Q&A: In Tobago - under the mango tree
The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered
Saturday 16 December 2000
Q. In March we will celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary and plan to splash out on a special luxury winter-sun holiday. Our eight-year-old son is a great fan of nature programmes and has been glued to the current
Andes to Amazon series, so if possible, we would like to go somewhere with interesting wildlife. Where can we combine the two?
James and Anna Shepherd, Sheffield
Q. In March we will celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary and plan to splash out on a special luxury winter-sun holiday. Our eight-year-old son is a great fan of nature programmes and has been glued to the current Andes to Amazon series, so if possible, we would like to go somewhere with interesting wildlife. Where can we combine the two? James and Anna Shepherd, Sheffield
A. The closest you can come to Amazon to Andes without actually being in South America are the Caribbean islands of Tobago and Trinidad (known locally as T&T). Just seven miles off the Venezuelan coast, these twin islands were once part of the South American mainland and for this reason retain a tremendous diversity of plants and animals. Not only that; migratory birds stop off here en route North and South, and marine life flourishes in the warm waters.
Tobago, the friendlier, safer, smaller and more southerly of the two islands would probably suit your family best. The tourist office promotes it as "Crusoe's island", though it's arguable if this was the place Defoe had in mind. But there is no argument that Tobago is an idyllic place to get stranded on for a week or two. You will never be far away from nature, and it's also clean and child-friendly. In fact, the greatest danger you're likely to face is a coconut falling on your head (I'm serious - don't sit under palm trees, particularly in the wind).
The highlight from among the wealth of wildlife experiences available is the night-time "turtle watch" during the March-July nesting season. There are expeditions every night that take you within feet of giant leatherback turtles as they heave themselves up the beach, dig a hole and lay between 100 to 150 eggs each, before returning to the sea for the rest of the year.
Tobago is visited by 210 bird species, and there is no shortage of good bird-watching sites. Again, March is the beginning of the nesting season. Don't miss out on a visit to Bird-of-Paradise Island (properly called Little Tobago) and the neighbouring sanctuary of St Giles Island, home to pelicans and other seabirds. One of Tobago's national birds is the cocrico, a pheasant-like bird that can be heard squawking all over the island, and from a beachside balcony, you may well be lucky enough to see hummingbirds close up. Other exotic bird species include tanagers, bananaquits, parrots and motmots.
Another reason the island is home to so many species, is the variety of habitats it sustains, ranging from mangrove swamp to evergreen rain forest. Papaya, mango, breadfruit and palm trees, cocoa groves and wild orchids are among the flora you will encounter. To give you a feeling for the rest of the fauna, there are 123 butterfly species, 16 types of lizard, 24 sorts of snake (fortunately none is poisonous), frogs, bats and unusual mammals such as armadillos, opossums, wild boars and ocelots. And that's before you start on the marine life. Snorkel or scuba dive at Buccoo Reef off the southeast coast, where angel, butterfly, surgeon and parrot fish complement the coral. The huge land crabs that make a clicking noise with their one large pincer are sure to fascinate your son.
Oh yes, and the beach life. Well, think, "Underneath the mango tree" (not the coconut tree) and you're pretty close. With temperatures in the high 80s and an average of seven to eight hours' sun a day, it's paradisiacal. Many of the bays interlink so you can walk for miles along the sands. The sea can be a bit rough, but the local children love it, and there's no reason you shouldn't too. As you laze on the sands, enjoy a cocktail containing the local rum served up in a coconut shell. Creole food, calypso and a welcoming atmosphere will help to make this a holiday worth splashing out on.
Many hotels offer organised wildlife expeditions and talks, but two worth considering are the Arnos Vale Hotel, built on an old sugar plantation and set in tropical gardens, where the event of the day is feeding the tropical birds at tea-time; and the Rex Turtle Beach that has a beach front location near where the turtles lay their eggs. The hotel argues that the risks of making this a spectator sport are outweighed by the protection their security guard offers the turtles - preventing them from being made into a local delicacy.
With a multitude of tour operators organising Caribbean holidays, finding a pre-booked package shouldn't be a problem, and will probably be the cheapest option. Tropical Places (0870 727 7077; www.tropical.co.uk) offers seven nights in the Arnos Vale Hotel for £899 per adult and £649 per child, including flights, transfers, tax and board. British Airways Holidays offers seven nights at the Rex Turtle Beach Hotel for £969 per adult and £569 per child (www.britishairways.com/holiday/ukhols; 0870 242 4245). Other companies worth costing include Caribbean Expressions (www.caribbeanexpressions.co.uk; 020-7431 2131), Kuoni (01306 747000; www.kuoni.co.uk), Hayes and Jarvis (0870 8989890; www.hayesandjarvis.com) and Complete Caribbean (01423 531031).
Independent travellers on a tighter budget could try Arthur's By the Sea, which is close to two of the best beaches in Tobago (£50 per room per night based on two sharing). The best fare quoted on the website www.skydeals.co.uk (which should be broadly matched by discount specialists) for flights-only on BWIA is £413 per adult and £314 per child - about half the price you would pay if you booked with BWIA or with British Airways directly. For more information, go to www.visittnt.com or try a guidebook such as the Insight Guide to Trinidad and Tobago which has a substantial section on the islands' wildlife.
Q. My daughter is doing her GCSEs this year, and for a treat I'd like to take her on a spa weekend, preferably outside the UK. Could you suggest somewhere beautiful that is not more than a couple of hours' flight time away where we could relax? Mrs Antonia Dean, Winchester
A. It sounds like you want pampering without the deprivation factor. To combine this with stunning surroundings and a short flight-time, try the recently opened Lodge and Spa at Inchydoney Island, Clonakilty, West Cork (00 353 23 33143; www.inchydoneyisland.com).
This luxury hotel, 30 miles from Cork, is the first spa to specialise in thalassotherapy (sea water therapy) outside mainland Europe. The hotel takes this originally French therapy and adds American-style self-indulgence. The philosophy behind it is that the environment is critical to enabling you to relax, and so, set on a peninsula linked to the mainland by a causeway, the hotel overlooks beautiful Atlantic beaches for half a mile in either direction. There is a feeling of space and you can take nature walks in the fresh sea air and see otters, seals and waterbirds.
The hotel's Gulfstream Restaurant has modern decor, great ocean views, and a healthy French and light Mediterranean menu, including plenty of fresh fish. There is also a nautical-themed pub if you want something less formal.
During the day, detoxify in the thalassotherapy centre where fresh sea water is imported, filtered and heated to 32C for use in the pool and in treatments such as jet showers, balneotherapy (focusing water jets on whichever part of your body is stressed) and algotherapy (using mineralised seaweed like a mud wrap). The pool itself has counter-current swimming, a waterfall, geyser spa, air spa, microbubble seats, underwater massage seats, neck shower, underwater jets and an aquagymnastic area.
There is also an extensive beauty clinic where you can indulge your daughter. Natural marine products from Thalgo and Espa are used for facials and massages, and pedicures, manicures and other treatments are also on offer.
A weekend break including six treatments, bed, breakfast and dinner would cost you £330 per person. Or you can book treatments when you get there, in which case bed, breakfast and dinner only costs £180 each. Return "no-frills" flights with Ryanair from London Stansted in January, leaving on Friday and returning on Sunday are from £68.80 per person. Add to that the cost of a 40-minute taxi ride from Cork Airport to the hotel, about £30 each way, which the hotel will organise for you on request.
Send your family travel questions to S F Robinson, The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall,London E14 9RSO firstname.lastname@example.org
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