The phone call comes at 3:30 a.m. "Turtle on the beach. Come quickly. I take you there."
I scramble into my clothes -- laid out hours before in hopeful anticipation -- and race to the front desk of Le Grand Courlan Resort and Spa where I am staying on Tobago. James is waiting to lead me to the beach. We walk quietly through the resort, past the 80-foot pool with cascading waterfall, the manicured gardens and airy cathedral-vaulted dining room.
"Just follow the lights," he tells me as we near the beach, pointing past the row of palm-thatched umbrellas and reclining lounge chairs now bereft of sun-seeking guests.
With only a crescent moon to light my way, I stumble over the shifting sand for what seems like an eternity, sending handfuls of scratchy grains down my socks with each staggered step. Silently cursing myself for forgetting my flashlight, I finally reach the soft flickering lights of the assembled crowd. I count 30 bleary-eyed turtle watchers, some still in night clothes and slippers, congregated, expectantly, around an enormous green sea turtle.
As we watch, she methodically flips sand into the hole where she's laid more than 60 eggs, each as round and as white as a new golf ball. She pivots, periodically stopping to rest, covering her nest with a thin layer of sand at every turn.
Finally, grunting and straining, she pulls her exhausted body toward the water, a few feet at a time. We part to let her pass, though she seems oblivious to her enraptured audience. She's distracted momentarily by a popping flash from the camera of an overzealous amateur photographer, but soon gets her bearings again. Nearing the water's edge she stops as if tobid us adieu. Then, with a final flip of her fins, she disappears into the gentle surf.
Although I have come to Tobago, and her big sister, Trinidad, to escape a Vermont cold snap, it is not the sun and the surf that make me choose this part of the tropical Caribbean as my destination, but the diverse bird, animal and marine life. More than 600 bird species, 700 butterfly species, 46 snakes, 32 land mammals, 60 bats, and countless marine specieshave been spotted on and around these islands, the southernmost in the Caribbean.
My hotel near Black Rock, one of Tobago's newest and most luxurious retreats, affords me easy access to the Grafton Caledonia Wildlife Sanctuary where I wander in search of the mot-mot, a colorful bird with orange underparts, a blue-green back, and "tassels" at the tip of its tail. Although I am disappointed in my quest, I am fascinated by the story ofthe "tame" mot-mots that sometimes appear at four o'clock for feeding.
In the 1960s, when the sanctuary was still a privately owned cocoa estate, a hurricane swept through the surrounding forest, severely damaging the habitat of these exotic birds. The owner fed the birds to help them survive, and when she died, she willed her estate to her family on the condition that it remain a wildlife sanctuary. The mot-mots still come outof the forest many afternoons in search of a handout.
I have better luck with my bird watching on the far end of the island, at Speyside where I sign on with Frank's Glass Bottom Boat Tours for a trip to Angel Reef, one of the best places in this part of the world to snorkel. The sky is filled with sea birds, including the red-billed tropic bird, brown noddy and laughing gull, many of which make their home on the small offshore island of Little Tobago, a protected seabird sanctuary. But I find the underwater marine life equally as fascinating, counting more than 20 different species of fish from butterfly- and parrot-fish to French angels and grunts. I love how the corals dance in the gentle ocean currents, exhibiting their colors like an exotic fan dancer.
Our guide takes us to the largest known brain coral in the world, measuring 12 feet high and 16 feet across, which we view through the glass floor of the boat. He also tells us about a spectacular dive site off Little Tobago Island called Kelliston Drain where mantas are so plentiful and friendly that they've earned the nickname, "Tobago Taxis."
I can't warm up to the idea of donning a scuba suit and descending several feet below the surface but some of the other passengers on the boat want to hear more about the Mount Irvine Wall, a spectacular night diving site; the Bookends; and the Japanese Gardens, the latter so named for its "Oriental underwater horticulture" of colorful sponges and corals.
Although I prefer Angel Reef, the snorkeling is just as nice -- if not a bit more crowded -- at Buccoco Reef at the western end of the island. Boat trips leave daily from Store Bay and Pigeon Point and include a swim in Nylon Pool, a kid-safe, shallow area in the middle of the gin-clear waters of the lagoon.
