Exploring Tobago's Wild Side

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 23, 2003

A wake-up caw jolted me from slumber on my first morning in Tobago. Out my window at Richmond Great House, the old sugar plantation where I had stayed the night, was the source: a pheasantlike bird covered in brown plumage, strutting across the lawn as if it owned the place. In a sense, it did. The cocrico, I later learned, is a species of wild fowl native to the island. It is to Tobagonians what the bald eagle is to Americans.

And so began a weeklong parade of exotic creatures and plants I spotted as I explored this little-known tropical outpost off the coast of Venezuela. At the botanical garden on the edge of Scarborough (the island's otherwise forgettable capital), there were Easter-yellow heliconias, blood-orange bougainvillea, cotton-candy-pink dichaea pieta orchids and dozens of other species of trees and flowers I had never heard of. In a boat ride off Pigeon Point, a beach favored for its delicate white sand and bath-warm water, I peered through 40 feet of transparent water at a forest of sea feathers, sea rods and other brilliantly colored clusters of coral. In an afternoon of snorkeling off Buccoo Reef, I saw wrassle, parrotfish, blue tang, butterfish and a dozen other species little-known outside the tropics.

That was 10 years ago. So impressed was I by the island's wildlife and flora that I gave Tobago the ultimate endorsement: I bought a home there.

Dozens of trips later, I still stumble across new natural wonders every time I return. Last month, a day after a nonstop 41/2-hour flight from Dulles, I found myself on a three-hour hike through the wonderfully unkempt rain forest that stretches across the northern end of the island. With infectious enthusiasm, guide Fitzroy Quamino led me down trails and under towering samaan trees, pointing at red-footed and brown boobies, rufous-tailed jacamars and even the rarely seen white-tailed sabre-winged hummingbird. Tobagonians are proud of their island's natural wonders, and Quamino recited the inventory of flora and fauna found here: 123 species of butterflies, 210 birds, 370 kinds of forest trees, at least a dozen kinds of wild orchids.

One reason for this impressive assortment of wildlife is the island's location. Perched about 20 miles northeast of Venezuela and 10 degrees north of the equator, Tobago has a tropical climate more remindful of the Amazon than the Caribbean. Days average 85 degrees, and even in the late autumn and early winter rainy season, showers rarely linger more than a couple of hours. The locals have worked hard to protect the island's delicate ecology. Its forest is the oldest nature preserve in the Western Hemisphere.

Situated at the bottom of the chain of Caribbean isles, Tobago's remote setting has also helped to preserve its pristine natural beauty. Until British West Indian Airways introduced a nonstop flight from Dulles last fall, it took at least three planes and a day and a half to reach from most spots along the East Coast. And so only about 175,000 tourists visit a year, compared with the million or so that throng the beaches of Jamaica or Puerto Rico.

Dwarfed in size and population by Trinidad, the more industrialized sister island linked to it politically since 1898, Tobago's 26-mile length and eight-mile width is deceptively small on a map. A drive around the circumference at an appropriately gentle pace -- stopping in a village for a chat with locals or taking a dip in its seductively warm waters -- takes a full day.

For nature lovers, one key diversion is Arnos Vale, a resort sprawled across several acres, with a lush garden of trees, bougainvillea, ginger lilies and other tropical flowers. I always stop for a picnic lunch in the fishing village of Parlatuvier, a couple of hours' drive from Scarborough. Duran Chance, who runs the country store there, will supply visitors with picnic supplies and local gossip. For a swim, there's no finer spot than Pirate's Bay beach at Charlotteville, a cove once used as a hideout for pirates.

Besides helping preserve its natural wonders, the island's isolation has helped locals cling to many Old World artistic and social endeavors. The majority of the 45,000 Tobagonians trace their roots to Africa. Wood carving, practiced by some impressive masters, is one art that carries echoes of the old country. Cullen and Lisa Andrew, who have a stall at the crafts market at Store Bay, are among the best carvers I've seen. Although they have never visited Africa and rarely travel off Tobago, Cullen's masks and figurines, hewn mostly from cedar and mahogany, look as if they'd been plucked from a market in Ghana.

"I carve what I feel," Cullen said. "And what I feel almost certainly harks back to Africa."

Another local art form with African roots is bamboo dancing, in which two players open and close long pieces of bamboo while barefoot dancers sally in and out. A troupe from the village of Les Coteaux dresses in African garb and performs bamboo dancing on different nights of the week at hotels across the island, including the Grafton, the Turtle Beach and the Arnos Vale Waterwheel. After hearing of the group for years, I finally saw them last month. The show, following a buffet dinner at Le Grand Courlan, one of the island's premier hotels, was one of the high points of my visit.

