Lesser-Known Caribbean: The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
When researching islands in the Caribbean for vacation, you might not immediately think of Trinidad and Tobago. But since they (especially Trinidad) have an economy that is not tourism-based, you get a chance to experience a different kind of not-specially-engineered-for-tourists Caribbean island, and you might just be surprised at what you find. The archipelagic nation also lies outside of what in the Caribbean is called the “hurricane belt,” which is a big advantage over some of its northern neighbors. If off-the-beaten path sounds like your kind of Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago could be your perfect slice of paradise.
Trinidad’s special street eats and eclectic cuisine
Food in Trinidad is anything but an afterthought. And street food rules the day. There’s bake and shark, a piece of fried shark stuffed into a piece of fried dough and eaten in a sandwich, most often at Maracas Bay. Or you can pick up the anytime snack of pholourie, fried puffed balls of savory pastry served with a variety of chutneys for between meals. Another favorite is roti, which is an Indian flatbread rolled, wrap-style around a filling, which can include goat, shrimp and/or yellow lentils, cooked to a refried bean-like consistency. A good option on Maraval Road is Dopson’s Roti Shop, packed to bursting from 11:30 to 1:00 with office workers picking up a roti or five (for their coworkers, no one could eat more than one).
But perhaps one of the best-known Trinidadian foods is doubles, an improbably spicy, hearty breakfast or night time snack, which is two soft bara, a fried bread made with flour, baking powder and turmeric, and filled with channa, a cooked chick pea curry. To this you can add pepper (I’d call this hot sauce). Locals recommend you start with “a dash” before you move up to “plenty.”
If somehow you’ve managed to miss these specials throughout your time in Trinidad and Tobago, get to Piarco airport with enough time to enjoy the outdoor local-foods food court that sits just to the right of the terminal, and fills up with just-off-the-plane locals, happy to get their hands on the nation’s comfort food.
But that doesn’t mean all the food in Trinidad is what you can eat while you’re walking down the street. More elaborate versions of local favorites, that show off the dougla (mix between African and Indian descent) mix can be found at some higher-end restaurants, in peaceful, air-conditioned surroundings, where the foods are delicately spiced, composed, and generally more vegetable-laden. This is food like you expect it to be served at home, if you could get chadon bene (an herb not unlike but not exactly the same as cilantro) where you live. One such restaurant is Chaud Creole, where local favorites such as cow heel, conch and crab and dumplings are prepared with flair.
Carnival and Caribbean steel drum sounds
Trinidad gave the world steel pan, or as it is often known outside of the Caribbean, steel drum music. The warm, rhythmic, trilling sound comes from the pannists hitting the rounded, hammered metal, which was traditionally the steel bottom of a 55-gallon drum. It is a popular kind of music, and listening to steel pan is a great way to spend an evening in Port of Spain, at one of the various panyards, which you can find listed here. You’ll have to ask which panyards are active which nights, and have a little patience, as it’s not an exact science. The easiest time of year to catch as many as 120 pannists playing together is during Carnival, during February or March, on the Queen’s Park Savannah, a large park with a 2-mile perimeter in Port of Spain.
Carnival in Trinidad is serious business, with preparations, including steel drum practices and costume design starting as long as eight months before the event. The main events, including “playing mas,” (where mas stands for masquerade, and this refers to marching in the parades) take place the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. There are also stick fighting, limbo competitions, and of course, the steel drum band competitions. You’ll find people out exercising the couple of months before Carnival to build the stamina necessary to make it through the days’ festivities. But at any time of year, you can always find people, liming (anything from hanging out, to having a blow out party) at the local bars. Try Tragarete road for some of the liveliest spots.
Exotic creatures of the air and sea
Trinidad has some great bird watching, not far from Port of Spain. The best option for armchair bird lovers is the verandah at the Asa Wright Nature Center, where you can sit and watch literally dozens of hummingbirds feed at the feeders, and various birds, such as toucans and peck at bits of fruit left nearby. More active birders can take a short hike through the rainforest, located at about 1200 feet above sea level, or make reservations to see the nocturnal oilbirds’ nesting site, to which access is limited. A total of 159 different species of birds, including the peregrine falcon have been sighted at Asa Wright, though the ornate hawk-eagle has some of the most passionate fans at the moment. There are many types of butterflies and lizards as well. Asa Wright also offers an all-inclusive overnight option, in addition to the day visits.
Another option for more intrepid birdwatchers is the Caroni Bird Sanctuary, at the Caroni National Park Lagoon. It is an estuary and marshland, comprised of tidal mudflats and mangrove forests and as such, has very different fauna (and climatic conditions) from Asa Wright (above). A few different tour options include an evening photography tour, aimed at catching the dusk migration of three different large flocks of the unusual scarlet ibis flying overhead, as well as regular birdwatching tours where sightings of kingfishers, wood creepers, rails, flycatchers, caracaras and cardinals are practically guaranteed. The occasional tree-dozing boa constrictor may also be seen, crabs are plentiful, and mosquito repellent a must.
The best diving in Trinidad and Tobago, is undoubtedly in Tobago, and probably best accessed from the sleepy town of Speyside, about 45 minutes by car to the north east of Scarborough, where the ferry and flights from Tobago land. The windward side of the island water is warm, despite the cooler Guayana current that comes through, nourishing sea life, and which makes the sea slightly milky. On single-tank dives from Speyside you can expect to see lots of different kinds of coral, including wire coral as well as sea fans, tube sponges, stop light parrotfish, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, spiny lobsters and the occasional spotty hawksbill turtle and hammerhead shark. The waters off Speyside also shelter the largest brain coral in the world, measuring as much as 15 feet across.
The town of Speyside is a sleepy one-street hamlet, but there is an excellent tree house restaurant called Jemma’s where you can get a well-priced curried fish dish and salads as you look over the water. Night dives are also available at Speyside, and you’ll want to spend the night there to wake up beside the ocean.
If you wake up early in Port of Spain, you will have it mainly to yourself, except for the occasional runner, who, like you, is taking advantage of the lower morning temperatures. This is a good time for a stroll around the Queen’s Park Savannah, a 260-acre oasis of green in the middle of the city. The Botanical Gardens and zoo are adjacent to the savannah, as is the very modern Queen’s Hall, a concert venue and performing arts center.
You can also take a look at the Magnificent Seven at the northwest corner of the Savannah. These are a set of seven architectural giants, including the Queen’s College, where the famous Trinidadian author, V.S. Naipaul attended. If you need some refreshment, look behind you and walk over to the old-style carriages on the western edge of the Queen’s Park Savannah and buy a chilled green coconut to drink the coconut water inside. The vendor can chop off the top to make a scoop for you to scrape out the jelly-like flesh for you when you’re done drinking the water inside.
Night time is the best time for a streaky sunset in Tobago, and Pigeon Point is a great place out on a peninsula to have an evening picnic and check out this postcard-perfect spot.
Photos courtesy of Eileen Smith.