Store Bay is also a great place to sample some of the traditional island foods like curried blue-back crab and dumplings, roti and callaloo, a thick green soup of dasheen leaves, okra, and coconut milk, offered at the many food stalls, including Miss Jean's, along the beach. But my favorite is shark-n-bake, a puffed pita stuffed with lightly fried mako, hammerhead, or black fin shark and served with a variety of condiments including shadon beni, tamarind sauce, mango chutney and coleslaw.
Eco-friendly Tobago also boasts of the oldest forest reserve in the Western hemisphere, which was established around 1760, not long after the island was taken over by the British. This vast area of virgin rain forest transverses the mountainous spine of the island along the eastern end of the island.
Several tour companies take visitors deep into the forest, a favored habitat of Amazon parrots, collared trogons, and many other tropical birds.
Although I prefer the solitude and scenery of Tobago to her more boisterous sister, Trinidad, I cannot resist a visit to the Asa Wright Nature Center and Lodge in Arima, a 30-minute drive from Port-of-Spain, the country's capital city of 350,000. The former British coffee-cocoa-citrus plantation is a mecca for "twitchers," serious birders who travel from all over the globe to observe the bird life.
The lodge has 24 comfortable rooms, including two in the main lodge, and an airy veranda where guests can sit with binoculars or long-lensed camera. More than 45 bird species have been spotted from the porch, and more than 170 on the 200-acre estate.
The lodge is fully booked -- most people make reservations months in advance -- so I content myself with a day visit that includes a sumptuous lunch of stewed pork, pelau (split peas, meat and rice), black-eyed peas, coleslaw, fruit and nature center-grown coffee.
Then I'm off with Denise, my very knowledgeable guide, to put my bird identification skills to the test. I spot 10 new birds for my life list in less than 30 minutes, including the green honeycreeper, orange-winged parrot, and crested oropendola or corn bird with its sack-like hanging nest. Most, unfortunately, do not sit still long enough for me to capture them on film.
Guests who stay at the lodge for a minimum of three days receive a free guided trip to the guacharo or oil bird colony in Dunston Cave on the estate. This is the most accessible breeding colony of this nocturnal species in the world. The lodge also offers day trips to Nariva Swamp on Trinidad's east coast, home to the red howler monkeys and numerous bird species with such interesting names as wattled jacana, pied-water tyrant, and blue-back grassquit.
Later, back in Port-of-Spain, I reserve a space through Nanan Tours on one of their many boats that take groups of 12 to 40 through the Caroni Swamp, a half-hour drive from the city. We spot an oil bird, two coiled rainbowboas, and the common potoo amid the tangled mangroves. But the highlight of our 90-minute trip is observing 6,000 scarlet ibises returning at dusk to roost in the mangroves. They light up the trees in a Christmas-like display.
I see more water birds at the Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust at Point Cumana, just north of San Fernando, Trinidad's second largest city. This research and conservation center is located on oil refinery land and offers visitors a chance to observe water fowl and song birds up close in their natural habitat. Permits are needed but can be obtained at the gate.
I find the introductory film and small museum worthwhile though wish that the nature trail was longer. Still, I am not disappointed as I add the wild muscovy duck, anhinga or snake bird, purple gallinule, and yellow-hooded blackbird to my bird list.
My last stop in Trinidad is at the Pax Guest House and Tearoom at the Mount St. Benedictine Monastery in Tunapuna, the oldest Benedictine estate in the Caribbean. It's only 20 minutes from Piarco Airport, my point of departure, yet its secluded mountain location provides a quiet haven from the hustle and bustle of the island.
Established in 1916, the guest house is filled with original antiques, including monastic-style tables and chairs handcrafted by the monks. Much of the food served to overnight guests and at the public tea room, from the meat and goat's cheese to honey and jellies, is produced at the monastery. However, for most visitors, the main attraction is not the amenities, but the solitude and the extensive network of trails for hiking and birding.
I take tea with owners Gerad, a Trinidad native, and his Dutch wife, Oma, sampling tea cakes and finger sandwiches on the front veranda of the guest house. Nearby, some of the guests try their luck at bocce ball. Further down the valley, the villagers are starting their long pilgrimage on foot up the mountain to the church for evening vespers.
I nibble on a curried egg sandwich and sip my darjeeling tea as a tiny yellow and black bananaquit, called sugar bird by the islanders, scoots by, chased by another. But the hot sugared tea, comfortable setting, and warm hospitality make me too complacent to dig out my binoculars for a closer look. Maybe tomorrow. For now I am content to let Trinidad pass by me.