Luxury Travel: Green in Tobago

by Editorial
Gala Co-Chairs Jon Feiger and Nancy Laben, Les and Mina Lyles, Shashi and Margaret Gupta, Arvind Manocha and Gideon Malone
Maestro Gianandrea Noseda and Lucia Noseda
Dancers Christine Doyle and Ian Ceccarelli perform a work choreographed by company founder Dana Tai Soon Burgess.

Head First
Speyside on the island’s northernmost tip is Tobago’s best-known dive destination. We explored Black Jack Hole, located on the Atlantic side of Little Tobago Island, a 10-minute boat ride from shore. Other well-known dive spots nearby include: Japanese Gardens, Special, Aquarium, Bookends, and Coral Gardens (which is known for brain coral). The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Gold Palm-certificated AquaMarine Dive (www.aquamarinedive.com) practices drift diving (they never anchor) and prides itself on reef conservation. “Aside from drift diving, there is no rubbish on the reef,” our Irish dive master says. “We’re close enough to shore that we don’t have to provide lunch or drinks. What we take out on the boat comes back in the boat.”

For non-divers, Little Tobago’s aquatic beauty, along with its dizzying array of avian wildlife, can be viewed via glass-bottom boat tours, snorkeling, hiking trips, and sea kayak rentals available at nearby Blue Waters Inn (www.bluewatersinn.com).

Bird’s Eye View
Apart from the fact that Harrison Ford owns a mansion here, Tobago is known for the original eco-tourism pursuit: bird watching. The island teems with binocular-carrying explorers who visit Great Estate at Stonehaven Bay, Tobago Main Ridge Forest, and the Hillsborough Dam district to spy the 240 tropical bird species. Most live in the Tobago Forest Preserve – the oldest forest reserve in the Western Hemisphere, dating to 1765.

Errol Roachee, owner of Roachee Tours (868-374-2066) takes us on a muddy low-impact hike to see Argyle waterfall. Along the way, he identifies nearly every bird, frog, and tree, turning a 20-minute walk into a three-hour environmental lesson. Tip: Rent Wellington boots from the vendors outside the trial head or risk destroying your shoes.

After the hike, we take a twisting 30-minute drive along the island’s narrow two-lane coastal “highway” to the adorable Jemma’s Seaview Kitchen (868-660-4066), where a home-cooked Tobagonian comfort food lunch of mac and cheese, lobster, and breadfruit casserole hits the spot.

Holistic Haven
It’s time to forsake the Eagle’s Nest for a bungalow at the Kariwak Holistic Haven and Hotel (www.kariwak.com). It feels more like a motel, but luxury is not why loyal patrons return here year after year. They come for yoga, tai chi, homegrown organic herbs, and the spa. My first holistic step is a hard one – switching off the Blackberry. There are no TVs here, so it seems appropriate to forgo wireless communications as well. My day begins with a 7:30 a.m. yoga class followed by hot-stone therapy and a stroll in the organic garden. Kariwak offers guests one daily complimentary spa treatment plus yoga and meditation classes for $185 per night.

Back to the Reef
My second dive at Bookends off Little Tobago Island is with Sean Robinson, director of the Tobago Dive Experience (868-660-4888). It proves to be highlight of the trip. Robinson was one of the first to operate commercial dives from Speyside. Since then, he has trained most of the master divers on the island and introduced the vibrant reefs around Little Tobago to countless visitors. “My favorite guest was Christiane Amanpour,” he says over the roar of the two-stroke engine. “She got engaged here. Her husband doesn’t dive, so she went on her own.”

Once in his element, Robinson is quick to show his aquatic knowledge, pointing out a male hawksbill turtle, barracuda, a school of tarpon, a variety of reef fish, and a Banded Coral Shrimp half the size of my pinky. Bookends is a deep water dive recommended for advanced divers interested in seeing the Atlantic’s larger inhabitants, including schools of hammerhead sharks and manta rays.

Clean, Green, and Serene

Is Tobago doing enough to be green? Chris James, The Tobago chairman of the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce says the jury is still out. “Tobago is still behind in terms of sustainable infrastructure and getting the entire tourism industry on board, but there are bright spots.” James also owns a few hotels and is chairman of the Travel Foundation – a British group dedicated to incubating sustainable tourism projects throughout the world. In March 2008, with James at the helm, the foundation presented its work on Tobago to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. Among the projects is a farmer’s co-op that enables hotels to source locally-grown herbs, spices, vegetables, and fruits. Kariwak Haven owner Cynthia Clovis has also been a major advocate.

Blue Haven Hotel (www.bluehavenhotel.com) owners Karl and Marilyn Pilstl are also ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainable tourism. They bought, rebuilt and reopened the Blue Haven property in 2000 after a 25-year hiatus, creating an eco-friendly hotel in the process. It was voted “Boutique Hotel of the Year” in 2006 by Caribbean World Magazine and won the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s “Sustainable Tourism Award 2007.”

The property uses state-of-the-art sewage treatment plants; water saving toilets, showers and taps; solar heating; a modern three-phase transformer; bio-degradable detergents; and local organic vegetables. “Our goal was not only to renovate and preserve the historical architecture but to create an environmentally sound project,” Karl Pilstl says.

Ironically, Tobago’s environment has been spared the burdens of heavy tourism by fossil fuels. “Tobago is an oil economy, so we don’t rely on tourism to generate all our revenue. We can take it slow,” says Tourism and Transportation Secretary Neil Wilson. “We can be choosy about the hotels that come here. We don’t need a lot of large all-inclusive resorts.” Indeed, the island has no Sandals-type mega-properties.

As demand for food and resources increase, so does the island’s need for sustainability. I press Wilson on this issue. “The farmers co-ops are a start,” he replies. “We are also looking into seafood farming: fish, crab, lobster, and shrimp should all be considered. But we are about five years late in starting this.”

“Tilapia can support tourist’s need for fish and allow local fishing stocks to satiate local demand,” James says. “But progress has been slow and the waters off the coast are being over-fished.”

James is also hoping to be the first to build an eco-friendly luxury resort on the island. He has plans to create a 300-room sustainable facility near a remote reef by 2010.

“This type of resort is the model for Tobago moving forward,” Wilson says. “We want to target to up-market, not mass tourism, to keep Tobago clean, green and serene.”

Eco-tourism is alive and well in Tobago, but the term is subjective. Pristine rain forests, dive spots, and the lack of mass all-inclusive resorts allow for a greener and safer travel experiences; but ultimately, eco-tourism is the responsibility of hotels and travelers alike. Indeed, eco-friendly vacations start with eco-smart and informed choices made by the traveler.

Try These Five Must-Do’s!
Turtle Watch: Five species call Trinidad and Tobago home: leatherback, hawksbill, green, olive ridley, and loggerhead.
Get Cultural: Catch dinner and dancing, theater or steel drum performances at the Itsy Bitsy Spider Theatre and Cultural Center.
Beach It:
Visit Englishman’s Bay, considered to be one of the world’s top beaches.
Eat Local: at the Blue Crab Restaurant (Robinson Street, Scarborough, 868-639-2737)
Dive Speyside: Contact Tobago Dive Experience (868-660-4888) or AquaMarine Dive (868-660-5445) for more information.

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