Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
Geologically part of South America and politically the stronger half of a twin-island republic, this exhilarating, cosmopolitan, tropical island is also a land of natural beauty.
Asa Wright Nature Centre
Caroni Bird Sanctuary
Pulsating with life, Trinidad is a vibrant island, much noisier than Tobago, its more tranquil partner, 21 miles (33km) away, in the republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It reaches a crescendo at Carnival time when the capital, Port of Spain, the birthplace of steel pan and capital of calypso, throbs to the rhythms of the bands and the dancing in the streets. Local people and visitors alike are welcome to join the flamboyant costumed parades and have a ball in the “greatest street party on earth” (for more information, click here).
The scarlet ibis.
The oil booms of the 1970s and early 2000s have created an economic climate comfortable enough for Trinidad not to encourage tourism. In the mountain rainforests of the north, the coastal swamps, and the flat palm-fringed beaches of the east, it is easy to escape the west coast’s modern hubbub of industrialized life. Many of its stunning beaches are deserted and inaccessible except by boat or on foot. Nonetheless, outside the hurricane belt, the sheltered bays of the northwest have become a haven for yachties and there are numerous marinas.
It would be wrong to eulogize the beautiful blue waters that surround Trinidad, because on all but the northern coastline, they are distinctly brown. The southernmost and largest island in the Eastern Caribbean chain (1,864 sq miles/4,660 sq km), it is washed by the waters of the Orinoco delta just 7 miles (11km) away in Venezuela, but the sea is still mostly warm, clear, and pleasant to swim in. Sailing or flying across to Tobago, halfway you can see the color of the water dramatically change to blue.
Trinidad’s Carnival, unrivalled in the Caribbean.
Trinidad & Tobago Tourism Development Company
Amerindians had canoed across from the Orinoco region and settled these shores long before Columbus sighted the island on July 31, 1498. The Spanish colonizers failed to find the gold of El Dorado here, but they did use the island for tobacco plantations. To cultivate them they enslaved the local Amerindians, who practically died out within a century as a result.
English sailors, Spanish farmers, French planters and their families, adventurers, thousands of African slaves, and, from the 19th century onward after the abolition of slavery, numerous Asian, Portuguese, and Chinese laborers, plus a small minority of Syrian and Lebanese merchants, have formed the basis of today’s multicultural society of just over a million people. Here you can find Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Methodist churches, a Benedictine monastery, Hindu temples, and Islamic mosques, and any number of other places of worship.
As oil replaced sugar as king, a multiracial middle class in the industrial centers of the west coast administered the profits from wells near La Brea. Manufactured products for export to the whole of the Caribbean grew sharply through the post-war years and onward, and the discovery of further rich oil and gas reserves in the 1970s nourished the island’s hopes of a future free from economic worries. The new prosperity also helped ensure Trinidad’s rise to having one of the highest literacy rates in the Americas.
Politically, Trinidad and Tobago were governed by Britain between 1888 and 1962. In the 1950s local politics flourished under the leadership of the brilliant historian Dr Eric Williams, who founded the People’s National Movement (PNM) and became the first prime minister after independence in 1962. The republic was created in 1976. Power then alternated between the PNM and the largely East Indian United National Congress (UNC). However, in 2010 an unprecedented coalition agreement was reached by five parties, known as the People’s Partnership, to defeat the PNM, which had been in government since 2002. Following the September 2015 general election, the PNM returned to power, with its leader Keith Rowley becoming prime minister.
Port of Spain
Port of Spain 1 [map], the capital, was founded in 1754 by the Spanish at the foot of the Northern Range. Today modern skyscrapers, such as the 300ft (92-meter) Twin Towers, and elegant shopping centers contrast sharply with dilapidated gingerbread-style villas, wooden huts, and rusty fences. A daytime stroll through Independence Square and Queen’s Park Savannah is not too strenuous. In the evening, walking downtown should be avoided, and the eastern suburbs only visited if accompanied by a local person.
Independence Square is bordered to the east by the neo-Gothic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Extending westward toward the cruise terminal on both sides of this long square are shopping centers, banks, a statue of Columbus, and the Twin Towers, containing government offices. The attractive promenade along the center is named for Brian Lara, who has done much to make Trinidad famous as a cricket-playing nation.
Frederick Street, lined with street traders, leads to the park on Woodford Square. This is where dissatisfied citizens keep the Speakers’ Corner tradition alive by loudly criticizing various decisions made in the imposing Red House, the seat of parliament, at the western end of the square. The Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, the Supreme Court, the Town Hall, and police headquarters surround the park and its magnificent old trees. At the southwest corner, on Hart and Abercromby, rises the striking modern National Library, located next to a historic landmark - the Old Fire Brigade Station - which has been restored and incorporated into the new complex.
To the north, a 15-minute walk away, Frederick Street ends at Port of Spain’s giant park, the Queen’s Park Savannah. Nearby, in the National Museum and Art Gallery (corner of Frederick and Keate streets; tel: 868-623 5941; www.nmag.gov.tt; Tue-Sat 10am-6pm; free), you can see documents dating from the colonial era and also a collection of glitzy Carnival costumes.
King’s Wharf, Port of Spain.
West of the Savannah, the Magnificent Seven - a line of very fine (if partly dilapidated) colonial buildings dating from the turn of the 20th century - give Maraval Road flair and elegance. In the early morning, the sun shows them at their best. To the north are the beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens (daily 6am-6pm; free) and the President’s House.
