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From Western Daily Press Chief Reporter Mervyn Hancock in Tobago, West Indies
EVEN on Robinson Crusoe island, far away on the sun kissed shores of the West Indies, they are two most unlikely castaways.
Chris James and James Vaughan, two former British Gas employees have abandoned the British weather, their home city of Bath, and taken the chance of a lifetime.
And if you follow their footsteps in the white, crushed coral sands of Tobago -wedged between Grenada and Trinidad - it leads to an unprecedented success story, which is set to make the two Westcountry friends, millionaires.
For Chris, 42, and James 35, have turned their redundancy cheques into two residential holiday complexes, with award winning restaurants and bars, and an English pub for good measure- all in the middle of paradise.
One favourite of British tourists, and locals, is Bonkers - unwittingly named by friends and family of the pair.
For that’s precisely what they called them when the two gave up secure and well-paid jobs to vanish over the Atlantic into the unknown - initially to create a nightclub in the Caribbean.
A plan that had to be hastily abandoned when they discovered the laid-back locals liked to drink their rum and retire to bed early.
Instead, with some Government tax concessions, work permits, and help from a local work force, they turned a piece of barren land -edged by the wild, warm and very blue ocean - into Bonkers.
First a bar, then a restaurant and rooms for 20 guests - eventually an oasis for up to 40 guests, the best food on the island, and awards from top tour operators and the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
That was swiftly followed by a second hotel, a second restaurant, villas and rooms for another 40 guests - and an English pub called the Cat and Fiddle.
Nearby are deserted beaches, fringed with coconut palms, with just the sound of the warm ocean lapping the coral and rocks, and the tropical birds gathering nectar -the place where Daniel Defoe chose as the setting for his immortal tale of Robinson Crusoe.
It is not difficult to imagine why anyone would fall in love with such a beautiful place, but families and friends of the pair thought they had lost their senses when seven years ago they both took voluntary redundancy, sold almost everything of value they owned, and set off to start new lives.
Tired of the boredom and humdrum of modern living, they were searching for somewhere different, where they could do the things they enjoyed, and make a living.
After a whistle-stop tour of the Caribbean, they discovered their own bit of paradise, and
just like Crusoe, they arrived with very few belongings.
What hadn’t been sold was packed into a 40ft steel container, put on a ship - which ended up in Vancouver, thousands of miles away.
“Friends and relatives couldn’t believe it when we said we were giving up our jobs, leaving home, and intended setting up a nightclub on a relatively isolated island,” said Chris.
“In fact they said we were bonkers. We soon realised that the lifestyle in Tobago doesn’t lend itself to night clubs, because most of the locals are in bed by 9-30pm, and opted for a bar instead.
“We wanted a good, catchy name, and thinking of what our friends had said, we decided a good name for it would be Bonkers.”
With the island tourist board anxious for investment in letting rooms on the island, Chris , 41, from Northanger Court, Grove Street, Bath, and James , 32, from Bathford, were given work permits .
Raw materials were plentiful - in carefully managed conservation areas, local teak was growing in abundance, and made up most of the frame and superstructure.
“We didn’t really have much idea what we were doing,” admitted Chris, who spent 18 years as a lineman with British gas, and being called out to deal with repairs at all times of the day and night.
“James had always been a pretty good drinker so he took control of the bar, and I had done some cooking so I became the chef.
“On the opening night, much to our surprise, we had 75 customers all wanting to eat - and it nearly killed me.
“I dished them up chicken and chips and pies and things, and James spent the evening pouring beer.”
James recalls how the opening evening almost went dramatically wrong, because of the pair’s sense of humour.
“Chris told visiting journalists that a ship called HMS Bonkers had sailed from Plymouth, hit a storm and was wrecked, and we built the restaurant from wood salvaged from the wreck.
“We were thinking about Robinson Crusoe and how he was supposed to have arrived here.
“The trouble is they printed it, and we had to lay low for a while.”
Back home scepticism about the intrepid pair was growing. “They knew our lifestyle in Bath, and said we would soon drink all the profits,” said Chris.
Meanwhile the two castaways were worried about the belongings that they had packed into a 40ft steel container - including Chris’ beloved Ford Fiesta XR2 - and which should have taken three weeks to arrive in Tobago.
“The ship was the Sea Princess and four months went by with no sign of it,” said James. “Then one day we were down at the docks and saw the locals running around with our things.
“The container had arrived, someone had found the key, and no one knew what was inside of it. So there were people on the dockside examining the contents - table lamps, hat stands and pictures were being carried around everywhere.
“Customs insisted I had a Ferrari inside, and when the old Ford emerged we couldn’t get it started because all the acid had been drained from the battery. We filled it up and then a helpful native turned it upside down and it all poured over him.
“Everybody has nicknames out here, and he’s known as ‘The Battery Acid Man.’”
Chris said: “We chased the locals and got our things back, and James wrecked the car , which I think I eventually sold as a dragster for more than I paid for it.”
Back at Bonkers - which by now had its own resident macaw named after the property - things were going better than either of the pair could have hoped for.
Locals were being joined by a growing number of tourists, and a year after the official opening 10 more garden rooms were added, providing total accommodation for 40 guests.
“That wasn’t enough for Chris, who became bored,” said James. “There was a small hotel called Palm Trees Village which had gone into receivership. He made a ridiculous offer for it and was amazed when it was accepted.”
Enter more local workers, another 20 rooms were added to the business, and the property was renamed “Inn on the Bay” - with an additional six villas for good measure.
