Arriving at Castara Retreats, Tobago, I feel oddly out of place. I hold my yoga gear in one hand, and my laptop in the other. My host for our week of ‘raw love’, Gabriela Lerner, a raw vegan and consciousness coach and speaker, greets me with welcoming embrace. She walks barefoot, guiding me up the winding path, through the trees and to my eco lodge. ‘The pace of life here is a daily reminder to slow down; to really be in the moment,’ she tells me.
As I settle into my accommodation, I’m not completely sure what she means. I’m still in office mode – tired from the flight and mentally running through the emails I need to send. A week of meditation, walking, yoga and fresh, raw food sounded blissful on paper, however I can’t quite switch off. But, as I soon learn, on Tobago taking things slowly isn’t optional; it’s fundamental to their way of life. Slowing down is sincerely valued by the local people, and is infectious to anyone staying here. This is affectionately known as ‘Tobago time’.
Just six miles wide and with around 70,000 residents, the island is the smaller half of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, and remains charmingly unchanged by tourism. I’m staying in the small fishing village of Castara on the north coast. Here, locals spend their time farming and fishing, swimming at the quiet beach by day and ‘liming’ (the Caribbean art of doing nothing, considered a central part of their culture) by night.
My treehouse-style lodge is nestled amongst mango trees and palms, hugged by the nature that grows from the rainforest just behind us. As someone who’s always on-the-go, I felt the trees, birdsong and message of ‘go slow’ trickle through me. Porridge Lopez, who manages the apartments, arrives to welcome me. His answer to anything I ask: ‘No stress’. ‘But… what about…,’ I want to say. But I don’t; his nature, and that of everyone here, quickly rubs off on you. If there’s a problem, it might not get sorted today, or even this week, but what’s the use in worrying about it. This outlook is so ingrained in Tobagonian culture that there’s frequently short power cuts on the island – the locals accept this, they don’t fret or get annoyed – they embrace it as a chance to snorkel around the bay or sit with a drink by the light of the circling fireflies.
From my veranda, I overlook Castara Bay. My balcony and kitchen area don’t have windows – each lodge, dotted across the hills, is designed to invite nature in. I sit and watch the hummingbirds, parrots and bananaquits dancing through the trees, circulating their songs around me. By night, bats drift in and swoop across my veranda, and crickets chirp. This enchanting melody plays in the backdrop of each apartment. Although my bedroom is enclosed, you can hear their song at night, accompanied by the waves washing in, lulling you into rest.
Castara is the perfect location for our programme, however I’m also keen to explore further afield. The next morning, I arrange to meet Harris McDonald, a tour guide specialising in Tobago’s rainforest – home to more birds per square mile than anywhere else in the Caribbean. I wait for Harris on the edge of the village. Cars meander by, but none stop. After 20 minutes, a smiling Harris arrives. He’s late, but not in the way British people turn up stressed, checking their watches and apologising. On Tobago, time really isn’t a premium. It’s refreshing. If you’re late, nobody cares, they’re just happy to see you. Sharing a bunch of sweet local bananas, we head for the jungle’s Blue Copper Trail.
The path stretches for a mile beneath a canopy of trees, ferns and vines. It’s like entering a different realm as we wade through the streams that feed the ocean. The only sound is a chorus of parrots, hummingbirds and crickets – I’m completely encircled by nature. We spot snakes and armadillo burrows, and Harris explains how the trees and animals work in harmony to support each other.
Returning to his car, I’m covered in sweat, mud and rainwater, but despite the heat, feeling so far from civilisation is freeing. Slowly, we make our way back to the village. Each person or car we pass stops to wave and say ‘hello’. A pair of cars ahead of us even break in the middle of the road to have a conversation, blocking the route. Harris rams on his horn – he wants to greet and chat to these strangers too. I love the way that everyone here is treated as a friend and there’s no pressure to rush from A to B.
The following morning, I join the small group also on the retreat, to continue our programme. We start each day with a nourishing smoothie, followed by kundalini yoga on the hilltop yoga deck and breakfast shared overlooking the beach. We eat here together for all of our meals, with the food freshly crafted by Gabriela and raw food chef Alex Beer. Despite being a vegan, the notion of raw meals feels intimidating at first. I’m immediately put at ease by the warm community environment, and the food is incredible – colourful, flavour-packed and nourishing – complementing our environment.
