I am sitting in Time to Wine, a particularly welcoming Tobagan bar, being introduced to the mysteries of “sipping rums” by John Georges, master distiller from Angostura. Now, I can see there are at least two elements in that sentence that might need some explaining. For a start, if, like me, you assume that rum is just the base for a cocktail, the idea of treating it like a fine malt is a new one. Mr Georges has other ideas. We start with a white rum, observing the colour and the “nose” before sipping. Mr Georges praises it but is eager to get on to the darker, older rums, in particular the two stars of the show – 1919 and 1824, the latter best enjoyed with dark chocolate. (I mean, what’s not to like about that combination?)
You might also have assumed, as I did, that Angostura just made bitters – that mysterious drink, a few drops of which seem to be found in the vast majority of cocktails. Well, they make that too in their distillery in Trinidad alongside the rum. The bitters began life in 1824, an invention of Dr Johann Siegert, a surgeon-general in Simon Bolivar’s army in Venezuela when he was trying to overcome the many problems that the soldiers had with digestive disorders. The bitters became a runaway international success for their curative powers but, not being particularly palatable, it was thought a good idea to mix a little something with them. And so began the pink gin, the Manhattan, the mojito…
The distillery moved to Port of Spain, Trinidad in the 1870s where it is today and Mr Georges had popped over to give his talk in next-door neighbour, Tobago. Trinidad is one of the Caribbean’s most economically successful islands with an industry based largely on oil and natural gas – it’s in the top five exporters of liquefied natural gas. Tobago, by contrast, is its baby sister, lesser known, smaller and with a population of less than 100,000. It is also one of the region’s most charming holiday destinations – laidback, unspoilt, dense with rain forest, blessed by cooling trade winds and delightful people. And, thanks to the economic success of Trinidad, it has not had to become a victim of overdevelopment as so many other Caribbean islands have. It’s a place to kick back and relax or, as they say here, “lime like a boss” which just happens to be the slogan for Angostura’s best-selling non-alcoholic drink, LLB (lemonade, lime and bitters – geddit?).
There’s no problem finding that place to relax. I stayed at the Magdalena Grand that sits on the Atlantic coast and has cooling breezes all day long as you sit on the beach or by one of the three pools. There are three bars (one swim-up, one laidback, one party pub with live music and karaoke nights) and three restaurants that serve international food with a Caribbean twist. My first morning I went for the shark with aubergine choka and tamarind chutney. Is that the full Tobagan maybe?
It’s not all about eating, drinking and lying around in the sun, though. The hotel has Tobago’s best golf course and is also the only hotel on the island with its own dive centre and training pool. You can start here from scratch and be diving in the ocean within days. The best reefs are around Speyside and keen divers who want a laidback home-from-home can stay at Manta Lodge with Sean Robinson, master diver at Magdalena. The marine life here is exceptional, even for the Caribbean – many species of tropical fish, sharks, turtles and magnificent manta rays.
You can take your pick of water sports here, in fact – sailing and snorkelling, fishing and paddle boarding. You can ride bareback through the sea or cycle through plantations to the mangroves. You can take a boat trip to the Nylon Pool – a shallow lagoon whose beauty so transfixed Princess Margaret (something of a connoisseur when it came to the islands of the West Indies), she likened its transparency and clarity to her nylons. It was named in her honour.
They even have a rainforest. I went with Harris McDonald (Harris Jungle Tours) who has been exploring the oldest protected rainforest in the world (since 1776) since he was a boy. Harris carries a machete and definitely comes out of the Bear Grylls mould – this is no walk in the park, it’s an adventure. We hack our way through undergrowth, wade through streams, climb slopes slippery with mud and get tangled in vines. Sunlight filters through dense greenery and Harris will suddenly pause and handing the binoculars, guide me to the sight of a quivering hummingbird, a bright green parrot or a mot-mot spreading its tail in display as it stalks along a branch high above us. He will also offer a tasty snack after all this effort – scraping away at a termites’ nest he offers its protein-filled inhabitants as the ultimate food-to-go.
For something with a little more flavour, make sure you go for lunch afterwards at Jemma’s Sea View Restaurant for real Tobagan home-cooked dishes. There’s callaloo, Trinidad and Tobago’s national dish made of a spinach-like vegetable cooked with okra and coconut milk (very like the taro tops of the South Pacific). The breadfruit pie was the best way of cooking breadfruit I’ve come across (creamy with cheese and baked in the oven). Then there was all that seafood cooked however you wanted it (curried shrimp for me). Jemma’s is built in and around an ancient tree and you hover over the beach, the ocean breeze a constant fan.
Tobago is generally a quiet island and rumour has it that the locals are usually fast asleep by 10 o’clock. There is one exception to this and it’s Sunday School. Again this may take a bit of explaining. We’re not talking about prayers and hymn-singing here, though there is quite a lot of singing involved. Sunday School is a Tobagan tradition that celebrates the local music – steel pans, calypso, soca – on Buccoo Beach and it’s just one big street party. It starts around 8 or 9 and the Buccooneers Steel Band play for a couple of hours, then it’s soca, hip hop and R+B and dancing all night.
Yep, Tobago really is the place to lime like a boss.
The Magdalena Grand Beach & Golf Resort in Tobago and Golden Holidays are offering seven nights at the 4* resort, from just £739 per person. This price is based on two people sharing a Standard Room on a Breakfast Plan basis and includes direct return flights from London Gatwick with Monarch Airlines, return airport transfers, ground rep services and 30kgs per person luggage allowance. Seven nights on a Half Board basis costs £924 per adult per week and the Grand Experience All Inclusive basis costs £1,109 per adult per week. This price is valid for departures on 14 and 21 April, book by 28 February. To book visit www.golden-holidays.co.uk or call 01403 755122/123. For more information about the resort, visit www.magdalenagrand.com.
For more information about Tobago, visit the official website here.
For a little extra relaxation time at the airport, book into No 1 Traveller Lounge at Gatwick (£25online or £30 at the door). www.no1traveller.com.