Ecotourism is one of the biggest emerging travel trends of recent years. More painfully aware of the disastrous environmental and economic effect on local communities and landscapes that tourism produces – the ocean is toxic! Venice is sinking!- more and more holidaymakers are veering towards travel with a conscience.
The Caribbean has serious skin in the game. With white beaches, coral-clogged seas and luscious rainforests to, not only preserve, but monetise, the marriage between tourism and conservation is a no brainer. Dominica boasts the breath-taking Manicou River Lodge, an ecolodge made from local wood, perched 150 metres high in the rainforest. Bonaire, already a premiere diving destination thanks to its impressive coral reefs, has the rustic and secluded Auriga Ecolodge and the dive-focused Captain Don’s Habitat, whilst St Kitts’s Bellemont Farm takes sustainability to luxurious heights.
One of the pioneers in this field is indisputably Tobago. Along with nation sister island, Trinidad, its proximity to Venezuela grants it a brilliantly varied ecosystem, with vast swathes of biodiverse rainforest and sprawling coral reefs. Though a relatively new player in the tourism game, having previously relied on its natural oil and gas reserves to fuel the economy, Tobago’s ventures are strikingly mindful of the local environment; both culturally and ecologically.
There are innumerable choices for such a small island, including Kariwak Village – comprising of small cabanas dotted around a lush garden and pool, and Cuffie River Nature Retreat, which drops you in the heart of the rainforest.
Perhaps the best example is Castara Retreats, situated in the small fishing village of Castara, in the north of the island. It’s actually the brainchild of ecotourists; Steve and Sue Feldgate, who visited more than 17 years ago and fell in love. Yet it is far more the product of Castara itself; run by locals, staffed by locals and fully integrated into the community.
The 16 eco-lodges, restaurant and wellness centre – built by local craftsmen, from local materials – are perched on the hilltop above Castara Bay, and blend in seamlessly. The ethos is to maintain and preserve; from consciously reducing its carbon footprint in the lighting and air conditioning and the active composting and recycling, to the grey water soakaways that protect the beach and bay from the resort’s waste water. The gardens are a purpose-built sanctuary for over seventy species of bird, the endangered agouti and, since 2016, a nesting armadillo.
Their sustainable mind-set is not merely to benefit the reefs or the forests, but to preserve this striking and thriving village. They operate a strict ‘no-fences’ policy, and guests are encouraged to get involved in village life and local businesses and are truly welcomed in to the family- of gregarious manager Porridge and his wife Jeanell – who run the resort.
On our first day at the beach we see this in action. Local fishermen, dragging in their trawl, jovially wonder why we are sunbathing instead of helping them with their catch. We do so, and are immediately invited to Castara’s weekly bonfire on the beach, with a steel band and Soca music. Refreshingly, none of this was put on for our benefit; we were simply lovingly included in an existing tradition.
Discovering the ecological wonders of Tobago is also an unbridled delight. Newton George; Tobago’s answer to David Attenborough, takes us on a trek through the Main Ridge Forest Reserve; bursting with parrots, hummingbirds, spiders and, to our surprise, one very feisty crab. Typical of the Tobagan spirit, when he hears we haven’t visited the island’s Argyle Waterfall, he voluntarily drives us there and then decides we should pop by his village, Speyside, for lunch. If you find yourself there; head to Jemma’s Treehouse Restaurant. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
The Environmental Research Institute in Charlottesville (or ERIC for short) is based in the north-west of the island and does monumental work. One of its members, Neil Cook, takes us snorkelling in Castara Bay, where we see the conservation work they are doing first hand; their coral nurseries and the wildlife it is encouraging; schools of colourful fish and even a green turtle and a sting ray. Later, we snorkel ourselves in the island’s Buccoo Reef, off the picturesque Pigeon Point, where the waters are a mesmerising turquoise and, miles from land, you can even sit down in the naturally shallow Nylon Pool. Once again we are treated to the colourful underwater world Tobago has to offer; from its rainbow fish to its arresting corals.
Yet what Tobago preserves so well, with its ecotourism, is its sense of self; the relaxed island mentality, and the genuine warmth of its people. Castara Retreats is a striking example of this; seamlessly conserving its social and ecological environment. While allowing you to vacation responsibly and ethically, it also pays you the ultimate compliment: it treats you like a local.
A stay at Castara Retreats costs from £95 a night for a one-bedroom eco lodge