Tobago, the un-resort Caribbean gem

Apr 19, 2018

I had been meaning to take the children to a lively carnival for a while. Turns out, we never made it to the streets of carnival on Tobago because we were too busy doing everything else. What a winter treat this island was, like an unexpected little candy: sweet, colourful and a bit rough on the edges. Long but easy flight from London (stopover in St Lucia, only 4h time difference) or direct from the US, budget-friendly with un-resort-type accommodations. Add to this the fact that Tobago was unaffected by hurricane Irma last year, and that it only gets about 30,000 tourists a year (compared to 500,000 in Barbados!) and you have the recipe for a perfect family getaway, summer in winter.

 

From the moment that we tasted the sweetness of slow living in the North of the island, we could not bother taking the car to the carnival crowds of Roxborough and Scarborough – although I am told that some caravans were fun to watch, albeit quite disorganised. We kept busy doing either nothing by the beach of Castara, or strolling around for a jungle hike, a kayak expedition or a visit to a waterfall..

Tobago is not for everyone. It is not your typical all-inclusive or swanky Caribbean island – and hopefully it will stay that way. To be fully appreciated, Tobago requires an easy-going and forgiving spirit, and it reminded me how much pleasure we get from less chichi and more authentic places. Jah man.

sign welcome to paradise on the beach, Tobago

SWEET DREAMS

We based ourselves the entire time in Castara Retreat, a wonderful eco-lodge in the north of the island. This (un)hotel / (un)resort opened some 15 years ago and belongs to an English couple who come and stay 3 months a year. The rest of the time, the place is run by a very kind local couple – Jeanelle and Porridge. One of the team member is called Milk, prompting the children to joke if we were also going to meet honey and jam:). Porridge and his wife look after Castara Retreat as if it was their own, with smiles and many kind gestures from arranging a boat trip last minute when the sea calmed down and we were all craving for some good snorkelling, to having fresh banana bread delivered to our cottage, baked by Jeanette’s cousin.

Our stay at Castara Retreat

Castara Retreat has a detailed code of conduct highlighting its responsible tourism efforts. The team works hand in hand with the local community to provide authentic experiences to the guests and it is heartwarming to be given the opportunity to take part in their approach. Lorna, the owner, tells the story of how she worked relentlessly for a few years had in hand with chef Keisha to create a restaurant experience, simply called The Caribbean Kitchen, that embraces the local recipes yet is on par with western service. I bet the Caribbean Kitchen would make Alain Ducasse jealous if he saw Keisha’s setting, working from an open-air kitchen facing the endless sea from high above.

Castara retreat pictured from the sea

All the cottages at Castara Retreats are different in layout and scattered over the hill, each with incredible sea views.
They come equipped with a well-appointed kitchen, handy when you want to prepare an early breakfast for the jet-lagged children, but they are not all equivalent in charm, so choose well.  We stayed in Treetop, the largest cottage but I regretted not to choose Birdsong or Rainforest which have better attention to details as they are entirely made with red cedar woods and beautiful colonial shutters. Treetop is one of the newest cottages. It offers good space for a family of five and proximity to the beach (you still need to cross a road) while it lacks in style, and it faces the village from above, being quite noisy when calypso music is blasting! The little earplugs next to the bed were a thoughtful detail. Clearly, the owners have put all efforts on the authentic factor and making guests feel connected to the local culture and the community, which is very admirable. With some more attention given to the style-factor, this place will become a true rustic-chic getaway.

Other options for the night

There are not too many options for style + personality + beach access + not an old-fashioned all-inclusive resort. The best quality big resort is located in the southern part of the island, together with some pretty villas available for rental:  those ones are on the carribean coast, as well as those. Not too far from Castara, above stunning Englishman’s bay, there is an area called Miss Mills hill. It’s not easy to access as the road is steep and bumpy, but we took a drive up there and the views are beyond postcard-pretty. Some houses are available for rent too, hidden in the vegetation and must be a haven of peace. This one called Tanager Ridge Villa and also Parrot Estate seem interesting but you’d have to inform yourself well for accessibility, services, food shopping possibilities etc.

enormous rainbow on Castara Beach, Tobago

DON’T WORRY BE HAPPY

Here is our collective list of favorite things to do for a week stay:

Hike in the Main Ridge Forest Reserve with Darlington

Our guide darlington (darlington@chancenaturetours.com) took us on this easy 2hours walk up North, and it was pure wonder. The luxuriant tropical forest is mesmerising, one of the most ancient in the world. Darlington shared tales of door-trapped spiders, boa constrictors on the path and poo of bats which the children loved. We hid under giant leaves when the rain came pouring, and took lots of photos of the children looking tiny next to the gigantic bambous.

gigantic bambous in the national forest, Tobago

Swim in the waterfalls

The children loved walking up the little trail in Castara to swim in the waterfall. It’s a rather tiny one, easy to find from Chenno’s cafe, but it’s fun to have it on your doorstep and swim in fresh water on a hot day.

naive painting of waterfall in Tobago

Swim at night among bioluminescent plankton

The evening spent with Radical Sports kayaking in the laguna to experience the bioluminescent plankton will stay in everyone’s memory. We swam in the dark waters of the laguna, near red mangroves (me asking if caymans enjoy swimming there too) creating sparkly fairy dust all around our bodies due to the high concentration of bioluminescent plankton. Pure magic.

