Twin-island pleasures: Trinidad & Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago may be the Caribbean’s most various country, an unexpected microcosm of the whole region, sometimes bewildering to visitors. Four locals- Jamie Elliot, Pat Ganase, Tracy Assing, and Dylan Kerrigan- offer personal introductions and insiders' tips to help you have a good time

Breakfast time at Le Grand Courland. Photograph by Noel NortonMale rufous-tailed jacamar, a common bird of Trinidad and Tobago’s forests. Photograph by Stephen BroadbridgeMonos Island and the First Boca. Photograph by Ranji GanaseNicholas Tower, Port of Spain’s newest skyscraper. Photograph by Mark LyndersayPhotograph by Stephen BroadbridgePurple honeycreeper. Photograph by Stephen BroadbridgeQueen’s Royal College, on the Savannah. Photograph by Mark LyndersayStollmeyer’s Castle, one of Port of Spain’s “Magnificent Seven”. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe “bamboo cathedral” in Tucker Valley. Photograph by Ranji GanaseThe cemetery at ruined St Chad’s Church in Tucker Valley. Photograph by Ranji GanaseThe Eric Williams Financial Complex — Trinidad’s “twin towers”. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe Port of Spain skyline. Photograph by Mark LyndersayTrail through the Chaguaramas forest. Photograph by Mark LyndersayView along Trinidad’s north coast. Photograph by Mark MeredithYachts at anchor off Point Gourde . Photograph by Ranji Ganase

Go to town

Jamie Eliot on Port of Spain, the nation’s capital

At City Gate, buses and maxi taxis from all over the country pour in. Situated on South Quay and Broadway, it’s about as far downtown as you can get without falling into the harbour. Actually, Wrightson Road, a major channel for pumping traffic into and out of Port of Spain, separates the city from the Gulf of Paria. Falling into Wrightson Road would be far more dangerous than falling into the water.

The city seeps inland from this port on Trinidad’s north-west coast. Port of Spain is the nation’s second capital, taking over from St Joseph in the mid 18th century. The pedestrian is grateful; St Joseph is uncomfortably hilly for a crosstown walk.

Downtown Port of Spain is noisy and chaotic. Anything that can be found in a shop can also be bought on the street: jewellery, clothes, food, music, craft, household appliances. One block up from the bus station, the Brian Lara Promenade spans the width of the island’s main commercial and financial district. There’s a Roman Catholic cathedral at one end and the towers of the Central Bank at the other, with every kind of trading activity in between. Running down the centre of Independence Square, and named for Trinidad’s most famous cricketer, the Promenade can be as busy by night as it is by day, especially in the Carnival season. But keep walking north; this is an easily navigable city.

The Laventille Hills arrest the eastward spread of the city. This is where the steel pan was born. The hills probably don’t make it into most visitors’ tours, but like any city’s true working-class neighbourhoods, they feel like the pulse of the country.

Frederick Street takes you from the Promenade all the way up to the Queen’s Park Savannah at the northern end of the city. (So do most of the streets running parallel to it, but Frederick Street is the one you want to stay on for everything from designer shops to incense-selling Rastafarians.) The city’s compact grid design lets you slip into adjacent streets via any of the numerous shopping arcades.

If downtown has a middle, it would be Woodford Square. Even if it were tucked into a corner, Woodford Square would seem like the centre of town. It is in many ways the centre of the country. Like Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner, the “University of Woodford Square” is a rallying point for unions, campaigners, and protesters; aspiring politicians used to cut their teeth here. The square is bordered by Frederick Street, the Hall of Justice, the Red House (seat of Parliament) and the Anglican cathedral; inside there’s a bandstand and a fountain of undecided functionality.

The rest of the downtown area is easy to imagine: the bustle gradually wanes, gives way to more sedate offices, schools, parks, and what remains of old residences. The architecture is a mix of colonial, utilitarian, Caribbean whimsy, and a bit of Miami gauche.

