Skywatching in Tobago

People who spend time there find something very special in its atmosphere and way of life, something peaceful and serene...

Craft shopping: “the curious and the decorative, calabash purses, shell earrings, batik and tye dyed wraps”. Photograph by Noel NortonGetting ready for goat racing. Photograph by Noel NortonGlass bottomed boats turn Tobago’s undersea life into a giant aquarium. Photograph by Sean DrakesNorthside: “houses perched, some precipitously – above the roadway, all open to catch the seabreeze”. Photograph by Ranji GanasePhotograph by Kenneth LeePhotograph of Roxborough by Kenneth LeePigeon Point, “it’s jetty immortalised in photographs and postcards. Photograph by Kenneth LeeResting from the midday heat. Photograph by Ranji GanaseThe Botanic Gardens. “Tobago is greenest in July and August, the heart of her rainy season; but even on the wettest day the sun still shines.” Photograph by Noel NortonTwo of Tobago’s many angelic smiles. Photograph by Allan C. Weisbecker

You can drive around Tobago in a day.

You can fly there in the morning – the first flight from Trinidad puts you on the ground before breakfast – drive around all day, and go back to Trinidad at nine in the evening.

But one day is never enough to meet Tobago’s people, to see her birds, to explore the reefs, from above or down deep; to take a thrilling ride on the back of a manta ray, or just to watch the sky. Tobago deserves plenty of time.

Our driving day started late. An early-morning shower on the high peaked roof of the Kariwak “hut” where we were staying persuaded us to lie in bed another hour. By the time the we peeked out, sunlight was sparkling from a million raindrops on every hibiscus, coconut frond and pomerac tree; and the birds were trying to awaken everything with their songs. The pool was bright and still. Our first temptation was to laze away the day. But no, Tobago was waiting.

Breakfast was the second temptation to relax: crisp batter fried fillets of flying fish, delicate fingers in a creamy tartar sauce. Though there’s more flying fish in Tobago than Barbados – “land of the flying fish” – her name and fame come from other things. Tobago was the “Jewel of the Caribbean” to the European powers who fought so vigorously over her during the 17th and 18th centuries. Bellaforma was a name she had sometime after Columbus; later, the motto on her crest was Pulchrior Evenit (she becomes more beautiful). Today, she is Tobago the tranquil, Tobago the peaceful.

Though nobody knows for sure what Tobago was called by the Amerindian tribes who grew tobacco here for ritual and medicinal purposes, their name for the pipes in which the broad-leafed herb was smoked was transferred to the plant by the Spaniards, and became the name by which the island was known.

True, some historians pour scorn on this theory; but Tobago, 44 km down its main ridge and just about 13 across its broadest section, looks like nothing so much as a tobacco leaf. Not much tobacco grows here any more; but in the Botanic Gardens in Scarborough and the Louis d’Or Nurseries near Roxborough you’ll find interesting collections of tropical flowering trees.

By the time we set out, the sun is high in the heavens. We swing by Store Bay where the beach vendors are setting up booths stocked with the curious and decorative among the useful: calabash purses, shell earrings, batik and tie-dyed wraps, and an assortment of sweets — pawpaw balls, bene (sesame) balls and bars, toolum and fluorescent sugarcakes made from grated coconut. In August, there are always chenettes – small round green-skinned fruit with peach-coloured honey-sweet pulp encasing a big seed, called ginnip or skin-up in other islands – offered in bunches from large baskets and basins. If you hear that “you’re sweet like Tobago chennette,” take it as a real compliment.

We decline to stay for a dip in the blue water of Store Bay, gently swelling against the shore, but we walk to its edge on the warm silken sand to let it lick our toes. The glass-bottomed boats are riding at anchor, waiting to take visitors to Buccoo Reef. It is the most accessible of Tobago’s reefs; even non-divers can snorkle its calm water to peer into the world of parrot and angel fish. The Buccoo Reef tour includes a stop for a swim in the Nylon Pool, a lagoon in the middle of the sea so calm you feel there is nothing between you and sea and sky.

