The 20-room Toucan Inn was one of the most popular small hotels on Tobago for many years. It came as something of a shock when, in late 2014, we heard that the hotel had closed.
Tobago-watchers were possibly even more surprised, albeit pleasantly so, when it was subsequently announced that the hotel had been purchased by Tobago's most popular car rental operator, Colin 'Sheppy' Shepherd. Whilst there seems to be little common ground between hotel accommodation and car hire, Colin is convinced that the key to success in both markets is through providing the highest levels of service. It should be mentioned that Colin has owned and operated a successful holiday rental villa for the past five years, so is not quite a stranger to the hospitality industry.
Following five months of intense refurbishment, the Irwin Shepherd Inn Tobago, to quote its full name, formally opened in March 2016. Minor non-disruptive work was still in progress during our stay, three weeks later. More minor improvements are planned for coming months, but none of these should cause the least inconvenience or disturbance to guests resident at the time.
The old Toucan Inn was in need of major TLC and the year following closure had done little to help. We had expected that only the most serious defects and repairs would be completed before the opening. We seriously under-estimated Colin's drive and ambition, not to mention the sheer hard work and butt-kicking that must have taken place to achieve what can only be described as a refurbishment miracle.
The Shepherd's Inn is located in a low-density housing area, just half a mile (0.8Km) from Tobago's A.N.Robinson International Airport.
Readers may initially express concern about the hotel's proximity to the airport, but during our seven days at the hotel, I only heard aircraft taking off on two occasions and neither times was it disruptive. Very occasionally the sound of aircraft taxiing can be heard, but I must stress that this will only be heard whilst in the grounds, not from the rooms.
The two-minute transfer from the airport to the hotel is a major advantage. One would never describe Shepherd's Inn as an 'airport hotel', and I would hate to give the impression that that it is. However, if I was leaving Tobago on an early morning flight, or arriving late in the day and needing to shop for groceries before travelling on to more remote destinations like Castara, Speyside or Charlotteville, there is no better place to stay overnight than the new Shepherd's Inn. It is certainly a practise we shall be adopting – no question.
Crown Point may not be the prettiest place in Tobago, but it is undoubtedly the most "happening" area. Pigeon Point and Store Bay, two of the most popular and beautiful beaches on the island, are within walking distance of the hotel. The Crown Point area has also become a hive of small restaurants, cafes and bars.
You certainly do not need to hire a car to get around Crown Point. Everywhere is within reasonable walking distance. However, we did notice that lots of guests at the hotel had hired mountain bikes. Crown Point is a low flat coral bed, making it ideal cycling territory. There are several bike rental outlets close by and the hotel will gladly put guests in touch with the best.
Having said that, it would be a crying shame to visit Tobago and not tour the island. We generally suggest that first-time visitors start by taking an island tour with an experienced guide. Shepherd's Inn is almost a second home to the charming Mr. Blackman, known to one and all as "Mr B". This colourful local septuagenarian has been providing taxi services and island tours for the best part of 50 years. He is virtually a Tobagonian institution.
An island tour with "Mr B", or any other responsible guide, will help first-time visitors build confidence and give them a feel for the road layout. Driving in Tobago is actually very easy and can be such great fun. Having your own transport enables you to visit different beaches and sightseeing features without the high cost of taxis, which are quite expensive on Tobago. This is particularly true for visitors travelling on to Castara and Charlotteville, or other isolated locations, where car rental facilities are limited. Given the shared ownership of the hotel and Sheppy's Auto Rentals, not to mention the mere 300m proximity of the car rental office to the hotel, the advantages to guests are obvious. I am confident that they can be assured of a great rental deal.
The architectural style of the property is effectively a quadrangle. The guest rooms, restaurant and reception form the outer perimeter, all facing in towards a central ornamental garden and pool (or pasture and pond as Mr Shepherd has named them).
The walls of the Pasture Rooms are faced in attractive coral rock and stretch around three sides of the palm-lined pasture. Adjacent to the garden is the 'pond', with four octagonal cabañas, faced in half-logs, on two sides of the pool, and the large octagonal semi-open restaurant on the other side.
The external walls of the hotel are shrouded with a dense border of palms, banana trees and tropical bushes. The exterior of the hotel gives little indication of the oasis within. The surrounding foliage so discretely hides the property that you can neither see nor visualise the style or nature of buildings within – or even the type of establishment. The clever landscaping continues within. There is no single point from which you can see the entire hotel. Every step treats you to new and exciting views.
With just 20 rooms, Shepherd's Inn has a cosy feel. It is an intimate and friendly place. The buildings are simple, but effective. Not an inch of space is spared or wasted.
No rooms are specifically equipped for the disabled. However, all the buildings are single storey and the doors are wide. Attractive wheelchair-friendly tiled pathways with gravel borders lead to the Pasture Rooms, which have a level entrance. The Cabaña Suites have an 8-inch step. The restaurant entrance has two low steps but a portable ramp for wheelchairs will be available before publication of this review.
Just as the garden and pool are called the pasture and the pond, the restaurant and bar and each of the guest rooms are individually named in homage to villages and places in and around Delaford, the small Atlantic fishing community on Tobago's northern Atlantic coast, where Colin Shepherd was born and raised.