Tobago’s idyllic Caribbean coast
Crown Point—Mount Irvine—Black Rock—Courland Bay—Plymouth—Moriah—Castara—Parlatuvier—Charlotteville
Tobago’s Leeward coast – fringed by coral reefs and the Caribbean Sea – is the calmer of the island’s two shorelines. The journey northbound takes you from the southwest’s flatter, gentler limestone terrain to the mountainous hard rock formations of the northeast. Beautiful beaches offer great swimming, snorkelling and watersports.
After leaving Crown Point on the Milford Road, turn left onto Shirvan Road after a couple of miles. This leads to some attractive restaurants and the 18-hole championship Mount Irvine Golf Course. A turn to the left leads to the village of Buccoo and its beach, home to Tobago’s legendary Sunday-night street party known as Sunday School, and goat and crab racing on Easter Tuesday and other festive times.
Overlooking the gold course is the studio (The Castle) of the late German sculptor Luise Kimme, who produced a large body of life-size figures inspired by the island and its people. The studio is in Bethel (turn right at Mount Irvine hotel and follow the signs). It is now managed by fellow sculptor Dunieski Lora Pileta. Visiting hours by appointment on Sundays. Entrance fee. www.luisekimme.com
Past Buccoo, some of Tobago’s most exclusive hotels and villas are tucked away among the hillside woodland or hugging the beach around Mount Irvine, Stonehaven and Grand Courland Bays.
Mount Irvine Bay is particularly popular with surfers during the winter months (November–April). Sailing charters, water-skiing, wakeboarding, kite-surfing and snorkelling are all available from tour operators along this part of the coast.
Overlooking Stonehaven bay is the Grafton Caledonia Wildlife Sanctuary. After Hurricane Flora in 1963 the owner of this former cocoa estate took to feeding wild birds who had lost their habitat. When she died the estate reminded a wildlife sanctuary. The house has been converted to a nature centre, and there are some pleasant hiking trails. Some of the birds have become so accustomed to humans contact they will accept food right from your hands.
The Bon Accord Lagoon is a popular spot for birdwatchers; some boatmen take visitors to a small coral white-sand beach inside the lagoon called No Man’s Land for barbecues.
Fort Bennett is signposted on the left. Little remains but a couple of cannon and a stunning view over Stonehaven Bay.
The main road winds along the coast through Black Rock, along Turtle Beach and Courland Bay, until it reaches a left-hand turnoff to Plymouth (the right fork takes you back to Scarborough). Plymouth’s modernist Courlander Monument (down Commissioner Street on the left, just before reaching the recreation ground) was created in 1978 by Janis Mintiks as a tribute to the Courlanders (of present day Latvia), who were among the earliest European settlers of Tobago. There are regular meetings of their descendants in Tobago.
Near the Monument, the cryptic inscription of the Mystery Tombstone still baffles locals and visitors alike. Of the 1783 death of Betty Stivens and her baby it says: “She was a mother without knowing it, and a wife without letting her husband know it, except by her kind indulgence to him”, adding that Mr Stivens would “deplore her death” for the rest of his life. Many interpretations of this farewell have been offered over the years, of which the most plausible is that Betty died in childbirth after a short marriage marked by kindness and indulgence.
Plymouth is also home to the oldest fort in Tobago, Fort James: its four cannons overlook Turtle Beach and Courland Bay. The Plymouth Recreation Ground was the site for the annual Plymouth Jazz Festival.
If you plan to continue up the Leeward coast, Plymouth is a good place to stock up on food and gasoline—there are no more gas stations for miles.
Leaving Plymouth, turn left onto Arnos Vale Road and have a look at the Arnos Vale Adventure Farm & Nature Reserve (the entrance is a signed road on your right). The 12-acre site includes an organic farm where you can pick and buy your own fruit, and eco lodges. It’s great for birdwatching, and also has a resident population of butterflies and reptiles. Small admission fee.
Further along the Arnos Vale Road, there’s a sign for the Arnos Vale Estate & Waterwheel*. This waterwheel is one of the best survivals in either Trinidad or Tobago, and is definitely worth a look. The estate has been developed to include a restaurant, dinner theatre, gift shop, museum and park with several nature trails. It’s a beautiful, rustic site, constructed of natural materials, with great birdwatching opportunities.
*NB: It saddens us to report that the Estate and Waterwheel have been almost totally destroyed by fire in mid-2015. There is hope that the site may be restored.
