A Letter From Tobago

Joanne B. Murphy discovers a heaven on earth in one of the Caribbean's most laid-back islands

A Tobago pleasure: west coast morning surf. Photograph by Allan WeisbeckerA Tobago pleasure: west coast sunset. Photograph by Allan WeisbeckerAt home in Tobago. Photograph by Allan WeisbeckerCharlotteville, the fishing village on Tobago’s northern tip. Photograph by Allan WeisbeckerTobago at play (yes,Tobago has its own Carnival). Photograph by Allan WeisbeckerTobago at prayer. Photograph by Allan WeisbeckerTobago is a tight-knit community sharing everything from worship to Easter Tuesday goat racing at Buccoo. Photograph by Allan WeisbeckerTobago is still a tight-knit community, sharing everything from worship to Easter Tuesday goat racing at BuccooTobago is still a tight-knit community, sharing everything from worship to Easter Tuesday goat racing at Buccoo. Photograph by Allan WeisbeckerTowards Buccoo Reef. Photograph by Allan WeisbeckerTranquil Tobago. Photograph by Allan Weisbecker

I am sitting on a balcony in Tobago, facing the ocean. Breakfast in the open-air dining room is over, and Mr Braithwaite, the wise ancient who oversees concierge details, including sales of the daily newspaper from Trinidad, has answered my “Good morning; how are you?” as usual.

“I am,” he said, “very peaceful.”

The two-mile beach in front of my hotel is host today to scattered British, Swedish and German tourists. It is January; in April and May, when the sun is hotter and the days are longer, giant leatherback turtles will crawl out of the ocean’s depths at night to lay their eggs in the sand. For this, the hotel security guards will alert guests so that the time-honoured event won’t be missed, whether from a balcony or patio or from the beach itself, just steps away.

Tobago is only 116 square miles in size, but each coved sandy beach, each grove of coconut palms, and the rich stillness of Tobago’s rain forest are treasures in a land where there are no high-rise hotels. My time here in Tobago is short, only a week, but I have become bewitched with everything that counts in a Caribbean vacation.

For swimming, there are beaches all around the island. Snorkelling and scuba diving are best at Buccoo Reef just off Pigeon Point, only a short drive from the hotels along the southwestern coast. Scuba diving sites abound all around the island. Glass-bottomed boats will take you out to see the fish and coral, or to shepherd you for snorkelling. I opted for a boatman who knew the waters, and as a result had over two hours in solitude seeing brilliant blue parrotfish, French angels, porkfish and schools of grunts, mischievously allowing me a glimpse of their private world.

The coral polyps which make up the reefs are fascinating to see, if not to touch. Host to the creatures which delight the snorkeller and scuba diver, they surround themselves with calcium and rely on the algae living in their tissues for survival, building polyp upon polyp for centuries to form a reef. Every known species of hard coral, and most of the soft corals, can be found off the coastline of Tobago.

Getting around the island is easy. Cab drivers are informed, eager to share Tobago’s history, and full of insight into both the island and life itself. The other option is to rent a car at prices similar to US rental and do it yourself. Either way, travelling the island is a must. Scarborough, the principal town, offers good restaurants and a variety of shops.

First inhabited by Caribs and Arawak Indians, Tobago underwent waves of Dutch, French and British rulers in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

It became a British colony in 1814, and a Crown Colony with Trinidad in l899. Independence was gained in l962 and in 1976 Trinidad and Tobago became a Republic within the British Commonwealth.

Island naturalist David Rooks, who lectures about Tobago’s natural history and leads expeditions through the tropical rain forest and to nearby Little Tobago Island, where North Atlantic seabirds breed, explains the flora and fauna very simply: the island was once connected to South America by an ice-age bridge. Thousands of years later, many of the plants and animals of that continent remain.

Rooks’s love of the island and his delight in its natural resources is unbounded. Tobago has mangroves, wetlands, wood-lands and beaches. At the top of its 1,800-foot mountain range lies the tropical, evergreen rain forest. Although most of the abundant forests which once existed on Tobago are gone, destroyed to make room for the sugar plantations of the 18th century, those which remain have been protected, thanks to a far-sighted law passed in 1765. The Tobago Main Ridge Forest Reserve is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere.

Over 180 species of birds exist on Tobago, and tours to Little Tobago Island, one of the Caribbean’s most important seabird sanctuaries, can be arranged through hotels or directly with local fisherman. There is also a comfortable and not so comfortable array of animals: native American pig, armadillo, antelope, opossum, red squirrel, 123 species of butterflies, five species of turtles, 16 species of lizards, 14 species of frogs.

The list of fish is endless — hundreds of species. Each morning along Turtle Beach, if the sea is accommodating, Tobago’s fisherman cast and pull their nets in the traditional seine fishing. Before they go to market, fellow Tobagonians meet their fish-laden boats as they pull onto the beach to buy what’s needed for the day.

Paradise.

On the way to the airport early on my final day, first through green overgrowth, then through coconut groves and tiny villages, the driver brings details of contemporary Tobago life into focus, explaining (for example) why so many houses are built on cement stilts. “Is it for protection against storms?” I ask.

“No, it is the way we add living quarters for ourselves as we grow old and cannot climb the stairs. Then our children are above us and we are close by below.”

No wonder that Mr Braithwaite, tall, uniformed, ageless and wise, greeted me again this morning with his usual message. “I am,” he said, “peaceful. Very peaceful.”