Veronika Danzer-La Fortune smiles widely as she tilts her head to the side and sweeps her tanned, muscular arm in a grand gesture of welcome. A one-time equestrian performer in a German travelling circus, she clearly hasn’t lost her flair for the dramatic—even here, on the spectacularly low-key island of Tobago.
“Come in, come in,” Danzer-La Fortune says as she ushers our small group through a bamboo gate and into Being With Horses headquarters. She leads us to a set of modest bamboo stables where six horses—some of them rescues—are hanging out. They couldn’t possibly look more relaxed.
“Whenever their previous owners see them now,” Danzer-La Fortune says, “they can’t believe how cool the horses are. But, you know, Tobago does that to animals—and to people.”
Yes, it does.
Green, rolling hills; warm, crystalline waters; vibrant coral reefs; deserted white-sand beaches and a luxuriant rainforest teeming with exotic birds and animals … who wouldn’t want to just mellow out and soak in their surroundings in a place like this?
The smaller, quieter sister in the dual island nation of Trinidad and Tobago (or T&T for short), Tobago is consistently ranked as one of the top eco destinations in the world, and it has no shortage of things to do for outdoor adventurers (think scuba diving, surfing, parasailing and mountain biking). But, like many of those who come to the Caribbean for escape, I’m determined to explore Tobago’s scenery at a more languid pace. And a horseback ride through the island’s southwestern settlement of Buccoo, followed by a dip in the sparkling sea, seems like a perfect way to start.
Danzer-La Fortune, who first visited T&T with her travelling circus, was so taken with Tobago (not to mention Lennon, the Trinbagonian man she met and later married) that she settled here in Buccoo in 2006. A year later, she and Lennon adopted a retired sheep-herding horse named Jennifer, and Being with Horses was born.
“We’re so content in what we’re doing,” says Danzer-La Fortune, who, in addition to offering horseback riding excursions to tourists (for US$84 each), runs riding and equine therapy programs for special needs children under her Healing with Horses foundation. “Being outside, in nature, it’s good for everybody.”
After introducing us to each of the horses, Danzer-La Fortune plays matchmaker, assessing the members of our group and pairing us up with our most suitable equine counterpart. My match, a black beauty named Kalakunjin, waits patiently as I ease my way onto her saddle-less back. There’s no need for a saddle or conventional tack when the horses are this chill. Instead, Danzer-La Fortune points to a plain rope rein and shows me how to hold it.
Soon, we are venturing into the haphazard streets of Buccoo. Danzer-La Fortune leads the way, waving and chatting with locals as we amble past humble homes and tiny shops, along the fenced-off track that hosts the island’s world-famous goat races, and then into a shady, wooded area running parallel to the sea.
About an hour into the ride, we break through the trees and onto an idyllic stretch of palm-lined, deserted beach. Buccoo Bay lies sparkling and blue before us. Suddenly, Kalakunjin’s body tenses beneath me. It’s clear she’s eager to dash into that water, and I’m no longer sure I want to join her.
“Lean back,” Danzer-La Fortune instructs in a soothing voice as Kalakunjin and her cohorts march into the surf. The water is welcoming and bathwater-warm, and my nerves wash away with the first wave that breaks over Kalakunjin’s back.
As the horses half-swim, half-wade down the beach, Danzer-La Fortune’s thoroughbred gelding, Shawari, makes a noise—a cross between a sigh and a prolonged grunt. Danzer-La Fortune laughs with delight. “He’s singing, because he’s happy,” she says. He keeps it up until we’re back on dry land.
A horseback ride one day. A boat ride the next.
It’s said the best way to take in the beauty of Tobago’s Caribbean coastline—with its hidden waterfalls and romantic, abandoned coves—is by chartering a boat and guide. So I head to one of the main tour departure areas, Pigeon Point.
Situated on the island’s southwestern tip and lauded as the most popular beach on Tobago, Pigeon Point isn’t the quietest sand-spot you’ll find, nor is it the cheapest (there’s a US$3 entrance fee). But it offers all the amenities you’ll want for a day at the beach: calm water, palm-thatched gazebos for picnicking, shower blocks and two reasonably priced restaurant/bar combos offering typical pub fare and perfectly chilled bottles of Carib lager.
As tempting as a full day at Pigeon Point may be, I stick to my resolve and climb aboard the sky-blue, canopied speedboat of Triple R Tours. Guide Ricki Jones welcomes me with an easy laugh, revealing two gold-capped front teeth that shimmer in the sun.
Then we’re on our way, motoring northeastward over gentle turquoise waves. Gliding past Tobago’s craggy volcanic formations and forested hills, Jones points out areas of interest and the things that make them notable. There’s Mount Irvine Bay (the best surfing spot on the island), Turtle Beach (where thousands of leatherbacks lay their eggs between March and September) and Wash a Woman Bay (so named because local men once bathed their ladies there before marriage).
