Forget the Caribbean's all-inclusive resorts. Your children will have much more fun if you let them explore beyond the walls of the kids' club. Brian Viner rents a villa in Tobago and takes the family on an adventure

It was my eight-year-old son Joseph, I'm ashamed to say, who put the Englishman into Englishman's Bay, screaming, "Oh my God, the waves gave me a wedgie!" A wedgie, for the enviably uninitiated, is the propulsion by force of one's underpants, or in this case swimming trunks, up the crack in one's bottom. It was an inexcusably vulgar lowering of the tone on what is one of Tobago's most beautiful beaches, and yet it described, more than any number of fancy adjectives, the exhilaration of playing in the crashing surf.

For reasons I cannot explain, the surf crashes far more resoundingly against Tobago's Caribbean coast than it does on the Atlantic side of the island. One might think it would be the other way round. Whatever, it meant that snorkelling opportunities were limited, although one of the cool teenage dudes who hang out at Englishman's Bay selling calabash drums, one Kenroy Frederick, undertook to lead me and my two older children, Joseph and his 10-year-old sister Eleanor, to a nearby cove where the water was calmer.

Something in Kenroy's face inspired trust, so off we went, leaving my wife Jane and five-year-old Jacob finishing lunch at Beula's Café, a tumbledown shack and the only source of refreshment on the beach. Not least of the delights of Englishman's Bay, in fact, is its remoteness and rusticity. A steep crescent of sand against a dramatic backdrop of lush forest, with no hotels in view or even many people, it looks like much of the Caribbean doubtless looked before it was colonised by the tourist industry.

We walked with Kenroy to the end of the beach and to the edge of a river of doubtful provenance - it may have been an open sewer. He urged us to wade across it, and Eleanor, Joseph and I found ourselves respectively chest-high, neck-high and waist-high in suspiciously murky water, which is when I began to doubt the wisdom of the expedition. My doubts increased as we scaled, with difficulty, a precipitous river-bank festooned with vines.

Kenroy then drew a large machete from inside the leg of his jeans - not to cut our heads off, as Joseph briefly suspected, and which would have been quite awful, but to hack a route through the dense foliage, which was disconcerting enough.

Still, we pressed on intrepidly, eventually reached the cove, and snorkelled happily for half an hour, while Kenroy sat at the water's edge sharpening his machete with a stone. Undoubtedly the machete imbued the occasion with an air of adventure, much appreciated by Joseph in particular, until he stepped on a sharp stone on the way back and began to cry. Extreme enjoyment and extreme discomfort were, indeed, close companions throughout our week in Tobago. It was the rainy season, and consequently also the mosquito season. And as comfortable as our villa at Stonehaven in the south-west of the island was, the mozzies plainly enjoyed our stay there every bit as much as we did.

We won't go back to Tobago in the rainy months, but we will go back, for it is one of the most physically appealing of Caribbean islands, and by all accounts much friendlier than its big sister Trinidad. As in Trinidad, large swaths of the island are covered by rainforest. We duly signed up for a rainforest tour, led by the engagingly jolly Harris McDonald, whose engaging jollity, at 5.30am, struck us like a blast of icy water. Harris has to start his tours some time before the crack of dawn because the rainforest, even with the protection of its spectacular canopy, is no place to be once the sun reaches full ferocity. Moreover, it is dawn when the wildlife is at its most active.

Our children, especially Jacob, had hoped to see monkeys, but there aren't any in the Tobagonian rainforest. Harris explained that although there were monkeys in neighbouring Trinidad, Tobago had treasures Trinidad didn't have, such as the striped owl. Unfortunately, the prospect of meeting a striped owl did not impress Jacob. Harris could identify not only the striped owl but also every one of the 229 other species of bird on Tobago, but could he appease that most pugnacious of creatures, the disgruntled five-year-old child? It turned out that, magnificently, he could.

It was the search for the golden olive woodpecker that cheered Jacob up. Harris gave each of us a bird to spot, although it was unlikely, he said, that we would see a white-tailed sabre wing, the world's rarest hummingbird. We did, though, and felt properly privileged. For years following the great hurricane of 1963, which devastated Tobago, the poor old white-tailed sabre wing was thought to have been wiped out.

Harris was full of such titbits but like all good tour guides, fed them to us judiciously. As for the termites, we fed those to ourselves. He showed us how to scrape a hole in a termites' nest and let them swarm all over our fingers, which were then popped into the mouth and sucked upon hard. So we all breakfasted on protein-rich termites except Jane, who for some odd reason didn't fancy any. She said she didn't want to spoil her lunch.

Our trek through the rainforest lasted two hours. We learnt that bamboo grows up to 20cm a day, and we played with a type of mimosa that recoils dramatically from the human touch, not unlike a girl I used to date, although she was called Joanna, not Mimosa. We also learnt that Tobago's rainforest has been officially protected since 13 April 1776. It is heartening to know that at the height of the War of Independence between Britain and the fledgling United States, indeed just days after British forces were ferociously expelled from Boston, someone a few thousand miles south was more concerned with nurturing the environment.

Tobago at that time belonged to the French, and James Henderson in his excellent Cadogan Guide to the Caribbean recounts the sweet tale of a Swedish diplomat called Stael, who was wooing a Mademoiselle Necker, a courtesan at the court of Marie Antoinette. Mlle Necker told her suitor that he could have her hand if he were made an ambassador. The Queen approved of the liaison, and of Mlle Necker's social climbing. She wrote to King Gustavus asking him to promote Stael, and the King said he would, if in return for that and one or two other favours, Stael could secure Tobago for Sweden. He did his best but the French would only give up St Barthélémy in the Leeward Islands. However, Marie Antoinette wrote again to the King, pleading Stael's case, and the lucky chap duly bagged both his ambassadorship and Mlle Necker.

