A few weeks ago two of my besties from high school and I embarked on our 3rd annual Girls' "Weekend" (which of course, is always longer than just a weekend). In past years we've visited Zion, Utah (GORGEOUS) for some hiking (and lounging and drinking) and New Orleans (CRAZY) for literary sight seeing & beach day trips to Pensacola (and lounging and drinking). This year we decided to venture outside of the states to somewhere tropical and different; we went to Tobago (pronounced Ta-bay-go).
Where is Tobago, you ask?
Good question. I didn't know anyone, nor had I met anyone during the planning phase of this trip, who had even HEARD of Tobago and my only experience with the country was from my college days when I was assistant manager at the Birkenstock Store and every sandal had a city/country name.
The "Tobago" Birkenstock
The past few months have been pretty crazy for me with deadlines and other work stuff so my friend Rachel took the reins and planned our entire trip. I knew it would be sunny and warm (and of course nice, she wouldn't choose a bad location)--but I had no real expectations. Tobago as it turns out, is an exciting, isolated, "can't believe my eyes this place is not more popular," Caribbean paradise. We stayed in the Bacolet Beach area and steps from the pool of our gorgeous rented home were mango, bread fruit and lime trees ripe for the picking and a jungle path leading to a deserted white sand beach with aqua water. In fact, we were surrounded by deserted beaches with the warmest water and our only visible neighbors---- peaceful, grazing donkeys and really fast, really green lizards (although the local lazy river had resident alligators that we didn't see -- unfortunately, or fortunately).
Anyone can buy a guidebook for Tobago and its big brother Trinidad to learn about the islands, so I won't go into that type of review. Instead, here are SIX things the guide books may not tell you (or at least in the same exciting way). :-)
1. Where IS Tobago anyway?
Tobago, claimed "sighted" by Columbus, is technically IN South America but it is part of the West Indies therefore considered Caribbean albeit the most southern of the Caribbean Islands. Trinidad (where foreign flights arrive before taking a shorter flight to Tobago) is less than 7 miles from Venezuela. Trinidad and Tobago are two separate islands 21 miles apart but are considered one country and officially called the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago or as the locals call it, TT.
2. Sunday School is NOT about church.
Summer months are considered the off-season in TT so most of the people we met were locals. For the most part, they were extremely friendly and most of them asked us the same question: Are you going to Sunday School? No, this island isn't any more religious than any other Caribbean spot (but we did wonder...); it turns out that Sunday School has NOTHING to do with religion but with music, dancing and "liming" (visiting, hanging out) with friends and neighbors.
By the time Sunday rolled around, we three were pretty good at liming (pronounced LIME-ing) so we figured we better try SS. Local steel drum bands start off the night and play for two hours or so then open it up for a DJ that plays loud, local music that keeps everyone dancing until 4 or 5 am (don't ask me how they get up and go to work the next day). Although we were three of maybe seven tourists gathered at this dockside area off the Caribbean Sea, we felt safe and not too out of place. The people watching was entertainment on its own level. Fun Fact: Steel Drumming got its start in TT.
3. Driving--not so easy.
Locals drive crazy. I drive in NYC regularly and I'm saying this: locals in Tobago drive CRAZY. They pass giant trucks that barely fit the narrow lanes on mountainous curves; they swerve by goats and people meandering in the middle of the road and they tail-gate like crazy----while riding the horn. And for my non-New Zealand readers: be ready to drive on the LEFT side of the road with the steering wheel on the RIGHT side of the car.
And for fun -- please count how many times you intend to turn on the blinker but instead get the windshield wipers flapping. Good times.
Here are some (non-intentionally humorous, yet true) tips from a local website on driving.
- Keep your eyes peeled for local hazards ... chickens, sheep and goats, cows, adults crossing the road.... Politely tap your car horn if you suspect danger — its better to be safe than sorry. (Author's Note: we were tapping our horn nonstop around the tight curves all over the island. Also, street dogs should also be on that list—watch out for them!)
- Cars inevitably drive with their windows rolled down ... and as expressive people while talking we gesticulate constantly, hands outside the drivers car window are not uncommon. Be aware — that hand may (or may not) have been making a signal. Slow down and see what happens next.
- Indicator lights — are usually a sign of what the driver ahead intends but sometimes the light remains blinking after the turn is made.
4. But still rent a car.
Even with these warnings, I do recommend renting a car to fully realize the spectacular beauty and landscapes the different areas of the island offer. Mountains, rainforest, beach, military forts (TT has an intersecting political history) and small fishing villages with old timers that sit and watch the day go by in plastic back chairs.
One small fishing village in particular that's worth a drive is Charlottesville. A couple street vendors, a small grocery and Gail's, the best restaurant on the Northeastern coast of the island, are the opening act for the amazing Pirate's Beach which is a small hike away (park near Gail's) and is totally do-able in flip flops -- especially when you know you can have a cold Carib at Gail's on your way back.
Pirate's Bay as seen from the top of the hike.
Gail and me eating chenet the local fruit (pre-Carib)!
Our capable and mostly fearless driver Rachel.
5. The Caribbean Sea is COLD.
Well not really COLD, but where we stayed, the Caribbean is colder than the Atlantic--which is a rare occurrence! Tobago sits so close to the equator that the Atlantic side of the island (where we stayed) had much warmer water temps than the Caribbean side.
Our private beach with the oh-so-warm water!
6. Everything STOPS when the National Anthem plays.
When you are driving, eating, walking, talking, etc., you must stop and sing along or at least stand to attention. I am proud to say we adhered to this while driving (see #3 above).
According to the office of the President, the following is protocol:
'The National Anthem should be accorded the respect due to it when played, and on no occasion should it be treated with scant courtesy. Must be played in the original music; the pitch, speed and tone can be changed.
When the Anthem is being played all persons should pay respect to it by standing to attention.'
Trinidad (the big one) and Tobago
This girls "weekend" was of course the best one so far, but everyone can guess that I'll likely say that about the next trip too; the most recent vacations have a way of earning that title. But this trip to Tobago will be hard to beat. There aren't too many places where one can feel totally immersed into the local scene (benefit of going "off- season") and learn so much about the culture and people while still feeling a bit touristy. Of course, my girlfriends and I could vacation at the Best Western in a place as regular as Portland, Or and still have a wonderful time--so maybe my view of destinations and girls trip awesomeness will always be wonky. :)