desiree Seebaran discovers the unexplored side of the island

Argyle Falls. Photograph by Desiree SeebaranDelicious tannia fritters, crispy and slightly salty. Photograph by Desiree SeebaranEnglishman’s Bay. Photograph by Desiree SeebaranFresh lobster. Photograph by Desiree SeebaranThe soot blackening the outside shows that this oven is put to regular use. Photograph by Desiree Sebaran

One of the clichés of the Caribbean goes like this: cool refreshing drink in hand, you sit beachside, contemplating the waves and the meaning of life. And while repeating this scenario is one of the best things about visiting Tobago, it’s not the only thing this Caribbean island has going for it.

As a vacation destination, Tobago offers visitors historical nuggets, ecotourism gems and natural serenity. The Main Ridge Reserve or Tobago Forest Reserve may be the oldest protected rainforest in the western hemisphere, and contains an astounding array of flora and fauna. Tucked into nearly every corner of the island are fascinating reminders of its intriguing colonial past. Local food often uses fresh-from-the-garden ingredients and is seasoned with Caribbean herbs and culinary tradition.

If you’re visiting the island for the first time or are returning for a second or third dose of Caribbean serenity, try to hit a couple of these Tobago treasures to get a glimpse past sun, sea and surf into what island life is really about.

Walk on the windward side

On the eastern side of the island, along the Windward Road on the way to Roxborough, Argyle Falls provides an excellent do-it-yourself nature walk for those who may need to work off too many helpings of breadfruit pie. The hike to the falls is pretty easy, about 15 – 20 minutes of relatively flat ground.

One couple brought their toddler, who alternately walked, ran, or was carried most of the way. Another woman managed to get to the falls in half an hour at about seven months pregnant, using the rest points along the trail, so it’s a great hike for beginners. Just be sure to dress appropriately: sneakers or hiking boots are a must, but there’s no underbrush to wade through, so whether you wear long pants or shorts is your call.

The trail is very clearly marked, so there’s no need for a guide. Entry costs about TT$50 and guides are available for an additional fee. You’ll walk along the riverbed through serene forest to the falls themselves. The more adventurous will attempt to climb them, but unless you’re a seasoned hiker and rock climber, it may be better to stay in the refreshing pools at the foot of the falls and take in the splendour of nature from below.

Retreat to nature

It’s a bit of a bumpy drive in from the main road in Runnemede (just before Moriah), but Cuffie River Nature Retreat is a great example of the balance that is sustainable tourism. Trinidad & Tobago host over 450 bird species, and avid birdwatchers have seen up to 80 species at Cuffie River Retreat alone, some of which are quite rare, according to owner and founder Regina Dumas. For example, there is a larger class of blue-backed manakin (with more distinctive blue and red colouring) that is endemic to Tobago alone.

The resort was built to minimise its environmental impact on the rain forest around it; no trees are cut down unless absolutely necessary; the pool uses table salt instead of chlorine to keep it bacteria-free, and was built above ground to minimise negative ecological effects. Clay and wood were used throughout the resort’s construction to maximise ways to stay cool without using electricity. And Dumas grows much of the food she serves to her guests, from eggplant (aubergine) to tomatoes and pumpkins to fruits like carambola (called five finger or star fruit locally), lemons, and mangoes.

“I wanted to demonstrate that rural development could work, could be sustainable,” Dumas said.

Guests get to go on nature hikes with resident guide Desmond Wright, who talks to them about Tobago’s economic agricultural history, with interesting facts about why bamboo is so often found along river banks in Tobago or what birds feed on which fruit. He also points out familiar and unfamiliar homeopathic plants like lemongrass and the two varieties of stinging nettle that grow in the island.

“The larger one is used for bladder infections, and the smaller one is used in local production of shampoos because of its high presence of Vitamin C,” Wright explained.

Dumas plans to open up day tours to cabin-fevered cruise-ship visitors, who can tour the rainforest with Wright and get a glimpse of Tobago’s Amazonian riches before heading back to their cruises.

Gang Gang Sara of Golden Lane

Every island has more than its fair share of great ghost stories and Tobago is no different. The legend of Gang Gang Sara is a little creepier than most. Gang Gang Sara was well known as the resident village obeahwoman (obeah is the local term for witchcraft or black magic) in the 1700s; she’d flown to Tobago straight from Africa and settled in Les Coteaux. After her husband died, she tried to fly back to her homeland, only to fall to her death because she could no longer levitate after eating salt.

