Tobago is a fantastic island to visit - the raw Caribbean at its very best. Splashes of opulence and relative poverty are seen throughout the island, which is governed in tandem with Trinidad, just a short hop on a subsidised flight away.
In general terms, Trinidad is the business island and Tobago is the holiday destination. It is just 11 miles from the mainland of South America and misses most of the hurricanes that have wrought such devastation in recent months. The economy is helpfully underpinned by large dollops of oil revenue, and business is good on Trinidad in particular.
In years gone by Tobago was a stronger player in the list of exotic destinations and the reasons for this are complex and interlinked. Many of the other islands have drastically improved their appeal as a destination. A lack of direct flights has been an irritation to many long haul visitors, especially with the demise of Monarch Airways most recently. In addition, there have been a couple of ugly crimes, which garnered more publicity than was helpful to their tourist industry. There has also been a rise in the number of resorts offering all-inclusive holidays, which knocks the stuffing out of the local bars and restaurants, which have subsequently closed, making the island’s infrastructure less rich and interesting for visitors. There is some government assistance, but the island seems a little stuck in a chicken and egg cycle of investment /flights / marketing. All of this is a huge shame because Tobago is a delight and I am definitely going back. The people are great - laid back and chilled and friendly to their core.
There are currently two golf courses on the island - Plantation Golf Resort and Mount Irvine Bay. Mount Irvine Bay is long established and currently in the middle of a regeneration project that has already seen an updated and transformed hotel. It would be fair to say that the Mount Irvine Bay Course needs a little love and attention. It needs a LOT of love and attention. It is a great track, but a substantial investment is required to bring up to the standard required for wealthy tourists to want to play it regularly.
The Plantation course is only a few miles away on the opposite (Atlantic) side of the island and is part of a huge Magdalena resort: once a Hilton property, it is now government run, and while not perfect, it is improving.
The par 72 layout has a number of tees available for the golfer to pick their challenge, which can rise to 7000 yards for the sadists, or very long hitters. Designed by Bob Hunt, who heads PGA Design Consultants, it is a relatively flat course. It is the flat topography that prevents majestic views, but does allow for easy walking, even though many of the golfers prefer to use golf buggies. When it is very hot, the buggy provides shade and also the most delicious breeze once the buggy is in motion. Although close to the ocean, most of the scenery is a tropical parkland with elegant American style villas lining many of the fairways. It is hard to tire of the beauty of palm trees, which give such an exotic setting for those of us from Northern Europe. There is also plenty of water, which provides a pretty backdrop, but also the chance to spoil another was good around.
There are two distinct seasons in Tobago: the wet and the dry season. During the wet season there are often torrential downpours, which will quickly give way to bright sunshine, making golf a viable alternative were it not for the very wet ground conditions that the downpours can create. The course plays completely differently during the dry season: despite irrigation, the fairways run firm throughout the summer and the greens are a fiendish challenge. Cutting the course during the wet season is very difficult; it is almost impossible to guarantee that fairways, surrounds, tees, greens, aprons and semi rough can all be consistently groomed when mowers can become stuck in the middle of a fairway. However, the greenkeeping team do a reasonable job, and the course is good fun to play most of the year.
Due to the heat of the sun, the greens are seared and develop a nap which leads the ball to drop towards the nearest large area of water, normally the sea. This can sometimes be very confusing to the golfer, and the ball can seem to travel up hill faster than it travels downhill. As if golf isn’t hard enough already!
There is a decent practice ground and a couple of putting greens, which are positioned close to the clubhouse. The clubhouse is a light and airy building with excellent patios and has recently been taken over - all of the staff seem cheerful and eager to help and the food we tried was delicious.
Close to the clubhouse, one of the larger water features plays host to Colin, the Caiman - caimans are slightly smaller versions of alligators and are to be avoided at all costs!
The Magdalena Resort is fantastically well equipped and offers everything you could want from a luxury beach holiday. As a golfing destination, with lots of other activities, it is nearly perfect. Green fee prices are reasonable, however the club hire is expensive, but the clubs offered are good quality Callaway sets in regular and stiff shafts, and only a couple of years old.
Tobago is a great island to play golf on - and offers so much more besides.