Touring North Coast with Island Girl Tours and Trini Surfer

MARACAS: A lovely view of Maracas Beach captured during the tour.  - Photo courtesy Alan Charles
MARACAS: A lovely view of Maracas Beach captured during the tour. - Photo courtesy Alan Charles

The wonder of Fort Abercromby. The idyllic beauty of Yarra Beach. The majesty of Avocat Waterfall. These were some of the sites during a North Coast tour on Thursday hosted by Island Girl Tours and Trini Surfer.

Newsday rendezvoused with the transport for the tour in Maraval — a green band 12-seater maxi taxi. We were greeted by company owner, the athletic and gregarious David Rajpaulsingh, his wife and general manager Anna, and assistant Ben Alemayehu. The clients for the day were Trinidad-born, New York-based retail operations director Steve Sooknanan who was visiting with his wife and two daughters, as well as his relatives.

During the maxi ride, Rajpaulsingh and Sooknanan traded stories about various places they had travelled and about moving about the US. Later in an interview, Rajpaulsingh explained that, having travelled the world, he enjoys talking to people about their country. He lived in Canada from 1991 to 2015 before moving back home.

LA FILETTE: The tour group makes its way down some stairs to the beach at La Fillette. - Photo courtesy Island Girl Tours

"At the time we moved back to look at Tobago as a viable place to come back and live. Now we never thought about tours. But then I did a couple of sightseeing (events) and tours and I realised the place was so ripe and so beautiful and so completely replete with so much gorgeousness and nature I (thought), 'We need to do this place justice.'"

He explained when he worked for the government in Canada he had a lot of experience with cabinet ministers and government officials in promoting and "selling" Ontario. And this gave him a revelation of what was needed for the sister isle.

"The beauty speaks for itself. The nature speaks for itself. What it needs is customer service. People to show this, show it in a fun, loving way, in a historical way, whatever way suits your fancy. But to make sure it is about the customers."

He recalled the company was created with the motto "Your happiness is our happiness."

"It's not about money – we make money – but it's about service."

Top-rated tour company

The company was unofficially launched in 2017 but became official in 2018 when the website was launched and the certification and registration were received.

Rajpaulsingh said their favourite tour group size is two to six people but they have done upwards of 75. He added the larger tours are less personal because you have to deal with a lot of people.

ROCKS AND STONE: Island Girl Tours owner and guide David Rajpaulsingh holds up a colourful stone amidst the beautiful rock landscape at Fort Abercromby overlooking Las Cuevas Bay.
Photo courtesy Island Girl Tours - Photo courtesy Island Girl Tours

On their website they have several Tobago tours including the Off the Beaten Path (Hidden Gems Tour), Castara Bonfire, Waterfalls Tour and Sunday School Lime (Night Party). Their flagship tour, however, is the Grand Circle Island Tour, a 12-hour, "dawn to dusk" exploration of Tobago.

"You are going to get the entire island but specifically themed for you. If you're a 'foodie,' we focus more on food. If you're a historic buff we focus on that, (or) if you're into beaches and waterfalls," Rajpaulsingh explained.

The tour recently crossed 200 reviews on the popular travel website Tripadvisor and they are all rated "excellent," the highest rating. Rajpaulsingh said on the website Island Girl Tours is the highest-rated tour company in Tobago. The company has more than 330 reviews, all excellent.

He said they started tours in Trinidad last year and this is their new project.

"With Alan it is going gloriously. We are showing people things and making people appreciate and celebrate these two beautiful islands."

TAKING A SWING: The Sooknanan Family enjoys the swing at Yarra Beach. - Photo courtesy Alan Charles

The Alan he was referring to is Alan Charles, a photographer, videographer and content creator whose cataloguing of nature sites in Trinidad under the pseudonym "Trini Surfer" has racked up more than 130,000 followers on Instagram. He was picked up for the tour on the way and brought his knowledge and lively personality to the trip. During the tour Charles was recognised by a few people and some asked to take pictures with him.

Charles said he began discussing a collaboration between Trini Surfer and Island Girl Tours two years ago when he came to Tobago and did some work with Rajpaulsingh unrelated to tours.

TOUR GUIDES: The tour guides, left, Island Girl Tours assistant Ben Alemayehu and general manager Anna Rajpaulsingh, Alan Charles aka Trini Surfer, and Island Girl Tours owner David Rajpaulsingh at Fort Abercromby. - Photo courtesy Alan Charles

"And I liked the vibe that they were doing. And throughout my life as this Trini Surfer thing for the last five years people constantly bombard me with (requests) 'Can you take me here?' 'Can you take me to this beach?' 'Can we tag along with you?'"

