With its 1,400-acre sand-bottom lagoon of crystal clear, turquoise blue water, five uninhabited islands, 2.5-mile-long reef, and a turtle sanctuary, the Tobago Cays are a nature/beach/snorkel lover’s paradise.
Located in the island-chain nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the southeastern Caribbean, the Cays are not to be confused with Trinidad and Tobago, which are further south.
How to get to paradise
The only way to get to the Cays is by boat. And unless you’re staying on one of the nearby islands and can arrange a day trip, you’ll have to go on a crewed charter boat or rent a boat yourself. Chartering a sailboat sans crew is our favorite way to explore the Caribbean (assuming you know how to sail) as it offers the most flexibility.
St. Lucia and Grenada are where you’ll find international airports and the best charter options—our favorite in the region is Sunsail. These islands also each have a lot of cool things to check out if you want to extend your sailing vacation (including getting up close to volcanic activity in St. Lucia and Grenada’s unique underwater sculpture park for divers). On your way to the Tobago Cays be sure to also visit some the many incredible islands that make up the Grenadines, as each has its own unique beauty and charm.
Although for me, nothing compared to the Tobago Cays. Aside from its unparalleled beauty, there’s not development at all—no hotels, no stores, no buildings—just nature. It was close to being turned into a high-end mega resort in the 1990s, but thanks to the foresight of former Prime Minister of St. Vincent Sir James Mitchell (who we met by accident when having breakfast at his restaurant in Bequia), the islands and waters were protected from development and are now a Marine Park. You’ll have to pay a daily park fee of approximately $16 to anchor, but as this money goes to help protect the Cays, it’s worth it. You don’t have to worry about finding out where to pay—they’ll find you.
When you sail into the Cays, you have to be very careful with navigation. There are coral reefs everywhere, some quite close to the surface. It’s easy to get distracted by the awesome beauty and the green sea turtles that stick out their heads as if welcoming you to their magical home.
The first people we met in the Cays were the legendary “boat boys”. These self-appointed ambassadors/entrepreneurs with creative names like “Mr. Quality”, “More Time”, and “More Fresh” helped us find a safe place to park our boat. Make sure you don’t attempt to anchor on your own as you might disturb the fragile coral.
The boat boys won’t charge for helping you, but are happy to sell you a variety of goods such as fresh-baked banana bread, fish and lobster, beer and rum, shirts and shorts, and pretty much anything that’s lacking. So if you want to show your gratitude, do it by giving them some business. In a remote place like the Tobago Cays, this kind of service is essential. That being said, you’ll still want to fully provision before you arrive, as prices can be high here since these goods are brought from the neighboring islands.
A magical world awaits you below the water’s surface
Once at anchor, grab your fins, mask, snorkel and GoPro and take your dinghy over to Baradal Island and the turtle sanctuary (marked by buoys along a rope). Be very careful when you approach by dinghy, as the waters here are thick with turtles. Once you’re in the water, you can get very close to these docile creatures. However, it’s highly recommended that you keep some distance so you don’t disturb them. This ecosystem is delicately balanced and when you disturb these turtles it adversely effects their feeding and makes them burn more energy and surface more often for oxygen.
Another great spot to snorkel is Jamesby Island, where I saw a hawksbill turtle, big rays, and an octopus feasting on a conch. The more adventurous, can explore the huge horseshoe reef on a calm day when the sea isn’t too choppy.
If you’re certified, you can also arrange a dive with a local company. We went with Grenadines Dive, who will even pick you up from your sailboat and take you to nearby dive sites. The reefs are healthy here and you’ll see a wide variety of marine life, including small black-tip reef sharks, spiny lobsters, brightly colored shrimp, moray eels, southern rays, colorful coral, and more.
Search for the Cays’ unique island treasures
In the evening, be sure to join one of the beach barbeques on Petit Rameau. These are basic family-styled dinners prepared by locals from the surrounding islands. You usually have the choice between lobster or fish served with a selection of vegetables on long wooden tables with the moon and stars glimmering above and the tropical night breezes softly caressing the palm fronds above your head. The price is pretty steep for the barbeques, but I think the experience is worth it.
While much of the Cay’s wonders are underwater, the islands are also fun to explore during the day. Unmolested by development, you’ll find a healthy population of huge colorful iguanas. If you’re lucky you can also spot land tortoises, not as fast and graceful as the marine turtles, but very cool to see.
If the ocean’s calm, you should dinghy over to Petit Tobacco Island, just outside the horseshoe reef. As this is a bit harder to reach, you’ll likely have its picture-postcard white sand beaches all to yourself.
Most of these islands have easy-to-follow trails for exploring and great summit vistas. My favorite view is from the top of Petit Rameau. From here you look down on the lagoon and its many crazy shades of blue and green.
The hardest thing about visiting the Cays is leaving. We hit this spot twice on our tour of the Grenadines, and if we go back we’ll probably spend even more time here. Once you experience the Tobago Cays, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Where is your Caribbean paradise? Let us know in the comments below!
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