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Tobago lolls in the seductive grace of intrinsic beauty, both above and below the water. With its deeply convoluted terrain of steep mountains with dense, forested hillsides and valleys, Tobago enjoys a year-round tropical climate. Dress need only be light and casual.
Tobago’s people are warm and friendly as well, with a penchant for enjoying good times made apparent by the number of carnivals and music festivals that take place each year. Although richly accented and spoken with a gentle air, English is the official language. Interestingly, for an island of its size, encompassing 116 square miles, the diving around Tobago is largely untapped, even unexplored.
Off the small community of Speyside at the island’s most northeast tip are dozens of impressive volcanic spires, the tops of which rise above the waves. The largest of these are Goat Island and Little Tobago, lying a few miles off the main island of Tobago. Below the water’s surface is a breathtaking world of rocky slopes and mini-walls laden with forests of vibrant soft corals, sponges and abundant fishlife. Most of the walls bottom out at 140 feet.
Given their position in the path of prevailing currents and incoming swells from the Atlantic, most of these sites feature large concentrations of fish. In addition to the more characteristic clouds of Brown Chromis, Creole Wrasse, assorted species of jacks; including Black, Bar and Crevalle; to Rainbow Runners and Tarpon, these summits are also frequented by pelagics such as Manta Rays, turtles, sharks, tuna, large mackerel and big Barracuda.
The water temperature remains in the low 80s year-round and Tobago is south of the hurricane belt. When the Orinoco River overflows during the rainy season, visibility can drop from 90 to a mere 30 feet, primarily in the top 40 feet of water. Ironically, the height of the rainy season (July through September) also happens to offer the best chance of seeing Manta Rays. As the Roman proverb opines, ‘Men plan, gods laugh.’
Where to Stay: Approximately 27 miles (roughly one hour and 15 minutes by taxi) from Tobago’s Crown Point International Airport, Speyside is far from the island’s main tourist area. Quiet and serene, it is easy to find a comfortable place to stay with good dive services.
There are only two quality resorts or inns in this idyllic corner of the island, Manta Lodge and the Blue Waters Inn. Nestled in the northernmost corner of the island facing the Atlantic, both facilities pride themselves as ‘not your conventional type of resort.’
Manta Lodge: When it comes to accommodations Manta Lodge is certainly unique. Opened in August 1995, it sits against the base of a lush hillside with ornate, landscaped grounds. The colorful, distinctive architecture of this little inn overlooking the bay is a fitting image for a post card. Its color scheme, a cheery blend of subtle shades of coral and yellow contrasted by trim work in deep forest green, white and bright Caribbean blue, might make you reach for your sun glasses.
Created by Tobago Dive Experience owner, Sean Robinson, the lodge represents an eclectic mixture of provincial French, Dutch, British and Spanish architecture. This Cari-colonial styling, as it its called, is evidenced in its high angled roofline, casement windows and French doors, most of which open onto private verandas (a feature of all 22 of the lodge’s rooms) to capitalize on the steady sea breezes and the view of the lodge’s pool and beachfront.
In addition to the ocean view balconies, guest accommodations (standard, superior and loft floorplans) come with large, roomy bathrooms with showers, ceiling fans and quilted comforters on the beds. There are no phones or televisions. Sixteen of the 22 rooms are also air-conditioned. Downstairs, the lodge’s poolside bar and restaurant provide service and meals morning, noon and night with a variety of local Caribbean, Chinese and American dishes.
Sean Robinson envisioned Manta Lodge as much more than a dedicated dive resort. He wanted it to blend with or accentuate the region’s natural beauty; what he describes as ‘giving the lodge a sense of fitting in.’ To do so, he purchased 600 acres of the old Pigeon Hill Sugar Mill estate in Speyside, which included the ruins of the plantation’s sugarcane processing mill and dated back to the early 1800s. As a result, much of land surrounding the lodge’s grounds is filled with lush tropical plant life left untouched as a natural bird sanctuary. Almost any time of day you can take off on one of several hiking and birdwatching trails leading through the densely forested hills.
Manta Lodge is also headquarters for Tobago Dive Experience’s Speyside operations. In addition to equipment rentals, sales and both NAUI and PADI instruction, services include two tank morning trips and single tank afternoon trips to all of the legendary sites surrounding Little Tobago. Like most of the island’s other dive operations, Tobago Dive Experience utilizes locally designed open, outboard powered boats called pirogues. That is French/Creole for long-boat and these sharp bowed, elongated rowboat craft are 28 to 36 feet long. They are well suited for comfortably handling large oceanic swells and choppy seas.
Once over the site, divers simply do back roll over the side. Afterward, they remove their gear in the water (handing it up to the crew) and climb back in via a ladder or by doing a kick-up (preferably with fins still on). Departing the beach near the lodge, most of the sites are no more than 10 minutes away.
Blue Waters Inn: If your vacation plan calls for tranquility and seclusion, the Blue Waters Inn, a little farther up the road and over the hill, might be just the ticket. Tucked away in its own private horseshoe shaped bay with 1,000 feet of beachfront and 46 acres of tropical woodlands, the 38 room resort is as removed from the outside world as you can get. There is only one road in or out.
Fronted by majestic seagrape trees, each room offers a panoramic view of Batteaux Bay. Accommodations include three bungalows with full kitchens and four efficiency apartments, in addition to 31 standard rooms, which come with double beds, ceiling fans and a balcony or porch. The rooms do not have telephones or television sets and only the ground floor units and apartments have air-conditioning. The only other place with air-conditioning or a television is the recreation/conference room next door to the Fish-pot restaurant (serving an assortment of local Caribbean and international fare) and Shipwreck Bar. Blue Waters is the only resort with several rooms equipped for physically challenged guests. These rooms feature hand-held showers, shower chairs and rails, and toilet rails.
Blue Waters in-house operation, Aquamarine Dive Ltd., provides fun excursions to Speyside’s most popular sites. Departing its private, 180 foot dock at the end of the resort’s main complex, trips are structured as one tank tours, two to three times a day with an occasional night dive. The dock offers guests the advantage of boarding the outboard powered pirogues without wading through the surf as they must do elsewhere. Also, the dock makes it simple to snorkel or scuba from shore on Belmont Reef (a short distance out). Overlooking the dock, Aquamarine’s facility carries a large inventory of rental equipment and is one of the only full PADI resort training centers on the island. Besides diving, the facility can offers sea kayaks and windsurfers. It can set up a deep sea fishing trip or glassbottom boat excursion right from the shop. Blue Waters Inn also has a tennis court (rackets are provided free of charge, balls can be purchased at the front desk) in-house car rental and land tours.