First-time diver Abi Jackson explores the watery underworld of Tobago and discovers there's much more to Caribbean holidays than lazing on the beach.
By Abi Jackson
It's easy to see why the Caribbean islands are so popular: year-round sun, fun and rum on tap, golden palm-lined sands and warm turquoise seas.
But there's a lot more to these beautiful seas than first meets the eye. The Caribbean features a host of dive sites, some of the best of which can be found off the coasts of Tobago, one of the smaller islands, that sits at the foot of the archipelago.
Tobago's waters are home to more than 400 sea species and stunning reefs, but witnessing these in full glory requires learning to scuba dive - one of the fastest growing sports in the world and something I've always wanted to try. Anybody aged 10 and over can learn, providing you can swim and are in general good health.
The idea of combining the experience with a sunshine holiday is even more appealing, and Tobago's Magdalena Grand Beach Resort offers just this. The 200-room 4-star hotel features everything you'd expect from a Caribbean beach resort, but also houses World Of Watersports, tipped as the island's best scuba dive centre.
I book in for a week's stay.
On day one I wake to glorious blue skies, but it's straight off to class for me. I've enrolled on a Padi Open Water Diver course, the world's most popular dive course, which aims to provide beginners with the basic skills needed for open water dives down to 60ft.
Time in the classroom is compulsory - and it's here we spend the mornings of the first two days of the four-day course.
We (me and four fellow students) had picked up our manuals before leaving the UK, to get a head-start on studying. There's a lot to take in and it all seems a bit daunting at first - especially the chapters on deadly decompression sickness.
Thankfully, our instructor Sean Robinson quickly puts us at ease, reassuring us that diving is actually one of the safest sports (far fewer casualties than snorkelling, in fact), providing you have good equipment, pay full attention to the rulebook, and you never dive beyond your experience or alone.
With thousands of dives under his weight-belt, it's clear we're in good hands. And, though safety is paramount, Sean's team are all deeply passionate about diving and have lots of fun with it too - which is infectious.
As he takes us through the basic theory and physics of scuba (the effects underwater pressure has on the lungs, why it's vital never to ascend too quickly, etc) Sean entertains us with tales of his underwater encounters around the world.
After a couple of hours, we break for lunch, before getting kitted out with wetsuits and familiarising ourselves with the equipment.
Rather than throwing us straight in at the deep end, our first experience of breathing underwater takes place in the shallow end of the training pool. It's weird at first, but once you allow yourself to trust the equipment, excitement kicks in.
The trick is not to panic. Sometimes easier said than done - especially when we progress to removing our regulators (the bit you breathe through) underwater and our masks, mimicking scenarios such as running out of air or our masks being knocked off, so we're prepared should that happen for real.
I struggle with removing the mask, convinced I'm suddenly going to suck water up my nose. It's not pleasant but, determined to see those reefs, I force myself to do it. I'm assured it gets easier with practice.
At the end of day two, there's a multiple choice exam to test our knowledge. We all pass luckily, then, on days three and four, finally head out to sea.
First we drive to Pigeon Point Beach and catch a boat from shore. After running through our skills at the seabed, we have fun getting used to controlling our buoyancy and glimpsing some of Tobago's underwater treasures.
The second two dives are the biggest treat though.
Tobago's Japanese Gardens, off the western end of Goat Island, is a stunning, vibrant reef, bursting with colour and swaying reeds and 'dead man's fingers', and home to the largest 'brain coral' in the world.
It's crucial not to touch anything, not only to avoid injury but also to protect the delicate marine life.
Glimmering bright blue and yellow fish glide by, and we spot three of Tobago's dive highlights: an impressive manta ray, a giant turtle cruising along and a sleepy 5ft nurse shark taking a nap.
After feeling clumsy and constricted in the heavy gear on land, underwater feels weightless and free. Nerves give way to sheer amazement - and those hours in the classroom finally feel worth it.
The final chore is having photos taken for our Padi licences and filling in our log books. Mission complete!
Hotel Lowdown Learning to dive on the grounds of Magdalena Grand Beach Resort is ideal. Lunch is simply a short walk over to the terrace restaurant and, as the dive centre is on-site, you don't have to get up at the crack of dawn to drive elsewhere.
Set among the Tobago Plantations Estate, the hotel is surrounded by greenery which makes it picturesque and very secure.
Being recently refurbished, it's airy, comfortable and extremely clean. Every room has a sea view. Ours also had a private hot-tub and big flat-screen TV.
Though family-friendly (with a well-equipped kids club and child-friendly buffet), there's also plenty to ensure adults and couples have a relaxing and special break, too. There's a peaceful, adults-only sunbathing area and a sophisticated fine-dining restaurant which serves up delicious fresh lobster and melt-in-the-mouth meat dishes.
We spend our evenings at the pirate-themed Robinson Crusoe pub, where there's live music a few nights a week, and the Tavaco Lounge - Magdalena's stylish piano bar which features an impressive selection of rums, whiskeys and cocktails.
Best of all, the hotel staff are among the friendliest I've met.
All about Tobago Making the Padi course part of a week or fortnight's holiday means you'll have time to enjoy Tobago, too. Though it doesn't draw the big crowds like some of the other islands, Tobago has a lot to offer.
Its sister island is Trinidad - the two share the same government - but they couldn't be more different.
While the larger Trinidad is metropolitan, bustling and known for high crime rates, Tobago embodies authentic Caribbean island spirit.
The island is famous for its birdlife, and Little Tobago island is a great place for viewings. Local guide Hans Phillips (firstname.lastname@example.org) can arrange tours for guests.
Another highlight is a boat ride to Buccoo Reef for some snorkelling, with a stop-off at the famous Nylon Pool - a shallow sandbank area out at sea - before cruising to the Robinson Crusoe-style Pigeon Island beach for delicious barbecued fresh fish for lunch.
Factbox: :: Golden Caribbean offers seven nights at the four-star Magdalena Grand Beach Resort on Tobago from £786pp on B&B basis, based on two adults sharing a standard room. Half-board and all-inclusive packages also available. Price includes return flights with Monarch Airlines from London Gatwick to Tobago, transfers, all applicable taxes and surcharges which are subject to change. Price based on 20 February 2013 departure.
Visit www.goldencaribbean.co.uk or call 0845 085 8080.
:: The five-day Padi Open Water Certification course costs £395pp.