Our incredible meals range from raw pizza, topped with fresh basil, to delicious raw lime cheesecake. Being presented with such healthy and hearty meals is a pleasure, and I enjoy mindfully eating whilst taking in the views. It’s fascinating to learn with Gabriela about the energy and benefits of raw food. And by the end of the trip, I’m keen to try preparing raw food myself, and to start incorporating it into my daily life.
During our meals we discuss techniques to translate the Tobagonian calmness into our everyday lives. A Trinidadian member of the group explains to me that it’s encouraged at school and work for people to really listen to their bodies. ‘My body doesn’t feel well, but I’ll be back when it tells me I can,’ is a common and accepted reason for not going to work – echoing their laid-back and unworried culture, and in contrast to our expectation to plod on. This Caribbean way of life sits well alongside Gabriela’s ‘six prayers of raw love awakening’ – these are feelings based prayers (or affirmations) that we discuss each day. Such as: how to create real freedom in your life, ways to add movement to your daily routine, and different tips to boost your health. Gabriela’s passion and knowledge gives me a theme to focus on each day, as well as practical tips and inspiration to translate this into real life.
One part of the retreat I have not been looking forward to is Nia, or non-impact aerobics. The practice combines dance, martial arts and mindfulness to challenge your mind and nourish your body. Before our first class, I confess to the teacher, Melanie Stahl, that I definitely ‘cannot dance’. She’s heard that a thousand times and explains that, like yoga, Nia centres around listening to your body and moving in a way that feels good for you. We practise Nia barefoot each evening, overlooking the beach, and although I initially hide at the back of the class, I slowly shimmy and sashay without inhibition around the room. Nia encourages you to completely surrender to music and movement – to let go of any self-awareness and dance with strength, energy and confidence, aided by the carefree Tobagonian outlook. I leave each class with a beaming smile. I love it!
As the week progresses, I feel myself relax and slip into a slower rhythm. Swimming around Castara Bay each afternoon is such a treat. The water is warm and as I bob on the surface, I spot pelicans swooping and diving, and fish darting beneath me. With a snorkel, you can see coral, sea urchins and clownfish. It’s beautiful.
On the last day, Gabriela suggests we climb the nearby Castara Waterfall together. We follow the stream’s path through the village, passing the sports field with ‘think positive’ written in pebbles on the grass. The stream grows into a river, ascending as a waterfall towards the rainforest I explored earlier in the week. We reach the first pool after a short walk and paddle in the refreshing water. Cacao beans grown on the nearby trees, with their moist leaves giving welcome shade. Birds chatter around us; this is their environment – peaceful and wild.
Keen to explore, we take off our sandals and decide to climb further up the waterfall. Wading through water and clambering over boulders barefoot, I feel free – in touch with nature. I test the rocks and branches beneath me, feeling the energy of the river flowing around us, and negotiating a safe pathway. We’re the only people here, and after over an hour of climbing we reach the mouth of the waterfall.
A tropical downpour starts, but it’s warm already so we tiptoe out of our shorts and dive into the lagoon formed by the falls. The fresh water is invigorating as it pummels down around me. I’m soaking wet and have no idea what time it is, but immersed in nature and the Tobagonian pace of living, I don’t worry or care. I feel completely renewed and free. The sunshine, yoga, Nia and fresh food have all helped, but it’s the Tobago spirit that stays with me long after returning home.
Find out more
For more about Castara Retreats, see castararetreats.com. Retreats start from £1,198, including food and accommodation. Flights with British Airways start from £TBC.
To find out more Gabriela, her retreats in both the UK and abroad, coaching and events, see gabrielalerner.com.
For rainforest tours, see harris-jungle-tours.com.
Castara Retreats are running Flowing with the Elements yoga retreat 6 to 14 July 2018, The Power in You kundalini yoga retreat 28 August to 4 September 2018, and Spread your Wings vinyasa and restorative yoga retreat 4 to 9 May 2019.
(Images: Alex Treadway and Neil Baird.)