Tobago; Prosperity has changed it, but this island is still enchanting

Like most youngsters, my two girls had long delighted in chocolate - chocolate bars, hot chocolate, chocolate cake. Now here in this beautiful isle of Robinson Crusoe fame they were looking at its source, a green pod full of nuts covered with a rather slimy-feeling white substance.

It was just one of the common foods Celia and Victoria saw growing for the first time, and just one advantage - besides the sun and the sea - in taking a tropical vacation. They found that coconuts come with a green or tan outer husk as well as the dark brown shell; that young coconuts look like giant acorns; that coffee beans are reddish; that cashew nuts come at the end of a green, edible (but highly astringent) fruit; that banana bunches grow upward and have a large purple blossom; and that fresh almond nuts are almost impossible to crack.

For the girls, the trip was a complete surprise. Two days before leaving, we told them to pack their clothes for travel to a warm place; they learned the actual destination at the airport. It was exciting.

My wife and I were also keen to see Tobago (see map on preceding page), having last been there 20 years ago on our honeymoon. The island is still lovely , but it has changed.

For one thing, the population of this smaller island in the south Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago has more than doubled, to around 40,000. In 1963 this 20-mile-long island seemed uncrowded, primitive, and poor. Many of the islanders, mostly Negroes (they prefer this term to ''blacks''), lived in palm-thatched shacks. There were fewer hotels, fewer tourists, and we felt most welcome.

Today, Tobagans are much better off financially, fortified by government spending based on revenues from sizable oil finds offshore of the much larger Trinidad, 22 miles across the ocean to the south, and which in turn is only nine miles from Venezuela.

They live in much more substantial homes, usually made from concrete blocks. Villages now seem almost small towns. Beaches that once were mostly deserted are now likely to be busy, especially on weekends, when Trinidadians fly over for brief vacations, the youngsters carrying ''boxes'' blaring taped pop American music. But the many beautiful beaches are not crowded.

The roads, particularly in the western end of the island, are more numerous, though some are still in bad shape. A proper highway, perhaps not really necessary, stretches for several miles out of the main town, Scarborough, and is being extended. Unfortunately, more litter and garbage are strewn about, dumped in gulleys near beaches, and elsewhere.

Such changes are often undesirable byproducts of increasing prosperity. Because of the litter, the island has lost a little of its charm for visitors. Tourists from eastern American cities don't have to leave home to see bottles, cans, paper, and other garbage strewn about.

My wife and I faced one special shock when we first arrived at the Crown Point on the Bay Hotel here, where we had stayed two decades earlier. To our horror, a long, beautiful beach on one side of the hotel had completely disappeared. Only sharp, coral stones remained. ''Stay off it,'' the hotel staff advised.

Also mostly missing was a handsome wharf in front of the hotel, and the remaining beach on the other side was not so attractive.

''Where had it all gone?'' we asked. Washed away, some said. Hurricane Flora struck the coast in the fall of 1963, causing enormous devastation. But that, we later learned, was not the whole story. It may have been true for the wharf. But the beach had been carted away, its sand turned into concrete for housing and other buildings.

''Trucks backed up in steady streams, taking away thousands of loads,'' recalled a Tobagan old-timer, Bobby Smith.

That destruction of some of this lovely island's beaches has been made illegal now. But it still occurs to some extent. We were swimming at another fine beach, clearly posted with signs banning removal of sand, and saw three men quickly shovel sand into several bags, load them into the back of a van, and drive off. The stretch was called Black Rock Beach, named after outcroppings of stone that have been enlarged by sand removal.

Despite such beach depredations, Tobago does still have many good beaches. And the island remains fascinating.

With oil revenues down, the government is putting a new emphasis on its somewhat run-down tourist industry. Trinidad and Tobago's biggest handicap in the competition for American or European tourists has been the cost of getting there. Since it stands at the far end of the Antilles, the usual air fare to Port of Spain (and Tobago) from New York or Boston exceeds $600. But now American and BWIA International are offering a special fare of $373 (including tax, midweek, $10 extra on weekends) out of New York. This is a package deal obliging the tourist to stay seven nights in one of the hotels on the island. (The room price seems to be the same for package or nonpackage tourists, but the package gets the cheap air fare.)

Tourist industry leaders have long begged the government to force its state-owned airline, BWIA International, to drop its fares. Now it may be prompted by competition to do so.

This winter, the hotels on Tobago have suffered sharply from the world recession. Except for weekends, only 15 or so guests dined in the evening in the restaurant area next to the pool at the Crown Point. The more luxurious Mount Irvine Bay Hotel, where we stayed for our last three nights, was running at no more than 45 percent of capacity. The Crown Reef Hotel, a newly renovated state-owned hotel at the other end of the surviving beach from the Crown Point, was 65 percent filled.

