Visitors to Tobago’s Grafton Caledonia Wildlife Bird Sanctuary can see indigenous birds up-close during daily bird feedings. // © 2014 Trinidad & Tobago Tourism Development Company
Feature image (above): Little Tobago, a 450-acre island off of Tobago’s shores, can be reached via glass-bottomed boat excursions. // © 2014 Trinidad & Tobago Tourism Development Company
It’s difficult for a destination to be all things to all people. Luckily, that’s not a problem for Tobago. The island leaves high-octane tourism to Trinidad, its hard-partying sister island, and cultivates nature instead.
Tobago is a great choice for ecotourists, birdwatchers, hikers and couples looking for a quiet, nature-based getaway. While there are small towns dotting the island as well as scattered, local markets, Tobago’s primary appeal exists in its carefully nurtured and preserved natural areas, especially its beaches.
Accommodations run toward intimate guesthouses and bed-and-breakfasts, although fans of large resorts with more amenities have a number of options, including Blue Waters Inn and Magdalena Grand Beach & Golf Resort.
The island is home to more than 220 bird species, from the red-footed booby to the rare white-tailed sabrewing hummingbird. One of the primary destinations for birders is Grafton Caledonia Wildlife Bird Sanctuary. When a hurricane swept through Tobago in 1963 and indigenous birds were uprooted, a cocoa plantation was transformed into this 200-acre sanctuary and nature reserve.
Grafton Caledonia Wildlife Bird Sanctuary has hiking trails that can be explored, which can best be experienced with one of Tobago’s bird-watching guides. A highlight at Grafton is the 4 p.m. feeding time, when the cocrico and motmot birds flocks around the feeders. The boldest of them will even snatch a bite of seed from a visitor’s palm.
Tobago Main Ridge Forest Reserve is the oldest forest reserve in the western hemisphere, established by London’s Parliament in 1776. The reserve has been designated the World's Leading Ecotourism Destination by World Travel Awards four times.
The 9,780-acre mountainous reserve is huge, stretching down two-thirds of the island’s length and is considered a mecca for birders. While there are dozens of snake species on Tobago, visitors will be relieved to know that none of them are poisonous. Gilpin Trace is the reserve’s main entrance and is also a gathering spot for freelance birding guides, who can be hired on the spot.
Tobago has an offshore island of its own, Little Tobago. The uninhabited island can be reached via a 15-minute small-boat ride from the village of Speyside. Travelers can also reach Little Tobago via a glass-bottom boat excursion. While Little Tobago is only 450 acres in size, it’s an important sanctuary for nesting and breeding birds, including the awe-inspiring and magnificent frigatebird.
Visitors may hear Little Tobago referred to as Bird of Paradise Island. This is because the now-extinct greater bird of paradise species thrived on the island until the same 1963 hurricane that devastated the Grafton area also laid waste to Little Tobago. Prime time for birding on Little Tobago is October to June. A permit is required for those who want to explore the island’s hiking trails in depth.
The opportunity for travelers to pitch in and assist endangered sea turtles is a popular endeavor throughout the Caribbean. Tobago has been in the forefront of protecting leatherback, hawksbill and green turtles. While it’s fascinating to observe an adult turtle laying its eggs in the sand, or seeing tiny hatchlings make their way to the sea, it’s important for travelers to go about it in a responsible way. Travelers should hire a local guide to walk them through the experience, so they don’t inadvertently interfere with the delicate process of incubation and hatching.
The best time to observe sea turtles on Tobago is from March to September, and the prime location for the activity is Turtle Beach in Stonehaven Bay. The local organization Save Our Sea Turtles Tobago offers complimentary guided trips.