North to south the Magnificent Seven in Port of Spain are: Stollmeyer’s Castle (1904); White Hall, the prime minister’s office; Archbishop’s House; Mille Fleurs; Roomor; Hayes Court, the Anglican bishop’s residence; and Queen’s Royal College, with an eye-catching clock tower.
A good introduction to the national instrument, the steelpan, is a visit to a panyard, where steel bands rehearse: Amoco Renegades at the top of Charlotte Street, Witco Desperadoes up Laventille Hill, or Phase II on Hamilton Street, in the western suburb of Woodbrook, where there are excellent restaurants on Ariapita Avenue. Also in Woodbrook is the Queen’s Park Oval cricket ground, the oldest ground in the Caribbean, where international test matches are played. West of Woodbrook is St James, lively with bars and clubs.
To the northern rainforest
The rugged coast of the Chaguaramas Peninsula 2 [map], a former US naval base (1945-64) to the northwest of Port of Spain, is a popular sailing area. On the island of Gaspar Grande, a 20-minute boat ride from Chaguaramas town, guided tours of the Gasparee limestone caverns are available (tel: 868-225 4232 for advance booking; www.chagdev.com).
The mountainous hinterland of the Northern Range arrives quite suddenly when leaving the urban sprawl north and east of Port of Spain. The Eastern Main Road passes through several towns including Trinidad’s first capital under Spanish rule, St Joseph. Continuing north, the Royal Road meanders through rainforest and close to the 320ft (100-meter) Maracas Waterfall 3 [map], 20 minutes’ walk from the road, which is especially impressive after rainfall.
Back on the main road, some good Chinese and East Indian roti restaurants mark your arrival in Tunapuna. High on the hill above lies Mount St Benedict, the oldest Benedictine monastery in the region (founded 1912), and 8 miles (13km) further east, you reach Arima, the island’s third-largest town. From here the road north twists and turns through orchards and rainforest to the Asa Wright Nature Centre 4 [map] (tel: 868-667 4655; www.asawright.org; daily 9am-5pm; accommodation and guided tours available, advance reservations required). This 182-acre (74-hectare) site contains a vast amount of fascinating tropical flora and fauna. More than 100 different species of birds, including several rare hummingbirds, can be observed here.
The wildly romantic coastline near Blanchisseuse on the northern coast is reached via 23 miles (37km) of hairpin bends with stunning views and dangerous potholes. The glorious sands and waterfall at Paria Bay lie a 2-hour hike from here, while more easily accessible is the half-moon-shaped sandy bay at the fishing village of Las Cuevas 5 [map] to the west. Maracas Bay is the busier beach, but equally attractive.
At the northeastern tip of the island are the dramatic cliffs of Toco 6 [map], a 3-hour drive from the capital via the Eastern Main Road and a rather bumpy route through some mountain rainforest. Leatherback turtles lay their eggs on the secluded beaches here between April and June.
The East Coast Road leads back down to Matura from where three sandy bays sweep southwards for 40 miles (60km). Edged by dense coconut plantations, Manzanilla Beach 7 [map] in the middle has some public amenities, and Mayaro at the southern end has houses to rent. However, swimming here is dangerous, due to a strong undertow and high waves. Behind the palm trees is the mangrove swamp of Nariva, and young boys can often be seen driving their water buffalo out into the fields. The rural south of Trinidad is mainly inhabited by East Indian farming families and oil workers.
Enjoying the view at the Asa Wright Nature Centre.
Where the earth bubbles
At Devil’s Woodyard 8 [map], about 8 miles (13km) east of Trinidad’s second-largest city, San Fernando, on the southwest coast, gas bubbles can be seen inside the mud holes of one of the island’s 18 mud volcanoes. This is a holy site for Hindus, who leave sacrificial offerings here such as flowers and coconut oil. The Pitch Lake 9 [map] (tel: 868-675 7034; daily 9am-5pm), at La Brea, 13 miles (20km) southwest of San Fernando, is the largest natural asphalt lake in the world and up to 320ft (100 meters) deep in places. It was a spiritual site for Amerindians before being found in 1595 by the English captain Sir Walter Raleigh, who used the sticky substance to help keep his ship waterproof. You can walk on parts of the surface of the lake, but don’t explore it without an experienced guide.
Just to the north of San Fernando, some rare wildfowl have found refuge right at the center of a crude oil refinery. The Pointe-à-Pierre Wildfowl Trust ) [map] (tel: 868-658 4200 ext. 2512; www.papwildfowltrust.org; daily by appointment) devotes itself to breeding threatened species and preserving natural habitats.
Heading north to Port of Spain, Carapichaima is famous for its 85ft (26-meter) statue of the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman, its impressive Waterloo Temple-in-the-Sea - joined to the mainland by a causeway - as well as the Maha Sabha Museum (tel: 868-675 7007; Wed-Sun 10am-5pm; free), documenting the East Indian Caribbean experience since the 1830s.
The national bird of Trinidad is the scarlet ibis, and every evening flocks of these elegant creatures return from their feeding grounds in Venezuela to roost in the mangrove swamp at Caroni Bird Sanctuary ! [map] (tel: 868-469 4076; daily 7am-8pm).