In Tobago, It's All Good

Exploring the oldest protected rainforest, the soft coral reefs, and the all-night fêtes of the Caribbean's farthest reaches

Feb 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

The Forest Reserve

For the huge profits it produced for a handful of souls, Tobago was the Silicon Valley of its day. "Rich as a Tobago planter," envious eighteenth-century English folk used to say. Rapacious sugar barons, felling trees for fields and fuel, meant to exploit every acre, chopping from the Crown Point lowlands to the top of the Main Ridge spine. And they would have felled every tree if not for a man named Soame Jenyns. The Lord Commissioner for Trade and Plantations, Jenyns was a student of the British scientist Stephen Hales, who hypothesized the relationship between trees and rainfall, and rainfall and deserts, and predicted that Tobago was on its way to becoming a mound of burning sand. It took Jenyns ten years of lobbying, but in 1776 the Crown Reserve was established, setting aside 10,000 acres as the perpetual heart and lungs of Tobago.

Today, expanded to 14,000 acres, the Reserve is home to 1,500 species of flowering plants, 210 kinds of birds, 23 types of butterflies, 17 different bats, and the manicou crab, among other invertebrates. Though Hurricane Flora wreaked catastrophic damage to wildlife and trees in 1963, the forest has renewed itself spectacularly and old growth stands of teak and mahogany still remain. The Parlatuvier-Roxborough Road, which crosses the Main Ridge, will take you straight to the trailheads. Look for a large stone slab and a forestry hut marking Gilpin Trail, a moderate hike that skirts several small waterfalls. The Atlantic Trail, which meanders down to the windward coast, is much longer—up to six hours—and more challenging. Hiring a guide is a good idea, since trained eyes will point out more rufous-tailed jacamars and blue-crowned mot-mots than you'd ever spot on your own. Plus, it's easy to get lost.

The Atlantic Side

Circumnavigating Tobago clockwise through Charlotteville, you pick up the Windward Road (that would be the only road) at the south end of town and take a short jaunt over the ridge down to Speyside on the Atlantic coast. The view across Tyrell's Bay of Little Tobago Island is no scenic slouch, but it's better experienced underwater with dive gear. Here the mighty Guyana Current sweeps by carrying a soup of nutrients all the way from the Orinoco River delta, which attracts the whole damn food chain, from schooling sprats and black jacks to sizable sharks and Speyside's specialty, the overly friendly manta ray.

If your timing is right, finish up your round-trip in Buccoo Town with Sunday School, the weekend's "bashment," a last bust-out party. A soaring steel-drum orchestra performance is followed by a down-and-dirty reggae street wine, where, among just about the entire island population, you'll meet some of the travelers you might've seen hiking, biking, or snorkeling in the opposite direction. After all that, it's about time you got down to a little bump-and-grind. Like the man said, it's all good.

Jumbie Love
A guide to the island's mystical cryptozoology

More than mere superstition, tobago's folklore springs from a deep knowledge of nature and centuries of dangerous living where the wild things are. Down by the sea and up in the jungle, the mysterious is routine and the inexplicable is an honest facing of the fact that we don't know squat about where we came from or where we're headed. So it goes with the island's multifarious jumbies or evil spirits, who stand with one human foot in society and one cloven hoof in the jungle. The seductive Diablesse, for instance, is said to show up at parties in French colonial attire and lure some poor swain to take a fatal stroll with her out back; the douens, faceless ghosts of unbaptized children, have backward-facing feet, always poised to head for the bush with unwary youngsters in tow. And those who answer the call of the wild a little too willingly by, say, moving to the forest's edge, may be suspected of becoming Soucouyant—a vampire that flies by night in the form of a fireball. The lesson? Watch your step, and the footprints of your traveling companions, so you don't end up in some lost episode of In Search Of....

Tobago or Not Tobago?
Negotiating 182 square miles of tropical Eden, no question about it

Tobago has a rainy season, from august to december, though rainfall is usually of the sudden, brief, and voluminous frog-choker variety, not an all-day soaking. But come September—Tobago's Indian summer—you'll find a welcome break in the rains and reasonable off-season airfares.

GETTING THERE: From the United States you'll fly through San Juan, Puerto Rico, or straight into Trinidad, where you'll catch a BWIA shuttle (800-538-2942) to Tobago. Round-trip fares from Miami to Tobago's Crown Point via San Juan on American Airlines (800-433-7300) range from $580 in the high season (December through March) to $460 in the off-season.

LODGING: There's a dizzying variety of options, but none is as potentially fun and informative as simply asking locals in the smaller towns about who has a room or two to let, and then bargaining. As far as hotels go, if you want luxury with a clean green conscience, try Footprints Eco Resort, in Culloden, midway from Crown Point to Castara Bay (doubles, $115; 868-660-0118). For simplicity, there's Man O' War Cottages on Man O' War Bay (one to four bedrooms, $65­$135; 868-660-4327). Typical of Tobago's informal approach to lodging, Belle Aire Cottage, farther down the bay, is a house with individual rooms to let (about $25; 868-660-5984). Manta Lodge, in Speyside, is diver central, with an on-site dive operation (doubles, $135; 868-660-5268).

GUIDES: Just about anybody without pressing engagements is a potential guide in kicked-back Tobago. But officially licensed guides are the best way to go. Naturalist Michael Frank, of Frankie Tours and Rentals (868-639-4527), located in the center of the island at Mason Hall, specializes in guided hikes to waterfalls. For diving and sea kayaking excursions, call Charlotteville's Man Friday Diving (868-660-4676). David Rooks, of Carnbee, is an ornithologist and nature guide of international repute (868-639-4276). Argyle Tours (868-660-4154) leads all-day tramps through the Reserve, Argyle Falls, and Buccoo Marsh (a good birding spot). Call Trinidad & Tobago Tourism (868-639-4333) for a complete list of licensed guides.

Bucky McMahon wrote about Cedar Key, Florida, in the September issue.

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