What was lacking was a good English pub - so Chris designed “The Cat and Fiddle” standing a few yards away from the main complex, where customers sit inside a series of small wooden islands.
“The locals had got use to us by now, so they accepted our explanation of ‘hey diddle diddle, the cat and fiddle’ as the name for the pub, without really understanding why,” said Chris.
But behind the tremendous sense of humour which has endeared both Chris and James to locals and visitors alike, is a serious pair of business brains.
Last year guests of international tour operators Tropical Places, voted Bonkers the best small hotel in the Caribbean.
In 1999 they scooped the Prime Minister’s Award for excellence.
The pair now employ over 60 staff, including two managers and top chefs, and have never looked back.
“We haven’t been back to Bath, although we will one day for a holiday,” said James. “We set out with a 10 year business plan in 1994, and when that is complete, who knows. I suppose we could easily retire on what we have made.”
But Chris has other ideas. “We really aren’t doing anything more than we were doing in Bath. Except now we don’t have to pay for anything,” he said.
“I am now on the tourist committee, and James spends most of his time in Bonkers hanging around the till.
“With three properties, all with rooms, bars and restaurants, we get plenty of visits from family and friends - in fact I meet family and friends I didn’t even know I had.”
One thing is certain, neither Chris or James will ever return to England to live. They both now have residency in Tobago, and say they couldn’t stand the climate back home.
“Believe it or not this is winter out here,” said Chris, enjoying a beer in a balmy 30C in the shade. “It can go down to 22C at night, and I have caught a cold.
“The lifestyle is so laid back. We were heading home one night in the jeep with a 12 pack of beer in the back and were chased by a cop on a motorbike. He caught us, but all he wanted was a cold beer - and rode off drinking it.
“Our friends were right, we are bonkers. If we hadn’t led the lifestyle we had back home, then probably we would have ended up with commitments, and not been able to take a chance out here.
“It definitely was a risk, but it is one that paid off.”
And marriage? “Maybe we will meet someone one day,” said Chris. “But for the moment we are just enjoying life.”
Just like Robinson Crusoe, the two lads used Mother Nature’s larder and their initiative - and they are now well on their way to becoming very rich indeed.
One thing they are both very glad of - the island doesn;t have gas. It uses the bottle variety. So no more call outs, whatever happens.
Letter to President of BWIA
19 June 2001
President and Chief Executive
cc: The Rt Hon Basdeo Panday
Trinidad and Tobago
I am a journalist working on a group of newspapers in the United Kingdom, and I have just returned from your beautiful islands on a one week mission to write travel features.
I hope that you will forgive me for writing to you personally, and copying my letter to the leader of your country, because I am alarmed and dismayed at the number of people I have spoken to, who find that your national airline is falling very short of the standards that international travellers would expect in the 21st century.
I wrote you a personal letter while I was staying at the Hilton Hotel in Tobago last week, pointing out the sub standard service which I received on your flight from Heathrow Airport to Trinidad via Antigua on June 8 - I was told by your own countrymen that I would be unlikely to receive any response, and I am afraid they were right.
Your staff at Heathrow airport were excellent = smiling, and very much putting over the message of giving passengers “the warmth of the Caribbean.”
Once we entered the aircraft, however, things changed, and I have to say that both the outward and return flights, and the service we received from ground staff, was disgusting.
I flew for nine hours on a broken seat, one toilet was “deactivated” and the remainder were in an unclean and disgusting condition.
Cabin service was sloppy, staff were abrupt, and the food service and quality in economy left much to be desired.
Baggage handling at Trinidad = only opened two weeks ago = was shambolic, porters there were virtually demanding money with menaces - actually taking away trolleys from people who refused to pay.
In fact the only people experiencing any form of comfort were many of your own staff sitting in business class.
What astonished me the most was the range of people I interviewed who had complaints to make against BWIA, and their low expectations of anything being done to redress their views.
Local hoteliers, businessmen, tourists, locals = all told me that BWIA is not meeting standards expected, and were of the opinion that no one in your company seems to care about the reputation of the airline.
Lack of punctuality, service, politeness, customer care = all seem to be accepted as lacking in BWIA.
The return journey was every bit as much of a nightmare. The front desk receptionist at the Hilton in Tobago tried to confirm our seats on the flight to Heathrow. He told us that the staff member taking his call was apparently more interested in joking with colleagues than taking him seriously.
The flight home was delayed, seats we had booked were not available, and eventually I had to threaten to leave the aircraft because I could not fit into the allocated seat.
At Heathrow I listened to your customers saying they would never visit the Caribbean again if BWIA was the only airline available.
Your, sir, are privileged to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
There are potentially tens of thousands of British people who would want to visit Trinidad and Tobago each year, but are put off by horror stories about your airline.
I have to say that my own experience = based on extensive travel around the Caribbean islands = is that it is a nightmare which came true.
The people of Tobago are delightful. Marketing of the country is remarkably poor. BWIA is an extremely poor ambassador for both the government and its people.
Ignore my remarks at your peril = for I believe other airlines will eventually be allowed to offer you competition, and hopefully make flying to Trinidad and Tobago a pleasure instead of an ordeal.
By the way, one of my stories on the very fine Toucan Inn, Bonkers and Island on the Bay, has already made headlines in this country, both in the written press and on the BBC.
I am yours sincerely,
Thanks to Mervyn Hancock for this trip report ...