He said with Rajpaulsingh people can accompany the Island Girl Tours team and him professionally. He explained the team organises the bookings and has the tours tailor-made for guests and he gets to interact with them and take pictures and videos.

"And the client wins."

They began working together about eight months ago.

"He brings exactly what's needed and I bring the other half. And that is where Island Girl/Trini Surfer experiences come in."

CANNONS AMONG THEM: The tour group enjoys the view from Fort Abercromby. - PHOTO courtesy Alan Charles

He said they can show off Trinidad and Tobago in the way they believe it should be shown.

"David is packed with knowledge and history; I'm packed with sites and hidden spots and the ability to film and take pictures. And guests who are thirsty and hungry for TT in a proper way get that delivered to them."

'An amazing experience'

There were lively and informative chats during the maxi taxi ride that included TT's history, local fruits, the country's numerous bird species, and sites to visit.

The group ate various chows at the Maracas lookout, took a picture at the Maracas sign, learned history and enjoyed the breathtaking aquamarine waters at Fort Abercromby, watched boats sway in the water and listened to crashing waves at La Fillette, played cricket and enjoyed a swing over the water at the picturesque Yarra Beach, worked up an appetite with a light hike to the majestic Avocat Waterfall and satisfied that appetite with delicious meals at Maracas Beach.

Steve Sooknanan, who is from Penal originally but left for the US 35 years ago, said the tour was not what he expected.

ON THE ROCKS: The Sooknanan Family poses for a photo on a rock at Avocat Waterfall. - Photo courtesy Alan Charles

"I expected it to be very curated in the sense that we are going to 'stop here, look here and then move on.' But the fact that we were able to spend time at the various locations, have my girls enjoy the various aspects of the tour, that was very good.

"Seeing my kids actually enjoy Trinidad warms my heart. Because over the years coming here they spent a lot of time with family but never really got to see the scenery."

He said safety was the main concern and it was a very safe environment for them. Secondly, going off the beaten path showed them the island from a natural perspective.

"And I think there was a lot more appreciation for the beauty of the island doing it this way versus just going and parking at a beach and going to the beach. So it was definitely an amazing experience and looking forward to doing more."

He said the experience at Fort Abercromby and seeing his children's eyes open widely at the view was interesting.

"People think you have to go Aruba or exotic places to get these experiences."

NICE SHOT! The tour group enjoys a quick game of cricket with some people on Yarra Beach. - Photo courtesy Island Girl Tours

His wife, Dr Nicole Sooknanan, an elementary school principal in New York City, told Newsday she has been coming to Trinidad for 17 years.

"And we've always just used it as visiting family and never really viewed it as a true vacation destination. But something like this makes them (the children) enjoy their time here more and changes their perspective."

Rajpaulsingh said what makes the tours worthwhile is the look on foreigners' faces and reported they have had guests from Australia, Greece, Norway, Transylvania and other places.

"It is just joyful to let people see your island through your eyes."

He also shared his philosophy that "negativity fuels and propagates negativity."

"And I just can't be with that. Everywhere I go is beauty and let's just show people it. And I have been all over the world and there is no bias in saying that TT is utterly gorgeous and utterly laced with beautiful things."

Rajpaulsingh said the plan was to promote the Trini Surfer experience and then to move up the islands.

"To bring these islands together and work in partnership."

He said they have been speaking with tour representatives in Barbados and Jamaica.

"Let's make it Caribbean."

Rajpaulsingh said he wanted the company as a casual hobby to allow him to live comfortably.

"I didn't want it be any mass, giant thing. But it wants to be that. I don't want that still but I will go a little more."

He explained he has his other interests including writing (he is the author of the fantasy novel The Chronicles of Kairi Vol 1: The Gateway Moon), music and spend time with his dogs.

Returning to the TT market, he said their service was about efficiency and taking away the red tape.

"Tobago could be world-class (in tourist destinations). And I think we will be in five years."

He stressed tourism starts from the moment people land in Trinidad and a poor experience with security or customs could sour their entire experience.

"People on vacation want to enjoy themselves. And we want to be the vehicle for that."

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"Touring North Coast with Island Girl Tours and Trini Surfer"

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