It was no wonder that the Swedes coveted Tobago, nor that the French wanted to protect what turned out to be a fragile claim on the island, which later passed into British hands, for its soil was fertile and its plantations prosperous. Just as "to be Barbadosed", meaning deportation, was a punishment dreaded in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, so people aspired to be "as rich as a Tobago planter".

But with the collapse in 1884 of the British company AM Gillespie and Co, the sugar importer on which all Tobago's estates were reliant, the island was plunged into an economic depression which in many ways persists today. Five times as many Tobagonians leave as stay, among them the footballer Dwight Yorke, although unlike Yorke most leave for Trinidad, which, from Tobago's southern coast is easily and irresistibly visible.

Still, none of the Tobagonians we met seemed to be longing to go, and everywhere we were treated with enormous warmth and hospitality, by no means prevalent throughout the Caribbean. Apparently, the petrochemicals industry rather than tourism is the bulwark of Tobago's economy, with the result that tourists are generally treated without pushiness or resentment.

Such touristy areas as there are are concentrated near the airport on Tobago's south-western tip. Pigeon Point is a long, crowded beach with a $3 (£1.60) admission charge, and in our experience probably worth avoiding except that if we had I would not have had the inestimable pleasure of hearing an enormous and bright pink Yorkshirewoman, with a Satan's Slaves tattoo on her shoulder, saying: "Can I 'ave two flying fish sandwiches, love?"

The social antithesis of Pigeon Point is nearby Coco Reef, a smart hotel where we had lunch one day and watched some almost painfully genteel English children playing a game called "Marco Polo" in the pool. Brits outnumber all other visiting nationalities in Tobago, incidentally; four British charters a day arrive at Crown Point Airport, yet there are no direct flights from the United States.

But despite or more likely because of our compatriots, we felt no more comfortable at Coco Reef than we had at Pigeon Point; the place we liked best was Store Bay, where there was a line of colourful fast-food joints all selling the local speciality of buss-up shut, a kind of curry, made with beef, chicken, vegetables or, to a predictable chorus of "yeugghs" from my kids, goat.

Also at Store Bay were a dozen or so scattered kiosks selling attractive tat: shell necklaces and bamboo bird-feeders. At one of them I asked for Brenda, who'd been recommended to me as the best hair-braider in Store Bay if not the whole of Tobago. It wasn't my own hair I wanted braided and beaded; there are laws in rural Herefordshire, where I live, against middle-aged men doing that sort of thing. But my daughter badly wanted hers done, which took Brenda 90 minutes and cost a cool 250 Trinidad and Tobago dollars, about £22.

While I was waiting I knocked back a few Carib beers at the deliciously named Tobago Taxi Co-op Society Beach Bar and Restaurant, and then wandered back to find Brenda's seven-year-old daughter Abina helping her mum to braid Eleanor's hair. As they twisted and twizzled, Brenda and I talked parenting. "Do you beat your children?" Brenda asked. "Er, no," I said. She looked disapproving. "The Bible says you should," she said. "Don't spare the rod or you'll spoil the child."

Even by Caribbean standards, Tobago seemed to us to be an unusually God-fearing island. We drove our rented car up hill, down dale, and through rainforest, and rarely went more than 10 minutes without seeing a church. Petrol stations, though, were as rare as churches were abundant, which caused us more than one anxious homeward journey. In fact, we thought we might have to subscribe to the local custom of "pulling the bull", hitching lifts in private cars but paying for the ride. It seemed like an eminently sensible way of getting around.

Our villa, when we did finally creak back to it on a virtually empty tank, was blissfully air-conditioned and superbly equipped, although we quickly had to learn the essentials of self-catering in the tropics: number one, if you don't store your opened packet of cornflakes in the fridge, you will be beaten to breakfast by ants.

Staying in a villa and renting a car struck us as the best way to holiday in Tobago. The hotels we looked at, with the exception of the chi-chi Coco Reef, had a distinctly tired air. But it was not always thus. The Arnos Vale Hotel, where we had tea one afternoon, was where Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon spent their honeymoon. And the Blue Haven Hotel, on the Atlantic side of the island near the capital, Scarborough, spent the 1950s as one of the Caribbean's most famous resorts. Rita Hayworth, Jack Lemmon and Robert Mitchum stayed there, but they are all dead, alas. The Blue Haven still has considerable faded charm, however. As, for that matter, does Tobago.

Give me the facts

How do I get there?

The Viners travelled to Tobago with Carrier (01625 547020; www.carrier.co.uk) and stayed at The Villas At Stonehaven. In February, seven nights in a two-bedroom villa starts at £1,185 per person based on four sharing. The price includes flights from Heathrow, private transfers and the services of a housekeeper. Alternatively, in February seven nights' rental of a two-bedroom villa starts at £2,435 on an accommodation-only basis including a housekeeper.

What can I do there?

Harris McDonald, the Viners' rainforest tour guide, can be contacted in Tobago on 001 868 759 0170; email harris_jungle@hotmail.com.

Where can I get more information?

Trinidad and Tobago Tourism (020-8350 1009; www.visittnt.com).

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