TRAVEL SPECIAL: TOBAGO: HAVE A GO AT TOBAGO

SUNBATHING, SNORKELING, LOUNGING ABOUT. ANDREW TUCK ROUGHS IT UP IN TOBAGO
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The Independent Culture
The first thing you need to know is that there's not a lot to do in Tobago, and I mean that as a compliment. I'm sure the tourist board would beg to differ but, let me assure you, this is the place for Inaction Man and Woman.

The pace of my week there was set by the cab driver who took us from the tiny airport to the hotel. He had greeted us by saying, "My name is Calvin Isaac, may I offer transport?" When I impatiently asked how long it took to reach the Arnos Vale Hotel, he languidly replied, "How long is the journey? Well now, we have 30 pleasant minutes ahead of us," and then added that he would be happy to take us for a drive around Tobago one day: "Call me, and let's get lost."

Unlike its unruly big brother neighbour, and constitutional partner, Trinidad, Tobago is reassuringly small at only 26 miles long and nine miles wide. Hire a car and, even if you pretend you're a Mini Metro driver, you can lap it in a day, and still be back in your hotel room in time for a pre-supper nap (crucial if you're on the slob holiday programme).

Even if you attempt something ambitious like seeing some of the island's fantastic wildlife, you soon realise that there's no point rushing around and breaking into an unbecoming sweat.

For example, we had thought about undertaking a trek into the forest to see some of the exotic bird life, but at the hotel they dutifully arrived every morning to eat toast and watermelon put out by the staff. Ice-blue tanagers, mot-mots, bare-eyed thrushes, woodpeckers, all made daily appearances three feet away from our table on the verandah. Even the chunky national bird the cockrico ("I'm sorry, but that's a chicken" said David, who was along for the slobbing. It was a fair point not undermined by a waitress who told us that although they are protected, farmers shoot them for Sunday roasts) dropped in. My favourite, however, was the yellow-breasted bananaquit or sugar bird. Sprinkle a sachet of sugar on your plate and soon they pounce on you from all directions, eagerly dabbing their tongues into their favourite food. In Trinidad and Tobago there are also 600 varieties of butterfly, 41 types of hummingbird and over 60 different bats to look out for.

The Caribbean arc of islands stretches southwards from Cuba to Trinidad, six miles north of the Venezuelan coast, but just before you reach the Trinidadian full-stop you can spot Tobago on the map. It changed hands between Spain, France Holland and Britain some 29 times between being "discovered" by Columbus in 1498 and becoming a British crown colony in 1877.

Despite its genteel rural identity, Tobago is changing as ambitious development programmes attempt to double the number of hotel beds over the coming decade. Yet, just two weeks before Christmas, at the beginning of the high season, it was hard to believe there were more than a couple of hundred tourists in all Tobago. At our hotel - an old sugar estate converted into a hotel with a great pool, stunning tropical gardens, and a secluded beach - there were never more than half a dozen other people.

When we ate at the Waterwheel, a restaurant built around an abandoned sugar mill in the now dense forest, we were the only people there all night. It seats about 150. Indeed, when we left, all the staff nipped off too, and the manager even dropped us back at our hotel.

There are three things you should stir yourself for. The first is to visit Pigeon Point, a cliche of a tropical beach with fine, white sand, coconut palms leaning precariously over the water, and an azure bay protected from rough sea by a reef. You have to pay about 50p to use the beach for a day, and there are a handful of food shacks and trinket stalls to keep you entertained if the rain hits, or the sun becomes too much.

The other two trips - to the rainforest and Little Tobago - require transport, and your best bet is to hire a jeep. For US$45 a day we got a robust Suzuki Jeep from Harvey Jack Rentals (when I asked Harvey if there were any local laws I should worry about he said, "Yeh, leave the local girls alone") and over two days saw just about every sight considered essential.

First, we lapped the island.

Starting at Arnos Vale on the northern Caribbean coast, we cut across to the main town of Scarborough on the southern Atlantic coast. There's little here really to pause for. The town is spread out on rolling hills that spill down to a natural deep bay where visiting cruise ships anchor.

It is better to drive eastwards. Soon, you are weaving along the serpentine coast road that cuts through towns with names revealing both French (Louis d'Or) and British (Pembroke, Richmond, Glamorgan) colonial pasts. The one- and two-room tin-roofed houses perch perilously on the mountain sides, while their owners sit on the stoops keeping an eye on their goats, or calling out greetings to passers-by, or laughing at the squabbling tourists darting past in Jeeps ("What do you mean I'm a dangerous driver?").

Now and then, the road straightens as it dips down to sea-level to cut across a flat bay, where the Atlantic rollers smash on the rocks. Then, in a couple of minutes, you are heading uphill again, rarely moving out of second gear, as the road twists through the forest fringes.

Finally, you are in Charlotteville, the island's most easterly point. There's a dirt road from here along the Caribbean coast but it is too dangerous unless you're on a motorbike, so return to Roxborough, where a guide will escort you on the short walk up to the Argyll Falls (he charges pennies and it isn't worth the hassle of insisting you dont want a guide, and if you just calm down for a minute you'll meet another cool Tobagonian who, if he's called Bailey, will also teach you something about the plants and animals you'll see en route).

Then, follow the road across the island to Parlatuvier, which takes you through the heart of the rain forest, and on to the safe part of the Caribbean coast road. You can drive all the way to Pigeon Point and have a well- deserved swim.

The other trip, and one worth setting aside a day for, involves you retracing your route along the Atlantic Coast to the town of Speyside, from where you can catch a glass-bottomed boat across Angel Reef to the nature reserve of Little Tobago. Boats depart at 10am and again at about 2pm, and each trip lasts about three hours.

The wildlife on Little Tobago is typically obliging and as we walked around the island, snakes and lizards made way for us, giant hermit crabs scrurried past, and nesting sea birds such as frigates, boobies and tropic birds, refused to budge from their nests even when camera lenses where just inches away. Keep at the front of your group, however, if you want to see everything; David - by now taking life at such a slow pace he was slipping in and out of consciousness - was always coming round the corner seconds after some fantastic beast had disappeared into the undergrowth and he was heard muttering, "All this money and all I've seen is three mangy chickens and a hermit crab."

On the return journey, the boat pauses over the reef to let you snorkel. Unlike other reefs around Tobago, the Speyside reef remains largely intact - although locals have been stealing the black coral to make jewellery to sell to tourists - and just feet below you are the swaying tendrils of dead men's fingers, and giant white brain corals. The variety, colour, and number of fish is staggering.

When you're back on terra firma, make sure you climb the stairs to Jemma's Sea View Restaurant which is in a tree-house in Speyside. She'll ask you want you want to eat, "Fish, lobster, or chicken", and while you stuff yourself for a couple of quid you can stare out to sea, and congratulate yourselves that you've done everything now, and can spend the next few days recovering with help of a rum punch or six, and perhaps a bit of a paddle. And an afternoon nap of course.

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: Andrew Tuck stayed at the Arnos Vale Hotel which, along with 40 other Caribbean hotels can be booked through Unique Hotels. Contact (01453 835801).

INFORMATION: One-week stays, including return flights on BWIA, but not meals, start at pounds 750 per week. BWIA International Airways (0171 745 1100) flies daily from Heathrow to Port of Spain, from where there are connections onwards to Tobago with Air Caribbean.

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