Temptation number three: a detour to Pigeon Point, with its brilliant white sand and calm water, to laze under thatched huts, sipping rum punches. Pigeon Point — its jetty immortalised in photographs and postcards — becomes the busy headquarters of the Tobago Game Fishing Tournament in April; and in May, it sees plenty of action during the Angostura/Yachting World Regatta.

But our plan this morning is to set out to Charlotteville along the Windward Coast, the Atlantic coast, stopping perhaps to have lunch in Speyside.

Tobago’s only highway runs from Crown Point Airport to Scarborough, the biggest town and the island’s capital, built on the rim of the natural deep-water harbour of Rockly Bay. If you want to wander through Scarborough, start under the spreading silk-cotton trees of Fort King George, perched on the hill overlooking the town and the bay. The sea battles that once raged below are depicted in the Tobago Museum, housed in one of the buildings of the fort. If you are lucky, you’ll meet the curator, Eddie Hernandez, whose information about Tobago’s history and prehistory will only deepen your appreciation of this little island.

Though it is Tobago’s seat of government, Scarborough is still a small seaside town, centred around the marketplace and the port. Here, the ferry from Trinidad docks and sails daily.  Here, the cruise liners occasionally bring sun-seekers to this southern end of the Caribbean island chain. Weekdays, the market is a large empty space in front of the “mall” which houses most of the public offices, from post office to library.

Thursdays through the weekend, it is laden with fresh fruit and vegetables, produce grown locally or “imported” from Trinidad, and ringing with vendors’ calls.

As we by-pass Scarborough, we are immediately in the countryside. Tobago is greenest in July and August, the heart of her rainy season; but even on the wettest day, the sun still shines.

Pass through Hope and Mt St George, Studley Park, tiny villages strung along the main road, their houses perched – some precipitously — above the roadway, all open to catch the sea breeze. Here and there a wooden shop, like a very big cupboard, opens to offer sweets, snacks, sweet drinks, to the passing traveller, not to mention the opportunity to hear some local gossip. The village “bus stop” is usually under a mango or breadfruit tree.

On the other side of the road is the ever-present sea, rolling tirelessly over sandy shore or rock. Bridges are constantly being fixed or built across rivers that flow into bays on this Windward coast. Many of the towns, with their old British and French names, are situated at these confluences of river and sea: Goodwood, Glamorgan, Richmond, Roxborough and Louis D’Or.

In Belle Garden, the plantation house that presided over the Richmond estate still stands — it has been refurbished as a guesthouse. Richmond House was the family home of cocoa planters from Grenada. They came to Tobago in the 18th century, acquiring 2,000 acres of land that included Glamorgan, Bushy Park, Rosamund Bower and Putney, and cultivated cocoa and coconuts, tonka beans and nutmeg. Cedar and cypress (cyp) trees were sawed by hand: all the furniture for the estate was made from cyp.

Mayow Short, the last of the family to run the estate, was almost bankrupt after his crops were wiped out by Hurricane Flora in 1963, a catastrophe that was even more important than independence in precipitating change in Tobago (Trinidad and Tobago became independent as a unitary state on August 31, 1962).

Mayow, now almost 100 years old, still lives modestly with his wife Anna, descended from the family of a Scottish bishop and Mary Queen of Scots. They spend most of the year in Tobago, and part in England: all their children have returned to Europe. Mayow remembers when Crown Point Airport was a gravel track — all the gravel came from Richmond Estate. He learned to fly as a member of Trinidad’s Light Aeroplane Club, and was there in 1940 when the busy New Zealander Lowell Yerex was encouraged to start Trinidad’s airline, BWIA.

It is perhaps not coincidence, according to historian Eddie Hernandez, that the founders of Richmond Estate found their site so pleasant and habitable. It is one of the sites inhabited by the first Amerindian settlers long before Columbus, and by the many European nations who followed. Other settlements include King’s Bay, Roxborough, Charlotteville, King Peter’s Bay (King Peter was an Amerindian chief), Scarborough and Crown Point, where the Kariwak Village resort is named for both the later warlike Kalinas (Caribs) and the earlier more peaceful Arawaks.

