Squinting into the distance, I spot the giant silhouette taking shape. Suddenly wide-eyed, I wake from my lazy drift along the coral wall, no longer content to simply let the current take me on its tour of vivid colours, swaying sea fans and a grumpy hawksbill turtle.
I’m now on red alert, aware the current, tractor beam style, is bringing me face-to-face with a creature many times my size. Heart fluttering, I cross my fins and hope it’s friendly.
Several unnerving seconds pass and the distance between us halves. It’s then that I realise the shape is not merely swimming towards me, it’s flying. Huge wings several metres wide flap through the water until suddenly, out of the darkness and into focus, it emerges. I realise what my new dive buddy is – it’s a massive manta ray.
I’m diving off northern Tobago, the smaller of the two major islands that form the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Found just a few miles off the South American coastline, it’s a country famed for its cultural mix and the sort of biodiversity that has nature lovers drooling over their binoculars.
It’s a place where by day you can explore the Western world’s oldest protected forest, a haven for more birds per square mile than almost anywhere on the planet. After dark, meanwhile, you can immerse yourself in the Caribbean’s wildest party scene, a reputation that’s unsurprising considering these islands are the birthplace of Carnival, steelpan bands, calypso, limbo and current dancehall favourite, soca.
Right now, however, I’m exploring some of Tobago’s lesser-known treats, those found under the water. Fighting the current around Black Jack Hole, off the sleepy town of Speyside, I watch as the manta continues to glide, its curving body rippling flirtatiously like a windswept Marilyn Monroe Seven Year Itch dress. Drawing level, the giant ray then sashays up and over me, heading directly for the surface, dominating the clear water overhead like a Gotham bat signal scanning the sky.
Dive another day
Switching between the northern Speyside sites and the many southwestern reefs, we encounter moray eels and nurse sharks, scorpion fish and spiny lobsters, the largest brain coral in the world, plus the excellently preserved wreck of one-time ferry, the Maverick. “It’s like being in Avatar,” enthuses my Kiwi dive buddy Brendan after returning to the surface one time. And I don’t disagree.
In between two of our north-side dives we swim to Goat Island. It’s home to a derelict house we’re told once belonged to James Bond creator Ian Fleming. Later research suggests the claims may not be true, with most 007 experts adamant the Jamaica-based spy-turned-writer never owned property in Tobago. But, however it began, the story is hard to resist.
Stumbling out of the surf and onto shore, I don’t quite pull off the Daniel Craig impression I’d desired, but luckily the setting is enough of a distraction. Perched on the private island’s craggy rocks, overlooking a white sandy beach and some of the best reef you’ll find, is the spacious three-bedroom villa, which was supposedly Fleming’s holiday home.
Little imagination is needed to picture the super-spy creator living here and, stepping cautiously between the crumbling rooms, I half-expect to chance across an underground lair, or find a Bond girl sipping a cocktail. Fact or fiction, the rest of my day is spent pondering how to raise the US$3m price tag for my own slice of double O heaven.
Among the dives we find ourselves criss-crossing the small jungle-clad island, which measures in at just 116 square miles. Thankfully, due in part to lovable rules banning developments higher than a palm tree, much of Tobago still lacks the gated community-style resort tourism that has become synonymous with many of the region’s islands, perhaps explaining why time and again I’m greeted by the words: “Welcome to the real Caribbean.”
At one point our van comes to a standstill in the road, the delay due to two passing cars stopping for a chat. “What’s going on?” we ask Mr Brown, our ever-polite driver. “Don’t worry,” he replies. “They just liming.” Liming, in case you were wondering, is the habit of chewing the fat with a passer-by, originating from when people wanted to borrow a couple of limes off their neighbour, but had to have a catch-up before asking, out of politeness.
Now, whether you’re in a bar or in the middle of the road, if you see someone you know, it’s only right to have a lime. “All good,” Mr Brown signals as we move on after a couple of minutes, “we may drive slow but we talk fast.”
God is a DJ
All too soon, our final night on Tobago arrives and the 20-minute flight to Trinidad beckons. As luck would have it, our final night is a Sunday, meaning we need not miss out on a Tobago institution – Sunday School.
With the Scriptures a long way from sight, Sunday School is the main way that Tobago shows party-mad Trinidad that it ain’t shy about getting down.
Located between the goat racing stadium (yes, really) and the water at Buccoo Beach, the open-air dance party began life as a weekly steelpan gig, giving the locals a chance to show off their calypso moves. Nowadays, however, the steel drums are only act one of a far more down and dirty event.
Strolling in after dinner we quickly ease ourselves through a couple of £1 beers while the friendly mix of several hundred locals, with a healthy smattering of tourists, soak up the steely sounds. And then the clock strikes 11pm and the change is immediate.
As the band wave their goodbyes, a huge sound system cranks into action. The more traditional steel band fans, families and many of the tourists make for the exit, while in head the younger crowd, who’ve been waiting for the dancehall and soca to kick in. And kick in it does.
The people-watching is utterly absorbing, not least when the dancing gets going. Heavy on booty grinding, or whining, dancing to soca is not for everyone. Like sex with your clothes on is how it’s sometimes described, and I soon see that it’s not an inaccurate analogy.
Double or nothing
Next, we touch down in the capital Port of Spain, where the differences to Tobago, and especially the wider Caribbean, are immediately noticeable. Much bigger and more populous than its little brother, Trinidad is also the engine behind the one-time British colony’s successful economy, which is in large part due to its oil and gas riches.
But Trinidad is much more than somewhere to drink and make money. Once away from the city, the island, roughly 50 miles by 30 miles, is beautiful.
And so we spend our final days hiking through the jungle, swimming under waterfalls and ziplining across the canopy, before our final stop at Grande Riviere, where we’re hoping to meet another giant of the seas.
Trinidad and Tobago is one of the world’s top destinations when it comes to watching turtles nesting, and we’re after the biggest of the lot – leatherbacks. Guided by the full moon, we plod our way carefully onto the beach, and it seems we’re in luck.
Sitting on the crest of the sand are a handful of the mighty females. Clearly knackered, they dig down deep to build their nests, before going into a trance-like state and dropping dozens of rubbery eggs into the hole. Watching from a metre or so away feels strangely intrusive but is a humbling experience. I’m glad my £10 entry fee will help vital nesting grounds for this critically endangered creature.
And so, leaving the ladies to their moonlit laying, there’s just one thing left to do – head back to the bar for a lime.
Getting there Fly from London Gatwick to Tobago from approx £415pp with Monarch Airlines.
When to go: The best time to visit Trinidad and Tobago is from January to May when you can avoid the daily rains. If you don’t mind the odd shower though, the rest of the year is cheaper, as hotels lower their rates during rainy season. Year-round temperatures stay around 26-27°C.
Currency: £1 = 9.8 TTD (Trinidad and Tobago Dollar)
Accommodation: A seven-night stay with breakfast at Tobago’s Magdalena Grand (magdalenagrand.com), plus return Monarch flights from London Gatwick, costs from £705pp, while the more basic Toucan Inn costs from £597pp. Rooms at Coblentz Inn Boutique Hotel (coblentzinn.com), in Trinidad capital Port of Spain, cost from £120pn. Rooms at Le Grande Almandier Guest House (legrandealmandier.com), ideal for turtle nesting excursions, cost from £80pn. Book with Golden Holidays (golden-holidays.co.uk).
Photos: Thinkstock; Facebook; Island Experiences Tours; Andrew Westbrook