Beating to get off the beaten track
Many folk imagine that sailing in the Caribbean means that you have the opportunity to anchor up in deserted bays and have the beach to yourself but the truth is that, outside of hurricane season, these experiences are extremely rare, especially in the islands beloved by charter boat companies such as the Grenadines, the French Antilles and the British Virgin Islands. I am currently writing this post from the Sainte Anne anchorage in Martinique where hundreds of boats are anchored up. However, Tobago is off the beaten track. Too far for charter boats to venture and an upwind struggle from more or less everywhere, Tobago is mostly frequented by boats coming up the South American coast usually from South Africa, sailors such as ourselves on route to or from Trinidad and the seriously long term cruisers who have cruised the length of the Caribbean and love Tobago best. We met two such cruisers in Store Bay who have been living on board together for over 20 years and have been in the Caribbean for seven. Tobago, they informed us, was a beautifully kept secret. We agree. After leaving Store Bay (crowded with maybe eight or nine boats) we headed for Castara bay where we had the experience for the first time in our cruising career of being the only boat anchored up in the bay apart from fishing boats.
If you are looking for a place that has friendly locals happy to sit, chat and share a smoke with amazing names like Rude Boy Compass Star, where you can get fresh bread cooked in the huge, traditional Caribbean ovens then wonder up the road and visit a waterfall in a ten minute leisurely stroll (as long as you don’t mind getting your feet wet) and where you can leave your dinghy on the beach with the fishermen keeping an eye on it as chickens stroll around it, then we recommend Castara. It was a great place to spend my birthday and I even had Happy Birthday played for me on a steel pan at the excellent restaurant at the top of the road. So yes, there are just enough tourists to warrant a Saturday night barbecue and pan player but Castara is primarily a fishing village. The fishermen went out in all weathers including the 45 plus knots of wind that we bashed into on our drive up to Charlotteville. As is the case everywhere, local fishermen are having to venture further and further out to come back with the fresh tuna, snapper and kingfish that are sold fresh at market. Spending time in a working town gave us leisure sailors fresh respect for them and an appreciation of their resilience.
We visited Charlotteville next. This little fishing bay came highly recommended to us from friends who had fallen in love with the place earlier that spring. At first we didn’t see what the fuss was about. We found Castara friendlier and a little less gritty. Maybe it was our experience with the customs and immigration who were AWOL on the first day that we arrived and then berated us for coming late (at 2pm) the following day. However, we later discovered that the customs guy had been having a beer with some fellow cruisers when we’d first arrived. By the time we checked out, the Officer In Charge was our friend and promised us a beer when we next returned. Sadly we realised after a mere couple of days that we were running out of diesel and so needed to go back to Chaguaramas. When we did return ten days later, the customs and immigration officers had changed and no beers were necessary. The staff of this tiny port revolves every six weeks to avoid the local hombres from putting down roots and getting folk to cross their palms with silver as opposed to the more congenial practice of offering to buy a round. The new Immigration Officer in Charge (it always seems necessary to specify in Trinidad and Tobago that the Officers are definitely In Charge) was not homesick for Trinidad at all. His posting in Charlotteville was like a vacation that he looked forward to all year. With a government apartment across the road and his wife shipped over for the holidays, he was not in a hurry to return to the hectic 9 to 4 office hours of the mainland. In Charlotteville, staff work when they feel like it. By the end of our second stay we had fallen in love with this wilder side of the island, charmed by sleepy Charlotteville, a tiny fishing village with a mysteriously lavish, air conditioned library. It is the ultimate laid back port with a huge bay where boats can anchor in the lee of the jungle with a raft of pelicans roosting in the trees above and huge highways of fish streaming around the coral gardens along the coast line below. What is not to like?
An excerpt from my diary on our final day here. “So, my last day in Tobago was pretty wonderful. I swam to Pirate’s bay beach and walked up the hill. Who needs Little Tobago? There was plenty of enchanting wildlife right there on our door step! I had the wonderful Pirate’s bay beach all to myself first and walked up and down it taking Go pro pictures. It’s as beautiful a deserted, tropical beach with jungle down to the shore as you can see anywhere in the Caribbean, but where else in the Caribbean can you see not only Pelicans galore and little white crabs but also red squirrels on the beach? I got quite close to the handsome chap too, although a GoPro will not record it for posterity. I sat in front of Son Son’s mysterious, ramshackle beach bar which is always closed and bird watched until the resident cat came and took position on my lap. Not so many Mot mots to see after that! I climbed the staircase uphill. Muddy though it was, the hiking trail that leads to the Eco lodge and beyond is wonderful. I saw the green parrots close up enough to enjoy their brilliant red, yellow and green plumage as they flew past (always noisily) in and out of the dense jungle growth. They’re spectacular. I also saw the little striped black and white bird and the stunning black birds with bright yellow fan tails (which after an internet search turned out to be the barred antishrike and the crested oropendola). A truly enchanting morning’s walk and a great way to take my leave of such a beautiful, wild island. I miss the diversity of the wildlife already!”
From time to time we are asked which was our favourite of the islands we have visited so far. Now we have a new island for the top spot.