It is the season of the Tobago Heritage Festival, and the village of Belle Garden is hosting the Bèlè Night. The Bèlè — like the jig — was how the descendants of African slaves interpreted the courtly Belair dance. Today, it is performed by women dressed in full petticoats, wide flaring skirts and high head-ties. The traditional Tobago Jig, in which the women are partnered by men in top hats and coats with scissors-tails, is also danced during the Festival.

In the region around Roxborough, Tobago’s second largest town, cocoa estates are in full fruit. The area is drained by the Argyle River, which gathers its water from the hills and valleys of the Main Ridge. The spectacular three-tiered Argyle Falls are an easy walk from the main road. Tall teak trees line the track to the river, and guides are on hand to point the way. It is from Roxborough that a new road was built over the Main Ridge to the north coast — one of Tobago’s most scenic routes.

Past Louis d’Or and Delaford, we take a side track to King’s Bay. It is marked by a bright blue Phonecard booth (even from the most remote part of Tobago, with phone card in hand, you can call home). The beach is deserted except for a couple of vendors in the huts. One is selling carved calabash shells. He is from Santa Cruz in Trinidad: the tourist market in Tobago offers a slightly better opportunity to earn a living. The other is offering snacks, cigarettes, dinner mints. The beach is a perfect half-moon with gently breaking waves. A swooping pelican makes barely a splash. And the gnarled old almond tree growing horizontally provides a moment’s pleasure for two young children.

From Roxborough, the road rises and winds through forested hills. An old man, Hawthorne Stewart (he pronounces his name without the first “h”, Arthorn), and his donkey Sheila, greet us as casually and unconcernedly as the kingfisher sitting in the pomerac tree. Then, at its peak, the road suddenly presents us with a dazzling view of Tobago’s north-east coast, its offshore islands, and the village of Speyside.

We cruise down to sea level again. Fishermen are working on engines and stretching nets in the cooperative building. Brightly painted wooden structures hug the roadside, housing snackettes, bars and restaurants. Pleasant white-aproned women exchange good-humoured banter with a Trinidad visitor wanting a beer. Everyone is a customer, and subject to the same patient service, including an invitation to enjoy the breeze in the adjoining restaurant.

The sea is kicking ever so slightly.

“The water’s a little rough,” a Tobagonian fisherman volunteers, “and not so clear, because of the Orinoco. Yes, the Orinoco current, from the Venezuelan coast, reaches way out here, feeds the fish and the reef.” Deep sea fish have always been plentiful off the coast of Tobago, sustaining a fishing industry and the annual game fishing tournament.

Speyside seems to be prospering. There are two new hotels facing the sea: Manta Lodge takes its name from the manta rays which frequent the reefs and dive sites between Speyside and Little Tobago island — this is prime diving territory; nearby is the Speyside Inn, all balconies and windows to catch the sea breeze.

It is from Speyside that most of the dive operators take visitors to the spectacular coral formations off Little Tobago. Even landlubbers enjoy the undersea views from a. glass-bottomed boat. Some boat operators include a tour of Little Tobago island in their itinerary — and this sea-bird sanctuary is well worth a longer visit from the avid bird-watcher. But anyone will enjoy the aerial performances of the Red-billed Tropic-bird, the soaring and plundering of that pterodactyl look-alike, the predatory Frigatebird, and the antics of the pelicans.

Walking through the woodlands, we are reminded, “There are no poisonous snakes in Tobago!”

There used to be, however, much bigger rivers, more animal species, living in the rain forest that covers the central range, called the Main Ridge. The spread of plantations, especially sugarcane, led to the ordinance passed by the British in 1764 to protect the island’s watershed. Tobago’s Main Ridge forest reserve is the oldest in the hemisphere.