Yoga and Massage at Castara

– I enjoyed an introduction to Kundalini yoga with Elspeth in the beautiful wellness studio of Castara Retreat, facing the endless sea.
– I also loved (of course!) a deep tissue massage with Hazel after the long-haul flight (frenchsecrets342@gmail.com) although her prices are as high as what you’d pay in NY or London.

By boat or by car

– The 30′ car drive from Castara to Roxborough crossing the island up in the jungle and back down on the Atlantic coast is wonderful. I couldn’t stop telling the children in the car to look around, while we all sang to the tunes of Bob Marley’s redemption song.
– A boat ride with Porridge’s friend, stopping for snorkelling on Englishman’s bay, one of the most beautiful beaches that you can imagine, Robinson Crusoe style.

fishermen back on the beach in Castara Community

Things we didn’t get a chance to do but came well recommended:

Visiting the Tobago Cocoa plantation in the center of the island, on the Friday 11am tour. I met Duane, the owner, a few months ago in London and was intrigued by his approach to making seriously good chocolate with a master chocolatier in Paris. You can buy his 70% or 80%, or simply come to Castara Retreat and indulge in the chocolate mousse. I surely did more than once.
Riding with horses is an interesting organisation: they take clients on horse riding tours every morning at 9am along the beach and in the water (for a rather hefty price of US$100 p.p. adult or children) and they run a non-profit in the afternoons, Healing with Horses, to work with disadvantaged children and adults in need. I very much like this approach of using tourism as a means to fund a organisation with a great cause. I just wish they had more reasonable rates for paying guests.
– Visiting the Argyll waterfall, the largest on the island.
Surfing in Mount Irvine Bay. Marcelo wanted to do that so much but Castara is 1h drive from the buzz of the South of the island, and the road is quite tricky, so we you have to plan well ahead.
– Going on a serious half day nature walk with Newton, starting at 7am equipped with binoculars and all.
Scuba-diving with the non-profit organisation ERIC, which promotes sustainability in the northern part of the island with a research center (and they use the proceeds from scuba diving to fund the center).

HUNGRY

The food was fresh and truly yummy across the board, even in the tiniest beach shacks.
We had most dinners at The Caribbean Kitchen.  What the restaurant lacks in atmosphere, it makes up with incredible sunset views and a long menu worth trying entirely. My vote goes to Keisha’s fish cakes and chocolate mousse. The children exhausted all the stock of her homemade tagliatelle (i know, they should have had fresh fish everyday but I gave up my French mom rules during this trip!) They even had virgin cocktails at mealtimes every day..

Cocktail time for the children at Castara Retreat Tobago

Castara Retreat’s restaurant is closed for breakfast, which is a bit of a pain but the logic behind is to have you explore the village and have breakfast in one of the cafes there, such as popular Cheno’s. The trouble is that they all open from 9am so when the children wake up early and hungry, you have to have a back up plan.

say hello from treehouse on one of the 10 prettiest beach es in the world! Tobago

 

A close number 2 and number 3 favorites were Cascreole on the beach of Castara and the little beach shack on Englishman’s bay. Cascreole served us a sophisticate grilled kingfish with a coconut milk sauce, roasted pumpkins, kale and jasmine rice. We couldn’t believe our eyes – and our tastebuds  – given how low key and inexpensive the place is. Our meal on Englishman’s bay felt straight out of a movie, seating upstairs in the cutest beach hut, everything simple yet so right, and it’s been there for 23 years!. And the view over the turquoise water is impossible to describe, so beautiful.
We also drove to Gemma’s Kitchen in Speyside and while the food was slow to arrive and not particularly exciting, I am glad that we experienced this charming little spot overlooking the Atlantic coast. We never got to try the fish pot but I was told it’s a must, south of the island.

GOOD TO KNOW

Rent a car for the duration of your trip because it’s not easy to arrange a taxi on short notice in Castara, and you’ll definitely need one to venture around the island. Prince Robinson (prince@birdiesnesttobago.com +1 868-721-6970) has some of the best deals for quality 4×4.
– If staying north at Castara, and especially after a long flight, it’s worthwhile having a taxi pick you up (arrange with porridge from Castara retreats!) or at least you following a taxi in your own car as the roads are not easy to understand and google map will sometime send you to weird places.
Stock up on mosquito repellent before your arrival, they’re fierce especially when the breeze slows down.
Stock up also on some favourite food items for breakfast or snacks for the children as the local supermarkets carry local fruits but anything packaged is very processed and sugary.
Rent those wellington boots from the man at the beginning of the jungle trail, you won’t regret them once you are inside the jungle! And do bring socks for that walk.
Bring your own snorkelling equipment as it’s not easy to find some on the island

Sunset daydreaming on castara beach, Tobago

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