"In the forest you must first use your ears, then your eyes," says Harris McDonald, my rainforest guide here on the tiny Caribbean island of Tobago. He silences me with a finger to his mouth. "Listen." I do, and then I hear it: a loud, yawning groan like something straight out of Jurassic Park. I back up a step and stumble over the gnarled roots of the mule path we've been following for the past hour.
McDonald follows that with a smile roughly the same size as the machete at his side. He's known as the "Jungle Man," and he's been leading casual day hikers and tourists into Tobago's rainforest—the oldest legally protected preserve in the Western Hemisphere—for more than 10 years.
Today, he's leading me.
"Kissing trees," he says with a laugh. He points upward, and I see the two windblown giants rubbing against each other overhead. They make an appalling noise, but a unique one, and it's something to savor. It's not every day you find yourself exploring a place voted the best ecotourism destination in the world.
The world's 'best' rainforest
Last month, I told you about some strenuous adventure options on Trinidad, Tobago's larger and more urban sister island. Here on Tobago, life moves at a different pace. If Trinidad exudes a vibrant South American charm, Tobago embraces all things Caribbean: quiet beaches, crystal blue waters, and mile upon mile of reefs made for snorkeling.
Unlike the more built-up Caribbean islands, Tobago is one of the classic undisturbed gems—and it has the flora and fauna to prove it. For more than 200 years, the island's tropical rainforest has been legally protected from human interference. That's allowed more than 210 species of birds, 23 types of butterflies, 16 lizards, and even some fish-eating bats to thrive. Everything grows bigger here, too, including the rainforest greenery that sprouts up taller than a fully grown man. Not bad for an island that's only about 100 square miles.
The best way to make sense of Tobago's amazing biodiversity is by choosing an experienced guide. McDonald, a native of Tobago, is also a world traveler who's seen much of North America and Europe firsthand, but he always returns home to the jungle he calls his "playground." The island is lucky to have him. He has twice won Tobago's top tour guide award, and his jungle tours set the standard for the island.
Half-day rainforest and bird-watching tours, which go for about $50, follow an old mule road used until 1963 when Hurricane Flora nearly destroyed the island. The path twists and turns, narrow through the overgrown plants and knobby roots, but never at much of an incline. The highest point anywhere on the island is about 1,860 feet above sea level. Like all else on Tobago, even the hiking here has a laid-back feel to it.
McDonald's $100 full-day tour includes the rainforest walk, coastal snorkeling from a glass-bottom boat, and a stroll to the rainforest-fed Argyle Falls—a fitting reminder of the natural cycle that shapes the island. The all-day tour is a nice package, but it can be exhausting and runs a little contrary to the island's relaxed nature. I recommend doing the falls yourself (they're free and easy to reach, and you can stay as long as you like) and instead reserving McDonald's services exclusively for the rainforest walk, the real jewel of the trip and the place where his enthusiasm shines.
I spent my nights on the island at the Arnos Vale hotel, a secluded eco-lodge set on a sloping coastal hill amidst 450 acres of what was once a thriving sugar plantation. The beachside accommodations are simple and pleasant, but the real highlight is the hotel's daily afternoon tea service, which attracts hundreds of tropical birds—including two resident parrots that will happily sample your snacks if you let them. Low-season rates (May 1 through December 7) start at $125 a night for a standard room at the Arnos Vale, while peak-season prices rise to as much as $288 for a suite for most of December.
Budget travelers might consider combining one of Harris McDonald's tours with a stay at his well-furnished bed and breakfast guesthouse (click on "Accommodation"). Prices start at $30 a night for single travelers, $50 a night for couples, and $60 for a family.
All-inclusive resorts are in short supply on Tobago—and I'm not complaining—but I did tour one standout property for luxury-seekers: Le Grand Courlan is a spa resort with top-notch treatment facilities popular with British honeymooners. The hotel's website is currently under construction, but you can contact the property by email for more information. Rates start at $172 a night in the low season. Honeymooners get a free room upgrade.
Most American travelers fly into Trinidad's Piarco International Airport and either ferry on to Tobago or take a short intraisland flight. The ferry only makes one crossing per day, but it's still a cheaper and smoother connection than the often iffy performance of the primary intraisland carriers, Tobago Express and BWIA (which will become Caribbean Airlines in 2007).
Because there are no direct flights from the U.S. to Tobago, the island feels a bit more off-the-beaten-path than many of the other Caribbean islands. This is a good thing. It's an opportunity to discover a more authentic side of the Caribbean—one in which both the local culture and the local ecology are well preserved from the scars of mass tourism.
That's my kind of island.