Tobago Guide, South Caribbean
Vacations in Tobago
Tobago is an unspoilt island circled by creamy brown beaches backed by dense rainforest.
Lush and fertile Tobago lies in the southeastern Caribbean and measures just 27 miles (43kms) long by 7 miles (12 kms) wide. A British colony since 1814, Tobago united with larger, neighbouring Trinidad in 1889 and over the years the two progressively gained independence, finally becoming the republic of Trinidad and Tobago in 1976.
Tobago used to be an agricultural economy until a rare hurricane blasted away most of the plantations in 1963 and they decided that looking after tourists would be easier than picking cocoa beans. Tobago is now known as a budget, eco-tourism destination with a thick rainforest buzzing with life, a selection of isolated and seductive beaches, good snorkeling and superb diving. While there is upscale accommodation available at Crown Point in the south of the island, budget travelers are more likely to find their kind of low-cost, village-integrated, beach-view rooms among the charming bays on the northwest side such as Castara Bay and Man-O-War.
Best weather from January to June.
Tobago’s main attractions
• this is one of the least developed Caribbean islands, no mega-resorts, few cruise ships, no fuss. More like a fantasy desert island than the frequent concrete Caribbean reality.
• locals are relaxed and friendly, not at all like their more commercial cousins on other islands.
• good snorkeling, mild surfing and great diving at low prices, including shipwrecks around the shores.
• accommodation in charming little ‘chalets’ overlooking the sea can be really budget, costing as little as $30 p. n. for a studio double in high season (seen in 2013), though there are pricey resorts in some areas.
• wildlife spotting on informative, guided rainforest walks through the oldest protected forest in the world.
Scarborough, the capital of Tobago. Photo by Reinhard Jahn.
• this is so not a sophisticated party place. Hanging out with the locals, reading, strolling, swimming and appreciating wild things is more the scene. No glitz, no glam, apart from Crown Point.
• nor is this a destination with a large variety of activities. . . no submarines, no parasailing, no quad biking, no horseback rides, no spas, no fancy shopping, few fancy restaurants.
• Scarborough, the capital is small, uninteresting and unattractive.
• some of the beaches are so isolated that there have been robberies.
Things to Do in Tobago
Pigeon Point. Photo by Colin Campbell.
• go wildlife spotting on informative, guided rainforest walks through the oldest protected forest in the world, with many species of birds, mammals, frogs, non-venemous snakes (they say! ) and butterflies making an appearance, along with turtles on the beaches. One popular hike takes 5 hours on forest trails.
Bird watchers may want to make an effort to hire a fisherman to take you across the turbulent waters on a 20 minute trip to Little Tobago island where there is a large bird sanctuary with many unusual and threatened avian species that were moved here 1 for their preservation 100 years ago.
• diving. Tobago’s north coast, on the Caribbean, offers the best dive sites, with large pelagics such as hammerhead sharks and lots of bizarre macro lifeforms, but the south does have attractions too, including a spectacular wreck dive. More Tobago Diving.
• snorkeling or 2 hour glass bottom boat tours (not for the easily seasick! ) on Buccoo reef, near Pigeon Point; shallow and a little over-visited but still fair coral and fish numbers. Otherwise there are plenty of more remote and less used locations for snorkeling such as Englishman’s Bay, Castara Bay etc.
• horseback riding – and more interestingly horseback swimming on and around Buccoo beaches. Being with Horses stable is recommended.
• Nylon Pool (near Pigeon Point) is an odd sandbar under a couple of feet of ‘velvet seas’ in the middle of the Caribbean. It’s a popular tour though we can’t see the attraction, nor can the hawkers at Pigeon Point!
• golf! Yes, there is an 18 hole course at Tobago Golf Club, easy-peasy by all accounts, and a 9 hole course at Mt Irvine Bay Golf Course.
• surfing! Mt Irvine Bay has good instructors and good surf on the right day.
• Fort King George, on the hill above Scarborough, and its educational Tobago Museum. The view from the fort is panoramic and building interestingly made of coral, so this is a worthwhile sight, albeit not occupying much time.