Now the Arnos Vale Road begins to climb and wind upward along the edge of the mountainous Main Ridge and Forest Reserve. Below are Culloden, Cotton and King Peter’s Bays, all with good snorkelling (Cotton Bay is accessible only by boat, and is a popular stop for day sailing trips up the coast). There are several forks in this road, often unsigned: when in doubt, ask anyone for directions.
Two villages along the way are steeped in obeah (the African-derived tradition similar to Haitian voudun—and equally misunderstood). In Les Coteaux and Golden Lane, stories of folk characters like la diablesses (a devil woman with a cloven foot), soucouyants (blood-sucking shape-shifters which move through the night in a ball of fire), Papa Bois (father of the forest), the feared Les Coteaux Jumbie and others, still resonate. Each July, during the Tobago Heritage Festival, the villages pay tribute to their mythical histories through cultural performances.
In Golden Lane, just off the main road to the left, you will find The Witch’s Grave. The story goes that Gang Gang Sara was a wise witch (or a soucouyant, depending on who you ask) who flew from Africa to Tobago centuries ago in search of her family. In her old age, after her husband Tom’s death, she climbed a giant silk cotton tree (sacred in many indigenous religions) hoping to fly back to her homeland. But having eaten local salt, she was unable to fly, and fell to her death.
At Moriah you join the Northside Road from Scarborough. Soon there is a steep descent to Castara, the home of the nation’s first Tobagonian prime minister (ANR Robinson). It is a lovely fishing village with a beautiful beach and treetop restaurant (if you follow the Castara river east for about ten minutes, you’ll find a small waterfall and plunge pool). The beauty of the area has led to an increase in accommodation, but Castara remains a quiet fishing village.
Further along the Northside Road, a short gravelly unpaved road on the left leads to one of Tobago’s most beautiful and charming beaches. Englishman’s Bay has a cafe overlooking the beach, and stalls with handmade crafts, painted and tie-dyed wraps, jewellery and souvenirs. The swimming is magnificent. If you are looking for a cosy, deserted beach on a strip of paradise, this might just be it.
The next village is Parlatuvier with its magnificent bay. Stop at the lookout to savour the view. The beach provides good swimming, though the currents can be strong and the surf a little rougher than neighbouring beaches. You can grab some snacks and a bite to eat here, though as in most of this part of Tobago there are few amenities.
Further up the coast, Bloody Bay has a more ominous name than its pristine beach of golden sand and turquoise water would suggest. Blame ancient battles. Venturing down the narrow winding path to the beach needs some determination, but there’s good swimming and snorkelling if you get there, plus newly installed beach facilities.
From Bloody Bay and L’Anse Fourmi, a newly opened stretch of road makes it possible to drive right around the island for the first time. L’Anse Fourmi began life as a village servicing the movement of produce to coastal steamers at Bloody Bay; it has a small gallery, the Paradise Art Gallery. From here, the road winds through coastal woodland, past thick clumps of bamboo and mountain cabbage palm, sometimes emerging to provide glorious views of the coastline and the Caribbean.
This is unspoiled countryside. Daggertail butterflies flit across the road, and you might see an agouti or armadillo in the evening. Birdwatchers should keep binoculars handy: there are plenty of jacamars, blue-crowned mot-mots, collared trogons, orange-winged parrots, giant cowbirds, and Tobago’s national bird, the raucous cocrico, between here and Charlotteville.
As you approach Charlotteville, the remains of Fort Cambleton—which once kept guard against marauders, but is now little more than a gazebo—offers a breathtaking view over Man o’ War Bay and its pirogues and yachts.
The road then winds on a newly constructed stretch to idyllic Charlotteville (see the Windward Coast).
The Main Ridge Forest Reserve
From Bloody Bay you can also cut straight across the island to Roxborough, climbing over the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. The landscape quickly changes, and mist may hang low over the trees. There are magnificent views at the summit, before the road starts to descend towards the windward coast.
A small lodge and lookout on the left provide refreshments, and can arrange a certified guide (look for uniforms and credentials) to give you a rainforest tour (around TT$100 per person, sometimes less for groups).
Further on, another little stand marks the entrance to the Gilpin Trail, where guides are usually plentiful. A gentle 45-minute hike through rainforest leads to a small but beautiful waterfall. The trail goes all the way down to Bloody Bay, but for that you certainly need advance planning and a good guide (and remember you may have to climb all the way back).