St James, an even more round-the-clock neighbourhood than the heart of the city, lies to the west of Port of Spain. Rum shops, fast food outlets, and street vendors line both sides of the Western Main Road that originates here and makes its way to the western extreme of the island. St James loves a festival. Hosay, Carnival, Divali, Emancipation, whatever the holiday, St James is usually a must-stop. Like Woodbrook just to its east, St James has become increasingly, almost stiflingly, commercial over the past couple of decades. Woodbrook’s Ariapita Avenue plays uptown to St James’s dive scene.

A tour of Port of Spain should end at the Queen’s Park Savannah. This giant roundabout is the home of Carnival’s big stage. This is where the mas bands, the steelbands, and the calypsonians vie for titles. Out of Carnival season, it’s in demand as a jogging track, playing field, and picnic ground. Some of the city’s most surprising architecture can be found lining the Savannah: the Magnificent Seven, a group of early 20th-century buildings ranging in style from the gothic to the baroque; delicate gingerbread houses; contemporary concrete and glass offices for international energy companies; and the old fading neighbourhood of Belmont.

Port of Spain is not a big city, but it has a coherence that reminds you of some of the world’s great capitals: bustle and trade at one end, and old fashioned elegance at the other. Everything that happens in between is a kind of summary of the rest of the country.

Head west

Pat Ganase on the Chaguaramas peninsula

If you’re sailing the south Caribbean, you may come into a marina in Chaguaramas on Trinidad’s north-west peninsula. Sheltered deepwater bays and coves indent this part of the island, where marinas and boatyards offer professional services for mooring, cleaning, repairing, and outfitting boats. This is supposed to be one of the safest ports in the hurricane season. At 10 degrees north of the Equator, Trinidad has traditionally been spared the worst of the region’s annual storms. But there’s more to Chaguaramas than safe harbours.

The area now designated the Chaguaramas National Park — including the islands of Chacachacare, Huevos, Monos, Gaspar Grande, and the Five Islands — covers 14,572 acres. It is geologically part of the Paria peninsula of Venezuela, through which Trinidad was connected to the South American mainland until the end of the last Ice Age, some 16,000 years ago. The first settlers were Amerindians, as painted pottery shards found in the area suggest. The name “Chaguaramas” itself is Amerindian, meaning “place of palms”.

The peninsula’s recent history includes its lease in 1941 to the United States by the British, for use as a strategic naval base. The radar installation on Morne Catherine was used to track early space missions. Underground fuel tanks have the capacity for more than a million gallons. Soon after independence, however, citizens marched to protest the occupation of Chaguaramas by a foreign force. The Americans left in 1967, and by 1972 an Act of Parliament vested the administration of the peninsula in an Authority with the charge to “develop and manage the peninsula and offshore islands of Chaguaramas in the interest of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.”

Today, Chaguaramas is characterised by the wide and wooded Tucker Valley, bisected by the Macqueripe Mail Road — yes, this is where the mail travelled after it was landed by boat at Macqueripe Bay — from the north coast to where the mouth of the Cuesa River empties into Carenage Bay. The interior features montane forests full of flora and fauna. On the outlying islands, the landscape is dry semi-deciduous forest.

These eco-systems are just half an hour’s drive from the heart of Port of Spain. The area is of special interest to scientists, and several studies have been conducted here, including research into termites and a common fruit called “penny piece.” An agricultural station cultivates experimental food crops. Recreational facilities include beaches, kayaking, golf, and picnic sites. Tours of Chaguaramas are operated by guides from the Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA).

Chaguaramas highlights

For tour booking and information, contact the National Heritage Park at (868) 634-4349 or 634-4364

• Gaspar Grande and the Gasparee Caves
Under Governor Chacon at the end of the 18th century, the Spanish fortified Bombshell Hill on the eastern end of Gaspar Grande, known familiarly as Gasparee. When the British fleet arrived in 1797, the Spanish Admiral Apodaca — at anchor in Chaguaramas Bay — realised his fleet of four ships and one frigate were outnumbered and outgunned. He decided to scuttle and set fire to them. The garrison at Bombshell Hill withdrew to the mainland.

