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Winter Travel
Tobago
Tobago delights the senses with Technicolor birds and lush, intimate spaces.
BY GEORGE KALOGERAKIS
 
Villa sanctuary: Stonehaven Villas. (Photo: Doug Ashley/Brian Cronin & Associates)
At the Grafton Bird and Wildlife Sanctuary, on the grounds of an old Tobago plantation gone to seed, thrushes, grackles, doves, and bananaquits descend upon an outdoor tabletop covered twice daily with cracked corn and watermelon on the side. The blue-crowned motmot is missing, preferring to dine separately on cheese under cover of an open-sided shed. When the bird finally appears, it's immediately apparent why one of Tobago's main attractions is its extraordinary fauna. This creature has sprung from a child's coloring book: turquoise cap, black mask, green back, orange breast, long blue tail. And the setting — a lush, tangled jungle accented with bougainvillea and hibiscus — does much to recommend the island's flora as well. You come to Tobago for the natural life, not the nightlife.

The sanctuary is a short walk from Stonehaven Villas, a cluster of fourteen French country-style houses that opened last year on Tobago's West Coast. It's ideal for a family vacation: The three-bedroom, two-story pink stucco homes, accented with marble and mahogany, offer every amenity from microwaves to private infinity pools. (Well, everything except a minibar, as we discovered after arriving late at night and in desperate need of rum. So we wandered across the road to Le Grand Courlan, where lethal rum punches and a shish-kebab dinner on a balcony overlooking the Caribbean helped stabilize us.)

The next day, down below at Grafton Beach, people come up to us offering hair-braiding, aloe leaves, boat excursions, and carved wooden vases. Later, we have lunch on the sand at Buccaneer's Beach Bar. The sky is overcast, and the breeze knocks a lizard off a branch and onto our table; the lizard bounces off, collects himself, and with a sigh walks back to the tree and begins another ascent.

Twenty minutes' drive away (and you will need a car on Tobago, if only to head north to the rain forest or to secluded beaches for snorkeling), on the Atlantic side of the island, is the Blue Haven Hotel. The Blue Haven had a Hollywood vogue in the forties and fifties — Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth were guests; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and Fire Down Below were filmed here — before shutting down. Splendidly renovated and reopened last winter by Karl and Marilyn Pilstl, an Austrian couple, the pink hotel has been expanded to 51 simple, tasteful oceanfront rooms while retaining its retro charm. Blue Haven overlooks the beautiful beach of Bacolet Bay, where Robinson Crusoe is said to have washed up in 1659 (he probably didn't, but never mind). You get the feeling, at the Blue Haven and throughout much of Tobago, that not much has changed since Mitchum's day. It's remote, friendly, intimate -- maybe even a little too cozy. As our waiter at Le Grand Courlan laughingly warned us that first night, as we snatched the rum drinks off his tray, "There are no secrets here."

 
Details
• Stonehaven (868-639-0361, doubles start at $350)

• Blue Haven (868-660-7400, doubles start at $181)

• Le Grand Courlan (868-639-9667); Buccaneer's Beach Bar (868-639-0191)

• Fly BWIA (800-438-2942) nonstop to Miami or Trinidad, then on to Tobago.
   
islands & tropical
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    From the November 5, 2001 issue of New York Magazine.