Want to visit a Caribbean Island but don’t feel like rubbing shoulders with hundreds of sunburned American tourists? Go to Tobago.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Caribbean, the beach-filled, sunny, and resort-laden destination for cruise ships and tan-seeking vacationers? Maybe you’ve considered being one of those vacationers?
Here’s the upside: it’s easy and affordable to get there. And then the problem: most popular spots within the Caribbean — like Turks and Caicos and Saint Thomas — are perpetually overrun by tourists (like you).
There is, luckily, an alternative to packing yourself into a Caribbean beach filled with hundreds of other sunscreen-soaked Americans. Let me introduce you to Tobago, the lesser-known sibling island to Trinidad. It’s the place you go when you want to sit on a quiet beach in the Caribbean and not be surrounded by yachts or spring breakers. From a lot of major cities, there’s a direct flight to Trinidad; from there, just hop on a quick, 15-minute flight (very cheap, and goes out every 30 minutes), and you’re in Tobago.
The island is intimate, the culture is chill, the locals are friendly, and it’s very easy to get around. Super developed, Tobago is not. Compared to its Caribbean cousins, the place is bare of malls or brand-name hotels. You’re coming to Tobago, instead, because you’re looking for unadulterated nature, and a slow-going place to laze on the beach with friends.
And, because it’s not yet a tourist town, the food caters to the locals — meaning you’re not getting watered-down resort fare. You’ll find spice and chili-laden goat curry spots, as well as Italian food in tree houses, excellent takeout kebab, and freshly grilled seafood served beachside.
Tobago is so low-key that there are essentially no travel books available on the country. So here’s your beginner’s guide to the Caribbean gem.
Where to Stay
There are some hotels and resorts on the island, but most are still pretty rudimentary. Your best bet for comfy digs is to rent a condo or a house on HomeAway or VRBO, which will likely be both less expensive and more comfortable than the area hotels. Go for the properties right on the beach.
When to Go
Like most beach vacations, Tobago is best experienced in five days to a week. Lucky for those who have to endure chilly winters, the best time to visit is between January and March, when the weather is temperate and not too humid.
What to Do
Spend a chill day at the beach
The beaches in Tobago are pristine — you can’t go wrong making a pit stop at whatever beaches you spot in your area. The most popular is Mount Irvine Beach, adjacent to a golf course and known for excellent surfing. Englishman’s Bay is another good option, a crescent-shaped beach where you can spot leatherback turtles chilling on the sands. If you’re looking for hidden treasure, drive forty-five minutes up to Castara, a tiny but stunning spot with gorgeous views of the forests down below.
Visit Pigeon Point Heritage Park
This family-friendly enclave offers multiple activities in one spot — there are cute little shops, lots of great cafes for snacking, and a lifeguard-tended beach area, complete with a highly Instagrammable thatched roof jetty.
Go around Buccoo Reef
Book a glass-bottom boat from Pigeon Point Heritage Park, and you can spend a day going around Buccoo Reef, a designated marine park containing hundreds of colorful species of fish and coral (Jacques Cousteau named it the third most spectacular reef in the world). There’s load to see, so it’s the ideal spot to go snorkeling. Make sure your boat makes a stop at the surreal Nylon Pool, a one-meter deep enclave in the middle of the reef whose sheer waters and white sand prompted Britain’s Princess Margaret to name the pool after her nylon stockings.
Hike through the Tobago Forest Reserve
As the oldest protected forest reserve in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this is the spot to go on a hike in Tobago. The main trek is short and accessible, weaving through a few miles of untouched forest. It’s worth hiring a trained guide who can point out the various herbs, spices, and native fruit trees that are abundant throughout the trail. The hike ends at Argyle Falls, where you can lounge in natural rock tubs surrounded by idyllically green trees.
Where to Eat
“Doubles Truck” is what I am calling the unmarked white van that parks outside a clothing shop called Chadija’s around lunchtime, serving up one of the signature dishes of the island: doubles. It’s a messy dish of two interlocking pieces of fried dough filled with mildly sweet stewed chickpeas and a generous dousing of green chili sauce. They’re wrapped up in white paper and cost about 20 cents a pop. Wash yours down with fresh coconut water from the fruit stand a few feet away.
A very vibe-y, open-air restaurant with a thatched roof serving Caribbean food that’s all made from the on-site garden. Get the spicy crab stew and be prepared to go home very satisfied, but with chili and turmeric stains all over your shirt.
Jemma’s Seaview Kitchen Treehouse
Located right on the beach, this picturesque spot specializes in seafood prepared Caribbean style: fish that’s been breaded, fried, and dressed in a tangy sweet and sour sauce, curried goat, and shrimp drenched in herbs and garlic, then grilled over an open fire.
An Italian restaurant situated in a tall treehouse, La Tartaruga will easily be one of the most joyful dining experiences you have in Tobago. This is thanks, in large part, to the exceedingly friendly and enthusiastic chef/owner Gabriele, who treats every guest like a long-lost sibling. The restaurant serves excellent Italian wines, and specialties like freshly made tagliatelle dressed in pesto and potatoes, and meatballs stuffed with polenta, mozzarella, and spicy tomato sauce. It is the perfect marriage of Italian food and the breezy culture of Tobago.
This is a local haunt for kebabs (the best are the lamb and the chicken) that’s ideal for lunch and dinner to go, or a late night snack. The meats are grilled ’til exceedingly juicy, the herby salads are fresh and fragrant, and while the food is decidedly Middle Eastern, it has pleasant local touches — like the various handcrafted hot sauces, made with the fruity peppers of the region.
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