In the early 19th century, cotton and some cassava were grown on Gaspar Grande. Two whaling stations were also established here, at Point Baleine and Belle Vue Bay. During the two World Wars, guns were mounted at Point Baleine.

The Blue Grotto of Gasparee is a large limestone cavern that may be visited through arrangements with the CDA. A 15-minute boat ride brings you to Point Baleine, where you explore the ruins of the fort above the site of the cave. Enter the second largest sink-hole and descend through the cave system to an underground pool which reflects the surrounding stalactites and stalagmites. A three-hour tour.

• Covigne River Trail
At Nutmeg Vale, off the Mail Road, you follow a mountain stream winding upwards through an old cocoa and coffee plantation. At the 200-metre-long Covigne River gorge, you climb a rope ladder to a waterfall. This adventurous trail ends at a plunge pool. The four- to five-hour “scenic route” allows you the opportunity to see birds, butterflies, perhaps some crabs and small animals, and if you are quiet and very lucky, red howler monkeys.

• Edith Falls
A more leisurelytwo-hour walk from the Chaguaramas Golf Course brings you to Edith Falls, which are in full flow in the rainy season, June to December.

• Morne Catherine
Morne Catherine rises 539 metres on the north-south ridge of the peninsula. A paved roadway from the coast to the peak offers a fairly easy route. From the peak, you see panoramic views of Tucker Valley, the Gulf of Paria and the islands, and Trinidad’s north coast. Morne Catherine is the site of the abandoned US tracking station.

• Chacachacare
Columbus is supposed to have anchored here on 12 August, 1498, before sailing away through the Grand Boca. Its name probably refers to the growing of cotton (“chaca” is the Amerindian word), a crop that became significant again in the 18th century.

In the 1920s, a leprosarium was moved here from Trinidad. The complex included a hospital, doctor’s residence, dormitories, and recreation facilities for the Dominican nuns who ran the institution.

The climate of Chacachacare has produced a salt pond with a unique ecology. Bird life is rich and rewarding. Tours must be organised with the CDA. These involve 45-minute boat-rides.

Head for the hills

Tracy Assing on Trinidad’s Northern Range and north coast

I have walked through the forests of the Northern Range during the daylight and nighttime hours, in the dry and wet seasons, and there is always something new to see and learn. My father once said he thought the Northern Range was the main history book of Trinidad’s Amerindian heritage. So he started taking me on little hikes from the time I was four years old. Carrying a little knapsack with juice, a sandwich, and a snack, we would explore the bathing pools and waterfalls around the Arima valley. As I grew older, the tour extended to the rest of the Northern Range.

My brother had the same baptism, though he has had far more time and opportunity to explore than I, and now knows the range like the back of his hand. Along the way, we’ve rediscovered the roots of our heritage — ate and slept like our ancestors did, walked the paths they walked.

The Northern Range includes Trinidad’s highest mountain, El Cerro del Aripo, peeking through the clouds at 3,085 feet; spectacular and refreshing waterfalls; quiet beaches along its seaward edge; awesome vistas; and the most stunning display of plant and animal life to be found on the island.

The Asa Wright Nature Centre, just seven miles north of the eastern borough of Arima, is a favorite spot for birders interested in the more than 400 species of birds found on the island — many of which can be seen right off the balcony of the main building. The Asa Wright Centre is also home to the island’s only easily accessible colony of the nocturnal oilbird, or guacharo.

Just two roads cross the hills to the north coast: from Port of Spain to Blanchisseuse, and from Arima to Blanchisseuse. Across the island, in the extreme east, the road ends at Matelot. Maracas Bay and Las Cuevas are the most popular and most accessible beaches along the north coast, both under an hour’s drive from Port of Spain. Where the mountains run down to the coast and the forest meets the sea at the secluded beaches of Paria Bay, Petite Tacaribe, Grande Tacaribe, and Madamas Bay, it is easy to forget the bustle of metropolitan life.

