Family are the people who love you just because. Ohana in Tobago is the place to share that love

My sister, a working mother of three little ones, very rarely has time for herself.  As a travel writer, I’m often asked to trek to dream locations, and stay in lovely places. But sometimes the experience is slightly hollow and lonely when I have no one to share it with.

So I had always hoped for an opportunity to bring my sister along for the ride. Years passed, story commissions came and went, but she could never organize to come along—life always seemed to get in the way.

Then, last year, things happened which shook our world and made us realize the importance of family, and how precious time really is.

When MACO gave me the commission to write on famed villa Ohana in Tobago, the first thing I did was research the name.

I thought it meant peace but it turns out “ohana’’ is a word with Hawaiian origins, meaning “family”. I called my sister.

Ohana Villa is located in Scarborough, the bustling little town in Tobago that welcomes the daily ferry from the neighbouring island of Trinidad.  The villa sits on a cliff top, facing due north and the awesome expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, a blanket of navy blue, where you can see the ferry bobbing on the horizon with the outline of the big sister isle in the distance.

Ohana is at the top of a winding road, and the gate is almost hidden, giving visitors an initial idea of the privacy that is an essential part of the Ohana philosophy. The gate itself, two oversized louvred french doors, opens onto a floral scattered and palm-tree lined lane. The front door is subtle, almost unassuming, and the foyer is more of a bridged space floating over what looks like a dry pond, with water rocks and reeds. The statue of a smiling Buddha at the door suggests a temple and the hush in the air is almost reverent.

The owner of the house, Kaye Tench, wants Ohana to “welcome you instantly.’’ As we stepped inside, fresh watermelon and rum cocktails were pressed into our hands. I muffled a laugh as I looked over at my confused sister, for whom relaxing is not exactly a flex reaction. We walked through the louvred hallway and emerged out onto the main salon that is entirely open, with a dramatic 180-degree view of the ocean. My sister gasped.

Kaye’s childhood vacation time was spent at an old wooden beach house in Mayaro, and it seems she wanted to re-create that organic, simple feeling in Ohana.  The house is almost entirely wooden, with other natural materials integrated throughout. 


The story of how Kaye came to buy the land is a serendipitous adventure. “The land had been sitting there, with little or no interest for a while. There was a little tumble-down house belonging to a very well-loved lady. I could make out the ocean, however, the grass was as high as my chest. [The agent] mentioned and that there was a little beach…after a very painful and steep slide down on my bum, I took off my shoes and walked in the soft sand of a beautiful little cove. That was the clincher.”

That was just the beginning. Kaye started with her childhood inspiration and combined her memories of travels throughout Java, and turned to architect John Otway to interpret her ideas.  The house is open and breezy, with definitive Eastern influences, such as the pagoda-shaped roofing, and the bedroom pavilions, almost all of which are suspended over water, whether it be one of the infinity-edged pools or the emerald pond.

The entire house is divided into pavilions, which is one of the intricacies of Balinese architecture.  The four bedrooms are all decorated simply, yet elegantly, with four-poster wooden beds, draped in mosquito nets and white sheets. Cushions and a stripe of bright grass green raw silk running down the length of the bed provide the only colour in the room, complementing the warmth of the polished wood furnishings.

The owner collected much of the furniture and home accessories on her travels to Java. Details are important to Kaye, and you can find them everywhere, like a glass shadow box table-topper, with shells encased, or the flat candles at the foot of the bed, with rose petals pressed into the wax.

Two bedrooms open out onto their own verandas over the pond, where you can lounge on a chaise, or be enveloped in a hammock and watch the fat koi swim lazily by. There is an outdoor shower in each veranda, where an iron spout pokes out from the wall so subtly that I only noticed, wistfully, as I was leaving.  The master bedroom is especially impressive, surrounded by windows that all open to the ocean, and over the pool, so that you can literally jump right from your room into the water.

The master bath has a shower that is practically an entire room, with slate stone tiles, and vintage pull-chain fittings. The other side of the “room’’ is steps leading up to the porcelain hot tub, surrounded by candles. The north-facing wall is floor-to-ceiling shutters that open out entirely for an un-obstructed view of the ocean.  Inspiring details abound in the bathrooms also, from the iron ladder used as a towel rack, to the intricately carved cabinet.

The main salon is all sprawling barefoot elegance.  Inviting day beds were the perfect spot for morning coffee or an afternoon nap, and the claw-footed antique writing table was the ideal vantage spot to begin my article. My sister was entertained by a bamboo reclining chaise, that reclined all the way back, leaving her horizontally suspended, something that she was not quite ready to be comfortable with. There is an outdoor brick oven area, and just beyond that is the kitchen, with its stone and stainless steel, where we could see the housekeeper preparing our lunch, delicious fresh fish and vegetables. This, I learned, is also part of Kaye’s childhood memories: “old-time yummy treats, like cassava pone and sweetbread for tea.’’

There are two infinity pools that are joined by the gazebo, a meditative spot that is the last thing between the house and the stretch of sky and sea. The teak-floored pavilion overlooks the cove that Kaye referred to in her first impression of the house. It is rare that a villa in Tobago has almost private access to a beach. There is also a jacuzzi set in the middle of the deck, where that evening after dinner, we enjoyed glasses of wine and counted the stars. I watched my sister more at peace than I have seen in a while.

It got me thinking. I initially thought that Ohana had meant peace, and it seems I was not that far off. The Hawaiian word actually means extended family and emphasizes that families, whether related by blood or other means, are bound together.

 I brought my family with me but Kaye chose the name because she wanted all her guests to feel they were experiencing “the same old-fashioned, warm, big-hearted familiar West-Indian’’ feeling.





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