Celebrating the Caribbean Way of Life in Tobago

Monique Hall

I’m standing by a shuttered window in my vaulted wooden bedroom, gazing out to the ocean, and holding onto a tiny glass jar my villa host left me to fill up with sand. It’s my last night in Tobago and, oh boy, I desperately do not want to leave.

Zoning out in the 30-degree heat to the delicious sound of crashing waves, one resounding thought keeps running through my mind – if only I could squeeze this island’s essence into this teeny bottle, so I can microdose a tiny glug or dab a bit on my pressure points every time I need to transport myself back to this current state of zen; take home a sort of Alice in Wonderland-esque concoction to revive my mind and spirit if you will.

You’d be mistaken for thinking I’d reached my nirvana by stone-cold relaxing – but this was far from the reality. Much like Alice, I’d spent the last seven days experiencing a series of transformative and awe-inspiring adventures in Tobago.

From riding a horse into the ocean, trekking through different rainforest trails and meeting all manner of wildlife along the way – even feeding and holding a Hummingbird at one point – my awe-deprived mind has been stimulated in ways that my normally quite dulled East London brain wouldn’t have been able to comprehend a week earlier. And this was all just in the first 48 hours of touching down in the Caribbean.

It was that time of year when my soul needed some serious rejuvenating, some blue and green therapy. Luckily I had found myself on what’s often considered the last ‘unspoiled’ Caribbean island, famous for its beauty, chilled nature and stunning scenery. The smaller sister of Trinidad, it’s accessible via plane and by way of St Lucia.

My home for the first three nights was the very laid back Castara Retreats, a stripped-back rustic ‘alternative to a traditional Tobago hotel’, nestled in the hillside overlooking Castara Bay and perfectly sandwiched between rainforest and rocky ocean shoreline. Think of a series of giant treehouses, Swiss Family Robinson style, presiding over the most beautiful blue and green bay, where sky and sea appeared to join forces.

This home-from-home provided the perfect immersion to the island, thanks to the retreat’s close relationship with the local community.

Breakfast is taken down at Cheno’s, a local coffee house-turned-late night venue in the heart of the village; Sample delicious salt fish and coconut bake in the morning and by nightfall find yourself doing the Conga around a steelpan drum.

Dinner is at the retreat at Caribbean Kitchen, an open-air restaurant that has panoramic views of the whole bay. They’ve recently revamped the menu, which features local delicacies such as fish wrapped in banana leaf, dasheen dumplings and seasonal choka. Wash these down with a delectable freshly shaken cocktail or a rum punch.

‘Rest and relaxation’ is very much the ethos of Castara Retreats and they run a fantastic daily invigorating yoga programme led by Judha, who also specialises in what can only be described as mind-altering massages. I had an Indian Head Massage at the Wellness Studio with nothing but the sounds of the bustling Bay in the background and genuinely felt like I’d been reborn when I opened my eyes to the breathtaking vista in front of me.

My days in Castara were spent exploring wild and seemingly untouched landscapes, with my first ‘off the beaten track’ experience courtesy of Healing With Horses, a unique and freeing experience that gives you the chance to ride a horse into the ocean. A bucket list moment, it was a surreal feeling when my horse Apollo made a beeline for the sea and proceeded to wade in – you can lead a horse to water, and you can make it swim, apparently – anything’s possible in Tobago.

The nation is renowned for its biodiversity and wildlife so we made sure to venture further inland to the beating heart of the island – its staggering ancient rainforest, the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. This is the oldest protected rainforest in the Western Hemisphere and was once visited by everyone’s favourite natural historian, the legendary David Attenborough.

We walked the Gilpin Trail with our guide Mr Trim and spotted a range of wildlife as we delved further down to the underbelly of the rainforest, observing trap door spiders, big hawks and even crabs. This location is also where TV show Our Planet famously filmed the mating ritual of the Blue-backed Manakin Bird, an elaborate courtship dance executed deep in the jungle.

Further north-east is another Attenborough hotspot, Little Tobago Island, a smaller island world-renowned for its birds of paradise. Accessible by a small boat, journey to this unique spit of land to experience the flight of the Magnificent Frigatebird.

It’s often the little things that catch you off guard that provide the richest experiences in life and the rainforest was no exception. While we were walking through the rainforest, it actually started raining; hearing the sounds of the rainforest was nothing short of healing, with water droplets slapping on huge leaves and towering bamboo shoots knocking together to create a unique organic percussion symphony. Bucket list, ticked, once again.

I swiftly developed a taste for forest bathing during the trip, which later took us to Cuffie River Nature Retreat – a mecca for bird watchers. Ginormous vines Tarzan would be proud of hung from the high trees and we each took a turn seeing if one could hold our body weight. Tobago has a number of waterfalls to enjoy, each providing the perfect opportunity to cool off after working up a sweat exploring. Our waterfall of choice was Parlatuvier Falls. Look to the slightly hidden trail to the left of this waterfall should you visit and from there ascend a muddy path to reach a secluded, peaceful pool of water and get a great view of the surroundings below.