These bays are all accessible by boat (from any of the fishing villages on either end of the coast — Toco, Grande Rivière, Matelot, Blanchisseuse or Las Cuevas), but engaging with the forest on an exhilarating hike from Blanchisseuse or Brasso Seco Village makes the reward of these pristine beaches all the more unforgettable. Hikes to these locations can take three hours or more, depending on weather and physical conditions.

Apart from the joys of turtle-watching at Grande Rivière on the north-east end of the island, San Souci and Toco have become destinations of choice for local surfers. The lighthouse at Point Galera, just minutes away from Toco village, is a great place to enjoy a full moon. It is said that sometime during the 17th century Amerindians threw themselves to their deaths here to resist capture by the Spanish. From the cliff below the lighthouse you can see the waters of the open Atlantic to the east meet the Caribbean to the north, churning endlessly.

Four more Trinidad tips

• The National Museum and Art Gallery on Frederick Street near the Savannah was originally founded as the Royal Victoria Institute, and like many good Victorian museums its holdings are pleasingly eclectic. Geological samples, photographs of Carnival costumes, and 18th- and 19th-century household objects mingle with zoological specimens and artifacts of Trinidad’s earliest Amerindian inhabitants. Upstairs, the national art collection includes work by almost all the big names: from Carlisle Chang to Leroy Clarke to Christopher Cozier. Look out for the bones of a prehistoric giant sloth, the charred fragments of a book recovered from the wreck of Spanish Admiral Apodaca’s ship, and the small Cazabon gallery, housing the works of the pioneering 19th-century artist.

• The hills encircling Port of Spain offer many good vantage points for views of the city. The Lady Young Road lookout looks straight on to downtown, with the Belmont neighbourhood in the foreground; there’s also a lookout at the top of upscale Lady Chancellor Road, with the Savannah immediately below. And from Fort George — originally part of the city’s defences and later used as a signal station — you can see all the way to El Tucuche, Trinidad’s second-highest peak, to the east, and to the west to Venezuela, across the Bocas.

• There are parts of Trinidad’s Caroni plain that could pass, if you squinted, for India. A system of indentured labour in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought tens of thousands of Indian migrants to Trinidad to work in the sugarcane fields. Their descendents now make up half the population, still concentrated in the old central sugar-growing areas. As you drive through villages like Cunupia, Preysal, and California, fluttering prayer flags and small (but often ornate) household temples indicate a strong Hindu presence. Look out for the famous Temple in the Sea at Waterloo (built by Siewdass Saddhu, a sugar labourer who created his own artificial island when he couldn’t get permission to build a temple on estate land), the massive Hanuman murti near Carapichaima, nearly eighty feet tall, and Lion House in Chaguanas, home to the Capildeo dynasty, where V.S. Naipaul’s novel A House for Mr Biswas is partly set.

• South Trinidad is home to the energy industry, which drives the national economy. San Fernando, the island’s second city, curves around its eponymous hill, scarred by quarrying but still offering amazing views. Pointe-à-Pierre is home to a unique oil refinery with a bird sanctuary in its middle: the Pointe-à-Pierre Wildfowl Trust is home to dozens of species which thrive a short distance from heavy industry, a model of practical conservation. And Trinidad’s oldest mineral export, asphalt, oozes from the earth at the Pitch Lake in la Brea. Walter Raleigh used it to caulk his ships four hundred years ago, and today Trinidad Lake Asphalt is used to pave highways around the world.

Tobago time

Dylan Kerrigan on Trinidad’s “little sister”

If there were an official Tobago fan club, I’d be first in line to sign up. For me, there is no more special place in the Caribbean, and over the last thirty years I’ve been lucky enough to live, holiday, and work there regularly. “Tobago time”, somewhere between dead slow and stop, doesn’t work in a big city, but in a tropical paradise it replenishes and revitalises.

