Buccoo tales

Not all travels require you to stray far from home, Elspeth Duncan discovers. Sometimes, with open eyes and the right company, the pleasures of wandering are right under your nose. Plus a concise guide to some of Tobago’s best adventures

Photograph by Elspeth DuncanVenus and the conch fisherman. Photograph by Elspeth DuncanHanging out at the Pigeon Point jetty at sunset. Photograph by Hugh StickneyLooking towards Little Tobago from Batteaux Bay. Photograph by Hugh StickneyA Sunday swim at Mt Irvine. Photograph by Hugh StickneyLeatherback tracks explain how Turtle Beach got its name. Photograph by Hugh StickneyThe excitement of goat-racing at Buccoo. Photograph by Hugh StickneyPulling seine at Great Courland Bay. Photograph by Hugh StickneyPlaying hide-and-seek in a sudden downpour; Bethel, Tobago. Photograph by Hugh Stickney

It’s a beautiful Tobago Saturday morning, after breakfast — ideal for a small excursion, we decide. Today’s adventure will take us to one of our favourite places: the fishing village of Buccoo, on the island’s leeward coast. It’s close to home, but that suits my companion fine — dogs don’t fare well on long, hot car rides.

I met Venus — “doggess” of love and beauty — at the Tobago branch of the TTSPCA in March. Wanting to take a photograph of a pup for an article I was writing, I randomly pulled her out of a cage. My intention that day wasn’t to adopt a dog, but the unbridled look of joy on her face as she jumped and frolicked won me over. Driving home, it felt as if she had always been with me — sitting demurely on a towel on the passenger seat, stretching her nose to sniff at passing scents outside the car window, and turning to look at me with her Tobago terrier smile.

Tobago, although small (just 40 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide), offers an endless treasure trove of activities, places, and people to explore and enjoy. You could say the same about Buccoo, a small giftbox of a place, packed with the promise of pleasant surprises, for human and canine visitors.

The seemingly neverending golden-sand shoreline of Buccoo Beach curves like a massive arm, embracing the unpredictable ocean. On some days, the waves gallop in: blue horses with white manes, tossing fishing boats, crashing water against the jetty, piling flotsam and jetsam along the shoreline to create a beachcomber’s paradise.

Today, however, the sea, in multiple hues of blue, is like glass: still, shallow, and clear enough to reveal seaweed, conchs, and coral on the satiny bed. With Venus in my arms, I walk into the water, still only at waist depth when we’ve reached far out. As soon as her body touches the wet surface, Venus turns to face shore, nose pointing up like a periscope, four paws scrambling to propel the furry torpedo of her body.

Back on shore, a lanky man kicks a ball around on the sand with two little boys. Like crabs on sand and fish in water, children are a common sight in Buccoo — on the pavements, carrying anything from small bags of groceries to large knapsacks of school books; playing in the football field, where goats and sometimes horses graze; fishing from the jetty with rods, reels, or nylon wrapped around old plastic bottles.

Spotting Venus, the little beach boys run to her, excited. “Puppy! Puppy!” Stirred by their energy, Venus runs in wild circles, nose-diving into the sand, rolling, digging, and shaking the ocean from her fur.

Sandy and salty, we go walking past the goat-racing field where on Easter Tuesday (the “official” Tobago goat race day) goats and their jockeys go pelting down the tracks in the quest for victory. What began decades ago as the poor man’s version of horse-racing is today a treasured Tobago tradition, attracting multitudes of locals and visitors seeking family-friendly fun.

Along the way, we meet Lopez, the small black and white dog owned by the Healing with Horses stables. Lopez is a Buccoo fixture. Look at any photo taken in Buccoo, and you may spot her, like a signature on a painting: liming at the popular Sunday School party, at any of Buccoo’s popular bars or restaurants, or anywhere that people gather — especially when food is involved.

Today Lopez is lounging in a patch of sun near the Buccoo Waterfront Restaurant. Recognising me, she jumps up and runs across, tail and body wagging. She is waiting for mid-morning, when the horses will pass on their way to carry visiting riders through the mangrove and into the sea for a swim — at which point Lopez will join them, plunging her small body into the water and swimming out for a “photo op.”

“What happen to you? You living here?” a female guard shouts at Lopez, who is standing in her way.

Venus and I bid her goodbye and continue our walk. It is just after nine. The jetty is a hive of activity, as fishermen gather, laughing, talking, tending to their equipment and chopping portions of a recent catch. Buccoo is the home of fresh fish daily, right off the hook, brought to you by tireless fishermen in proudly painted boats.