• there are a handful of boisterous bars where live bands appear from time to time, such as The Mount Irvine Bay Hotel, Buccaneer’s Beach Bar in the Grafton Beach Resort at Black Rock and Bonkers at Crown Point.
Practically all Tobago’s best beaches are on the western, Caribbean coast, the eastern coast being the Atlantic Ocean side and more prone to wind, waves, rocks and dark sand if any. Nevertheless just about any beach on the island may be rough, may be calm, depends on the day, season and time of the month!
The beaches are not massive and rarely white powder. They are mostly embedded in forest-ringed bays and of modest size with soft brown sand and few facilities, though snorkeling can be excellent. Glitz is not Tobago. Desert Island tranquility is the ambience here.
One charming aspect of Tobagian beaches is that some are delicately inhabited by local fishing villagers who are not only warm and courteous but also may organise budget accommodation, cold beer and fresh fish when necessary. Please respect them and don’t take advantage!
Another of the delights of these unspoilt beaches is that local hawkers are much more restrained than on other islands, often just laying out their wares and not approaching potential punters at all.
Beaches often get busy at weekends when Trinidadians fly over for their time on the sand and Pigeon Point when a cruise ship is at anchor nearby.
Some of the beaches are so isolated that there have been individual robberies.
Best Tobago Beaches
The island’s most traditional Caribbean beach (ironically that means it’s getting unpleasantly commercial), with white coral sand and well-organised facilities including food, restrooms, dive, snorkel and watersports equipment rentals. It’s also the starting point for trips to Buccoo Reef, the #1 snorkeling destination on Tobago, and roost for massed cruise ship pigeons that occasionally flutter by. There’s a small fee to access the beach via an old coconut plantation. Photo.
The bay on Crown Point is another developed beach but less brashly then Pigeon Point. It’s a gorgeous, lengthy space of soft sand with calm/rough clear waters and plenty of facilities ranging from car park, toilets and showers to sun loungers, life guard and low-cost food bars, probably for the benefit of locals who trek here at weekends. Store can get very busy.
Mount Irvine Bay
A calm, attractive beach-on-a-bay with the added excitement of possibly the best shore snorkeling on the island. It’s near Buccoo Reef, Tobaco’s prime attraction, so that’s no surprise. The coral is alive and blooming while the marine critters are incandescent and numerous. A watersports shack is always ready to provide kit.
The excellent Mount Irvine Bay Hotel (full disclosure, no financial arrangements between us, not even a free lunch! ) is nearby and can provide stylish, pricey eating and drinking.
A few minutes from Mount Irvine Hotel, Back Bay also offers good snorkeling, but if the water is too rough head for nearby Rocky Point Beach. The bay sometimes has decent surfing, especially in July and August. There is a snack bar but facilities are limited. There have been robberies there so best to travel in groups with no valuables.
Great Courland Bay
It is a long, soft brown beach but frequently beaten by brutal waves in spite of being the Caribbean side.
Adjacent is Turtle Beach which gets busy with nesting/laying March-July; visitors can hit the beach at night with the aid of hotel staff at Grafton Resort.
Castara Bay. Photo by Colin Campbell.
A large and inviting curve of sand partially concealed behind thick vegetation, with a small local community established there. It’s a winding, spectacular road to get there but the villagers are welcoming and will happily sell you chilled beer while you flop around on the sand and fool in the water.
Englishman’s Bay. Photo by Colin Campbell.
A very lovely, isolated, crescent beach with foot-friendly sand, gentle or rough seas depends on the day, but good snorkeling on a calm day; plenty of shady palms and thick forest all around, all at peace other than the occasional squawk of green parrots.
This beach has an authentic desert island feel which is boosted by the lack of facilities – apart from a small bar and food shop under the trees.
Bring snorkel gear, perhaps a bottle of rum and other bare necessities and enjoy a dream beach before inevitable development, it’s magical! p. s. the access road is quite long and winding, but scenic. Photo
This bay hosts a long, narrow stretch of soft brown sand running from the delightful little fishing village of Charlotteville along the back of the bay. The villagers are friendly and helpful. Budget accommodation may be available there. Photo.
