The other Emerald Isle

Why Tobago remains the Caribbean’s untouched paradise

While much of the Caribbean has been lost to development, tiny Tobago remains stubbornly resistant to change, thanks to a history of rainforest conservation dating back to the 18th century

Words Lyn Hughes

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The Main Ridge Forest Reserve is cut through by trails that were primarily created by locals, who used them for getting around before the first road was built across the island (Alamy)

The Main Ridge Forest Reserve is cut through by trails that were primarily created by locals, who used them for getting around before the first road was built across the island (Alamy)

The motmot is one of the more striking birds on Tobago (Alamy)

The motmot is one of the more striking birds on Tobago (Alamy)

The Main Ridge Forest Reserve is cut through by trails that were primarily created by locals, who used them for getting around before the first road was built across the island (Alamy)

The Main Ridge Forest Reserve is cut through by trails that were primarily created by locals, who used them for getting around before the first road was built across the island (Alamy)

Thick gunmetal-grey clouds coated the sky, a smudge of a rainbow fighting to be visible. I had a last sweep of the ocean through my binoculars, hoping to spot dolphins among the whitecaps – I had been told they passed by Castara Bay most mornings. A pair of parrots squawked overhead and a flash of blue in my peripheral vision made me turn to see a motmot land on the end of my verandah. I looked back down the bay and spotted a young guy, presumably a tourist, strolling the golden beach, shoes in hand, happily oblivious to the falling rain. It seemed to sum up everything I was feeling about Tobago.

I can tell how much I like a place by how I feel about it in the pouring rain, and Tobago has charm to spare. It also has substance. When the resort chain Sandals tried to open its biggest ever complex here in 2019, such was the local consternation about its effect on an island barely half the size of the Isle of Man that it stood little chance. The islanders sent them packing. Tobago may have a handful of resorts over on its flat south-west side, but they tend to be small, low-key affairs. The overall message was clear: this place isn’t for the masses.

“This is rainforest and it needs to be respected… There is no major logging of trees here and no quarrying”

Despite being the ‘second’ island in the dual nation of Trinidad and Tobago, it soon becomes apparent that locals don’t see things in these terms.

“We were never part of Trinidad or Venezuela. It was the British who put us together with Trinidad,” I was later told by Desmond Wright, the in-house guide at Cuffie River Nature Retreat. “Tobago was always by itself and different.” And that’s not just island pride talking; there is history to back it up.

A century before John Muir dreamed up the idea of a government-sponsored national parks system, the world’s first legally protected forest reserve, Main Ridge, had already been set up in Tobago. It’s a strange quirk of fate that one of the earliest examples of conservationism is to be found on this tiny island, more so that it came out of a history steeped in the brutal sugar plantations of colonialism. Yet this green spirit continues today, with Tobago now also home to a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, cementing its place as an unsung pioneer among the Caribbean islands. It was something that I was curious to see for myself.

The Gilpin Trace is a half-day hike that runs through the Main Ridge Forest Reserve (Alamy)

The Gilpin Trace is a half-day hike that runs through the Main Ridge Forest Reserve (Alamy)

An unusual history

“This is rainforest and it needs to be respected,” I was told by William Trim, former director of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment and now a renowned birding guide. “The community of Tobago are more aware of the importance of the rainforest compared with Trinidad and other Caribbean islands, so there is no major logging of trees here and no quarrying.”

But the origins of Tobago’s forest reserve struggle to live up to the noble sentiments of the present. Historically, the combination of the island’s fertile soil, rainfall and its geographical location made it one of the most fought over pieces of land in the Caribbean. It changed hands over 30 times between the British, French and Dutch from the early 17th century on, before being finally ceded to Britain in 1814. It only gained its independence in 1962.

William Trim [right] scrutinises the rainforest for birdlife on one of his tours (Simon Chubb)

William Trim [right] scrutinises the rainforest for birdlife on one of his tours (Simon Chubb)

The European lust for sugar saw plantations spread across the island. At the Tobago Museum I gazed at a map covering the period between 1807 and 1815. During this period there were 86 estates (plantations) here and a population of 16,613 enslaved Africans.

You have to go back even further to discover the roots of Main Ridge. It was in 1776, during one of the island’s spells under British rule, when a member of parliament, Soame Jenyns, advocated for the creation of a forest reserve here. This was the age of the Enlightenment, and he had read of a link between trees and precipitation. The reserve was described as being “for the purpose of attracting frequent showers of rain upon which the fertility of lands in these climates doth entirely depend.” In other words: for the continued success of the plantations.

The Main Ridge Forest Reserve is filled with waterfalls and slices of wilderness that remind you just what a natural gem this is (Alamy)

The Main Ridge Forest Reserve is filled with waterfalls and slices of wilderness that remind you just what a natural gem this is (Alamy)

Regardless of its roots, the value of the forest was largely respected down the years – a rarity in the Caribbean region, which retains just over 10% of its original forest cover. With the abolition of slavery, many of the formerly enslaved workers gained small plots of land where they could be self-sufficient. And when the plantation system collapsed, Tobago stayed very much a rural economy, eschewing the overdevelopment of other Caribbean islands. Nearly two-thirds of it is still smothered in evergreen rainforest today, attracting discerning nature lovers looking for a taste of the unspoilt Caribbean. I was one of them.

