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Keeping it real in Tobago
6:00am Saturday 28th September 2013 in Travel
Less dependent on tourism than neighbouring islands, Tobago offers visitors an authentic Caribbean experience, says Cherry Wilson.
As I trek through the green and bountiful rainforest, only the sound of river water gently lapping my feet breaks the blissful silence.
Far off in the distance, I hear the whistling call of the chachalaca, one of Tobago's national birds.
I munch on a ripe guava fruit, picked fresh from a tree, as I spot rain clouds floating in from where the sea meets the sky. It might be the Caribbean, but even in beautiful places the heavens can still open.
As I continue my journey through the bushes, I stop in my tracks and marvel at a 200-year-old cotton tree.
Tobago is famous for its flora and fauna, and I'm in for a treat as I walk beneath the bamboo shoots and reach the Highland Waterfall at Moriah.
Not content with just standing by and admiring its beauty, I plunge into the water and feel my troubles being washed away. It's easy to see why Tobago's known as being a place where you can simply relax and unwind.
Situated in the southern part of the Caribbean, Tobago's often overshadowed by its sister island Trinidad, but thanks to the economic dependency between them, it's never been forced to rely on tourism as a way of surviving.
Subsequently, the island has retained an authenticity that many Caribbean regions have lost in a bid to cater to foreigners.
"The nature is beautiful in Tobago," says Karl Pilstl, owner of the Blue Haven Hotel, a heritage property just outside capital Scarborough. "It's green and it has mountains as well as beaches. It's not really overdeveloped.
"People from Barbados say it's like their country was 40 years ago."
Set on the spot where, according to Daniel Defoe's novel, Robinson Crusoe was stranded 350 years ago, the hotel has been operating since the Forties.
I can understand why the hotel was a popular hideaway for American actors Rita Hayworth and Robert Mitchum when they wanted to escape Hollywood and unwind, just like the rest of us.
As I sip on a rum punch at the beach bar, I notice there's not even a single footprint spoiling the sand.
Tobago's traditionally more slow-paced than the rest of the Caribbean, reflected in the friendliness of the locals.
Everyone has time to say hello and you immediately feel like you're a part of the community.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Blue Crab restaurant, which has been a firm favourite in the neighbourhood for years.
"These crabs were caught this morning," explains owner Kenneth Sardinha, as he treats our group to a traditional cooking class.
Crab legs dance around in a huge silver pot as he lovingly shakes an array of rich spices and coconut milk into the bubbling water.
"West Indian men can cook," his wife Alison says, laughing. "Don't tell him that though. I don't want him to get a big head."
It feels like I've been accepted into a new family, as Alison energetically taps my arm and waves her hands, while explaining why she loves her island.
"Tobago is very honest. It has a form of integrity," she says. "It's a lovely place to bring up children and to grow old. There's so much respect. Everyone is an auntie or an uncle. There's a sense of freedom here that you don't get anywhere else.
"I like to go to Trinidad for the weekend, but I want to live here until I die. It's a lovely place to be and really peaceful."
Her pride in the island is infectious, and I suddenly feel very lucky to be here - and I'm not alone. As I soak up the sun by the pool in the Magdalena Grand Resort, there's no shortage of guests who are keen to share their experiences of the place.
"We really love the friendliness of the locals," says Ann Hartwell, from Newcastle. "We went on a trip round the island and the local children were shouting and waving hello.
"It feels very welcoming and safe. You don't have people coming up to you all the time. It's really relaxed and chilled."
"I love the nature and the beauty," her husband John adds. "You're never made to feel uncomfortable here.
Tobago certainly works on Caribbean "island time", and I quickly find that even my best-made plans don't always go ahead as scheduled. I simply decide to go with the flow.
Due to a mix up with timings, our group is forced to abandon a planned horse riding activity for something a little more unique.
Walking into a brick stadium, I expect to see a line up of dogs ready to sprint down the green racing track which lies before me.
Instead I stand in bewilderment as I watch grown men sprinting down the grass, each one led by a goat on a piece of rope.
It turns out, goat racing is a hugely popular sport here, and I couldn't help but be swept up in the excitement as I cheered on the contestants.
Tobago's also making a real push to host events that will put its name on the international map.
Every April, the island hosts the Tobago Jazz Festival, which attracts performers and tourists from across the globe.
This year, Grammy Award-winning singer India Irie shared the stage with superstar Dionne Warwick as part of a week-long extravaganza.
Even torrential rain doesn't spoil the spirit of the event - you simply dance in the downpour to the sound of reggae, jazz and calypso.
"This is my first time in Tobago," explains UK singer Lianne La Havas after her solo performance on stage. "I never want to leave."
Her sentiments are shared by many tourists, whether they're on an island trek, enjoying the sound of jazz on the beach, or simply sipping a cocktail on a sun lounger.
It might not have the glitz and glamour of other Caribbean islands, but Tobago has an authenticity that rubs off on everyone who visits.
When the locals tell you to come again soon, they're not just saying it because they see pound or dollar signs. I know they'd genuinely be eager to welcome me back again.
Travel facts - Tobago
British Airways (ba.com/Tobago; 0844 493 0758) offer seven nights at the four-star Blue Haven (www.bluehavenhotel.com) from £979 pp, or seven nights at the four-star Magdalena Grand Beach Resort (www.magdalenagrand.com) from £1,019 pp. Prices based two people sharing, for travel in November. Includes return flights from Gatwick and room only accommodation.
:: For more information, visit www.visittobago.gov.tt and www.tobagojazzexperience.com