Paddling luminous waters of Tobago
You don't choose Tobago for its nightlife, they'd said. “Get up with the sun, go to bed with the sun,” the local adage goes. It doesn't mean Tobagonians have no sense of fun; just don't expect to be raving until the small hours - unless it's Carnival, which is a whole different kettle of crab'n'dumplings.
However, as I floated on a piece of plastic, a riot of stars above and the most extraordinary party kicking off in the water below, I decided “they” might be wrong.
I'd come to Tobago precisely for its alternative take on after-hours activity. That this small, south Caribbean isle has a dearth of mega-clubs and 18-30s is a bonus in my book; that it's retained a distinctive character while many about it are losing theirs is even better. If you'd rather have rustic authenticity than infinity-pool-luxe, this is the Caribbean for you.
But back to that piece of plastic. Duane Kenny had introduced me to it that afternoon. Duane, with his brother Brett, owns Stand Up Paddle Tobago, and he had 30 minutes to teach me the art of SUP-ing - standing on a surf-style board, propelling yourself with a long paddle - before I joined one of his evening tours. I was in good hands: Duane is perhaps the best paddleboarder in the region. And the timing was ideal. His company is based at Pigeon Point, Tobago's most popular beach. I'd visited the day before, when a cruise ship was in port, and it was heaving. Beautiful, but heaving. Now, on a cruise-free day, in the late afternoon, there was no one else around.
I started on land, Duane etching a board-shape around me in the sand so I could “practice” the strokes. Then, after five minutes of theory, it was time to hit the water. That's one of the attractions of SUP-ing: it's simple. With a stable beginners' board and calm seas, anyone can do it. Hit a few waves, though, and things become more testing.
“Keep moving!” said Duane, encouragingly, as I wobbled out of the shallows. “When you're moving you're stable; when you stop you have problems.” There was a little churn to the Caribbean, and it was taking all the muscles in my legs and core (including ones I didn't know I had) to stay upright. I felt like Bambi on ice. Or a bit tipsy. But I practiced my turns and somehow didn't fall off. I was ready.
What I was ready for was the most magical tour in Tobago. Three years ago, Duane and Brett discovered that the mangrove-fringed lagoon behind their house was a hotbed of bioluminescence. This is caused by dinoflagellates, a type of marine plankton that emits a blueish light when agitated. The light is their defence mechanism; it's supposed to keep predators away. On humans, it has the opposite effect.
A group of 14 of us - some choosing SUPs, others kayaks - gathered for the pre-trip briefing. “We've got a good night for bio,” explained Duane. “The intensity can vary, but there's no moon and the skies are clear.” Darkness is key to seeing bioluminescence at its best, so trips don't run around Full Moon; also, clouds reflect ambient light back on to the water, which dims the plankton's display.
Darkness wasn't a problem tonight. It was a New Moon, and the sun had already set when we paddled off across Buccoo Reef. We wore glow sticks, to keep us visible to each other, and soon the twilight reduced us to a trail of red and green fireflies buzzing over the bay. Fortunately, it was deliciously warm, the wind had dropped, the sea was a millpond, and we all made it safely to the sandbar at the mouth of Bon Accord Lagoon. There were no other boats or people; just us and an increasing tapestry of stars.
As we paddled in, I was focusing so intently on the water that my eyes began creating bioluminescence for themselves. Apart from the fact that I was wearing a bikini, it was much like looking for the Northern Lights, and wanting to see them so badly that you imagine wispy clouds are streaks of aurora.
And then: was that it? As I pulled back my paddle, the wake looked odd. Not luminescent exactly, but a vaguely glowing grey. I steeled myself. I'd been expecting something ... better. But maybe this was as good as it got? Then the world caught fire.
I yelped. I grinned. Every time I dipped my blade, the churn around it swirled like ghostly vapour. I thumped it on top of the board and tiny fish darted at the reverberations, setting the plankton a-pulse. I pushed the paddle in a wide arc and it looked like I'd thrown a tin of fluorescent paint; when I lifted it out of the lagoon, drips fell and hit the surface, where they exploded like tiny stars. It was as if the Northern Lights had scooted down from the Arctic and dived right into the Caribbean, only this was a display I could command. Standing on my board, waving my paddle-wand and sending sorcerous shazams across the water, I felt like Gandalf.
“I give this bio a 10 out of 10!” declared Duane from the darkness. Brett, unable to control himself, jumped in. I followed, and apparently morphed into an angel, my body haloed by bioluminescence. As I swam around I became obsessed with myself, with the shapes I was making, the way my body seemed turned into a lustrous ooze.
I guess the best nights out have an after party, and mine was at Adventure Eco Villas. Having paddled back to Pigeon Point, I drove on to my private cabin, one of just two lucky enough to find itself in a private nature reserve, amid a profusion of tropical trees. During the day, hummingbirds surround the sugar-water feeders here, but those delicate flutterers like their beauty sleep and, at this hour, they'd been replaced by bats.
I sat for a while, watching the bats' breakneck aeronautics, listening to their leathery wings, before finally flopping into bed to the secret sounds of the forest. This was my kind of nightlife.
Travel essentials getting there:
Sarah Baxter flew with British Airways from Gatwick to Tobago, via Antigua (flights are twice weekly).
Adventure Eco Villas (adventure-ecovillas.com) has rustic raised cabins with little kitchens for US$140 (R1 707) a night, two people. Guests are free to eat from the fruit trees.
Tobago by night: The top 5
From March to August (peak May-June), leatherback, green, and hawksbill turtles haul up on to north-western beaches to lay eggs. Save Our Sea Turtles (sos-tobago.org) offers responsible viewing guidelines. Guided tours are also possible (hanstourstobago.com; R487).
Stand Up Paddle Tobago (standuppaddletobago .com) offers evening SUP and kayak trips to Bon Accord Lagoon; the two/three-hour tour (around the New Moon) costs R731.
Tobago offers some of the best diving in the Caribbean at a variety of sites; these take on a completely different complexion if explored after dark. Blue Waters Inn (bluewatersinn.com) has a well-rated dive operation; its location in Speyside offers easy access to excellent sites. Dives around R365-R600.
Tobago isn't known for raucous nightlife - except on Sundays. Every week, Buccoo village hosts a lively street party: there's music a-pumping, street stalls a-selling, barbecues a-grilling, and a mini-Carnival atmosphere. The action starts at 8pm, gets going by 11pm and lasts until the wee hours.
Sail off at dusk aboard the Picante (alizes-charters.com). A skippered trip for two aboard the sailing catamaran, including drinks, nibbles, and the freedom to go where you want. Costs US$400 (R4 878), or US$500 (R6 098) for groups of up to eight.
The Independent on Sunday