The idyllic Englishman’s Bay is capped by thick tropical rainforest (Alamy)

The idyllic Englishman’s Bay is capped by thick tropical rainforest (Alamy)

Into the forest

Having arrived at the Cuffie River Nature Retreat for a guided walk and lunch, I kicked myself that I hadn’t booked to stay for a few days. Every window looked out over lush forest, the air was thick with the fragrance of exotic flowers, and hummingbirds frequently darted by, landing on the plentiful feeders. The only sounds were of birdsong and rain, and I just wanted to curl up on a sofa and stay.

“I tried to create a space in the middle of nowhere that would be a retreat in nature,” said owner Regina Dumas, a charismatic Trinidadian in her 70s. After a career in rural development, and with her children having left home, she had been looking for what to do next. Her family had owned a cocoa plantation here and it provided the perfect place to set up a secluded small hotel. For labour, she used local villagers, arranging training where necessary, and when her maintenance man, Desmond Wright, showed an interest in birds, she was grateful at being able to add a new experience for guests.

“When we started, I knew nothing about birds,”Regina explained. “I found a local hunter to teach me. But then Desmond learned bird calls; now he’s been guiding our visitors all these years.”

Birds are one of the highlights for travellers to the island. While Tobago doesn’t have as many species as Trinidad, it does have some endemics not found there, and also attracts birds from South America.

“Twenty-two of the birds here are not found in Trinidad or other places in the Caribbean,” I was later told by William Trim on visiting the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. “And while some of the birds are found in South America, it would be more difficult to spot them there; it’s easier here.”

“Hundreds of red-billed tropicbirds wheeled through the air, some harassed by frigatebirds mugging them for food and nesting materials”

William and I met at the reserve’s visitor centre, and no sooner had we stepped out onto its verandah than he pointed out a Venezuelan flycatcher. “Some people spend days looking for one of these,” he said, smiling. “You’ve seen it within five minutes!”

I had been eagerly anticipating my first real taste of Main Ridge. Together we wandered a couple of the reserve’s walking trails while he explained how we were following paths once regularly used by the islanders, either on foot or by donkey, before the road was built over the ridge. He pointed out that the nails in the remnants of a wooden bridge were British and centuries old.

We were following the mountain streams, and as we walked, the forest came alive with birdsong. Every few metres there was something to stop and look at, whether it was the burrow of a trapdoor spider, a secretive fish or a plant with medicinal properties.

The visitor centre at Main Ridge has great views of the forest and ocean (Alamy)

The visitor centre at Main Ridge has great views of the forest and ocean (Alamy)

William was particularly excited at us seeing at least five white-tailed sabrewing hummingbirds, some of whom were displaying even though it wasn’t mating season yet. Iridescent green and blue in colour, this is Tobago’s largest hummingbird and it is only found here and in Venezuela. There were fears they could be extinct in Tobago after the devastating Hurricane Flora in 1963, but they have been recovering in numbers since.

Back at the visitor centre, there were far-reaching views down to the coast in one direction, but otherwise the scene was of thick forest coating the spine of the island.

“North-east Tobago is of great interest globally,” explained William, “and it was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2020.” He explained that this reserve encompasses not only Main Ridge but also the surrounding marine environment, home to coral reefs and mangroves, as well as local communities. For such a tiny island, barely 300 sq km in size, the numbers are astonishing: 1,774 species, 19 habitat types, 83 IUCN Red List species, 41 endemic species and 15 communities with a unique cultural heritage.

The rufous-tailed jacamar, spotted in the forests of Main Ridge, is often mistaken for a hummingbird (Alamy)

The rufous-tailed jacamar, spotted in the forests of Main Ridge, is often mistaken for a hummingbird (Alamy)

One of those communities is Castara, a fishing village on the Caribbean coast with just the right balance of local life and low-key tourism. Its two sandy beaches were deserted when I arrived, with just a few locals hanging out – or ‘liming’ as it’s known here – by the seafront. Vibrant soca music blasted out of a bar but there were no customers. A couple of American visitors I met explained that the village had been much livelier the night before when a steel pan band had played.

“Some evenings there is music and a bonfire on the beach. Otherwise, the noisiest things here are the roosters,” they warned. I had wondered what the earplugs in my room were for; I found out in the wee hours when a chorus of cockerels pierced the pre-dawn.

Veronika’s rescued horses take visitors for treks down to the ocean near the coastal village of Buccoo, where they swim across the bay while carrying travellers on their backs (Alamy)

Veronika’s rescued horses take visitors for treks down to the ocean near the coastal village of Buccoo, where they swim across the bay while carrying travellers on their backs (Alamy)

Wild surprises

It was a wrench to leave Castara, but I wanted to see more of the island’s north-eastern tip, its communities and its nature, so I had arranged a stay in Speyside, which is reportedly where Tobago’s tourism started.