Some visitors may prefer the familiar hotel experience, which in the last few years has grown to rival anything offered elsewhere in the Caribbean. But my favourite way to enjoy Tobago is to spend the first days of any visit away from tourist hotspots by heading north to one of the island’s many secluded guesthouses, deserted beaches, or rural villages. It’s in these places that the natural beauty and romance of the island most enchant and refresh.

But that’s not to say Tobago is all laid-back. When you want more than waterfalls and mountain ridges, deceleration and time out, the island’s south-west, with its thriving discos, great restaurants and bars, and watersports, will speed life up again.

Tobago tips

Breakfast
• Fruit: roadside, all over the island, are great fresh fruit stalls. Ask for a sliced-up pineapple or anything else you fancy, and take an ice-cold coconut while you wait.

• Bake and saltfish: a local favourite, served with “slight pepper”. Or swap the saltfish for smoked herring. Either way, with a “large”, you won’t need lunch — this is heavy food. Peanut punch or sea moss is a good breakfast drink to wash everything down. Everything comes with heavy doses of sugar.

Beaches
• Back Bay: is there a better beach in Tobago? Not for me. This idyllic, deserted, three-sided bay with plenty to explore is an authentic tropical paradise. There are no lifeguards and few visitors, so make sure to visit in a group (and never at night). Ask any local for directions.

• Englishman’s Bay: lined by gorgeous jungle, a long curved bay with crystal waters and lazy views to the horizon. Well worth the scenic half-hour drive from Castara.

• Pirate’s Bay: a hard-to-reach beach, but well worth it. Park at the end of Charlotteville’s seafront and take the small dirt track. After a short walk, endless steps descend through fruit trees and hanging vines. At the bottom, a small stream washes onto the sort of beach I imagine the Caribbean’s first visitors encountered.

• Mount Irvine: This is where all the surfing action takes place, and by the cabanas on the right-hand side of the bay toned beach-lovers lime all day. On the left, by the Mount Irvine Hotel bar, is a more sedate family spot.

• Pigeon Point: want diversions? This is the beach for ample beers, shops, and food to keep everyone entertained. Excellent for watersports.

Outdoors
• Mountain biking: there are parts of Tobago you can see only by bike — with a good guide. Villages lost high in the hills, forested trails that spill out beside hidden waterfalls, beaches whose only entrance is by sea or on a sturdy two-wheeler — this is the Tobago I love.

• Water sports: Tobago is a big playground for those who love watersports. For diving enthusiasts, you have a top-ten destination with great visibility and a wonderment of underwater life. For windsurfers, kite surfers, and water-skiers, the place to head is Pigeon Point, where all the equipment, some strong winds, and a seawater lagoon provide great conditions. From November to April, surfers will find good swells on the western side of the island. In Tobago, even just donning a snorkel and mask is an adventure in itself, with every beach offering much to see below the water.

• Horse riding: the friendly stables at Friendship and Inn on the Bay provide lessons for beginners, or take those with experience for gallops along beach shallows and journeys through rainforest.

Lunch
• Store Bay: within earshot of the airport are the fine food ladies of Store Bay. On touchdown, this is my first stop, and “curried crab and dumplin’ ” my first words. It’s a messy affair, with plenty of sucking and cracking of bones, but the flavour, curry sauce with coconut milk — wow.

• Treehouse or beachfront? How about both? In Speyside and Castara are good restaurants with beachfront treehouse dining-rooms looking out to sea. Birds perch nearby as hearty and astonishingly delicious food is brought to your table.

Nature
• Eco: Tobago turns even the most determined beach-lover into a nature-lover. Perhaps it’s the abundance of birds and other wildlife constantly swooping into view or scuttling across your path. Whatever it is, taking an afternoon tour of the Grafton and Caledonia Bird and Wildlife Sanctuary or a guided tour through the Tobago Forest Reserve, the oldest protected forest in the Western Hemisphere, is like escaping to another world. It calms the mind and relaxes the body.

