Whether it's a festival dedicated to blue food or a tropical lagoon where the water glows at night, Tobago never ceases to amaze, as Tim Hughes discovers 

Tiny Tobago, in the deep south of the Caribbean is an island that likes to do things differently.

A tropical gem, just off the coast of Venezuela and tucked in next to its bigger sister Trinidad, it is unlike either its neighbours or anywhere else, come to that.

While the Caribbean is synonymous with mass tourism, international resort hotels and high prices, this proud but deliciously laid-back island is a place of thick rainforest, lush plantations, close-knit villages of brightly-painted wooden houses and family-owned hotels and restaurants. It is resolutely stuck in the past – and likes it that way.

A former British colony, it was also occupied in quick rotation by the Spanish, French, Dutch and a motley crew of pirates, privateers and adventurers – all attracted by its rich soil and sheltered bays.

Names like Bloody Bay, Man o’ War Bay and Pirates Bay, bear testament to its spicy past.

Its natural bounty still pulls in adventurous outsiders, though this time they come, first and foremost, to chill. They find a place which refuses to do "normal" – and that starts with its festivals.

Partying and hanging out with friends – known here as "liming" – is a serious business and one of the best "limes" of the year is that dedicated to its national dish: blue food.

Blue food is the nickname for a hairy yam-like vegetable called dasheen, a staple of Tobagonian cuisine which when peeled, sliced and boiled takes on a distinct blue tinge.

Part music festival, part food fair and part village fete, the Blue Food Festival takes place near the perfect tropical cove of Bloody Bay in October.

Turned out in our bluest gear and keen to see what it was all about, we drove across the thickly wooded Main Ridge Reserve (the oldest protected area of tropical rainforest on earth), past waterfalls, hidden coves and impossibly picturesque villages before dropping down to Bloody Bay – actually a suitable shade of deep blue.

There we joined families listening to the biggest island bands, dancing to the driving rhythm of soca, reggae and Venezuelan parang, and eating. As well as blue food, there were rich soups made from the dasheen leaves – callalloo – cooked with coconut milk and ochre. There was blue ice cream, candy floss, milky non-alcoholic blue punches (said to be an aphrodisiac), and rich stews of chicken, pork, rabbit and more unusually, iguana and a large rodent called an agouti – all served with lashings of hot chilli sauce.

We drove back listening to a local radio station which plays upbeat parang versions of Christmas songs all year long. Surreal in the tropical heat.

Despite its diminutive proportions, Tobago is an island which continually surprises. The dramatic forested north east end is a world apart from the flat south west, while the opposite coasts of this cigar-shaped island could not be more different – the crystal clear waters on the leeward Caribbean contrasting with the rugged Atlantic.

Perched on an exquisite stretch of the impossibly blue Caribbean coast is Coco Reef – a charming spacious old plantation style building with 135 rooms, suites and villas above a perfect beach, backed by palm trees – and just minutes from the airport.

The hotel adjoins two of the Caribbean’s most beautiful beaches, Store Point and the almost too-good-to-be-true Pigeon Point – which, with its curving palm trees, crystal clear water and white sand is the very definition of paradise.

We took a glass-bottomed boat from the palm-frond thatched shelter at the end of a wooden jetty to three of the island’s premier attractions. Fist stop was the natural splendour of Buccoo Reef – diving from the boat with snorkels to get up close with the brightly coloured schools of fish darting among the coral. Then it was on to Nylon Pool – a shallow white ground coral pool right out at sea, where we splashed and floated in warm waist-deep water. Finally, we dropped anchor at Bon Accord Lagoon – a sheltered area of unspoilt mangroves protected by a sandy spit and a favourite spot for serious liming, with Trinidadian trippers enjoying barbecues, beers and pounding music.

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The lagoon is, however, famous for something far more serene. At night, the water when disturbed gives off a ghostly white glow. Called bioluminescence, it is one of mother nature’s most striking and hauntingly beautiful displays – and is incredibly rare.

Joining an adrenaline-pumped guide from Radical Sports Tobago (radicalsportstobago.com) we canoed out from Pigeon Point to the lagoon after dark among torpedo-like jumping fish – some flying across our bow and even landing in the boat. Once among the mangroves, we swiped our paddles through the dark water, hypnotized by the luminous trails of sparkling fairy dust.

Then we took the plunge and jumped in, creating our own magical illuminations as we swam, turning the water a ghostly green – constellations of tiny stars, bursting into life in the blackness. It was surreal, magical and moving.

As we paddled back to Pigeon Point, still buzzing with excitement and wondering whether we’d imagined the whole thing, our guide told us there were only a handful of places in the world where such a phenomenon occurs – and that this was the best. We felt very lucky.

Magical. Like I said…Tobago does things differently.

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  • Get there: British Airways flies to Tobago via Antigua britishairways.com
  • Stay: Coco Reef Resort & Spa, Coconut Bay, Tobago cocoreef.com – tropical style with oodles of Tobagonian character and a divine coral beach literally on the doorstep.

Bacolet Beach Club, 72 Bacolet Street, Tobago bacoletbeacgclub.com – a hip hangout with urban sophisticated vibe. Art on the walls and views to die for, with two pools and steps down to a private beach – with its own bar!