Early one day as I pored over a map on the side of the road, a haunting, rhythmic sound wafted in through the closed windows of my car. My first thought was that of a horn from a distant ship. But the tone had an ancient, ethereal quality — it reminded me of a Tibetan monk signaling the start of meditative practice. The fact that the sound disappeared before I could place its origin only made it all the more haunting. Only later did I learn its everyday origin: a fishmonger blowing a conch shell as he made his rounds of the villages in his truck, announcing the day's catch for sale.
Mornings in Tobago often presented unexpected moments. While strolling along Buccoo Beach, I ran into a man tugging on frayed ropes, coaxing two of his protesting goats into the water for a swim. This startling sight turned out to be a decades-long island tradition. The farmer was giving his animals a workout, hoping their paddling would produce improvements in endurance and strength for the ever-popular Goat Races held around Easter and several other times each year.
Low-key Tobago stands in contrast to its massive, more boisterous neighbor that helps make up the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. As you cruise down twisting roads that wind along the coast and through the lush interior, the differences between these two islands become evident. Tobago's barely 120-square-mile island holds just over a dozen traffic lights. Sheep regularly wander into the middle of roads, including the route to King's Bay Beach, a peaceful swimming spot. In Charlotteville, one of several sleepy villages, the only activity seems to center on Man O' War Bay, where fishermen are tending their boats, or cleaning and cutting up the day's catch. I felt myself drawn into this chill vibe, put my Type A, frenetic energy on a back burner, and sought out tranquil pursuits.
I looked beyond the usual sun-, sand- and surf-centered activities that are so abundant on Tobago, and found plenty to explore.
I booked an afternoon of cycling with Tobago Mountain Bike Tours. Its dreadlocked owner, Eamon Healy-Singh, greeted me near Stonehaven Bay, one of the loveliest stretches of golden sand on the island. Since I design jewelry, I eyed his pendant necklace. "It's an original stone ax tool," said Eamon. "From the native Carib Indians, the island's original inhabitants." Not your typical mountain biking guide accessory, that's for sure.
We pedaled along quiet, narrow lanes between pastel-painted houses where backyards bloomed with bougainvillea. Eamon rolled to a stop, bending down to pick up several of what locals call golden apples that were strewn on the ground. "It's for our snack," he declared, along with several papayas he soon purchased at a nearby fruit stand. The peace was broken by a cacophonous steel band practicing for the weekly Sunday School, a festival where dozens of street vendors sell food and crafts in Buccoo, and when the island's usual calm transforms to raucous.
Heading south, Eamon led me down a serene, forested dirt road, slicing through the expansive Latour Family Estate. Once a major coconut plantation that supplied oil, the grounds are littered with coconuts. Here, I got a botany lesson, as Eamon pointed out tamarind, soaring samaan trees from Africa, and white mangrove, one of four types found in Tobago, and one that prefers interior swamps.
Never far from the water, we stopped at a wetland where a fantastical wall of intertwined aerial roots (growing from red mangrove) lent an air of magic to a narrow pier. "This lagoon, Bon Accord, is healthy," said Eamon as he reflected on the density of this plant species that's key in the local ecology, including as a fish nursery. Numerous fish species were swimming about, including several small barracuda and a brilliant yellow butterflyfish.
Navigating other woodland roads, I noticed a whitewashed, bladeless Dutch windmill dating to the 17th century that now has a new life as a unique dwelling. An idyllic picnic spot beckoned at the end of a 4-foot-wide boardwalk leading to peaceful Petit Trou Lagoon, and we sat down alongside two blue herons perching silently on the shore. All was mellow, as Eamon carefully sliced the golden apples and papayas, sharing them as we watched two fishermen bait their hooks.
Chocoholics can satisfy their cravings at the Tobago Cocoa Estate, a 47-acre property devoted to Trinitario, one of three cocoa varieties. Cassava, banana and immortelle trees with their brilliant crimson blossoms all nestle the cocoa plants, providing necessary shade, while cherry, soursop, mango, Scorpion peppers (the world's second-hottest) and other plant species grow alongside, illustrating the tremendous variety of Caribbean produce.
During my hourlong guided tour of this estate, I learned about bean-to-bar processing. It takes some six months for the tiny flower of the cocoa plant to develop into a pod that's then cracked open with a cedar mallet, revealing its treasure: over four dozen beans. Wrapped in sweet flesh, the beans are laid out in cedar boxes where they ferment for five days, until they become brown. Then, the beans are carted to the drying house for several days, which, together with the fermentation, is a key step in delivering the cocoa's aromatic flavor profile. The tour's highlight is savoring a sample of the single-estate bars, especially the 70 percent cocoa with its rich texture and fruity notes.
A visit to the Kimme Museum is an encounter with the fanciful, the creative and the unexpected. Two imaginative murals — one of winged humans and another with a woman sprouting Medusa-like tresses — are painted on the whitewashed facade of this fretwork-detailed house and studio of Luise Kimme, a German master sculptor. Even into her early 70s, the artist was renowned for hefting an electric saw, crafting life-size renderings of mythological, religious and dancing figures from whole trunks of native and European woods, such as mahogany, oak, samaan and cedar.
Wander up and down staircases through the maze of rooms — the house, a work of art itself, was self-designed and expanded over the decades — to discover a whimsical mermaid cast in bronze reclining near the pool, and a sculpture of azure-hued birds sitting atop the roof. Perched high above the Caribbean Sea and known locally as "The Castle," the Kimme Museum also displays the artist's lively watercolors, oils and charcoals, as well as ceramics and paintings from Cuba, a country she frequently visited.
Birds and botanicals
With a slightly misleading name, the eight-acre Adventure Farm and Nature Reserve is more of a peaceful retreat and an eco-oasis — it's a working organic farm, tropical garden and hummingbird haven planted with myriad botanical delights. The Mot Mot trail, one of several curving through this bucolic landscape, is lined with West Indian avocado, mango and banana trees. Pale vented pigeons, tanagers, ant shrikes and shiny cowbirds are just a few of the birds contributing to an abundance of chattering and twittering. Other animals, though shy, can appear during the dry season: Iguanas, Sally painter lizards and agoutis, though more shy, may make appearances during the dry season, from January through May.
A smattering of signage designates other native plants and birds: a massive traveler's palm with leaves that can extend 10 feet, ruby topaz hummingbirds hovering above blossoms, and an impressive samaan tree with a broad crown that can extend 100 feet. Several benches ring a pond, an ideal spot to sit and wait patiently for potential wildlife sightings. Sometimes anolis, opossum and lizards come to drink. Before departing, I savored a flavorful scoop of ice cream. It was a sweet treat, quite like Tobago itself.
Jeanine Barone is a New York City-based journalist who writes about travel, food and wine, art, design and architecture.