New Zealand may have its Bay of Islands, 144 of them within a 100-square-mile natural harbour, but tiny Tobago seems to have almost as many bays within the island’s 115 square miles of jungle-cloaked volcanic cliffs.
This is especially true on the Caribbean side, where it’s tempting to say that each succeeding cove is lovelier than the last – a little fishing village clinging to the steeply rising ground, some with inns far more rustic than the multi-star resorts at the island’s southern end.
But this would be a mistake: each is so beautiful in its own way that it’s impossible to prioritise. About half way up the coast, Castara’s mountain-girt strand of golden sand crescents its way round the tree-clad cliffs.
It’s just gone 4 p.m., and I’m drinking tea on the terrace of the Beach House bar on Castara’s Little Bay, also called Heavenly as painted on the side of a beached boat – not that Big Bay just round the verdant rocky corner is all that large. A couple of fishermen are hauling in their catch in the dipping sun’s glinting rays.
A little hummingbird with a brilliant yellow breast lands on the table. Of course I miss him with my camera. Not to be outwitted by a bird a millionth my size, I move the bowl of brown sugar further away. He comes back to nibble, now with two of his pals, and not even my eight left fingers and two ham-fisted thumbs – or is that ham-thumbed fists – can miss snapping them this time.
OK, I’m told they’re not hummingbirds, they’re bananaquits, also known as sugar eaters. Big deal – I’m a banana twit.
The green mountain folds deepen in colour and silhouetted depth as they plunge down to the darkening waters – perfect!
David, a youngish American, says wonderful views are to be had from a hill ‘just over there… but it’s a bit steep so be careful.’
Now, David has just spent 100 days cycling all across the continental United States with his Dad, he’s 100 years younger than me, and doubtless has the agility of a mountain goat. I look at the track, and the track looks back at me from its precipitous foothold-less rise.
‘Yeah! Right, Monkey!’ quoths I. This is Armageddon foretold. So I puff up the sharply climbing roadway instead, turning left at a mound that is the town cemetery. A brilliant blue bird flits by. Of course my clumsy camera fingers miss it. Likewise with a brown-bodied, green-headed lizard.
Talking of mountain goats, a dozen of them with little kids are browsing amid the brightly coloured artificial flowers adorning the graves.
A magnificent panorama indeed spreads out from the top. Jungle clad mountains succeed each other in fold after fold, Castara nestles in its luxuriant vegetation far below, patches of yellow blooms dapple the green, and the gentle waves of the deep blue Caribbean sparkle with a myriad ever-changing glints as the brilliant sunshine plays off their prismatic ripples.
Wednesday night is ‘dinner and drums’ night at the Beach House, which is ‘licensed to sell spirituous liquor.’ Now there’s a word for you. Just as well they didn’t say ‘spirited to sell licentious liquor.’
Everybody’s agog with what happened in the dead of last night. Three policemen with semi-automatics at the ready knocked on the doors of the denizens of Angel’s inn at the back, bursting in on them on a drug raid while they were in their underwear. Apparently somebody had seen a suspicious ship just off the cove.
The cops were business-like and well behaved. They left empty handed after prodding through everybody’s belongings with their gun barrels. Such are the moments of excitement in small-town Tobago.
As for the drums, five gents with single tambours, one with masterly flailing arms smiting a battery barrelled up in front of him and another shaking away with maracas… let’s just say there’s amazing power and energy, but it’s rather monotonous after three quarters of an hour.
But what is amazing is an incredibly agile guy on 10-foot high stilts, all draped in black with a ghoul’s masque, prancing and swaying with amazing, if not grace, then flexibility. He dances on one stilt, then squats back on the stilts, still dancing and twirling. He must have enormously powerful thigh muscles. Now he’s up straight again, his head touching the roof.
Meandering north along the narrow winding road you’ll come to Englishman’s Bay, where forested headlands bracket the yellow sands and the Brits beat the Frenchies a few hundred years back.
Tobago in fact changed conquering hands 32 times, more than any other Caribbean island, mainly between the Brits and French, though the Spanish and Dutch also stuck their fingers in now and then.
The name of the next bay, Parlatuvier, attests to the French influence. It’s a glorious sweeping three-quarter crescent cloaked with the greenest of trees, with bobbing blue fishing boats bearing such names as Dream Catchers. The fishermen do NOT like being photographed.
A couple of miles further on lies Bloody Bay, thus named because the Brits beat the French and Dutch here in 1666 in a naval battle so brutal that, according to legend, the sea ran red with blood. Today it’s turned back to blue and its pristine beauty leaves not a soupçon of its supposed infamy.
At the island’s northern tip you’ll come to wide Man O’ War Bay and Charlotteville, a magnificent little fishing village surrounded by fold after fold of steep forested mountains. Little boats bob in the sea, others with names like Conquering Lion and Honey Bread adorn the beach.
A short boat ride round a little cape, or a sweaty 20-minute climb up the hillside then a 152-step descent through rain forest, will bring you to Pirate’s Bay. Three centuries ago it was coves like these that served as havens for Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean, and local lore has it that there’s buried treasure hereabouts.
With a gloriously golden crescent sweeping beneath wildly jungled cliffs and sapphire waters turning emerald as they graze the shore, it’s not surprising that it figured in Walt Disney’s 1960 film Swiss Family Robinson.
Today, there’s no treasure, Robinson family member, or even Johnny Depp in sight, just a handful of Europeans who have let their bodies go to seed, splashing in the waters or slumbering on the beach. A dozen masted boats bob out to sea.
Time for Yours Truly to gear into action. Squatting on a rock, I erupt into a sneezing fit, a thousand stentorian atchoos succeeding each other, garnering a thousand death looks from the rudely awakened sun-bathers.
Even the little yellow crabs look aghast as they surface from the burrows they are digging, discarding the excavated sand with their left claw and feet, doing a little fandango to level the path, then scampering back.
Three young guys are tripping down the steps with spearfishing guns, a dark green hummingbird is hovering with its frantically beating wings around pink blooms – yes, my camera fingers miss again – and larger black sea birds wheel and dive with forked tails.
If you continue on round the tip to the Atlantic side you’ll come to Speyside, a lovely village looking across a sparkling bay to the forested slopes of Goat Island and Little Tobago.
But for some truly spectacular views puff 15 minutes up the road on the other side of Charlotteville and branch off to bluff-top Fort Campbleton, a two-cannon battery erected in 1777 to fight off American privateers raiding British islands during the War of Independence.
On one side the little town, Pirate’s Bay, the masted boats bobbing against the green headland unfold before you; on the other the deeply furrowed folds tumble down to the sea in an emerald rush.
Crested birds flit from tree to tree and an elderly fisherman with ash-grey dreadlocks gathered in a maze atop his head is mending his net.
On the walk back, the beachside Suckhole Restaurant is doing a brisk business. What a great name!
Back in town. Sitting on the terrace of the Big Fish inn and restaurant, a delightful three-storey edifice fitting in perfectly with its surroundings, overlooking the bobbing boats of Man O’ War Bay. The sun and clouds playing chiaroscuro on the wild jungle tapestry cloaking the mountain folds. Setting in a riot of golds, reds and crimson.
Yes indeed, absolutely perfect.
[Upcoming blog next Sunday: Return to the sunset series – northern Europe]
By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.
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