Friday, December 25, 2009

Windsurfing in Tobago

We just came back from a week of windsurfing in Tobago. Even though the wind did not quite play along, we had a great time. Tobago is definitely a place to consider for windsurfing (and kitesurfing) vacations, so here are some details about our trip.

Getting to Tobago from the US
We had booked most of our windsurf vacations through Vela or similar outfits, where you can book the hotel and windsurf equipment. We did not find a place in the US that offers Tobago trips, so we had to find everything ourselves. We used TripAdvisor to select the Sun Spree Hotel (formerly Mermaid Hotel), and booked it through Yes Tourism. Flights to Trinidad are often cheap, we payed about $500 per person. We had a late arrival, but had a room for the night reserved with Yes Tourism. The room was at Leo's Place, a guest house near the airport. The room was basic, but clean, and Leo picked us up and dropped us off after breakfast the next morning. Flights from Trinidad to Tobago leave every hour, take 20 minutes and can be booked for about $30 on Expedia.
Based on what we had read and seen on the maps, we decided to walk to the hotel - perhaps a 15 minute walk. The hotel looked nice, and the staff was very helpful. We were able to check in right away, and on the day we left, we were given a room were we could shower in the evening. It certainly helped that the hotel was almost empty, as were most other hotels in the week before Christmas.
We had booked equipment at Radical Sports Tobago by email. The windsurf place is in Pidgeon Point, a nice beach park that's a 30 minute walk away from the hotel. We only had to walk a few minutes, though, before a cab picked us up and drove us the rest of the way, for $3. At the entrance to Pidgeon Point, we had to pay $15 per person for a one-week pass.
Radical Sports was easy enough to find at the tip of the park. During our entire stay, there were only 2-4 other windsurfers there, so we always had our pick of windsurf equipment. They had a nice selection of Starboard and Mistral boards, many of them new or as good as new. Sails were North and Tushingham sails, up to 8.5 m.

After grabbing a quick snack at a beach bar, we sailed on the equipment we had reserved - for me, a Starboard Futura 133, with a 7.0 m sail. I ended up being a bit underpowered, and was not quite happy with the Futura. The Futura was fine once planing, and ok when schlogging - but I had a hard time to get it to plane, and ended up being catapulted a few times. I later switched to a Mistral Screamer 130, which I found much easier to get onto a plane, even though it seemed quite a bit smaller.
We had know that getting good wind would be a matter of luck - the windy season is just starting towards the end of December, with the best wind in March and April (similar to Margarita Island, which is not that far away). So we were prepared to practice light-wind tricks, which we did the next day. To get back to the hotel, we rented bikes at Radical Sports ($50/week).
The bay that we surfed in is protected by a reef on the outside, so the swell was limited. However, there definitely was some swell, especially compared to Lac Bay in Bonaire (or Fogland in southerly winds). The swell was highest the first day, when the wind was onshore, and the waves had about a mile and a half to build up. On most other days, the wind direction was more sideshore, and the swell was smaller. Good balance training for light wind, though.
The third day was my wife's birthday. She hates the cold, and was very happy to be in the Carribean. The Radical Sports kite surf instructor from Germany, Christian, offered to take us on a little boat tour to see the attractions in the bay - a sand bar peninsula named "No Mans Land", and the "Nylon Pool" - a spot near the reef where the water is shallow enough to stand, so lots of glass bottom boots ferry tourists over there for a swim. Pretty funny to look at, but a very nice trip.

On the light wind days, I took the opportunity to try a Starboard Kode 122 freestyle board. I liked it a lot better than the Futura 133 - it behaved well when schlogging, but really wanted to jump onto a plance when gusts hit.  But when the wind picked up on our last days in Tobago, I usually picked large equipment, including 8.5 m sails, to have a chance to plane. Speed addiction...

We had one day of nice wind, were I was planing on a 7.5 m sail (and probably could have planed on a 6.5). I really enjoyed the sailing in the bay - lots of space, very few other windsurfers and kite surfers, just an annoying jet ski every now and then.

Considering my large equipment, I did not try any loop attempts - but the loop pre-exercise from the Tricktionary was a lot of fun when we did low-wind tricks.