Other bay names are not nearly as playful. Some, like Bloody Bay and Pirate’s Bay, hint at a less than harmonious past. Tobago’s strategic location below the hurricane belt and on commercial shipping lanes, along with its rich soil, terrific vantage points and abundant water and wildlife, have long made the island an object of desire. From the early Carib population, who had to violently defend their territory from other Amerindian tribes, to the English, Dutch and French colonists who fought furiously throughout the 17th and 18th centuries to claim the land as their own, Tobago has seen countless battles (and has changed hands more than 30 times).
But now, as our boat bobs up and down on the calm Caribbean Sea, there’s nothing but peace.
Jones steers us over to Buccoo Reef (the island’s infamous collection of corals) and stops at Nylon Pool, a glowing, offshore sandbar that has formed a metre-deep swimming spot in the middle of the sea. The pool got its name in the 1950s, when a visiting Princess Margaret remarked that the water was as clear as her nylon stockings. Not only is it clear, Jones explains with that golden grin, those who swim in it become 10 years younger.
I linger in the Nylon Pool for as long as I can—it’s not often a person gets to stand waist-deep in the middle of the ocean while simultaneously turning back the clock.
Into the Forest
Full disclosure: I’ve never been all that interested in birds. But when you’re on a tropical island that boasts more than 220 bird species and draws thousands of birdwatchers each year from all over the world, well, maybe it’s time to make an effort.
So I meet up with Newton George, a superstar ornithologist who one local described to me to as “the Usain Bolt of birdwatching.” As owner and operator of NG&Co. Nature Tours, George leads groups to many of Tobago’s best birding spots, including the Main Ridge Forest Reserve—the heart of the island and the oldest legally protected rainforest in the western hemisphere.
“It was established by the British in 1776, to protect the trees from being cut down by plantation owners,” George says as we start off along the reserve’s well-worn Gilpin Trace trail. Over our dawdling two-hour trek, he gives a running commentary on the forest’s myriad plants and animals, using a laser pointer to reveal things I would never notice on my own—massive termite nests, busy leaf-cutter ants and almost imperceptible trap doors built by clever spiders to lure in prey.
Thanks to his eagle eye, I also see four birds I’m told real birdwatchers would have been thrilled to spot: a great black hawk, a blue-backed manakin, a blue-crowned motmot and the elusive white-tailed sabrewing hummingbird. George is especially pleased about the hummingbird. “It’s unique to these parts,” he says of the emerald-green, white-tipped beauty. “You must come into this forest to see this bird.”
As we head back to the trailhead at the end of our hike, our conversation turns to travel. Not surprisingly, George, who was born and raised on Tobago, has been all over the world to observe birds and other wildlife.
“Do you have a favourite spot?” I ask.
He pauses for just a moment. “There’s no place better than here.”
Where to Eat
A reflection of T&T’s multiethnic makeup, cuisine in Tobago is a meld of European, African, Indian and Latin American flavours. Among the island’s signature dishes are curried crab an’ dumpling and pigeon peas with rice.
For expertly prepared local dishes and Creole cuisine, head to Blue Crab in Scarborough (Tobago’s capital). This family-owned restaurant is reasonably priced and set away from the bustle of the town.
For fine dining under the stars, try the Seahorse Inn and Restaurant in Grafton. Feast on dishes like smoked salmon and cornmeal blinis, Creole crab cakes and Lobster Thermidor while waves crash on nearby Grafton Beach.
Where to Stay
Though Tobago is not as commercialized as other Caribbean islands, there is no want for terrific places to stay, from all-inclusive resorts to charming seaside inns.
For Zen-seekers on a budget, try Kariwak Village, a small, holistic hotel just minutes from the airport (though you’d never know it). Set among tropical gardens, the place offers simple yet spacious rooms, plus daily activities such as yoga, Tai Chi and healing massages. There’s also a romantic open-air restaurant, free shuttle to nearby Pigeon Point and lots of well-placed hammocks.
For larger groups looking for luxury, consider renting one of the rambling, gorgeously appointed Villas at Stonehaven. Each one includes three large bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, an enormous pool deck with private infinity pool and sweeping views of the Caribbean Sea. Birds from the sanctuary next door provide another visual treat.
Just the Facts
Location: Situated at the bottom of the Lesser Antilles, Tobago is sandwiched between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic, just 30 km northeast of its sister island, Trinidad. (It’s a two-hour ferry ride or 25-minute flight from Port of Spain, Trinidad, to Tobago.)
Size: 300 sq. km
Population: approx. 60,000
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