Our drive over the north of the island takes us through the edge of this reserve. Towering trees filter sunlight onto the twisting climbing roadway. And in five minutes, we’re on the crest.

Here, an insignificant signpost points to Flagstaff Hill, the northern tip of Tobago. The road is only a track, so be extra careful if the weather is wet. On a clear day, you can see, well, far beyond the St Giles islands — Grenada is in that direction, but I’ve never seen it.     On to Charlotteville: be careful on the sharp hairpin turns. A story that has grown into legend tells of the woman bus-driver on her maiden voyage to Charlotteville. She was behind the wheel of a large Leyland bus. On the last and steepest hairpin bend, she lost her nerve and left the bus “cliff-hanging”. Another driver had to be brought in to complete the turn and bring the bus into town.

The bends are not really that steep; but the view from each one is definitely distracting.

Charlotteville is held in the cup of the mountains that frame Man o’ War Bay, a natural deep-water harbour. Sometimes, cruise liners anchor here, ferrying passengers ashore to waiting maxi-taxis for half-day tours. Since Flora devastated its cocoa estates, this tiny village has depended on the deep: subsistence fishing from small open boats brings in wahoo, tuna, dolphin (mahi mahi), and at other times of the year schools of jacks (sardine size) for “fry dry” (coated in flour and fried dry). The Fishing Co-operative is one of the most vibrant in Tobago; the co-op manages the petrol station, the cold storage facility, and a small grocery and dry goods store. Cocoa cultivation is slowly being revived.

Once part of the Turpin cocoa and coffee estate, the town is laid out around an open community field, and runs along half of the bayfront towards the bluff that leads to Pirate’s Bay. On the other half of the beach, the Man o’ War Bay Resort features a cluster of cottages, modest wilderness lodges, just above the water’s edge in a lush tropical garden. Pat Turpin, who runs the resort with her husband Charles, offers nature tours; the Man Friday Diving Centre is also on this beachfront.

What do you do in Charlotteville? Nothing. That’s why you come. Time slows. You read — that stack of books you never got around to. You walk: Pirate’s Bay is easily a day’s trip, even though it takes less than an hour to walk there; you won’t want to leave the warm sand and warmer water. You could lie all day, watching the sea, watching the sky. Your only companions may be children from the village, or crews of visiting yachts.

Fort Cambleton overlooks Man o’ War from the western bluff. Its cannons are perches from which watchers could look straight out to sea and over every piece of the land on either side. You swim and snorkle on the shallow reefs in Lover’s Bay; and at night, barbecue on the beach, or fall asleep to the slap-slap of the waves.

Daytime is marked by the sound of the conch as the fishing boats return with fresh fish; a visit to the parlour on the beach for home-made ice cream; someone selling coconut tarts door to door; liming on the “worry bench” where villagers wait for the bus or maxi. The low mutter of their voices — they never seem to shout — slows, and the drawl with which they greet most visitors mingles with the molasses of the natural Tobago accent. The new jetty brings other visitors, as yachties come for supplies — gas, groceries, fresh fish, the chance to lime and chat.

The track on the north side of Tobago between Charlotteville and Bloody Bay is navigable only in a four-wheel drive vehicle and in fine weather. It is a good hiking trail.

So to complete our “Tobago in a day” tour, we must leave Charlotteville the way we came, go back to Roxborough, then head north over the Main Ridge to return along the western, Caribbean coast. The road is relatively new and easy driving. Signposts announce the Gilpin/Niplig forest walks, a lookout; under a large sign asking that there be “no tethering of animals” we come upon a couple of cows, tethered, grazing.

Apart from the lookout points, there’s nowhere to stop, no tiny huts selling things to eat in the Main Ridge forest reserve. The open-air dining room on stilts that we see as we emerge from the forest just above Bloody Bay is a welcome sight. From the kitchen, a very young chef advises that the menu of the day is curried fish or shrimp or baked chicken – “Sorry, there’s no more shrimp!” We settle on the chicken, and have the last of that. Her young sisters, neatly dressed with clean white aprons, serve the tables, pleasantly and shyly. As we leave, a German-speaking family arrives (hope they enjoy the curried fish).

