Yes, This Is Paradise

If you are looking for the perfect anchorage, complete with crystal clear waters that radiate a bright turquoise, deserted beaches, and miles of perfect snorkeling, then look no further.  Not to be confused with the island of Tobago, part of Trinidad, the world-renowned Tobago Cays consist of a group of small uninhabited islands surrounded by a Horseshoe Reef about 2 miles in diameter.  The bright sunshine reflects a kaleidoscope of gold, brown, dark blue, emerald, and turquoise that is nothing short of spectacular.  There is no question that this is one of the finest anchorages in the world.

[Click on photo for full size image]
Photo by Paul Gravel, SVG Air

Getting There

There are two approaches to Tobago Cays, one from the north tip of Mayreau to the west, and from the south tip of Mayreau to the southwest.  I do not recommend entering by the southwest approach unless you are very familiar with the location of the three reefs that form a dangerous chicane.  The safest approach, and the one recommended by most doctors, is the one from the west.  Simply motor about one quarter mile off the north tip of Mayreau, then head towards what appears to be one island (itís actually two, Petit Rameau and Petit Bateau) at approximately 143 degrees.  A small cruise ship is often anchored off Petit Rameau, so that will help guide you.  The charts show two range markers on the island, however you have to be practically aground before you see them.  Total travel time from Mayreau is about 45 minutes, and you will most likely be motoring, as the wind is usually right on the nose.

As you get closer, the water will turn from dark blue to aquamarine, then almost teal.  Have a look over the side, as you will be able to see bottom clearly in about 25 feet of water.  Itís spectacular, but quite unnerving at first when you incorrectly believe that you are going to run aground.

When you arrive at the cut between Petit Rameau and Petit Bateau, you will have to slip through the gauntlet set up by the Boat Vendors.  They hover here during the day, out of the wind and current, waiting for the ďcatch of the dayĒ Ė you!  They will follow you in and offer to guide you through the anchoring process, generally getting in the way.  Ignore them, stay focused, and concentrate on making the perfect drop.  If you screw up, they will step in to help, expecting a big tip of course.  Talk about pressure!

You will most likely want to anchor to the lee of Baradel, on its southwest corner.  Expect the largest concentration of boats at anchor here.  Do not be afraid to get real close to the island, as the bottom slopes away quite quickly, and you find yourself trying to anchor in 25 feet of water.  The holding is reasonable, but if you drop the hook in 10 feet of water and let out about 70 feet of chain, the chain itself will hold the boat in 25 knots of wind or more without any difficulty.  Be sure to dive on your anchor to be sure itís aligned properly.

You could also anchor to windward of Baradel where there is nothing between you and Africa except the Horseshoe Reef.  This places you very close to the snorkeling area, and away from everybody else.  It will not be crowded there; not a bad idea, as the Cays can become quite busy at times.  The color of the water is absolutely stunning as a result of the white sandy bottom and shallow depths.  Be aware that you are less protected in this location, and you might find it too windy and rough for your liking.

Underwater Wonderland

Some of the finest snorkeling in the world can be found on Horseshoe Reef.  That is why people come.  The water depth ranges from 3 feet to about 12 feet, so itís a relatively easy dive.  You will see millions of every colored fish known on earth.  I have seen a barracuda, shark, turtles, parrot fish, as well as huge brain coral, fan coral Ė itís all there.

Just to the lee of the coral heads, blue mooring balls have been placed for you to tie your dinghy and snorkel from there.  Do not anchor on the coral heads, as this causes permanent damage to the very attraction you are visiting.  There is usually a moderate east to west current, so I recommend swimming against the current first, then drifting back to the dinghy.  This current also means crystal clear water and unlimited visibility.

The water is only 5 or 6 feet deep over the coral heads to the southeast of Baradel.  Itís easier snorkeling, however there is more coral damage from humans and pounding waves as a result of the shallow water.  To the northeast of Baradel, the water is 8 to 12 feet deep, and there is virtually no coral damage.  Here is where the most impressive coral formations are found.

One very impressive sight is the coral heads viewed from the ocean side.  This is where the local SCUBA outfits bring their guests, so if you are a certified diver, itís better to let them do the driving.  The water quickly drops off to 50 or 60 feet, and turns a very dark blue.  The size, numbers, and types of fish seen here is very impressive.  There is a dinghy pass to the open ocean that you could take to get there, or you could thread your way through the corals if you are a strong swimmer.  This is difficult, as there is a very strong current, breaking waves, and sharp corals.  Do not try this if the current is flowing from west to east, as you will not be able to get back!

Buzzing Around

Buzzing around the islands in your dinghy is another worthwhile experience.  You will see an impressive array of cruising boats, triple-masted cruise ships, and possibly one or two motor-yachts belonging to somebody you read about in the news.

The color of the water on the windward side of Baradel is a brilliant turquoise as a result of the clear water, white sand bottom, and shallow depths.  The effect of the colors can only be fully appreciated from up close, so a pass through by dinghy should be on your list of things to do.

There are four uninhabited islands within the reef area, and itís fun to explore each of them.  Some of the elevations offer stunning views of the surrounding turquoise waters and the Horseshoe Reef.  There are excellent beaches on Baradel, Petit Bateau, and Jamesby, where you could spend an entire day soaking up the sun and surf.  A picnic basket and cooler full of beverages is a great idea.