Kings Bay Beach (south coast)
Kings Bay lurks in a deep cove so is well protected from Atlantic spite. In spite of the rather unappealing grey sand, the tall green swathe surrounding the beach is magnificent and the waters are almost always serene so this is a terrific spot for swimming.
The Atlantic coast of Tobago features well-developed sloping reefs whereas the Caribbean coast is mainly composed of rock formations with encrusted sponge and coral growth, but it’s the convergence of Atlantic, Caribbean and River Orinoco waters that is responsible for the rich variety of marine life.
The seabed surrounding most of Tobago is shallow (average depth 60ft/18m) and as the Guyana Current flows past rocky outcrops, it creates spectacular drift-diving areas, particularly at both ends of the island. The high nutrient level and strong current combine to produce bizarrely-shaped giant barrel sponges, massive brain coral colonies and around 300 different species of coral.
Tobago’s west, Caribbean side, offers large pelagics such as hammerhead sharks and lots of bizarre macro lifeforms:
• The Sisters’ steep walls around a cluster of little islets are regularly patrolled by hammerheads and other pelagics.
• M/V Maverick, an old ferry, was scuttled 25 years ago and is now lies at 100ft, well-encrusted with dramatic coral growths.
And the east, Atlantic coast has a cluster of treats around Speyside and Little Tobago island:
• Japanese Gardens’ incredible but relaxed drift dive ending in dramatic Kamikaze Cut. Japanese Gardens Night Dive.
• Bookends’ drift dive past a sloping reef and onto a rocky amphitheatre.
• Coral Gardens is a calm drift dive near Speyside with masses of soft coral and truly monstrous brain coral that often shelters nurse sharks.
• Aquarium is the place to see giant mantas, elephant ear sponges and yellow-head jawfish.
• Arnos Vale in Rockly Bay is convenient to reach and specialises in tiny, peculiar macro life forms, with nudibranchs, frog fish and much more.
The Atlantic/caribbean waters a few miles south of Tobago are also home to plenty of magnificent beasts, including mantas, tarpon and sharks:
• Flying Reef is a terrific drift dive bursting with Gorgonians.
• Diver’s Dream is another awesome drift dive over a hilly landscape popping with turtles, moray eels and diverse fish species.
• Diver’s Thirst crosses a reef populated by sharks and grunts. More dive sites from MyTobago.
The high and dry season is unusually January to June (not December to May), with much less rainfall than July-December, which is the hurricane/stormy season, meaning rougher waters, more cloud, debris on beaches as well as rain. Tobago is outside the principal hurricane strike zone though it has had a couple of close shaves in the last 10 years.
The best months for a budget holiday in Tobago are May and December, though there’s an element of risk, of course. March is the driest month, with most sunshine hours, June the wettest. September to November are the worst months.
Average high/low winter temperatures are 28C (83F)/20C (68F). Average high/low summer temperatures (July-September) are 31C (88F)/23C (74F).
Crown Point at the south end is home to most of the island’s upscale resorts, activities and nightlife while seekers of budget lifestyles gravitate to the less travelled coves along the north coast where chalets in little fishing villages offer sea views and easy access at fantastic low prices, albeit night action and amenities are very, very limited.
At the top end there are some safety concerns about isolated villas, so if that’s of interest ensure villa security is rock solid, including a night watchman.
At the budget end apartments, B&Bs and chalets can be rented in villages like Charlotteville and Castara. These are often very nice places with sea views and a short stagger to the beach, or even a short fall from a balcony!
$50-$70 a night is not unusual for a large, clean, double room with ceiling fans, mosquito nets, full kitchen, bathroom, balcony in an apartment block with large swimming pool and garden. Rent a chalet like the above photo on Castara Bay for a lot less, but probably not online. Wander over and ask, or phone from Scarborough.
Tobago’s currency is the Trinidad and Tobago Dollar (TT$) that has an exchange rate of about 1 US$ = 6. 5 TT$ in 2013.