A few feet up the road, the large gates to the stables open and horses emerge, heading out for that day’s trail ride and swim. As Venus and I return to the beach with them, a passing villager, spotting me with my camera and the distinctly white canine, shouts out, “Dat dog real important, boy! I only see it posin’ fuh picture whole morning!”

As the horses canter through the mangrove, Venus and I run along the shoreline. Two conversing heads (which we later discover belong to Canadian and Czech tourists) bob in the waves. Not far off, a dark shape sinks slowly beneath the water, releasing large bubbles.

When the creature emerges, it turns out to be a man wearing long khaki pants, flippers, and snorkel gear, carrying a crocus bag full of … something. As she does with everyone within eyesight, Venus races towards him — as though he’s a long-lost friend. Leash in hand, I’m pulled along.

“What’s in the bag?” I ask him, as he bends to play with Venus.

“Conch. Lambie.” The man explains that he swims slowly and collects them from the seabed. The meat is a delicacy, and villagers look forward to its availability.

As Venus sniffs the catch, he demonstrates the art of removing the meat from the shell — punch a hole with a screwdriver on one side and pull the meat out from the other. The meat, still alive, looks like a massive, muscular tongue, strong enough to propel the conch shell forward, but not fast enough to enable the soon-to-be meal to escape from its captor.

“You pound the meat before cooking it,” the conch man explains, tossing empty shells further up onto the sand, where passing beachgoers will pick them up as keepsakes.

Every now and then he stops, gently patting Venus. I ask him if he has dogs. He did, once.

The two women tourists emerge from the sea, approaching with curious smiles and a phone camera. Side by side we stand, chatting, listening, looking, while Venus digs a hole and horses plough through the multi-blue water.

 

Tobago essentials

Tobago is an island small enough to feel cosy, but large enough to offer different kinds of visitors the sort of experience they expect from a tropical getaway. Hiking and birdwatching? Check. Watersports? Check. Fancy dining out? Check. Beach chair and cocktail and no cares in the world? Check repeatedly. But whatever your own personal preferences, some Tobago experiences are so popular, they’re practically classics. You can’t really claim to be a Tobago expert until you’ve done them all.

Pigeon Point
That long jetty with its thatched hut, stretching out over endless turquoise sea: it’s probably the most instantly recognisable view of Tobago, and for good reason. The island’s most popular beach is a long stretch of white sand bordering warm, shallow waters — the jumping-off point for boat rides to the famous Buccoo Reef.

Store Bay
A stone’s throw from the airport at Crown Point, Store Bay is maybe more popular for its food huts than for its sheltered (but often crowded) beach. Minutes after disembarking from your flight, you can find yourself enjoying Tobago’s unique flavours. Curry crab and dumpling is the default, but the food vendors — regulars know them by name — offer surprisingly varied menus.

Speyside
At the far end of the island from the airport, the village of Speyside is a divers’ paradise — and if you don’t care to descend into the sea, you can still glimpse the splendours of the nearby reef from a glass-bottomed boat. Look out for what some scientists say is the world’s largest brain coral.

Little Tobago
The same glass-bottomed boat that gives you a reef tour from Speyside can take you out to Little Tobago, a forested and steep-cliffed islet protected as a reserve for numerous sea birds. Even non-birders enjoy the majestic views.

The Mystery Tombstone
The seaside village of Plymouth is home to Tobago’s most celebrated historical curiosity, which offers visitors a riddle to solve: the polished black tombstone of Mrs Betty Stiven, who died in 1783, “a mother without knowing it, and a wife without letting her husband know it.”

Kimme Museum
The late German artist Luise Kimme moved to Tobago in 1979, and her colourful, charming wooden sculptures, depicting local culture, flora, and fauna, quickly became synonymous with the island. Kimme’s house-cum-gallery in the village of Bethel has kept irregular hours since her death in 2013, but a visit is a good way to grasp the enchantment of island life for the many expats who have settled here.

Castara
Tobago’s leeward coast is a succession of gorgeous sheltered bays, more unspoiled and more isolated the further you drive from Crown Point. In recent years, Castara has become a special favourite with visitors, thanks to the modest guesthouses and apartments that have sprung up in the fishing village.

Main Ridge
Locals will tell you the protected hills and forests that run along Tobago’s spine make up the oldest official nature reserve in the Americas. You can appreciate the island’s lush beauty just from the passenger seat of a car, but a handful of small, community-scaled eco-resorts — like the Cuffie River Nature Retreat — let you get up close and breathe in the forest-scented air.

Fort King George
Dating back to 1777, this historic structure, with its commanding location high above Scarborough Harbour, is Tobago’s best-preserved heritage site. The collection of artifacts in the adjoining Tobago Museum may be a bit sparse, but the views are sweeping and the Atlantic breezes never stop blowing.