Travel: Tobago and the Scottish independence vote

Palm trees offer shade on the tropical paradise
Palm trees offer shade on the tropical paradise
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THE Caribbean island may have watched last year’s referendum with interest, but there’s no division over its stunning beaches and fascinating heritage

IT WAS 87F and humid on the tiny Caribbean island of Tobago. Waves gently rolled on to white sandy beaches as palm leaves swayed in the breeze. Holidaymakers stretched out on lilos; many lulled to sleep by the soporific sounds of the sea. It was hard not to relax.

The island is home to 18th-century Fort King George

The island is home to 18th-century Fort King George

September 18, last year, was like any other on this tropical paradise, just off the coast of South America. It was laidback and peaceful. It was also a world away from a battle reaching fever pitch 4,300 miles across the other side of the Atlantic. Or so it seemed.

Just like millions of people who voted in the Scottish referendum on that day, Tobagonians and Scottish expats who live on this mainly rural island were keen to know the outcome. Would Scotland remain part of the UK?

Tobago is currently toying with the idea of holding a referendum to determine its future links with its much bigger, largely industrial neighbour Trinidad, about 20 miles away. A million people live there compared to just 62,000 on the smaller island, just 26 miles long and seven miles wide.

Unlike Scotland, Tobago wants a vote on self-governance within the twin-island state, rather than independence. But a letter published in the Tobago News read: “Tobago must take some lessons from the Scottish referendum.”

Tobago is home to rare leatherback turtles

Tobago is home to rare leatherback turtles

This unexpected link to Scotland was among a number I discovered during my recent visit, which coincided with the island’s annual Heritage Festival.

In the same letter to the local paper it was claimed King James VI of Scotland gave Tobago to his godson Jakob as a christening gift in the 17th century but historians dispute this, as I discovered when I popped in to see an exhibition at the library in the capital Scarborough. The island is also said to have inspired Daniel Defoe’s 18th-century novel Robinson Crusoe, believed to be based on the Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk. And it wasn’t long after our mini-bus driver Jameson collected us from the airport that we passed the villages of Argyll and Montrose on the 25-mile trip north-east to our hotel, the Blue Waters Inn in the hamlet of Speyside.

From my balcony, which overlooked the palm-fringed beach, I could see a solitary house on nearby Goat Island. It was the former home of Ian Fleming, the late James Bond author (and grandson of wealthy Scottish financier Robert Fleming).

Since the island was first spotted by Columbus in 1498, Tobago has been a magnet for people and other countries. It changed hands 31 times before it finally ceded to the British in 1814 and became independent in 1962. Remnants of battles, like the 18th-century Fort King George in Scarborough, can be found across the island.

Tobago was prized for its location for shipping; good climate; rich fertile soil for crops, like sugar; hardwood trees for construction and a plentiful supply of fish. I saw hundreds as I snorkelled around the coral reef at Nylon Pool.

This island is also alive with other exotic wildlife, like rare leatherback turtles and orange-winged Amazon parrots. Many live in the central part of the island, which is covered with the oldest protected rainforest in the western hemisphere, since 1776. There are guided trails to the stunning 175ft three-tiered Argyle Waterfall. Among the island’s historical sites are the ruins of the Speyside sugar factory, the iron waterwheel made in Scotland and erected in the late 18th century. These relics, along with former plantation homes, are a reminder of a terrible period in the island’s history when thousands of Africans were brought over as slaves to work on the plantations. Many of the British planters came from Scotland and may have worshipped at the former Scots Kirk in Scarborough where there is a £200,000 appeal to renovate the listed 1813 building.

The historical background was useful for the Heritage Festival events, held over two weeks in July leading up to Emancipation Day on 1 August – the day slavery was abolished in 1834. Tobagonians are proud of their cultural heritage and celebrate it through stories passed down in folk songs, music, dance and plays deeply rooted in African traditions. Every year each village puts on an outdoors play in which young and old take part and various cultural influences, like calypso, reggae, creole, steel drums and Amerindian, are celebrated. We joined in the historic bamboo rhythm procession down a steep hill in the village where dancers in traditional 1900s costumes recreated an old time wedding “brush back” and we took a turn dancing on cocoa beans in our bare feet. It was very slippery but great fun.

At every event there was an array of delicious, home-grown, multi-ethnic food. Specialities were fantastic salads, goat or chicken roti as well as crab and dumplings. They were usually washed down with rum, fruit punch or cold Carib beer. Food and drink, whether from a roadside café, street market or restaurant, is reasonably priced – six drinks cost about £10 at one event.

I particularly enjoyed “liming and dining”, as locals say, at Sharon and Pheb’s Restaurant in Charlotteville and at nearby Jemma’s Sea View Restaurant; The Deck at Buccoo and Kariwak Village Restaurant. The food and service was also exceptional at the Coco Reef Resort and Spa in Coconut Bay, where I had the best lobster I have ever eaten.

Each morning after breakfast, I went for a leisurely stroll along the beach. Some of the other holidaymakers were already stretched out on lilos: many lulled back to sleep by the soporific sounds of the sea. It was hard not to relax.

Seven-nights in Tobago from £1,209 with Virgin Holidays. Includes flights from London Gatwick to Tobago, three nights at 3 star Blue Waters Inn and four nights at 4 star Coco Reef Resort and Spa, B&B, with transfers. Price is per person based on two adults sharing a standard room. V-room at Gatwick, £24.50 for adults and £14 children. Go to virginholidays.co.uk. Fly from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Gatwick on BA or easyJet, see ba.com or easyjet.com. 
Hampton by Hilton Hotel at the North Terminal, London Gatwick, rooms from £109, m.hilton.com. For historical and cultural tours of Tobago go to visittobago.gov.tt