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

Pigeon Point, a Tobagonian megalopolis

Have you heard the cry of the mighty chachalaca? Well, neither had I. But over our heads at least a dozen of the turkey-size, maniacally loud birds were shifting about on bromeliad-bearded branches, shrieking Co-co-rico! Co-co-rico! Something equally strident answered with a Tarzan-movie cry: Hur-rah hur-rah hur-rah! Excellent for us. After snaking through bamboo and head-butting banana leaves, we were under the canopy of Tobago's Main Ridge rainforest, in sun-freckled, flower-scented shade. I'd never been so immersed in deafening biodiversity, and yet we'd hardly hiked a hundred feet uphill from a deserted beach on the island's wild northeast coast. One of our group, a Danish travel agent, jokingly suggested to our Tobagonian guide that maybe we were already lost—engulfed, as it were, by the forest. The guide whooped with laughter and wagged his finger at her: "No, no, no, gal, you cannot get lost in Tobago! Wherever you go, it's all good!"

True to his promise, we soon struck an old Carib hunting track that took us, with many serendipitous forkings, deep into the Forest Reserve, the oldest protected land in the Western Hemisphere, a living ark of species carried out to sea when Tobago broke away from the South American mainland at the end of the last Ice Age. The trail seemed both seldom traveled and well trodden, like a carpet path scuffed through the rooms of a long-abandoned home. We hiked up steep switchbacks between ancient samaan and banyan trees and clambered down gullies where razor grass spikes up high along the trail and mango and cashew trees form a fruitful canopy.
When you think of Trinidad and Tobago (or T-and-T, as the southernmost republic in the Caribbean is called for short), you probably think of a crowded melting pot of humanity, of steel-drum bands and human peacocks parading in a carnival bash that rivals Rio's. But that's Trinidad, really. Postage-stamp-size Tobago (26 miles long and seven miles wide) lies 21 miles to the north across a deep-water gulf. It's much less populous (about 50,000 Tobagonians compared to nearly two million Trinidadians) and in large part pristine. The island has its own party spirit, to be sure: "Liming," or hanging out with friends, and "wining," the voluptuous dancing that's the ultimate goal of every good lime, are the two slang terms every visitor learns. Tobago's nightlife—and most of its tourism—are concentrated in the developed western tip of the island around the Crown Point resorts and the nearby town of Scarborough.

Tourism, however, is beginning to take a stronger hold over tiny Tobago: Four new megaresorts are breaking ground in the west end, while the wilder east-end coastline is sporting a growing number of green, grassroots-style accommodations. These changes promise to restore to the island its precolonial title as the most coveted real estate in the West Indies—with tourist dollars supplanting sugarcane—but right now the renaissance is still in its infancy, and travel is open to interpretation as never before. You can invent your own roving itinerary, circumnavigating by jeep or bike or kayak, camping on the beach or overnighting in the host homes you'll find in most villages just by asking around. Or bed down in the small eco-lodges that are springing up in lush coastal locales with some of the most diverse diving in the Caribbean—from shallow coral gardens to high-speed drift diving—in addition to beguiling beaches, and easy forays into the rainforest. Just don't forget to mark your trail, or the strangler vines and primeval tree ferns might swallow you up and never spit you back out.