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Aug 27, 2021

10 min. read

One of the Caribbean’s best-kept secrets is a treasure trove of local charm, wondrous wildlife and island beats

“Get your cameras ready,” says Ean Mackay, proprietor of Adventure Farm and Nature Reserve, nestled in the lush hills of Tobago.

I hold my breath as Mackay rings a bell and a sea of hummingbirds flit to a line of feeders in front of my tour group. With the low buzz of their beating wings, which display a riot of colours, it’s hard to tell how many different species I’m looking at (Mackay later says six species were present). It’s a truly mesmerizing sight.

Tobago is a birder’s paradise—and a trailblazer in ecotourism. The island, half of a dual-nation republic along with Trinidad, is home to the Tobago Main Ridge Forest Reserve: the oldest protected rainforest in the Western Hemisphere, first designated as a reserve in 1776.

With a coastline stretching 362 kilometres, a permanent human population of just 61,000—plus thousands of bird, mammal and fish species—Tobago makes for the perfect non-touristy island getaway.

Hummingbird approaching a feeder in a garden setting.

The Nature of Things

Tobagonians take eco-preservation very personally. Hummingbird enthusiast Mackay, a retired hotelier who opened his home and gardens to the public, has built an eco-lodge into the hillside—and is planting new gardens to attract even more birds.

When Mackay talks about his beloved hummingbirds, showing me a nest and noting some recent rare sightings, he becomes animated. “People visit us from all over the world,” he says, “I’ve always loved nature, and even before I retired, I was always showing people around because I want to share it with everyone.”

It seems to be catching on. While hiking through the rainforest in the historic reserve, I meet a Swedish couple who’d come here purely for the birds. During our trek through trees and bamboo groves, guide Newton George describes some of the nearly 300 bird species found on the island. He points out a blue-crowned motmot, kingbird and other winged wonders.

The shady forest is a welcome retreat from the sun, and the tour is beyond fascinating. “Wanna see a big spider?” George asks, pushing a stick into a hole in the mud. He excitedly lifts the branch to reveal a hairy-legged tarantula, causing a shriek from an arachnophobe in my group. (Admittedly, the oversized creature makes my pulse quicken too!)

A tropical resort pool surrounded by lush greenery and lounge areas under a clear sky.

Water World

While much of the Caribbean touts ecotourism, Tobago walks the walk. It feels easier here in a way, because there’s very little large-scale development on the island. There’s a handful of all-inclusives and fewer big hotels than you find in other destinations. It makes Tobago feel like a well-kept secret—one that you feel oh-so-lucky to discover as you swim in the clear blue ocean, wiggling your toes in white sand.

I opt to stay at Mount Irvine Bay Resort, which has everything I need for a week in the sun: fantastic food, a pretty beach and an uncrowded pool. Though it isn’t a high-end resort (rooms are simple but very functional), it is considered one of the island’s best places to stay. Regardless, Tobago is the kind of destination you want to explore—not hunker down in your hotel.

The waters surrounding the island are impossibly clear—nowhere more so than at Nylon Pool, a shallow sea pool with a bed of ground white coral. The unique moniker came courtesy of England’s Princess Margaret. When the royal visited in 1962, she described the pool as being sheer like her nylon stockings.

Getting to the pool is an adventure unto itself—and a must-do in Tobago. I go as part of a larger coastal tour with Waterholics, which includes Buccoo Reef snorkelling and lunch at No Man’s Land, a sand-spit turned funky hangout with music, food and drinks.

No Man’s Land shelters the calm waters of the Bon Accord Lagoon, which is edged by dense mangroves that act as a nursery for abundant local marine life. I return later in the week to kayak the lagoon at night and witness resident bioluminescent dinoflagellates, a kind of glowing plankton. A galaxy of underwater stars shimmers on my paddle every time I lift it from the water; the kayak’s glass bottom reveals glittering constellations beneath me.

A smiling diver in full gear standing on a beach.

A Deep Dive

With pristine waters and Tobagonians’ deep heritage of protecting their natural resources, it’s not surprising that the reefs of North-East Tobago are relatively intact compared to other Caribbean destinations. (Last year, UNESCO even named the area a biosphere reserve.) But this reef system is even more special for divers.

Aljoscha Wothke, director of the island’s Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville (ERIC), explains how the Orinoco Current delivers plankton to the area. The nutrient-rich food source encourages a “coral sponge co-dominated reef ecosystem,” which offers more biodiversity than other reef systems. “If you get excited by sea turtles, manta rays, eagle rays and other smaller marine creatures, Tobago is a great place to dive,” she notes.

ERIC offers a multi-day PADI coral conservation course to divers wishing to help with underwater conservation. “Divers are paired with an expert to harvest critically endangered staghorn corals from our nursery then plant them on the reef,” Wothke says. You can name “your” coral and the organization will send you a picture of it for Christmas. “When you come back to dive in two years, you can see the coral thriving underwater.”

Traditional dancers in colorful skirts performing at an outdoor event.

Bang the Drum

Throughout the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago is best known for its raucous Carnival, considered the biggest street party on Earth. Though it ends after Lent, the carnival atmosphere is everywhere in Tobago. Preparations start just before Christmas and continue until two days before Ash Wednesday, when celebrations begin. While driving past a school, I hear steel drums drifting through classroom windows, as kids practice for the festivities.

Even after the elaborate costumes are packed away, nightlife in Tobago is pretty epic. Soca music blasts from the dancehalls, and a weekly party—aptly dubbed Sunday School—takes over the main square in normally bucolic Buccoo. Local steel bands beat out island covers of Celine Dion and Justin Bieber hits, along with more traditional tunes, until a DJ takes over around midnight.

As I wake up exhausted from dancing the night away, I can’t help but realize just how special Tobago is. It’s so authentic, full of natural wonder and vibrant spirit. I was welcomed by everyone I met—but it felt genuine, not merely accommodating to a tourist like me. This place is the real deal…and I can’t wait to return

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