The beach on the north side of Petit Bateau, in the cut, usually has a number of makeshift beach boutiques, set up for day tourists who arrive on a number of vessels.  They sell the same T-shirts, shells, and jewelry that the Boat Vendors deliver to your boat.  It can be fun to go ashore and browse.  I have also seen small boutiques and makeshift bars set up on Jamesby, Baradel, and the southeast beach on Petit Bateau.

Petit Tabac

Petit Tabac can only be reached using a substantial speedboat, as you will face significant ocean swells and current getting there.  Hire a Boat Vendor to take you Ė the experience is well worth it.  In fact, why not make a day of it by having the Boat Vendor throw a barbecued lobster lunch on the beach?


The island is the most spectacular of the Tobago Cays, in part because it is not easily accessible to most visitors.  You might observe the occasional yacht at anchor for the day, or even a catamaran anchored for the night, but that is rare because of the lack of protection.  As a result, you are almost guaranteed to have the island to yourself.  This island was used in the filming of several scenes in the movie Pirates of The Caribbean , starring Johnny Depp.

Dining In

No trip to the Caribbean is complete without feasting on the local spiny lobster.  In the Tobago Cays, they deliver right to your door.  Any Boat Vendor can make the arrangements, however only a few are actually involved in the delivery (See the Boat Vendors section).  The going rate is $20 EC per pound for live ones, and remember, the season is from October 1 through April 30.  The two pound size is ideal, however they will try to sell you substantially larger beasts.

Either boil them or split them in half for barbecuing, remembering of course to remove the spines first to avoid painful hand lacerations.  If youíre really not up to the task of murdering crustaceans for personal sustenance, you could arrange for the Boat Vendor to cook them, for an additional charge.  The Yellow Man, who generally works Mayreau, has a good reputation for delivering expertly grilled lobsters to your door.  He can be reached on VHF 16.  Tuffer, from the boat Desparado, and Free Willy, from the boat Arrival, are very reliable.

If you make arrangements for lobster early in the day, expect that they will make the actual delivery late in the afternoon.  Be sure you remember who you first dealt with, as another Boat Vendor may try to scoop a late sale, pretending to be associated with the first guy you dealt with.  When the first guy finds out, you will not be popular.

Fresh fish is also very worthwhile and I personally recommend it.  Again, it can be arranged by any Boat Vendor, however I recommend making the request early, as they have to go and actually catch the fish (unlike lobster, which they keep alive in underwater containers).  I personally recommend the Red Hind, which has a firm white flesh and is a very meaty fish.  Red Snapper is also excellent.  Be aware that you might not be able to get exactly the type or size of fish requested, and that once you have ordered it, itís yours.

Dining Out

There are no restaurants in the Tobago Cays, however there is one great Caribbean Experience that you must try Ė the beach barbecue.  Boat Vendors Free Willy and Tuffer host beach barbecues on the deserted island of Baradel.  Dinner consists of grilled lobster or fresh fish and either is absolutely excellent.  They may arrange a small portable bar and some reggae music, so you have all the ingredients for a great time.

There, you will dine under the stars on the beach of a deserted island, lit only by the warm glow of a nearby campfire and a few torches.  Do not expect fancy linens or white-glove service of the Waldorf-Astoria.  They have been known to forget small details such as plates and cutlery, but these small bumps in the road add to the charm of being far away from it all.

The Boat Vendor picks you up from your boat at dusk and delivers you to the island where you can enjoy a few cocktails while he puts the finishing touches on your dinner.  You sit on the beach around makeshift tables, enjoy a great dinner, and have a few more beverages as you chat and listen to music.  On a clear night, the Milky Way shines brilliantly overhead.  At the end of the evening, he delivers you home safely.

There are often guests from other boats, so this is a great opportunity to meet new people and practice your storytelling.  All in all, a great experience that I highly recommend!

One word of caution.  The enjoyment of this experience is directly proportional to the weather.  You will not enjoy yourself if it is extremely windy, or if it is raining.  It is often difficult to make the call early in the day because you never know the pattern of thundershowers that might form over dinner hour.

Boatside Shopping Centre

Believe it or not, you can shop till you drop, all without leaving the cockpit!  The Boat Vendors will make cleverly-timed strafing runs of your boat in an effort to separate you from your holiday money.  In addition to the usual - bread, ice, lobster, and fish - each Boat Vendor specializes in something.  Free Willy has the best selection of tropical-themed sarongs in the entire Grenadines, including land-based boutiques.  We checked.  Mr. Quality has the largest selection of T-shirts, but the Sydney Dallas collection is certainly unique.   Larsten has some great local handmade jewelry.  Relax, have a look, you might find that one unique thing to bring back.

The Back Door

Recommended Charter Company itineraries from St. Vincent usually plan to include the Tobago Cays on the southward leg of the cruise, with Union or Palm Island as the next destination.  You could leave Tobago Cays by the same westerly route you used to get there, however you would have to go all the way around Mayreau to reach the next destination. 

You could alternatively leave the Tobago Cays by the southwest exit, despite what some people may tell you.  You have to be aware of three coral formations that are easily spotted under the proper light conditions.  Simply leave before 2 PM and post a watch on the foredeck to be sure of the location of reefs.  This is more difficult at the end of the day because of the angle of the sun.  Total travel time to Union Island or Mayreau is 45 minutes.

[Click on photo for full size image]
Photo by Paul Gravel, SVG Air

Last Updated: July 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004