One great thing in Tobago was the food. At Pidgeon Point, we could get simple stuff like sandwiches cheap. The big meals were breakfast and dinner, and we had quite a few positive surprises there. The local special for breakfast is salted fish.

It is prepared a bit different at the different restaurant. We were able to have breakfast at the restaurant at our hotel only once - after the first day, the restaurant was closed most of the time, or used for private functions. No big loss, though, since it forced us to explore. The next hotel, the Toucan Inn, was just a 3 minute walk away, and had excellent breakfast and dinner, in a very nice poolside location. Another place we went to was the Iguana Cafe, a 3 minute bike ride from our hotel. Again, the breakfast was great, and service very friendly.
For dinner, we ended up eating three times in a pizzeria - thin crust brickoven pizza, better than what you get in 99% of other pizzerias. Cost per person for breakfast and dinner was usually about $10-15.
In comparison...
How does Tobago compare to other windsurf destinations? Here are some random observations.
  • The bay is large, and very scenic. The hills in the background are beautiful, and there is plenty of space on the water.
  • What's missing is night life like in Cabarete, and a nice little city center like in Bonaire. There are a few restaurants to choose from, and a disco somewhere that we did not look at. 
  • If you go to Tobago, make sure to bring ear plugs! There are lots of free running chicken, and the roosters start getting loud really early. Can be a problem if you are noise sensitive (I am), but ear plugs will fix it.
  • Another thing that I did not see in Tobago was obvious poverty, similar to levels you see in Cabarete or some other islands in the Caribbean. Both streets and houses were generally in good condition, and I felt safe at all times. Almost everyone we met was very friendly, but in a somewhat non-american way: instead of big smiles and handshakes at the beginning, people got friendlier when you knew them for a (little) while.
  • The wind was not the greatest, but good enough from keeping us on the beach every day. We should have rented a car to drive around the island, but never did. Other windsurf place in the Caribbean (Bonaire, Margarita) also have not-so-great wind at this time of the year. In Tobago, the wind comes across the island, and might be a couple of knots less than in Lac Bay, where it comes straight from the ocean. But when going on a windsurf trip in the Caribbean in the middle of December, it's probably always a good idea to be prepared for light-wind days.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Go Pro Heros

When I feel compelled to write about companies, it's usually because they p'd me off. But once in a while, I find a company makes great products, sells them at a great price, and has outstanding customer support. That's my short description for GoPro.

I just got my Xmas and birthday present from my lovely wife - a GoPro Hero HD helmet camera. Of course, I had to test it right away. The results were great - the quality is just outstanding. Here is a short example:

(To watch directly on YouTube, go to - make sure to click the HD icon on the lower left corner to get the highest quality!)

I go the camera before Xmas because we are going on a short windsurf trip to Tobago soon, where we plan to use the camera a lot. The HD version of the camera is brand new, we had to pre-order it directly from GoPro. They tried to keep people up to date with the expected shipment dates, but is seems they were overwhelmed with orders. When they updated the expected shipment dates a few days ago, it seemed unlikely that we would get the camera in time for our trip.

We contacted their support and asked if there was anything they could do. We got two answers within 24 hours, apparently from 2 different people. Both said that we would probably get the camera in time. A day or two later, we got another email from GoPro support. This time, they said they could not be certain that we would receive the camera before the trip, and suggested that we pick up a camera at a local REI store. They included a list of the closest stores, with location and phone number.

We called the stores right away, and the third store had 4 cameras in stock (with another 56 cameras in the warehouse). They were kind enough to hold one for us, and we picked it up an hour later. Then, we canceled the order we had placed with GoPro using their web form - no problem. We had ordered a couple of 16 GB Kingston SDHC cards at, since some people had reported problems with other cards. But to try the camera on the warm and windy day of November 3rd, I had to get a card locally. I was lucky, the 8 GB SanDisk speed 4 card worked, as the video above shows.

Lovely experience to do business with GoPro - great product at a great price ($299 for a waterproof HD video camera!), and fast, proactive support that really wants to help you. I wish there were more companies like this one out there...