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Spoiled by the Unspoiled in Tobago

John Henderson is a sportswriter for the Denver Post

What’s the penalty here for trespassing? I had to wonder, because there’s no way a beach as beautiful as Bloody Bay could be this empty unless it was private. My friend, Nancy, and I had lolled on the white sand and swum in the clear, warm water for two hours and hadn’t seen a soul. Until now.

A boy was approaching from the far end of the sand. Shirtless, he wore high-top basketball shoes and bluejeans held up by a makeshift yellow cloth belt. We figured he was the son of the owner wanting us off his turf. Nope.

His name was Chiemeka. He was 13 and had been catching sand crabs for his mother. He saw our rental car and hoped we’d give him a lift up the hill and down the road to his village.

I asked him if this beautiful beach ever got crowded.

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Never, he said. “It’s kind of far away.”

So is Tobago. Thank God.

If the chain of Caribbean islands is the rainbow of the Western Hemisphere, the nation at the end of that rainbow is truly a pot of gold. Trace the Caribbean isles south, and your index finger bottoms out at Trinidad and Tobago, two islands united since independence from Britain in 1962. Tobago is 40 miles off the northeast coast of Venezuela and just 12 miles north of Trinidad, its bigger and busier sister island.

As with any pot of gold, Tobago is not easy to get to. Only one U.S. airline flies here--American, from San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was using bonus miles from United on its mileage partner Air Canada. My trip--no, make that journey--involved a six-hour layover in Toronto and a five-hour layover in Trinidad before a 30-minute British West Indies Airways flight that touched down in Tobago 23 hours after I’d left my home in Denver. Getting to Katmandu took me less time.

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It was worth the trouble. Tobago (population 18,600) is what the Caribbean once was. The era of untouched bays and beaches may have ended with the first wave of European exploration in the Caribbean. But much of Tobago (derived from the Carib Indian word for tobacco) would look pretty much the same to Columbus as it did in 1498, when he sailed past on the way to Trinidad. Secluded bays and palm-fringed beaches but no (visible) hotels and few people. A rain forest that covers a quarter of the island, with one of the most magnificent waterfalls in the Caribbean. World-class scuba diving, snorkeling and bird-watching.

What also hasn’t changed is a fierce resolve among the people to keep the island their island. They vow not to give in to the get-rich-quick beachfront sale bonanza that plagues the islands to the north, or the urbanization that cripples their sister island to the south. And the government is doing everything it can to help.

“Money’s not everything,” said Darrion Kent, a bird-watching and rain forest guide. “Everybody who goes to Trinidad says Tobago is better. We want to keep it that way.”

It didn’t take long for us to learn Tobago isn’t one giant souvenir stand. Nancy and I landed at the little airport at 8 a.m. and got in a cab driven by a fellow named Linsom. We were thirsty and wanted a cold drink before we started the 90-minute ride to our hotel on the north end of the island. I offered to buy Linsom one if he would stop somewhere. Anywhere.

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Three times we stopped at one of the tiny wooden snack shacks that dot Tobago’s roadside, all emblazoned with Coke signs, before we found one that had any in stock: It had one bottle. I dejectedly walked back with one Coke and one apology.

“That’s OK,” Linsom said. “I just said I wanted one to be polite.”

Fortunately, deserted beaches were easier to find. As Linsom slowly wound his way up the road on the island’s southern side, isolated beaches jumped in and out of the landscape. I kept expecting fences reading “Property of Big and Bigger Hotels Ltd.” But the only thing between us and the water was the occasional pile of driftwood.

Finally we passed through the village of Speyside on Tobago’s eastern end. We climbed a steep hill topped by a spectacular lookout over an isolated bay right off a tourist poster, then dropped through rich vegetation to our hotel.

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The Blue Waters Inn is probably the classiest hotel outside the tourism enclave near the airport. It’s on its own large, lush property looking out toward Little Tobago, an islet a few miles offshore. We could get up from the rattan chairs on the private porch outside our spacious (standard) room and walk no more than 30 feet into the Atlantic waters of Batteaux Bay. A 45-minute drive across the island would take us to the Caribbean Sea. The room rate in November: $95. That gets you a closet in Martinique.