The Blue Waters Inn sits on a private bay looking out to the island of Little Tobago, previously known as Bird of Paradise Island. It’s previous name comes from British politician Sir William Ingram’s attempt to introduce a colony of the titular birds from New Guinea in 1908, in a bid to conserve them. After his death, the island was gifted to the government as a nature reserve and, while the birds of paradise have since been presumed extinct, it remains an important breeding site for seabirds such as the red-billed tropicbird.

Newton George points to the skies above Little Tobago, which soon become filled with swooping red-billed tropicbirds (Simon Chubb)

Newton George points to the skies above Little Tobago, which soon become filled with swooping red-billed tropicbirds (Simon Chubb)

I took a tour there with former Little Tobago custodian Newton George, now one of the island’s best-known birding guides. A group of us took a glass-bottomed boat to the island, where we were surprised to be met by a chicken.

Newton explained that unlike the long-gone birds of paradise (he last saw one in 1981), these non-native interlopers still lived feral here, having been introduced when Little Tobago was inhabited decades ago.

A walk to the top of the island brought us to a viewpoint overlooking ocean, cliff and woodland, where nature was showcased in all its glory. Hundreds of red-billed tropicbirds wheeled through the air, some harassed by frigatebirds (the pirates of the skies) mugging them for food or nesting materials. Newton trained his telescope on half a dozen red-footed boobies perched in trees. A short walk down a nearby path also revealed a brown booby sitting on its nest, while the boat trip back took us over the reef, offering views of colourful parrotfish, angelfish and corals.

A red-billed tropicbird soars through the skies (Simon Chubb)

A red-billed tropicbird soars through the skies (Simon Chubb)

Tobago is known for its snorkelling and diving, but I was keen to try some other ocean experiences. I headed back down to Buccoo in the south-west to meet Veronika, a German equestrian who had originally come here as a tourist but fell in love with the island and the man who would become her husband. Within a few years she had rescued several horses, mainly former race horses from Trinidad, and was now working with local children and those with disabilities, providing therapy through interaction with these animals. But she also kept getting requests from tourists, so she now offers a holistic ‘Being with Horses’ experience that includes swimming in the ocean on horseback.

“We let the horses choose you,” she declared as the four of us stood there, bridles in hand, facing the animals. I had a quick flashback to school sports teams and the dread of not being picked. In this case though, a handsome bay thoroughbred came straight up to me and nuzzled my arm. His name was Morning Calm, an 11-year-old ex-racehorse.

Having all been selected, we mounted and made our way through the village, past the goat-racing track (Tobago races goats rather than horses), with several loose horses accompanying us. We had comfortable saddles but no stirrups, and we were exhorted to just let our bodies go with the motion of the horse, “as if wining” – a gyrating local dance.

“It felt unreal to be sitting in the equivalent of a warm bath and watching the occasional fish swim by”

Walking along the golden sands of Buccoo Bay, we eventually turned into the sea and started to head back the way we had come, keeping parallel with the beach. There was quite a swell, more than anticipated.

“Most of the time it’s completely calm here,” said Veronica. “It’s more of a challenge today. Look towards the waves; that way, if a big breaker comes, you’ll have seen it and you won’t be taken by surprise.”

Morning Calm was unfazed by the conditions, living up to his name, and when we eventually emerged I felt a sense of triumph.

London Bridge Rock is found near St Giles Island, an important breeding site for frigatebirds (Simon Chubb)

London Bridge Rock is found near St Giles Island, an important breeding site for frigatebirds (Simon Chubb)

While swimming a horse in the sea was exhilarating, I was keen to take to the water again to experience a couple of Tobago’s natural phenomena. We set off at dusk in a small boat and headed first to Nylon Pool, an offshore sandbar that provides the experience of being surrounded on all sides by the ocean yet being able to stand in metre-deep water. I slipped into the still pool; it felt unreal to be sitting in the equivalent of a warm bath while watching the occasional fish swim by.

Much of the earlier cloud had cleared by now and the stars were out. I was called back to the boat, whereupon the captain declared it dark enough for our next stop. We chugged past a beach, whose pristine white sands I could make out even in this light, and made our way to Bon Accord Lagoon. At first there was little to see: an expanse of dark water to our left, mangrove to our right. But then I was told to lower my hand into the water. As we put-putted along, I trailed my arm and a starburst of lights exploded around it.
I had the lagoon to myself and the only sounds were of cicadas or the occasional splash of a fish. I completely lost all track of time as I floated in wonder in the water, every movement producing a slipstream of bioluminescence. Stars twinkled overhead and fireflies flickered in the mangroves. Nature’s wonders don’t get much better than this.

About the trip

The author was supported by Visit Tobago

Lyn’s guides (all recommended), included Phill Williams of Trinbago Tropical Tours & Excursions; Zolani “Zee” Frank; Newton George.

Where to stay

Castara Retreats is a fabulous treehouse-style eco-lodge overlooking Castara Bay. It’s self-catering but it also has a good restaurant.

Cuffie River Retreat lets you relax and recharge while being tucked away and surrounded by nature. It has a saltwater pool and good food.