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NATURE'S GIFT; Pat Welland has a turtley terrific time in breathtaking Tobago TRINIDAD & TOBAGO England's second opponents - June 15, Nuremburg at 5pm.

TWO big girls shuffle past each other on their favourite Tobagonian beach at dead of night.

It has been two years and a few thousand miles since they were last here and it is good to be back on the silver sands. That they arrived at the same time is a miracle.

One of these giant leatherback turtles - which can weigh up to 2,000lbs and measure 8ft - has just laid her clutch of eggs, carefully covering them with sand before returning to the sea.

The other has just crawled up the shoreline to make her own nest, scooping a hole with her huge flippers. That one brief moment when these two placid creatures, a protected species under constant threat from predatory man, were side by side was the kind of moment nature-lovers die for.

Tiny Tobago, lying with its neighbour Trinidad off the coast of Venezuela, is that kind of place. Its palm-fringed beaches, crystal clear waters and lush hinterland are breathtaking. The pace is so laid-back it approaches the horizontal.

But what makes it truly special is a natural splendour so rich and diverse the island has been hailed as the Best Eco-Destination in the World by the World Travel Awards.

Check this out: on an island just 26 miles by seven miles there are 2,300 flowering plants and shrubs, 220 species of birds, 100 types mammals and 70 species of reptile. In the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea to the north, and Atlantic to the south, there are 40 species of coral, including the world's largest known brain coral. With 600 species of fish and underwater visibility up to 150ft this is a snorkel and scuba paradise.

To cap it all, Tobago is also home to the oldest legally-protected forest in the world. The Main Ridge Rainforest Preserve was established in 1776. It dates back 60 million years but was ravaged by Hurricane Flora in 1963. As a result it's an unique example of a new-growth rainforest.

I visited the 14,000-acre reserve twice, with acclaimed naturalist David Rooksm, who has worked with David Attenborough, and bird expert Peter Cox. Both men offer guided tours which open visitors' eyes to secrets of the flora and fauna that remain hidden from the untutored.

To walk in this forest is to see nature's cycles untouched by man. Up to 160ft above you, the upper canopy. Around you bamboo, red heliconia, orchids, lianas, lichens and mosses. A hummingbird, wings vibrating at 200 times a second, darts across the field of vision in an iridescent flash.

Coming down from Main Ridge to Bloody Bay, so-named from a 17th century sea battle between the English and Dutch, we stopped at a small restaurant with a majestic view. The Sunshine Bar gave us our first taste of Tobagonian cuisine - dorado, chickpeas, plantains and calaloo, the thick soup based on dasheen leaves, okra and coconut milk, washed down with beer.

At the far western end of Tobago lies Pigeon Point protected by 30-mile Buccoo Reef rated by explorer Jacques Cousteau the third most spectacular coral reef in the world.

Inside the reef, and hundreds of yards offshore, lies Nylon Bay, an acre-large pool in places just 4ft deep. For about pounds 5, glass-bottomed-boat operators will ferry you out and supply snorkels and goggles.

Local legend has it that those who bathe in Nylon Bay emerge looking five years younger, though I can't say I noticed it myself. Tobago, named Tabaco by the original Caribs after the longstemmed pipe they used to smoke the plant we now know as tobacco, was christened Bella Forma by Columbus when he claimed it on his third visit in 1498. In 1632 it became a Dutch colony.

Since then, it has changed hands more than 33 times, finally achieving independence in 1962. The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago was formed in 1976.

Inland that colourful history is reflected in the ruins of forts and sugar mills. For one of the great views, go to Fort St George with its cannon emplacements, built in the 1770s. As you would expect for an island with a population of only 45,000, Tobago is the shy, alluring sister of her brasher neighbour to the south.

There is no hassling of tourists here. "Liming" - sitting around chatting - is a national pastime.

Out on the rolling hillsides the winding, empty roads are dotted with modest restaurants or welcoming bars selling the local beer, Stag ("A Man's Beer") and Carib. Stop here and chill out.

The capital, Scarborough, is a bustling town with a market, stores, souvenir shops and a wide variety of restaurants and bars.

The second-biggest town, Plymouth, settled by Latvians in the 17th century, is equally modest boasting Fort James, built in 1811, and the oldest stockade on the island. Near by is the famous Arnos Vale waterwheel, relic of a late 18th century sugar estate now a restaurant and museum.

But you might just as well relax in one of the fishing villages like Buccoo in the south west, where the weekend Sunday school is an open-air dance and music festival, and beautiful Charlotteville in the north east.

Try the unspoiled beaches at Man-o'-War Bay, Charlotteville (a diving centre and Tobago's finest harbour) Pirate's Bay, Englishman's Bay, Castara, and Mount Irvine. The hottest charge of adrenalin is likely to be the goat and crab races at Easter.]

INCREASINGLY popular is the Plymouth Jazz Festival, which this year scored a coup, recruiting Sting as headliner. He went down an electrical storm on the warm May night.

An excellent way of getting around is to hire a jeep for about pounds 40 a day and with petrol at 30p a gallon it won't break the bank.

Accommodation varies from simple beach cottages, to guesthouses and eco and dive lodges.

Which brings me back to those turtles. I was lucky enough to stay at the Turtle Beach Hotel which fronts the nesting grounds of the leatherback, hawksbill and green turtles.

Representatives of monitoring group SOS Save Our Sea Turtles lecture at this idyllic hotel on the critically-endangered species who, after 25-30 years, return to the beaches of their birth to lay nests from March to August.

The hatchlings emerge 55-70 days later. But because of man and natural predators only a few will reach maturity.

Wise old things, those turtles. They always come back. And once you have been to Tobago you will know why...

TRY calaloo, crab and dumpling, fried plantain and roti, a chapati wrapped around a curry of chickpeas and potato with either chicken, beef or goat. Saheena are deepfried patties of spinach, dasheen and split peas with a mango sauce. Slake your thirst with powerful rum punches or fire it up with pacro water, a soup of shellfish, green bananas and dumplings... supposedly an aphrodisiac.

TAKE a boat from Pigeon Point to snorkel in Nylon Bay.

Bathe in the Goldsborough, Argyle and King's Bay waterfalls.

For nature tours, visit rooks.Tobago.c om or tobagonaturetours.com

For turtle-watching, go to sos.Tobago.org

GO FOR IT

A WEEK at Turtle Beach Hotel, departing on Thursdays or Saturdays between April 28 and May 12, 2007, costs from pounds 699 per person based on seven nights accommodation in a standard sea-facing room (on a room-only basis).

Seven nights all-inclusive starts from pounds 869pp. Excel flights from Gatwick and transfers are included. Based on two adults sharing. Two-centre holidays with Tobago and Grenada can also be arranged. To book contact Golden Caribbean on 0870 777 6922.

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HOT FOOT: Dancing in Trinidad' PARADISE: Pigeon Point beach
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 10, 2006
Words:1266
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