Tobago has two sides. One encompasses a five-mile stretch between the capital city of Scarborough and the southern tip. That’s where the airport’s runway nearly runs onto the beautiful, palm-lined Pigeon Point beach, which has attracted a handful of resorts. (A 200-room Hilton is scheduled to open this year, a development the government says is an aberration, not a trend.) The other side of Tobago consists of everything to the north, about 80% of the island.

“Someone living here said we should have passport control on Speyside Lookout, because over the mountain it’s a totally different world,” says David Hairston, the general manager of Blue Waters.

Tobago’s differences can best be seen on its beaches. While Blue Waters’ beach is beautiful in its simplicity and Speyside is the jumping-off point for diving and snorkeling the Atlantic reefs, the Caribbean side is lined with beaches spectacular in their isolation. We rented a Jeep for $55 a day (including $10 highly recommended insurance) and spent two lazy days checking out four beaches on the Caribbean north side.

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The four beaches, at Bloody Bay, Parlatuvier Bay, Englishman’s Bay and Castara Bay, are so close you can almost tour them on foot.

The most beautiful of the four is Englishman’s. Driving down the narrow two-lane road from Parlatuvier, we spotted a crude wooden sign saying “Englishman’s” pointing down a mud path. We turned right, drove precariously across 100 feet of mud and parked in a clearing shaded by palm trees and opening up to a postcard-perfect beach. The half-moon bay was lined with palm trees and fine white sand marked only by the occasional piece of driftwood. The lone visible structure was a tiny snack stand.

I have been to eight other islands in the Caribbean and all over the Bahamas, and this was by far the best beach I’ve seen. Yet at 11:30 on a Saturday morning, Englishman’s Bay had exactly five visitors.

Eula Agard was tending the snack stand, selling roti, Trinidad and Tobago’s national dish of meat and sauce wrapped in flat bread. Her husband, Kenny, sells his carvings at the same stand.

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Nancy and I bought charming carved wood bird feeders from Kenny and took off down the beach. We stopped on a hill overlooking majestic Parlatuvier Bay, where Nancy wanted to take pictures. I swung the Jeep into a driveway to turn around. Suddenly forgetting I was in a former British Commonwealth country where driving is on the left, I looked to the right, down the hill, instead of left as I backed out.

Whoosh! A car carrying three men barely missed my back bumper, swerving wildly to avoid my car and then swerving again to avoid a cliff of solid rock on the other side. The car slammed on its brakes and backed up. Uh-oh, I thought, I’m dead. Instead, a huge man with a meaty face merely talked to me quietly in the rapid-fire Tobagonian dialect. I understood one phrase: “Watch where you’re going.”

Tobago is a friendly place, not yet overrun by fussy tourists. Most seem to come for active water sports and relaxation; there’s no night life to speak of, at least on the Atlantic side, where we stayed.

There’s also no crime. Tobago recorded one homicide in 1998. Trinidad, by contrast, had 89.

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Tobago’s future is in the powerful hands of people like Charles Turpin. Raised in Trinidad, Turpin was educated in England and has lived in Tobago for 32 years. His full head of sandy hair and free spirit belie his 63 years. I found him “liming,” a Tobagonian term for hanging out, in Charlotteville, a charming fishing village on the northeast tip of the island.

Turpin’s grandfather bought land in Tobago in 1875, and today Turpin owns more than 1,000 acres around Charlotteville. Club Med has approached him. So have other hotels. Turpin won’t budge.

“I’ve turned away millions of dollars,” Turpin said. “We have enough to live on.”

But do the natives? Unemployment runs about 15%, higher than in oil-rich Trinidad. I asked Turpin how the locals know they’re better off without mass tourism.

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“We read magazines. We read local newspapers,” he said. “It’s already gone to hell down south.”

I believed Turpin. In driving around Tobago for two weeks in November, we saw little poverty. No starvation on the streets, few beggars, very little trash. Two boatmen once took us to Lovers Beach, a tiny, secluded spot around the cove from Charlotteville. We had agreed on a round trip of 50 Trinidad and Tobago dollars (about $8 U.S.). When they picked us up four hours later, they changed it to 80 dollars. No way, I said, and hopped in the boat. They didn’t press it and took us back for 50.

Turpin laughed when he heard the story. “We’re not really sophisticated enough to be in the rip-off business,” he said. “We weren’t really ready for tourism. It took us by surprise. Until five or 10 years ago, there were only three hotels here.”

