Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tobago

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.




The Island


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.

The lodging

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.

The Diving




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.

Latvian Tobago

(http://kv85bis.blogspot.com/2007/05/courland-colonial-power-of-latvia.html)


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.

8 comments:

  1. Beautiful photo and the Blue Haven looks very swank, indeed! As I said on LOL, you did a great job! A very informative write-up about Toabgo, it's history, background, especially as it pertains to Latvia.

    As for the diving, you mentioned Scarborough, (some other places), which I see is on the Atlantic coast. Did you dive on the Carribean side as well and if so, how does that compare with the Atlantic?

    I definitely have a yen for exploring unknown places, going off the beaten track, so it's good to know what to expect in terms of transport, etc. I like to try to get a feel for the locale, the terrain and see the way people live. But it's also good to have a little conviviality (not quite Cancun style glitz), but a town, market place to roam, some entertainment in the form of music at night, preferrably at some local hangout. I just want it ALL, you know! Some of my fondest memories are driving through 'Baja Kalifornia' (Mexico) when there were no paved roads, surrounded by nothing but desert, cacti (except for this doll out in the middle of nowhere tied to a post, no doubt someone's perverted idea of a joke); stopping at the only 'mercado' in town for an ice cold 'cerveza', while chatting with some of the locals and being invited to stay for a wedding--just some simple happenings of a day. Those were the kind of impromptu trips where everybody just piled into a car (s) and just decided to go. And while those times are far behind me now and there certainly was the feeling of safety in numbers, this leads me to my next question (lest I keep going on, forgetting where I am and whose blog this is anyway). How safe is it in Trinidad to veer off the path, get away from the tourists? Taking a walk alone on a deserted beach, for instance, especially for a female?

    Irena

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  2. Jumping in here where nobody asked me to - the author is probably not the ideal person to ask about safety issues. Unless he comes across over a dozen people wearing full face masks, carrying Uzis and rocket launchers, and actually aiming them at him at that moment, the author tends to carry on as usual. To be honest, it works for him... but probably shouldn't be taken as a guideline for others.

    Signed:
    A friend of the author (at least until now!) who has travelled with him in the past.

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  3. Hmmmmm...sounds like Andrejs has a secret admirer!

    Irena

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  4. Sveiki, Irena

    Heh... Either that or a stalker. I see someone has flagged my blog as having objectionable content. It kind of amuses me that someone could actually find something to feel that strongly about on my blog. :) Curious as to what it might be. But that's a mystery for another day. To answer your questions:

    [i]Did you dive on the Carribean side as well and if so, how does that compare with the Atlantic?[/i]

    It was a mix of Atlantic and Carribean diving. As a rule, Atlantic diving tends to be a little colder and the visibility isn't as good as on the Carribean side, but this time I didn't notice much of tangible difference between the two. If diving and snorkeling is your primary goal then I would probably recommend focusing on the Carribean side.

    [i]How safe is it in Trinidad to veer off the path, get away from the tourists? Taking a walk alone on a deserted beach, for instance, especially for a female?[/i]

    I didn't actually get a chance to visit Trinidad. Trinidad is about an hour away by ferry from the Island of Tobago. As annonymous cautions don't know if I'm the best guide in the safety arena. For the record, I am no nearly as brave as annonymous makes me out to be. I've feared for my life three times in my travels as far as I can remember. Once was in Latvia when I took a taxi in the middle of the night to get back home and the driver stopped in the middle of a deserted street and just sat there for a few minutes without doing or saying anything. As visions of armed men rushing the taxi and taking me for everything I am worth danced in my head I was reaching for the door handle ready to bolt when the driver finally spoke. He simply was lost and was trying to look around to find his bearings. The other two were in the Arab Quarter in Jerusalem. Once on a visit with my dad when we found ourselves in the narrow streets of the quarter just as a midday prayer was ending in Al Aqsa mosque. Not only were we moving against the tide of traffic, but from the looks the traffikers were giving us it was clear that we were in the wrong place. We ducked into a small restaurant and had a couple beverages while the traffic cleared. All ended well and without incident. The other was again in the Arab quarter when a friend and I penetrated a little too deep into the local market away from the usual tourist haunts. We just simply turned back and went back the way we came and the whole thing ended without incident.
    But back to Tobago, I saw plenty of single tourists, male and female, walking around. The primary cause of crime is povery and Tobagans are relatively well off in that regard. Trinidad has oil and the local economies of both Trinidad and Tobago are heavily subsidized by the government. Crime is a fact of life everywhere, but never did I get the sense of danger while on the Island. Most of the people seem to have better things to do with their time like enjoying Island life than stalking any particularly well heeled tourist. Also, since the Island is so heavily dependent on tourism most people have a vested interested in not killing the golden goose.

    Andrejs

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  5. P.S.

    Oh well. So much for a mystery. Seems that the objectionable content issue was a technical glitch. Resolved now. And I had such high hopes.

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  6. Hi!

    When I asked how safe it was in 'Trinidad', I meant to write, Tobago (knocking on my head, to see if anyone is in there...). The silent cab driver reminds me a little of the first time my parents and and I went to the everglades and took one of those boat rides. From the very first the Indian tour guides were very reticent, never cracked a smile, hardly said a word to us; then suddenly after we were way out in the deep of the swamp, the guide shut off the motor while we all sat there in cold, stone dead silence; that was pretty creepy, but then he turned the motor back on and we zoomed away (I guess shutting off the motor was for effect--the silence and/or listening to the birds, wildlife(?)

    Being in the Arab quarter sounds pretty exciting, like that old movie 'The Casbah'. But in reality confronted with the kinds of situations you described you had good reason to be fearful--I certainly would be. A former roomate of mine once told me when she went to Turkey, the people in this small, remote village started throwing rocks at her--guess they weren't used to strangers, didn't take kindly to them.

    I have heard that Jamaica, for instance, is just such a place where it is not advisable to go off on your own, but stick together with the rest of the tourists. Recently I was reading about Mexico. I know things are bad there now with the drug trade, poverty, but there were horror stories about Mexico City which surprised me-- tourists being warned to never hail a cab at the airport, several stories of people being robbed, mugged in taxis--and these blogs, travel advisories were written back in the 90's. It's good to know that Tobago/Trinidad are generally safe and Tobago sounds like a great place to just unwind, relax.

    Thanks for the info and I'm glad the computer glich has been resolved.

    Irena

    PS Something tells me that Anonymous is a caring soul and is just concerned about your welfare.

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  7. In Trinidad and Tobago, there are a lot of endangered animal and plant species. Some of these you can only find in this country. These are protected so much so that one fourth of the country's land area is dedicated to the protection and preservation of these animals and plants, so make sure that you visit at least one of these national parks.
    visit tobago

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