© Ellen Barone. A Day at the Races, Island of Tobago, Caribbean

The Kentucky Derby it most definitely was not. The steel bands were a clue. Another hint, for the unsure, is that there wasn’t a horse in sight. Nevertheless the race day at Buccoo on the Island of Tobago is one of the great social events in the Island calendar. What they race here are goats.

The quality of goats is important on an island that depends on the creatures for milk, cheese and meat. Seventy-eight years ago an eccentric Englishman hit on the idea of not just exhibiting them to show their beauty (whatever turns you on, some might say) but actually racing them to prove their stamina.

And so an annual tradition was born. That’s the way in Tobago — any excuse for a party. It’s the most colorful spectacular; silk shirted “jockeys” sprinting barefoot behind their roped animals (some barely hanging on) sprinting down a ragged grass racetrack.

Always held on the Tuesday following Easter Day, when the island is already teeming with visiting Trini’s (as residents of neighboring Trinidad are called), it is the social highlight of the year. From noon to the wee hours of the Monday morning revelers turn the usually sleepy village of Buccoo into one big music-blaring street party.

Colorfully painted vendors’ stalls lined the town’s main street selling food, drink, handicrafts, games of chance and Bob Marley T- shirts. Picture a reggae-style country fair. One popular stand had hungry islanders queuing up to buy deep-fried chicken legs. No Macdonald’s processed meat here. This was the real McCoy.

Good old-fashioned fun, the Buccoo goat races provided just the kind of quirky homespun event that I adore. Kids (and sometimes a stray goat or two) ran freely with an abandon seen less and less in today’s world; islanders greeted each other with an envious familiarity and ease; and despite the throngs of people there wasn’t even a hint of any underlying unfriendliness or violence.

But a visit to Tobago, with or without the goat races, promises a peaceful and friendly vacation experience. Situated at the bottom of the chain of Caribbean isles about 20 miles northeast of Venezuela and 10 degrees north of the equator, Tobago’s remote setting has helped to preserve its natural beauty and laid-back way of life. Only about 175,000 tourists visit in a typical year, compared with the million or so that throng the beaches of Jamaica or Puerto Rico.

Dwarfed in size and population by Trinidad, its more industrialized sister island, Tobago’s 26-mile length and eight-mile width is conveniently sized.  A drive around the circumference at an “island-time” pace - stopping in a village for a leisurely lunch or taking a swim in its inviting warm waters – can easily take a full day. 

Your time on Tobago can be as hectic (although everything is comparative) or low-key as you wish. The snorkeling and diving at the reef just off the island is some of the best in the Caribbean; there’s virgin rainforest to explore, bird watching sanctuaries, long stretches of white sand beaches to comb or calypso clubs and beach-shack bars where you can dance the night away.

Without doubt a visit to Tobago will soothe the soul no matter when you visit, but if you’re looking for one of the best parties in the Caribbean mark your 2009 calendars now and join the cheering ranks of the 84th Annual Boccoo Goat Races.

Trinidad and Tobago Department of Tourism,