And then there is "pulling the seine," a method of fishing dating to the 1800s in which fishermen fill a net with bait and slowly tug in the day's catch. Tobagonians hang around with buckets to buy their share. On the beaches at Turtle Bay, Bloody Bay and Parlatuvier, visitors can watch the seine pullers and snag a red snapper, kingfish or other local fish from them.

Over the past 10 years, modernization and some development has begun to creep into the local culture. About four years ago, Jemma, a local who manages a rustic restaurant built in a gnarly tree in Speyside, began to take charge cards. In spite of local protests, the Tobago Hilton opened in 2001, complete with a world-class golf course. And in the same year, actor Harrison Ford built a vacation mansion not far from my own little house, bringing a celebrity status that seems out of synch with the island's homespun image.

But for the most part, the newcomers have been respectful of the island's special status. In my recent amble around, I ran into several such characters. Hira, a 75-year-old artist whose ancestors emigrated from India to Trinidad, produces heartwarmingly naive depictions of the Tobago landscape. Montrealer Cynthia Clovis, chef/owner of Kariwak Village, takes pride in using local spices and ingredients in her dishes. Gemma Cassimir, the Trinidadian public relations manager at the Hilton, boasts of the works local craftsmen used to decorate the lobby.

And so, in spite of the changes, Tobago's integrity and peaceful way of life remain intact. The palm and coconut trees that blanket the island still lilt lazily in the warm breezes. By unwritten rule no building is taller than a palm tree. Even on holiday weekends, the beaches never seem to hold more than a few sunbathers. In the summer, mangoes and papayas fall from the trees until some hungry soul comes along and snatches them up. And the cocrico still caws at daybreak, pulling me out of one dream and into another.

Gary Lee will be online to discuss this story during the Travel section's regular weekly chat tomorrow at 2 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com.

Details: Tobago

GETTING THERE: BWIA flies nonstop from Dulles to Tobago on Thursdays, with fares starting at $570 round trip, with restrictions. American flies from Reagan National, via Miami and Port of Spain, Trinidad, with winter fares starting at $650.

WHERE TO STAY: For travelers seeking luxury at any cost, Le Grand Courlan (868-639-9292, www.legrandcourlan-resort.com) is the spot. Rooms at this all-inclusive beachfront property are elegantly decorated and the amenities are first class, including tennis courts, a wonderful pool, Xgym and spa. Although the cuisine is okay, it rarely rises to the hotel's four-star rating. Winter rates start at $270 a night per person.

For those on a budget, the Blue Horizon (Jacamar Drive, Mount Irvine, 868-639-0432, www.blue-horizonresort.com) is a small guesthouse with great sea views and comfortable rooms. It's about a 10-minute walk to a lovely beach and the same distance to a golf course. Apartments suitable for two, including a kitchenette, start at $60 a night.

La Colline (868-639-0316, www.vacationresidences.com), a three-bedroom villa in the village of Bethel, is good for families or couples who want seclusion. It's furnished with wonderful locally made furniture and art. Amenities include cable TV, VCR and maid service. Rates are $400 a week.

WHERE TO EAT: The Kariwak Village, a holistic haven and hotel off Store Bay Local Road in Crown Point, offers a fabulous set menu of Caribbean and Creole cuisine for around $25 a person, including dessert. On weekends there's a live band with dancing. The Hilton Tobago, less than three miles from the airport, serves tasty buffet lunches and dinners in a stylish setting. The food usually includes at least a couple of local specialties, such as callaloo soup. At around $30 a person, it's a splurge, but a worthwhile one. The Toucan Inn and Bonkers (Store Bay Local Road, Crown Point ) is a good, fairly inexpensive place for chicken and chips. The atmosphere is festive and there's usually a good crowd of locals, especially on weekends. Dinner for two, with a couple of drinks, runs around $35.

WHAT TO DO: For offshore nature excursions, glass-bottom boats leave from Store Bay, a beach near the airport, every morning around 11. No reservations necessary. The rate for the three-hour trip is around $9 a person. Fitzroy Quamino (868-660-7836) conducts three-hour nature hikes through the Bloody Bay rain forest for $50 per person.

INFORMATION: Tobago Department of Tourism, 868-639-0509, www.visittobago.gov.tt.

-- Gary Lee

© 2003 The Washington Post Company