• Peace and quiet: the most appealing part of Tobago has always been the opportunity to escape the hubbub of urban life. Read a book, take a siesta, enjoy the ocean — let Tobago time wash over you.

Nightlife
• Bars and clubs: finding an ice-cold beer is never hard. From small traditional rumshops to sophisticated nightclubs, Tobago has no shortage of nocturnal destinations. Casinos, karaoke, reggae concerts, the famous Sunday School party — ask around to find out where the action is. Or just follow your ears.

Tobago directory

Information on some of our advertisers

• Plantation Beach Villas
“Your descriptions and photographs do not do this place justice. They looked and sounded good, but they did not prepare me for the reality.” This is how many guests sum up the Plantation Beach Villas experience. From the intricate detailing on the six colonial-style three-bedroom villas to the beautifully landscaped surroundings, enhanced by an enticing pool and long beach, this is the perfect place for the whole family.

• The Villas at Stonehaven
Just twenty minutes from the airport, the Villas at Stonehaven consist of 14 3,700-square-foot villas complemented by landscaped gardens and bordered by a 200-acre wildlife sanctuary. Each villa boasts three luxuriously furnished air-conditioned bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, a private infinity pool, a large modern kitchen, and panoramic vistas of the Caribbean.

• Surfside Hotel
At the entrance to the Pigeon Point Road near the airport, within walking distance of Tobago’s two most popular beaches, a combination of villas and self-contained rooms offers several accommodation options for visitors. In Trinidad, sister property Sundeck Suites offers majestic views of the Northern Range with the convenience of a location in Port of Spain near the Savannah; and Par-May-La’s Inn offers a bed-and-breakfast facility for business or leisure guests.

• SeaJade Investments
Proprietor Dawn Glaisher offers a full range of real estate services, from sales to rentals. SeaJade Investments has the benefit of years of experience in building contracts, avoiding common pitfalls, and using AREA guidelines to ensure a professional level of service. After more than a decade in Tobago real estate, SeaJade has earned a reputation for personalised service, dedicated professionalism, and trust.

• Caribbean Estates, Lands, and Villas
In a few short years, Caribbean Estates, Lands, and Villas has grown from the new kid on the block to one of the major real estate companies in Tobago. Their wide portfolio of properties in all areas of Tobago, from Charlotteville in the north-east to Crown Point in the south-west, means sale and rental prices to suit all pockets. They handle all aspects of real estate: land and residential sales, villa rentals, property maintenance, and commercial sales and rentals.

• Island Investments
Tobago has been developing fast in recent years, and now may be the time for that property investment you’ve been thinking about. Island Investments sees you through from start to finish with project co-ordination and property management services — they strive to ensure that your biggest dream, and possibly your biggest investment, becomes a reality.

• Abraham Tobago Realty
Whatever you are looking for — an oceanfront villa, an executive home on a golf course, a small retirement cottage — Abraham Tobago Realty will find your place in the sun. This family-run company offers professional personalised service in all areas of residential and commercial real estate sales and villa rentals. Their extensive property management services ensure that holiday homes are kept to the highest standard.

• Tobago Art Gallery
The brainchild of artists Martin and Rachael Superville, the Tobago Art Gallery is a work of art by itself, sitting in a peaceful wooded area at the edge of a large pond. It provides a permanent venue for exhibitions by the Supervilles as well as artists like Jackie Hinkson, Jane Albert, Sundiata, Lisa O’Connor, and many others. It is a meeting place for kindred spirits interested in all aspects of art.

• Castlewhite Holiday Resort
Nestled away in the beautiful hills of Studley Park, Castlewhite Hotel and Holiday Resort is more than a home away from home. Serene surroundings and a friendly atmosphere combine with fine dining, making it the ideal choice for anyone wanting to relax in Tobago’s natural beauty.