Américas / November-December 2001
By Larry Luxner
SCARBOROUGH, Tobago -- Described more than 40 years ago in Fodor's 1960 Guide to the Caribbean as "Trinidad's beautiful stepchild," Tobago -- a tropical paradise located about 150 miles southeast of San Juan -- is bracing for an unprecedented hotel construction boom that coincides with one of its worst tourist seasons ever.
Last November, Hilton International's newest Caribbean property, the $35 million Hilton Tobago, officially opened for business following more than a year of delays. The splashy new 200-room hotel, by far the largest on the island, dwarfs Tobago's other resorts, which are mainly small, exclusive cottages and villas of no more than 20 or 30 units apiece.
Georg Weinlaender, the Hilton's general manager, says as many as five more big hotels could rise in Tobago over the next few years, as tourists discover the charms of this unspoiled island known more for bird sanctuaries and deep-sea diving than for the all-inclusive resorts so typical of Jamaica, the Bahamas and other leading Caribbean destinations.
"Tobago is a sleeping giant," says the Austrian-born Weinlaender, who worked in the Middle East, Europe and Africa before ending up in Tobago two years ago. "This island has so much to offer. It's unspoiled, the people are friendly, the crime rate is very low, and it has a rainforest and incredible diving."
Aside from the Hilton, two of Tobago's newest smaller, exclusive properties are Stonehaven Villas and Blue Haven Hotel, both of which opened their doors last December.
Stonehaven is located just outside the village of Black Rock, offers spectacular views of Buccoo Reef in the distance. It adjoins the Grafton Estate bird sanctuary with its forest trails and afternoon bird-feeding.
Not far from Stonehaven is the Blue Haven Hotel, overlooking a beach where, according to author Daniel Defoe, explorer Robinson Crusoe was stranded on Sept. 30, 1659.
"This hotel was part of Fort King George. We even have one cannon on site," said assistant manager Raj Boodram. "It was built in the late 30s and early 40s. In those days, the hotel was composed of 27 rooms, and we had the biggest swimming pool in the Caribbean. This hotel also had the first elevator in Tobago."
Last year, after lying dormant for about 25 years, owners Karl and Marilyn Pilstl completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of the Blue Hotel and re-opened it to rave reviews.
"The additions feature a floating roof, which traps the air and allows it to pass through the building, cooling it, so you don't use much energy for air-conditioning," says Boodram, adding that "we do weddings at Blue Haven. If people come to the island and stay at least three days, they can get married."
Such small, exclusive properties, however, are dwarfed by the Tobago Hilton, which is jointly owned by the government of Trinidad and Tobago (51%), Tobago Plantations Ltd. (30%, and itself a 50-50 venture between Trinidadian giants Guardian Life and Angostura Ltd.) and by Hilton International (19%).
Inaugurated by Prime Minister Basdeo Panday, the hotel is part of the 750-acre Tobago Plantations development, which includes a 90-acre natural lagoon, a 5,000-foot-long beach and a 60-acre protected mangrove forest. Weinlaender says that in addition to the Hilton, the Tobago Plantations development will encompass two more big-name hotels. In addition, the complex will boast a 27-hole championship golf course by February 2002; also on the drawing board is a 120-slot marina, a shopping mall and, inexplicably, a plastic-surgery clinic.
"We don't know what they're planning, but there might be, in total, five more hotels built in Tobago," he said. "There's a Four Seasons in the pipeline, for which Angostura has bought land near Pigeon Point. And Four Seasons would not go below 200 or 300 rooms."
Asked if big properties such as the Hilton are appropriate for a laid-back island like Tobago, Weinlaender had this to say: "If you look at the style of the building, it blends in. It's not a high-rise. Every room has its balcony with a private view of the sea. People love this hotel."