That has changed and will continue to change. The question is whether the government will adhere to its promise of controlled growth. Tobago gets a manageable number of tourists--about 40,000 a year, mostly German and English--who take direct flights into the island. When the Hilton opens, Tobago will have 1,700 rooms. The plan is to expand to 3,000 and stop, said Carlos Dillon, the executive director of the Mount Irvine Bay Hotel and Golf Club and president of the Trinidad and Tobago Hotel Assn.

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“That probably gives us near full employment,” he said.

The government will not tolerate unchecked growth, Dillon said. It recently rejected a bid to build inexpensive guest houses around Englishman’s Bay. Only “ecological lodges” and “small indigenous developments” in the north end will be allowed, Dillon said.

Who knows? Unchecked growth could lead to such unmentionables as . . . menus. Tobago’s dining is as laid-back as its beaches. Restaurants are more like family gatherings. Except in Scarborough, where there are a few high-end restaurants, menus are rare.

At Jemma’s Treehouse in Speyside or Redman’s next door, we sat on an open-air veranda with doilies on the tables and great views of the ocean. A waitress would appear and merely say, “We have chicken, shrimp, fish and pork.” The choice is in the way it’s cooked. Creole. Garlic and butter. Sweet and sour. Fried. Baked. All with fresh island spices. A typical lunch would be fish or chicken, rice, macaroni pie, soup and salad, all for about $6. The same menu is served at dinner for $12.

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It’s easy to work up an appetite in Tobago. Exercise is part of the culture. Village social life revolves around makeshift soccer fields where pickup games are frequent and festive. Besides world-class scuba diving, where giant manta rays can be seen in the “dry season” (December through May), hiking is a must. One day we took a 15-minute boat ride to Little Tobago, a government-protected island just off Speyside and home to many of Tobago’s 430 bird species. Here we stood atop a cliff with three globe-trotting English bird-watchers as they photographed and marveled at the rare red-billed tropic bird. Said birder Laurie King as he lifted his eyes from his binoculars, “This is just a little dream.”

The next day Nancy and I finished our stay with a hike through Tobago’s 14,000-acre Forest Reserve, established in 1776 and believed to be the oldest protected rain forest in the Western Hemisphere.

If you go there, bring a long lens and binoculars, and also bring a swimsuit. At the end of the day we stopped off at nearby Argyll Waterfall, on the outskirts of the rain forest. For about $3.50, we walked (15 minutes) to a spectacular cascade of water 170 feet high, falling in three separate levels. We tore off our sweaty clothes and had a nice cool swim before climbing up a crude path to a second tier, where we sat on smooth rocks and let the cascade batter us into laughter. We then climbed even farther to the falls’ deepest swimming pool, where a Tarzan rope hung for those into swinging from rocky cliffs.

As we sat there, tired but oh so relaxed, a diminutive elderly Tobagonian with a floppy hat stood on the side of a pool and played a soft tune on his saxophone. Entertainment at no extra cost. As in the rest of Tobago, the nearest cover charge was very far away.

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GUIDEBOOK

Idylling on an Island Apart

Getting there: American, Delta and TWA fly nonstop from Los Angeles to San Juan, Puerto Rico, connecting with American to Trinidad and Tobago; round-trip fares begin at $932.

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Where to stay: Blue Waters Inn was offering an irresistible $95 per day in November, before the winter peak season, when the same room goes for $175. Telephone (868) 660- 4341, fax (868) 660-5195, e-mail bwitobago@trinidad.net.

A list of lodgings on Tobago, some with pictorial links, is on the tourism Internet site, https://www.visitTNT.com.

Where to eat: Jemma’s, in Speyside village, local telephone 660-4066, is the big tourist spot. It’s built into a tree and has a great view; no alcohol served. Sharron and Pheeb’s in Charlotteville, local tel. 660-5717, serves excellent fish; its bar is a friendly local hangout.

Where to play: Among the recommended scuba and snorkeling outfits (with PADI certified scuba instructors) in the Speyside area: Aquamarine Dive at the Blue Waters Inn, local tel. 660-4341; Tobago Dive at Manta Lodge, local tel. 660-4888; Tobago Dive Masters near Jemma’s, local tel. 639-9533.

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For more information: Tourism and Industrial Development Co. of Trinidad and Tobago, tel. (888) 595-4868, Internet https://www.visitTNT.com.


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