Before full bellies make us sleepy as macajuels in the sun, we keep our eyes peeled for a beach. Climbing the coast road from Parlatuvier, we look back and see a bay like a crescent moon with blue water and gold sand. A single yacht is tossing in the bay. The tiniest track with a signpost — warning that this is a nature reserve — marks the entrance to Englishman’s Bay. This is one of the beaches where leatherback turtles come to lay their eggs, from March to August. Swimming is so soothing you don’t want to leave the water. Into this bay, Arawaks or Kalinas — the pre-Columbian Indian tribes – must have paddled to shore in dugout canoes, moved from river to forest to hunt birds like the cocrico and small animals such as deer, wild pigs and armadillos.

Back on the road again, we pass Castara, and remember that A. N. R. Robinson, who was Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago from 1986 to 1991 and is now Minister Extraordinaire responsible for Tobago Affairs, was born here. An empty school house opens onto the beach, and we wonder what it must be like to go to school next to the sea. Is concentration possible? Mary Hall, who runs the experimental “one-room school” in Carnbee, would say it is the best possible place for learning.

As the road turns inland, the terrain becomes hilly, and soon we are travelling on the crests of ridges sweeping down into steep green valleys. With the sun in the west, the shadows of the hills are long, and there is a dreamlike quality about these country holdings. In a churchyard, towering silk cotton trees are festooned with wild pines (bromeliads) and old man’s heard. These are the trees that are supposed to be inhabited by soucouyants and spirits. It is these twisting country roads through wooded valleys that have given rise to stories of strange folk: douen and soucouyant, lagahoo and la diablesse, Papa Bois and headless jumbies. Between Moriah and Golden Lane, we begin to search for the grave of Gang Gang Sara. Where could she be? Which silk cotton tree has its roots in her imperishable heart?

The story has it that Gang Gang Sara was a powerful witch who flew to Tobago from Africa. She was unable to fly back because she had eaten salt. Her fate is probably a fair lesson for all those who “eat salt” in Tobago. Here their hearts lie. Here they must be content. Who would not “eat salt” in Tobago?

By the time we get to Plymouth, the evening is cool, the shadows lengthening. Betty Stivens’s “mystery tombstone” is not really a puzzle — “She was a loving wife who died before her child was born” is the popular interpretation — but there is a sense of reaching back into another time as we ponder her epitaph.

Fort James, built in 1650 and named for James, Duke of Courland (now Latvia), is a perch of peace over Great Courland Bay. Fishing boats are anchored in the foreground. The sea, never still, soothes with its unending shushing, its booming slap on the rocks below. Behind the fort, a football game draws the men, and we girls are left to contemplate sky and sea and the silent cannons. Tobagonians play excellent football, as Dwight Yorke, who plays for the English club Aston Villa, proves.

Every fort in Tobago — and there are many — was built on a strategic and salubrious outcrop. Today, we feel sure they were not for war, but for watching; which is the most sublime of Tobago pastimes.

On the streets, cooling out at the end of the day, men, women and children congregate in little clusters. In every Tobago village, you’ll see children on the streets; but there are no street children. Everywhere they will greet you, answer your gaze with open stares, your questions with courtesy, curious and polite.

By the time we get to Black Rock, the sun is throwing a fiery farewell on the furthest clouds. Out on the rocky promontory that separates Great Courland from Stonehaven Bay, the boys are jumping off the rocks. It is a test of skill and daring, like playing chicken, to fling the body out, arms and legs flailing forward, and to fall with a mighty splash into the sea. You can never tell a Black Rock boy not to — it is a test of his manhood — but you can tell who is not from Black Rock.

At Mt Irvine, the beach bars are busy serving the evening round. The 18-hole championship golf course, one of the most challenging and beautiful in the Caribbean, climbs from the sea towards the hills. Green parrots flap by in pairs, squawking raucously, returning to wherever it is they came from just after sunrise.

