Tobago -- March 14-22, 2009
Tobago advertises itself as the Capital of Paradise and as such isn't far off in its claim. The island is a beautiful place with mountains, lush flora and varied fauna, secluded beaches and a laid back vibe. I chose Tobago for two reasons. The first being is that I needed a place to go diving and it is quickly developing a reputation as a major dive destination. The other is that as a birthday present for my Mom I decided to take her to one of Latvia's only two former colonies. For the record, Latvia's colonial past is colonial only in that Latvia was nothing more than a colony itself at the time. :) Either way, it seemed as good of an excuse as any to travel to Tobago.
Tobago reminds me the most of Roatan off the coast of Honduras. Same laid back vibe and focus on sun and sand. The smaller half of Trinidad Tobago leaves the hustle and bustle of industry and business to the larger Trinidad. Other than tourism there really isn't much of industry on Tobago. There's good and bad in that.
The good is that you end up with a lot of unspoilt beauty and plenty of time for relaxation. The island still retains its primitive charm that isn't always found in places like Cancun for example. One never gets the feeling of the cattle travel experience where one simply moves in packs from one tourist enclave and hot spot to another never really getting the sense of the land.
The bad is that there really isn't much infrastructure on the island itself. Getting around is limited to either taxis or rental cars. While I heard rumors of the existence of public transportation and certainly saw bus stops with locals standing around and waiting the actual sightings of the buses themselves were few and far in between. There really isn't any centralized shopping or entertainment areas. This is not meant as criticism. Its exactly what I was looking for. Just a warning for the traveler who was expecting Cancun or Grand Cayman or Jamaica. As one local expressed it, if you want Cancun, go to Cancun. The main problem this presents is that if you are a spur of the moment budget traveler like me who likes to explore on your own your options are limited. Taxis can get expensive after a while. We did rent a car on Saturday and explored the island a little bit and I would probably recommend that as the best option. Just make sure to pre-plan and research where you want to go and what you want to see because the lack of road signs and centralized locations makes it hit or miss. More of a miss for me, but that was no ones fault but my own.
We stayed at the Blue Haven Hotel (http://www.bluehavenhotel.com/). While the hotel is certainly perfectly adequate and I enjoyed my stay I don't know if it quite qualifies as the five star hotel it bills itself to be. Again, this is not meant as a criticism. The service was excellent and the rooms clean. Its just that five stars sets up a different set of expectations. The hotel seems to be rebranding itself as a boutique hotel and that's a far more accurate description of what it is. The only real drawback to staying at the Blue Haven is that it was kind of out of the way. There really is not much to see in the immediate vicinity nor are there many dining options other than the hotel.
The other problem was that Mom at 78 no longer gets around as well as she could so she was kind of limited to the hotel grounds and the pool. The beach is about 200 yards down hill from the hotel. Still for those slightly more mobile and satisfied with lounging on a beach chair and basking in the sun its a perfect location. The grounds of the hotel are immaculate and the beach delivers all that you could ever want in a Caribbean beach. And for the record Mom had no complaints.
A note about the food. I've been to a few of the Caribbean Islands and the food for the most part is almost always of the same quality. As long as you stick with chicken and seafood you'll get good results. The moment you venture towards beef or lamb you are just asking for trouble. The reason for this is simple. The Islands don't exactly lend themselves to grazing lands for cattle. Also, since quite a few of the staples need to be imported meals can be quite expensive. If you are expecting gourmet meals around every corner you are sure to be disappointed.
I can see why Tobago is starting to develop a reputation as a diving destination. It certainly doesn't lack for dive sites. We dove the Maverick wreck, Runway reef, Coral Gardens, Cove among others. Saw the usual suspects you find underwater, but a few things stand out. Saw perhaps the biggest stingray I've ever seen resting on the bottom. Easily 6 feet across. Can't think of a single dive where we didn't have a giant sea turtle or two and morays seemed to be hiding in almost every nook and cranny. Found a sleeping nurse shark hiding in a small cave. The only drawback was poor visibility. It reminded me very much of the diving off the coast of Costa Rica. Then again, the poor visibility could also have been due to the fact that it seemed to rain each night. Either way, outside of the Red Sea visibility is almost always a function of luck.
I dove with the Scarborough based World of Watersports (http://www.worldofwatersports.com/wow/default.aspx). The diving industry in Tobago is going through some rough times. The global recession has not spared Tobago and the number of tourists and divers is heavily down. Out of five days of diving, three of them were just the divemaster and myself. WOW has been hit harder than most because the shop is located on the grounds of the former Hilton Resort which at the moment lies shuttered after a dispute between Hilton and the TnT government over who should pay for renovation costs. Have nothing but good things to say about WOW. John Borrett, one of the owners, picked me up each morning and was good enough to answer all of my questions about local life during the drive to either the shop or the beach. Andre and Marvin are both excellent divemasters and I'll dive with them again anytime. Having a private chauffeur, boat captain and divemaster for most of my trip worked out great for me, but its probably not the ideal business model. For all of their sakes I hope business picks up soon. They deserve a break.
The only drawback to diving out of Scarborough is that the best dive sites are around Speyside which is on the north end of the island. Roughly an hour's ride by car. WOW does offer transfers to Speyside, but at an additional fee. If the opportunity presents itself I would definitely dive Tobago again, but this time I would base myself in Speyside. If I ever find myself in Scarborough, however, then WOW would be my first stop.
As a small nation few in numbers most Latvians get a kick out of finding any traces of their culture or references to their nation in far off lands. Places which do provide ties can often lead to pilgrimages of sorts. In Chicago the Tribune Tower has one of the stones from Riga's Pulver Tornis (http://latviansonline.com/index.php/dyk/article/3889/) and in Lincoln, Nebraska you have the bust of Karlis Ulmanis on the grounds of the University of Nebraska (http://www.dailynebraskan.com/news/nu-graduate-went-on-to-become-president-of-latvia-1.1034370).
There really isn't much of the Latvian left on Tobago, but then again we weren't expecting much. We took the drive to Grand Courland Bay and then a little side trip to Fort Bennett. In Plymouth there is memorial for the first Latvian settlers in Tobago. Depending on your expectations it may or may not be worth the side trip. A visit to Grand Courland Bay stands on its own merits. Its a beautiful beach. The Latvian aspects of it just an added bonus for those so inclined. We didn't get a chance to get to Fort James, but we did visit Fort Bennett. While there isn't much of a Fort left other than a couple of cannons and some stones and a small sign offering some background and history describing the place it does offer a fantastic view of the Carribean Sea.
Overall, would I ever visit Tobago again. Probably, but this time I would go there strictly for the diving and the beaches.