Tobago: The unspoilt island that’s a taste of the Caribbean as it used to be

Tobago's deserted beaches, glorious natural wonders and fantastically friendly local culture have been wonderfully untouched. Here's what you can expect from a visit to this delightful Caribbean spot.

From the moment Tobago was first spotted by Christopher Columbus in 1498, visitors from across the Atlantic have always been entranced by this utterly unspoilt paradise. The great Italian explorer didn’t even have time to stop off, but such was the beauty he saw from the deck as the ship cruised past that he dubbed it ‘Bella Forma’.

Exactly 520 years later it’s still easy to see why. This slender island, 25 miles long and six across, rises from white sandy beaches through jungle-covered hillside to a peak more than 1,800ft above the ocean, and – in stark contrast to so much of the Caribbean – it retains an unspoilt feel which it’s impossible not to be charmed by. No wonder the colonising forces from Europe fought over this delightful speck in the sea: it has changed hands 33 times, more than any other place in the Caribbean.

A sign asking readers not to trash the most beautiful view in the world at Castara Bay in Tobago

Today, Tobago is part of a small republic which also includes nearby Trinidad, with both islands just a few miles from the South American mainland. The discovery of the latter continent, incidentally, was Columbus’s primary mission in 1498 – and the reason he didn’t have time to stop off. It’d be a terrible shame to make that same mistake today.

Tobago has often been unfairly overshadowed by its larger neighbour Trinidad, but for visitors that has proven to be a good thing: the island’s population remains wonderfully friendly, its natural beauty untouched and unspoilt. The whole place feels unutterably romantic; small wonder that there’s a burgeoning wedding industry.

Several of the beaches take that unspoilt feel to a level that’s incredibly rare in the Caribbean, with a number accessible only by boat or on foot and thereby offering a real ‘undiscovered paradise’ feel. Getting to King Peter’s Bay, for example, is an adventure in itself; Pirate’s Bay, on the north coast, is similarly remote and tranquil – so much so that it was chosen as the location for the famous 1952 film adaptation of Robinson Crusoe. It’s not the only time that Tobago’s beauty has drawn Hollywood in: 1960’s iconic Swiss Family Robinson was made here as well. The beach scenes were shot at Bacolet Bay while the famous treehouse was constructed at Goldsborough – keen movie fans recently tracked down the exact specimen. Needless to say, Disney had to import the zebras and tigers used in the production.

While such exotic beasts aren’t native to Tobago, the natural wonders of the island provide one of the best reasons to come here. The Main Ridge Forest covers almost half of the island and contains hundreds of different species of birds alone, among them the white-tailed sabre-wing hummingbird, found only here and on Venezuela’s northern coast, just across the water.

A hummingbird in Castara Bay on the Caribbean island of Tobago

A hummingbird in Castara Bay on the Caribbean island of Tobago

Main Ridge Forest provides the sort of jungle experience that you dream of. Trails weave through lush vegetation, views of the blue sea pop up here and there as you round corners and brightly coloured birds flit through the canopy. And when it’s time to take a break, you can cool off in the fresh, clear water of a waterfall. As with all eco-tourism, make sure you take a guide – you won’t believe the things that the trained eye spots that you’d otherwise have blundered straight past.

A multi-level tropical waterfall surrounded by lush foliage in Tobago.

The natural bounty of the island extends beneath the waves as well, for there is a protected coral reef off Tobago which is renowned as one of the best diving spots in the Caribbean. The coral is healthy, there is no current to worry about and you’ll see everything from manta rays and sharks to turtles and dolphins. If you’re lucky you might even spot the colourful little mantis shrimp, whose eyes have an ability to perceive colour that is unique in the animal kingdom.

Not all activities need be so strenuous, of course, and the laid-back attitude of the friendly Tobagonian population is sure to rub off on you. The island’s culture of hospitality is famous, its culture is rich: you’ll be able to hear steel bands, enjoy some dancing and eat delicious creole food at the island’s hotspots. To really immerse yourself you can time your visit to coincide with Carnival, the Heritage Festival in July or perhaps one of the multitude of cultural, musical events held throughout the year.

No matter when you come, however, you’ll enjoy the sort of relaxing, beautiful and energising experience that first drew tourists to this part of the world: a place that’s entirely unspoilt. No wonder they’re starting to describe Tobago as ‘the Caribbean as it used to be’.

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Wooden pier on Pigeon Point Beach, Tobago.