Beyond is Bethel. The twin towns of Bethel and Egypt, we are conspiratorially told, is where you can “gamble, drink rum, smoke — and trouble ladies . . .”

Later that evening, however we find most of the inhabitants of Bethel gathered in the community sports ground. A Bethel folk group is performing Rites of Passage a morality tale, with singing drumming and slapstick; it’s about growing up, getting pregnant, losing your maidenhood, and getting married … not necessarily in that order. The little boys in the front row are shouting the risqué lines of the rake and his paramours. In the drum interlude, two-year-old Romario joins his father, drummer J. T. Brooks, on stage. When Romario turns into the movements of the Jig, Luise Kimme, the German sculptor who lives and is creating her life work in Bethel — “immortalising the beauty of its people” — remarks, “Tobago men are dancing from small. It’s in the blood.”

The posture and grace of the Jig is in the way basketballer Sheldon, who greets you at the hotel’s front desk, carries himself. The bèlè is in the swing of women’s skirts, the tilt of their heads, the toss of their hips.

The dance continues from play-acting to real life, in the “Sunday School” party on Buccoo Beach where everyone comes to dance, and to which everyone is invited.

The next morning, if you are still in Tobago, you wake up and peep outside. The sun is shining. The dew is barely gone. You have a new day, in which you will go no further than the pool; or at the very furthest, the beach. But your mind, your mind will soar, as you watch cloud and coast, and sea and sky.

WHERE TO STAY

Tobago offers a wide range of accommodation, from deluxe hotel suites and luxury villas to apartments with kitchenettes and simple “bed and breakfast” rooms. Nowhere in Tobago is more than a few minutes from the sea. For family-style vacations, luxury houses, plantation-style villas and cottages or condominiums are all available, with optional services like housekeeping, babysitting and cooking.

EATING OUT

Simple, hearty Tobago food — crab and dumplings is the most popular dish — is served in wayside dining rooms. Most hotels offer international menus, with island blessings – local fruit, homegrown coffee, freshly caught fish and lobster, unusual “ground provisions” — and a great variety of cooking styles. You’ll find Caribbean, Creole, Indian, Italian, Chinese, Mediterranean, and even Cajun cooking on the island, and some excellent restaurants. Try them all.

NATURE LOVERS

The variety of flora and fauna in such a tiny island makes even amateur eco-exploration interesting. Tobago’s reefs attract both novice and experienced swimmers and divers; glass-bottomed boats operate from Store Bay, Pigeon Point and Speyside. Dive shops offer professional instruction, and a decompression chamber can be found in Roxborough. Tobago is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with over 200 species; the Main Ridge rain forest, Little Tobago Island sanctuary, Amos Vale estate and the Bon Accord and Lowlands sanctuaries are good sites; there are internationally recognised guides such as David Rooks. In season, March to August, marine turtles including the giant Leatherback come to Tobago’s beaches to nest. Stonehaven Bay, Great Courland Bay, Castara and Englishman’s Bay are some of the more accessible spots.

WATERSPORTS

Check the dive shops and major resorts for underwater sports. For above-water activities such as kayaking, windsurfing, skiing and fishing, most hotels and guest houses will make special arrangements. Fishing boat charters and catamaran cruises are available.

TRANSPORT

Maxi-taxis from Scarborough are available on routes all over the island. You can rent a bicycle as well as a car; most rental companies are willing to meet visitors at the airport.

SHOPPING

Craftsmen come and go: you’ll never be sure if you could get another set of wooden napkin holders carved in the shapes of roosters and hens and brightly painted, or those cedar boxes finished with cow’s horn. So if you see something you like, buy it at once. There are brightly coloured cotton wraps and garments made in Tobago; Tobago sweets – bene balls, pawpaw balls, peppermint, coconut and nut cakes — are always available at the airport. When you are leaving, check out Lagniappe and the other duty-free shops at the airport.