Over in Pigeon Point in the South West of the island, I experienced one of the world’s best beaches and got a real taste of picture-perfect Caribbean living – the kind of stunning scenery you’d see in a dream holiday brochure. The beach is accessible for a small fee, which goes towards the upkeep and preservation of the area.

When we first anchored up, there was nothing to be seen on the uninhabited stretch of land, simply a lone trader selling Carib, the local beer. Slowly but surely though, the little island began filling up with more boats, going from a deserted destination to an ocean dance party in under 15 minutes, with Soca hits blasting out for revellers swaying in the sea – myself included.

Pitch up here for lunch or a drink before continuing to the Nylon Pool sandbar. It’s possible to get off the boat here and stand in the ocean, a surreal experience. The water is crystal clear and legend has it that it has youth-giving powers, as explained by our guide who also encouraged us to scoop up the golden sand and rub it in our skin. Should you want to fully immerse yourself in ocean life, the Buccoo Reef is also a fantastic place to snorkel, with shoals of fish darting around corals.

As with some of the greatest travel destinations, the real jewel in the crown of the island nation is its people. On our first day of landing, our companion Marsha told us we would make at least one friend by the end of the trip. I came home with three. Tobagonians are warm, genuine, kind and big believers in keeping it chill.

Mantras I heard throughout the week from locals included ‘work to live, don’t live to work’ and centred around ‘doing things when you feel like it’ – the locals here will make it their mission to help you appreciate that life is for living.

The island has a friendly, village-like feel, with a tangible community spirit, and there’s no better example of this communal ethos than through food and dining in Tobago. Expect to be welcomed with open arms in the local neighbourhood, especially at big cookouts. These are a regular occurrence in the area – if someone hears some music playing or catches the scent of fish grilling, they’ll pop in and say hello.

We were lucky enough to enjoy two local cooking experiences; at a lunch at Glennon’s house we enjoyed fresh Red Snapper fish wrapped in carrot and cooked in banana leaf, breadfruit plucked from nearby trees and, to polish it off, some homemade brandy.

Another morning, as early as 7 am, we were welcomed at Miss Monica’s in Les Coteaux to prepare a traditional Tobagonian breakfast of saltfish, coconut bake and chocolate tea. At Bird Watchers Restaurant and Bar over in Speyside, I had the best lobster I’ve ever eaten in my life. Seafood lovers will truly relish their time in Tobago, with the ocean providing a range of different delectable fish season-to-season.

Should you pass someone selling Doubles on the roadside, make sure you stop to get a taste. These small fried flatbreads are filled with curried chickpeas and are deliciously spicy and moreish.

My final nights on the island were spent at a luxurious private hideaway, Ohana Villa. This sprawling Balinese-style, 6-bedroom property was situated on the edge of a cliff, just outside of Scarborough on the southern coast of the island, overlooking the sea and a reef-protected sandy beach.

With huge rooms, epic communal lounge areas and ensuite bathrooms (some complete with outdoor showers) it was easy to wile away the time here in luxury. If you really want to make the most of your time, you can even hire a chef to cater for you.

Without sounding glib, the villa was paradise personified. Don’t fancy the two infinity pools available on the property? Not to worry, a short walk down the garden stairs and you’ll be straight on the secluded beach. It was here on this hidden away beach I saw quite possibly the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen, as I watched hues of pink, orange, and red melt and merge across the expansive sky, before eventually swirling slowly down to meet the lukewarm, blue/silver sea. In that moment, I can honestly say nothing else mattered. Just sky, sea and me.

It’s said that you need to experience awe to lead a happy and fulfilled life; as renowned Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner says: “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.”

So on my final night, I gazed out to the ocean one last time and took in every last drop of that stunning, expansive view; all the while feeling relaxed, refreshed and genuinely quite spellbound.

My time in Tobago was certainly perspective-altering; the sights, the sounds, the people, the sense of community, the way of life – they all had a profound effect on me. I now see what people mean when they celebrate the Caribbean way of living.

This coupled with awe-inspiring scenery and grounding sacred locations such as the rainforest and you have a surefire recipe for total rejuvenation.

With a new understanding of the world under my belt and a newfound appreciation for actually relaxing mind, body and soul, I popped the little glass bottle back on the table, with the very strong sense that this destination and the experiences I had were going to keep me full of joy for a very long time.

Castara Retreats accommodation. Firefly – studio apartment with en-suite bedroom, kitchenette and dining area. The sweet garden terrace has lovely views towards the ocean and setting sun – a favoured spot for relaxing and drinking in the views. £130/night.

Ohana Villa – Bookable from 22 April 2024 (occupied by owner until then. Price for the whole villa for a week based on dates of 22 – 29 April comes in at £8,285.84 (sleeps up to 12, not including the more ‘makeshift’ beds that can be made up upon request).

For more information on Tobago Tourism, visit https://visittobago.gov.tt/

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