Young Tobagonian mother and her daughter

About Tobago

So, what does Tobago offer? Well, you won't get the plethora of five-star resorts that Barbados boasts, nor will you get the nightlife that Jamaica serves up. If you want those holidays, go there. The pace of life in Tobago comes in two speeds: slow and slower. No worries, take it easy, chill… Tobago is the place to go to lie back and relax.

Visitors talk of stepping off the plane and feeling the stress being sucked out of their body. Broad smiles greet you at the taxi rank, the crystal clear Caribbean glints at you as you travel on to your accommodation. And a cold Carib beer or refreshing rum punch will greet you at your destination. One of the best things about Tobago is that it welcomes you.

Your stay might be at one of the handful of all-inclusive resorts on the island, but we at myTobago hope to encourage you out of those four walls and to explore the island - the rainforest, the villages and the many small restaurants dotted around the island. If you want to stay at one of the smaller establishments, we hope to help you find the right one.

Tobago is just 8 miles wide and 26 miles long, but it can take a couple of hours to get from one end to the other. Another charm of Tobago is the lack of infrastructure. The best way to dodge the potholes, whizz around and have a whole lot of fun is by hiring a jeep. The most developed areas of Tobago are in the Lowlands - in the southwest. Here you'll find ANR Robinson International Airport, a few smart hotels along the Caribbean coast, Buccoo Reef, the fine white sandy beaches of Pigeon Point and Store Bay, and Scarborough – the colourful capital and port.

Tobago's eastern coast, pounded by the Atlantic Ocean, is dotted with charming fishing villages, of which Speyside is undoubtedly the most popular. The north Caribbean coast has many wonderful coral sand beaches and charming fishing villages, with Castara being the clear favourite. Beautiful sandy beaches like Englishman's Bay, Parlatuvier and Bloody Bay are often deserted except for a few fishermen. The most northerly of the villages along this coast, Charlotteville, lies where the Atlantic and Caribbean meet, and, like Speyside, has impressive coral reefs, many within swimming distance of the beach and ideal for diving and snorkelling.

The eastern side of the island rises steeply into the hills that make up the central Main Ridge. The main rainforest is located here and falls sharply away to the palm-fringed, sandy beaches below. Dripping with moisture and shrouded in mist, the rainforest is a paradise for naturalists and birdwatchers.

Finally, there's Little Tobago – about 1.5 miles (2.5km) out to sea and just 1.3 miles (2km) long at its widest. Little Tobago is an uninhabited seabird sanctuary off Speyside. Local fishermen happily take visitors to the island with its resident birdlife, including terns, boobies and the red-billed tropic bird.

So, wherever you choose to stay and whatever you choose to do while you're there, you'll see that Tobago offers something for just about everyone. If you're a diver, an ornithologist, a nature lover, a sun worshipper, a lover of fresh food, a laid-back lifestyle, a people-watcher, a beach babe, surf dude, sailor, romantic couple, oldie, young person or on a tight budget, then you'll love Tobago, just like us.

People often ask me: "would I like Tobago?" Without meaning to be offensive, I am often tempted to reply "would Tobago like you?" as this is the key to the answer.

No destination in the world is right for everyone. Tobago is no exception. Many visitors fall in love with the island instantly. Against that, a holiday on Tobago could be a misery to others. Less than fifteen minutes of research on this site should help you determine if Tobago is right for you.

The first thing to do is to check the 'negatives' in the right column. Given all these apparent negatives, how does this island manage to create Tobago-junkies like ourselves and the many other international visitors who visit the island year after year? The answer is simple. It is the endemic population that makes Tobago so very special.

Before I expand on this vital point, allow me to qualify the above 'negatives'.

Beaches: Tobago has many beautiful sandy natural beaches. Don't expect the neat swept beaches of some up-market destinations. Flotsam and other marine debris are a fact of life and clearance is non-existent, except on the most popular beaches. Tobago's beaches range from white coral sand to almost black volcanic sand, with every shade of yellow in between.

Seas: The seas can often be vigorous during the earlier months of the year, particularly along the Atlantic coast and around full moon. The most popular beaches tend to be popular because they have natural protection and generally offer conditions calm enough for swimmers and snorkelers of every ability.

Hotels: The island may not have the wide range of glitzy hotels offered by some destinations, but Tobago has an excellent range of good hotels to suit all budgets and preferences.

Restaurants: There is a limited choice of high quality dining options and none outside the more populated southwestern end of the island. Menu choices are limited because restaurants prefer to offer fresh local produce rather than frozen imported food.

Activities: We're not going to compare Tobago with Disneyland, but there are more than enough sporting activities and excursions to keep active youngsters (and oldies) happy.

Entertainment: Okay, I surrender. Mind you, something about the vibe of the island means that even youngsters are falling asleep by 10pm.

Retail Therapy: Once again I admit defeat. Mind you, how about a carved coconut shell for that dreaded relative who buys you gaudy socks for Christmas?

Service: The 'wrong' sort of visitor is going to return home saying that Tobagonians are unfriendly and provide terrible service. Others will instantly, and without realising how, turn the magic key and unleash the spectacular warmth of the islanders (although even these visitors will admit that 'service' is somewhat more relaxed than they are used to).

The bottom line is that Tobago is still totally natural, largely uncommercialized and very different to most other vacation destinations. The secret to whether you will enjoy a holiday on this beautiful island is very largely dependent upon how you relate to the local population. If you are the type who expect instant subservient service the moment you click your fingers, then Tobago is not for you. If you are prepared to show courtesy and friendliness and speak to the locals as you would speak to friends and colleagues at home, then you will undoubtedly unlock the island's secret charm.