In Les Coteaux there stands a massive silk cotton tree, reputed to be the biggest on the island, from which Gang Gang Sara tried to launch herself. And her burial ground, called the African cemetery, is home to the bodies and spirits of slaves and free Africans who have their own scary stories. Its keepers, Alvin and Ezekiel James, are reputed to be descendants of Sara, and will regale you with tales of weird incidents that were attributed to her restless spirit before a ritual was done to appease her.

Getting there can be a bit tricky, since they haven’t yet been made official tourist sites, but locals are always willing to direct you. Once you’re travelling along the Arnos Vale Road and you come to a junction with five possible turn-offs (the middle road climbs a steepish hill way above the junction), you’re on the right track. The road second from the left (which will take you down alongside a wall on your right) will take you to the infamous silk cotton tree, which even in broad daylight, stands menacingly at the roadside, waiting to tell you her secrets.

The taste of Tobago

Why come to the Caribbean to have continental breakfasts or a version of American cuisine? Tobago food tends to be a little earthier than Trinidadian food: stews, casseroles and grilled meats are all among the rustic, home-cooked cuisine you’ll find on the island. And don’t assume that you’ll only get a great meal at the gourmet restaurants, although Tobago has a great assortment of those. Many a roadside café gets rave reviews from both tourists and locals about the quality of food they prepare.

In most eating places on the island, seafood is a menu staple; from flying-fish fillets to lobster, heaps of the stuff are available fresh every day all over the island. In fact, fresh ingredients are integral to most Tobago restaurants. There’s a small but thriving farming culture which ensures that fruits and root vegetables especially, which are high in demand, are always supplied. Look for dishes like breadfruit pie, tannia fritters (made of a root vegetable that looks like a cross between cassava and taro root), steamed veggies, and fresh salads to really get a taste of what’s grown locally.

Tobago is also very well known for its “blue food”, which can mean either any starchy root vegetable used in local food (like cassava, plantains or yams) or can specifically refer to the tuber of the taro plant, or dasheen bush, as locals call it. When boiled, this starchy tuber develops a bluish colour, which explains its nickname. Tobago’s annual Blue Food Festival, held in October in Bloody Bay, is a great way for visitors to get acquainted with this staple of Tobago cuisine in innovative new dishes pioneered by local chefs.

Cooking in Castara

Using a dirt oven can sound singularly unhygienic. But although they’ve fallen almost completely into disuse owing to the advent of gas and electric stoves, those Tobagonians who grew up on bread and pastries baked in a dirt oven say that there’s nothing like it. In the small fishing and tourist village of Castara, along Tobago’s western coast, a traditional outdoor dirt oven was built in the 1990s behind the Castara Government Primary School to help preserve the history and culture of Tobago. So in addition to taking in the local sights and maybe indulging in a quick dip at the beach, you can sample some local delicacies and learn about Tobagonian culinary history.

Most dirt ovens are dome-shaped and are heated by burning wood. The one in Castara is made from a mixture of mud, clay, grass, dirt, and concrete. They can reach about 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Every Wednesday and Saturday morning, five women from the village take possession of the dirt oven and make bread, cakes and pastries for sale. They also make baked goods for special occasions in the village like weddings and wakes. But watching them work the dirt oven won’t be enough; if you want a taste of the goodies, you’ll have to get there pretty early in the morning to order or collect orders from the week before. It will be easier if you’re staying at one of the self-contained apartments or guesthouses in the area. But even locals from as far away as Scarborough have been known to stand in line to get a taste of what comes out of the Castara dirt oven.

Bliss out at Englishman’s Bay

Pigeon Point and Store Bay usually get all the crowds. But the pristine and secluded Englishman’s Bay beckons ten minutes after you drive out of Castara.

The clear green water looks wonderful from the lookout on the main road about five minutes before, but it’s even better up close. The beach is ideal for those wanting blissful peace and wonderful quiet; after stowing your stuff in the small parking lot, you can rent a chair from Eula’s Restaurant and Souvenir Shop, or just take a walk down the beach. Snorkellers often come to view the small coral reef, yards away from the sand, that boasts plenty of colourful sea life. And more than likely you’ll want to strip to your bathing suit and run straight into the cool green surf.

But if you’re not into the more energetic activities, you can go up to Eula’s second-storey rustic dining area to have some fresh grapefruit juice and contemplate the waves and the meaning of life. After all, you are in Tobago.

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