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Spoiled by the Unspoiled in Tobago

DESTINATION: CARIBBEAN

At the end of the Caribbean island rainbow, a wealth of pristine beaches, eco-preserves and hustle-free fun

January 02, 2000|JOHN HENDERSON | John Henderson is a sportswriter for the Denver Post

SPEYSIDE, Tobago — What's the penalty here for trespassing? I had to wonder, because there's no way a beach as beautiful as Bloody Bay could be this empty unless it was private. My friend, Nancy, and I had lolled on the white sand and swum in the clear, warm water for two hours and hadn't seen a soul. Until now.

A boy was approaching from the far end of the sand. Shirtless, he wore high-top basketball shoes and bluejeans held up by a makeshift yellow cloth belt. We figured he was the son of the owner wanting us off his turf. Nope.

His name was Chiemeka. He was 13 and had been catching sand crabs for his mother. He saw our rental car and hoped we'd give him a lift up the hill and down the road to his village.

I asked him if this beautiful beach ever got crowded.

Never, he said. "It's kind of far away."

So is Tobago. Thank God.

If the chain of Caribbean islands is the rainbow of the Western Hemisphere, the nation at the end of that rainbow is truly a pot of gold. Trace the Caribbean isles south, and your index finger bottoms out at Trinidad and Tobago, two islands united since independence from Britain in 1962. Tobago is 40 miles off the northeast coast of Venezuela and just 12 miles north of Trinidad, its bigger and busier sister island.

As with any pot of gold, Tobago is not easy to get to. Only one U.S. airline flies here--American, from San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was using bonus miles from United on its mileage partner Air Canada. My trip--no, make that journey--involved a six-hour layover in Toronto and a five-hour layover in Trinidad before a 30-minute British West Indies Airways flight that touched down in Tobago 23 hours after I'd left my home in Denver. Getting to Katmandu took me less time.

It was worth the trouble. Tobago (population 18,600) is what the Caribbean once was. The era of untouched bays and beaches may have ended with the first wave of European exploration in the Caribbean. But much of Tobago (derived from the Carib Indian word for tobacco) would look pretty much the same to Columbus as it did in 1498, when he sailed past on the way to Trinidad. Secluded bays and palm-fringed beaches but no (visible) hotels and few people. A rain forest that covers a quarter of the island, with one of the most magnificent waterfalls in the Caribbean. World-class scuba diving, snorkeling and bird-watching.

What also hasn't changed is a fierce resolve among the people to keep the island their island. They vow not to give in to the get-rich-quick beachfront sale bonanza that plagues the islands to the north, or the urbanization that cripples their sister island to the south. And the government is doing everything it can to help.

"Money's not everything," said Darrion Kent, a bird-watching and rain forest guide. "Everybody who goes to Trinidad says Tobago is better. We want to keep it that way."

It didn't take long for us to learn Tobago isn't one giant souvenir stand. Nancy and I landed at the little airport at 8 a.m. and got in a cab driven by a fellow named Linsom. We were thirsty and wanted a cold drink before we started the 90-minute ride to our hotel on the north end of the island. I offered to buy Linsom one if he would stop somewhere. Anywhere.

Three times we stopped at one of the tiny wooden snack shacks that dot Tobago's roadside, all emblazoned with Coke signs, before we found one that had any in stock: It had one bottle. I dejectedly walked back with one Coke and one apology.

"That's OK," Linsom said. "I just said I wanted one to be polite."

Fortunately, deserted beaches were easier to find. As Linsom slowly wound his way up the road on the island's southern side, isolated beaches jumped in and out of the landscape. I kept expecting fences reading "Property of Big and Bigger Hotels Ltd." But the only thing between us and the water was the occasional pile of driftwood.

Finally we passed through the village of Speyside on Tobago's eastern end. We climbed a steep hill topped by a spectacular lookout over an isolated bay right off a tourist poster, then dropped through rich vegetation to our hotel.

The Blue Waters Inn is probably the classiest hotel outside the tourism enclave near the airport. It's on its own large, lush property looking out toward Little Tobago, an islet a few miles offshore. We could get up from the rattan chairs on the private porch outside our spacious (standard) room and walk no more than 30 feet into the Atlantic waters of Batteaux Bay. A 45-minute drive across the island would take us to the Caribbean Sea. The room rate in November: $95. That gets you a closet in Martinique.

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