To better understand this side, we highly recommend that your read the remaining article in this section of our site. What is so special about the Tobagonian people and how, and why, they differ from other Caribbean's? I must answer this in two parts. Firstly, through an article (Article 1) written for us by a native Tobagonian, Carlos Dillon, who is a director of the excellent Mount Irvine Bay Hotel & Golf Club. My own take on the subject follows (Article 2).

Hopefully the two articles will provide first-timers with a better understanding of Tobago's secret charm and help them to get the very best out of this beautiful island and its warm and welcoming endemic population.

The Positives

Tobago may be your ideal choice of vacation destination if you are hoping to find the following:

  • quiet natural beaches
  • wonderful snorkelling opportunities
  • comfortable accommodation in more traditional hotels and self-catering apartments or villas
  • small restaurants offering a diverse fusion of Indian, African and Creole cuisine
  • a chilled-out ambience where time has little meaning
  • the biggest smiles in the Caribbean

The Negatives

Tobago may not be your best choice of holiday destination if any of the following are essential considerations:

  • the best white-sand swept beaches in the Caribbean
  • guaranteed calm seas without a ripple on the surface
  • glitzy multi-star hotels to rival those in Dubai
  • Michelin-starred restaurants with extensive menus
  • a wide choice of non-stop action and activity
  • all-night entertainment every night
  • great retail therapy opportunities
  • far-eastern levels of service

The unique character of the Tobagonian people has been moulded by the island's history. More than 90% of Tobago's population are of African origin. Their forbears were brought to the island's sugar plantations as slaves. Slavery was abolished in the British dominions in 1807, but it was not until 1838 that the transition was complete and every slave freed. There was a shortage of labour on the island, so owners gave their former slaves plots of land as an incentive to keep working on the plantation.

The North American financial crisis of 1884 resulted in the financial collapse of Tobago. Estates were sold for ten shillings an acre. Many peasants took advantage of the offer. This meant that even less labour was available for work on the plantations.

The peasants built homes on their land and eked a simple but adequate living through subsistence agriculture. The rich coastal waters and rainforest were bountiful. They lacked for little and were dependent upon no one. Time had little meaning. With no industry or commerce, family and community became the only focus of the islanders.

From this heritage sprang the very great pride that is so apparent in every modern Tobagonian. As land and property owners, they hold their heads high and feel subservient to no one. They are still very conscious of their historical background and many Tobagonians still associate 'service' with 'servitude'. Jobs in service are still perceived as being of low status.

Tobagonian people are by nature friendly and hospitable. They have great pride in both themselves and their island. Show any interest and you're likely to be dragged off on a spontaneous tour, with nothing more than a smile expected in return. Understanding and respecting this pride is the secret to getting the best from Tobagonians and therefore Tobago. The secret is simple: your respect will be repaid many times over.

It is easy for first-timers to get off to a bad start because of the 'pride/servitude' issue. Tobagonians have taken the art of not making eye-contact with patrons to a new level. It can be hilarious watching a waiter or waitress ignore a demanding first-timer who has had the temerity to snap their fingers and bellow "Get me …".

Some years back, I was discussing this subject with a Tobagonian business owner friend. I live in rural Suffolk, in England, where it is considered highly rude to walk pass someone without acknowledging them, when away from urban areas. My friend agreed, but also said that if she was passing a foreigner, she felt 'presumptuous' to speak first.

This comment surprised me. This lady is a pillar of the community, well respected and liked and highly familiar with the ways of foreigners. I found it disappointing that someone in her position could feel "presumptuous" to address a (white) foreigner before they had spoken to her. She might have been an exception, rather than the rule, but it does shows how deeply ingrained the taint of slavery can be. Most of us never give the subject a thought. Maybe we should.

Your first impression may well be that most Tobagonians are haughty and unfriendly. Do not be put off by their initial countenance. I was brought up in the region and taught that what is known as a 'polite face' represents sober attention. Smiles are reserved for something funny, or someone well-known and liked. Similarly, interrupting someone's conversation is considered extremely bad manners, so a waiter approaching you with a 'polite face' and not saying a word, while you hum and hah and ponder over what to order, is being very polite – not unfriendly or haughty, as you might think.

A very useful tip is to start every conversation with "Good morning" or "Good evening", as appropriate, and close it with "OK" as you walk away. A quiet "Good morning" as you enter anywhere that locals gather, such as a mini-mart, bar or café, can do wonders. Avoid abbreviating it to "Hi", or even "Morning" and, more important still, NEVER, ever, use sickening platitudes like "Have a nice day". This is particularly important when driving in the more remote parts of the island. If you stop to ask directions and start a conversation with "Can you tell me the way..." you may just receive a cold stare. Start with "Good morning, can you tell me...." and they are likely drop what they were doing, jump in the car and take you there personally.

The pace of life on the island is so slow that it is almost stationary. Given the nature of island life, time has little, if any, meaning. If you are to appreciate Tobago, you must switch off your northern concept of time as soon as your aircraft lands. The best thing you can do is to pack your watch in your suitcase. Nothing runs to time. A business that claims an opening time of 9am will probably open sometime before 11am. I remember one busy petrol (gas) station closing for two hours in the middle of the day because the owner was tired. The gentle shrug and non-judgemental "He gone for sleep, man" from another driver, sat patiently waiting for fuel, said everything one needs to know about Tobagonian nature. If you let your frustration show, you will immediately cross the divide.

It is a sad reflection on modern life that these guidelines apply less to younger people than older and less in urban areas like Crown Point and Scarborough, where residents are now well-used to foreigners. However, even in these areas you will be treading on safe ground if you apply these guidelines. The courtesy you extend will be repaid many times over as you unlock those huge smiles that rise all the way from the feet. And those smiles are the reason that we love Tobago so much and return year after year.

The bottom line is that polite, well-mannered people who treat Tobagonians with respect and consideration release the magic of the island without even realising how.