Travel agents say a Caribbean holiday is always expensive in high season when it is cold up north, and Tobago is no exception.

The Crown Point was one of the least expensive hotels we saw. It cost $59 (US) a room per night, double occupancy, no meals, in high season. Each room has a small kitchen nook. So, with a tiny so-called ''super market'' off the main lobby, you can look after your own meals relatively easily and inexpensively. Even if you choose to eat the good, but not fancy, meals in the dining room, it would probably be cheaper for most people to pay a la carte than by ''modified American plan'' (MAP), where you get breakfast and dinner.

When we first came to the Crown Point in 1963, it was run by a Swiss couple and was spotless and in superb shape. That's not so true now. The air conditioner in our room spit rust, there was litter on the open-to-the-air side of the hallway outside our door and in other not-so-public areas, and some bathroom fixtures were, shall we say, worn. And if you are impatient, you have a problem. Trinidad and Tobagan waitresses move at a leisurely pace. That may be why buffets and barbecues are so popular here.

After our first shock at the changes in the Crown Point, we enjoyed the sun, the beach, the people, and the expeditions.

The Crown Reef, just down the beach from the Crown Point, costs almost $200 (including service and taxes) for a room with a double bed, MAP, in the high season. On April 16 that price dropped to about $135. The weather remains excellent here until the rainy season in the fall.

The Crown Reef's Trinidadian manager, Charles Solomon, spent several years managing a hotel in Toronto. He returned to supervise the year-long $2.6 million renovation of this hotel, before opening it again last Oct. 15. It is a well-run , modern facility. We saw a first-class show of fire eating, glass walking, limbo dancing, calypso singing, and a steel drum orchestra on a Saturday night. The staff, 95 percent new to the hotel business, was doing a good job of serving.

Mr. Solomon has ambitions to make the hotel a center for marine activities, with scuba diving, wind surfing, and underwater photography. A marine laboratory , with the capability of developing film, is under construction.

''Superior'' rooms (with a seaside view) at Mount Irvine Bay Hotel, which is in my opinion the most luxurious and most beautifully designed hotel on the island, cost nearly the same as at the Crown Reef as of April 1. The hotel also offers cottages costing about $145 a night for double occupancy, MAP. The hotel has an 18-hole golf course. There's a nice beach across the road in front of the hotel, and some superb, nearly deserted beaches, a 15- or 20-minute walk up that road. Some guests complained that the food was not up to their expectations, considering the price. But we liked the meals and the dining room location, an old sugar mill.

Another hotel I would recommend is the Arnos Vale. It is small (32 rooms), but located on the steep slopes of a lovely ocean cove. It gives you the feeling of being deep in a tropical garden. It is surrounded by 400 acres, including bamboo stands and a 100-year-old waterwheel that was once part of a sugar mill. The proprietor did not have the spring rates available when we called, but its winter rate of $156 for a superior twin room (MAP) indicates it is somewhat less expensive than the Crown Reef or Mount Irvine.

Taxis are expensive on Tobago. So are tours, costing as much as $78 for a daylong trip. If you can manage driving on the ''wrong'' side of the road and navigating some narrow, mountainous roads, it might be better to rent a U-drive for $43 a day. You need some form of transportation to nearly anywhere, including the relatively primitive and wild northeastern end of the island.

One popular trip is to the Buccoo Reef. You are let out with goggles and snorkel to tramp about and view the tropical fish. That portion of the reef was much more spectacular 20 years ago before the feet of many thousands of tourists and the anchors of the boats pretty well flattened it. Then the glass-bottomed boat takes you over deeper, more untouched reefs where more fish roam, and finally to a sand bar far from shore where you can swim.

For bird enthusiasts, one adventure is a visit to the hilltop estate of Mrs. Helena Alefounder. She feeds the birds including dozens of pheasantlike cocorico (the national bird), yellow and black banana quits, and blue motmots. There are also hummingbirds and other birds. Most of the windows of the tropical colonial-style home have been removed to prevent the birds from bashing themselves on them, so the colorful creatures fly freely through the house.

Scarborough is interesting - for a morning - with its untidy general stores and its ramshackle market. But it offers nothing like the fancy shops, say, of Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands. Tobago also offers excellent fishing, spectacular hilltop views on some drives (such as to Castara on the north shore) , and, of course, the many beautiful, remaining beaches and the warm sun. The refrain of a currently popular calypso song asks, ''How are you feeling?'' and the singer answers, ''Hot! hot! hot!'' When a Tobagan asks that same question these days, he expects you to reply, ''Hot! hot! hot!'' And you can usually do so truthfully.

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