Most credit cards are accepted but traders may charge 5% to use them. Other currencies can be easily changed at banks and hotels. US$ are NOT easy to use in shops/for services.
Best exchange system: bring US$ or UK£ in cash and change at a local bank on arrival. Hotel rates are usurious. Any amount of foreign currency imported is legal.
Electricity: Tobago uses a 110/120v/60hz system with US/Canadian style plugs so bring an adaptor if you are British/European, you won’t find them here!
Language: English is the official language.
Religion: The majority of the population are Christian, along with 22% Hindus and 6% Muslim.
Tobago’s airport is Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson International Airport (wtf! ) the totally ridiculous rename of previous Crown Point International.
Most US and Canadian airlines fly to Trinidad and then it’s only a 15 minute hop to Tobago but you’ll have to arrange that yourself. However, recently it seems that Caribbean Airlines are doing non-stop flights from JFK New York.
Flights to from UK all leave from London’s Gatwick airport. BA, Virgin and Monarch Charters do the run from time to time, Virgin flies non stop, depart in the morning and arrive in the afternoon (yay! ), BA goes via Antigua, Monarch via Grenada.
Nationals from US, Canada, Mexico, UK, Western Europe and many other countries may stay in Tobago for 90 days with just a passport and return flight ticket. Cruise ship passengers OK unless they are citizens of East Europe, CIS, China, Taiwan, South Africa.
• Buses are scheduled to run every hour between Scarborough bus station and Crown Point, Buccoo, Plymouth and Roxborough, but remember, Tobago is the epitome of old Caribbean time. The service is cheap, slow, unreliable and crowded. But fun if you’re on a financial budget but not a time budget.
• Route Taxis/Maxi Taxis are shared taxis that operate along certain routes and can be hailed at any point but do check the cost when boarding.
• Taxis carry number plates starting with ‘H’. For safety do not use a vehicle that starts with a ‘P’, meaning private, unless you know the driver. Check the charge with the taxi driver before setting off as they are expensive at the best of times and work on an official tariff which is may well be ignored if you don’t show interest! A typical charge in 2013 from south Tobago’s international airport would be: Castara Bay US$48; Mt Irvine Bay Hotel US$ 12; Scarborough US$11; Pigeon Point US$ 8.
• Car Rental is the way to go for most travelers who wish to explore the island in addition to catching some beach time. However! Tobagians drive on the left, British style; the roads are narrow and winding; signposts are limited (but don’t hesitate to ask the way, it’s quite normal); road surface becomes terrible away from main routes; local drivers are very casual about signalling, abrupt changes of direction, use of road space etc.
Police suggest never giving locals who ask for lifts from the side of the road a ride. We did that in Cuba with unpleasant consequences, but we would stop for an old lady or mother with kids.
A couple of small rental companies are reputed to fake damage reports and make false claims later so a) don’t take the lowest price on offer b) check rental vehicle carefully before/after use and ensure the paperwork confirms your view.
Although soft-topped cars are an attractive idea they get very hot and you can’t lock valuables in the boot. If you don’t want to carry them onto the beach then best to rent a hardtop car.
Finally, statistically visitors renting shabby, cheap autos apparently break down or 3 times during the average holiday here. Don’t waste your time standing beside the road looking helpless! Hire a good condition 4×4 or economy car and have fun.
Tobago is a safe island but is unfortunately tainted by Trinidad’s excesses which are often published as being Trinidad and Tobago‘s dark side but is actually only Trinidad, a much bigger, busier and demanding island.
Nevertheless there is some crime on Tobago so it pays to take to usual elementary precautions.
From the British Foreign Office 2012: You should not carry large amounts of cash or wear eye-catching jewellery. Use hotel safety deposit boxes to store valuables, money and passports. Petty theft from cars is common.
Caution is advised when renting villas in Tobago, particularly if the villa is in an isolated location. All villas should have adequate security measures in place, including the provision of external security lighting, grilles and overnight security guards.
Do not walk alone in deserted areas even in daylight. Visitors are advised not to visit isolated beaches such as Englishman’s Bay and King Peter’s bay unless they are a member of an organised group.