Nestled against the base of its eponymous flat-top hill, SAN FERNANDO boasts a striking setting, and despite its status as T&T’s industrial capital, the city has a surprisingly old-fashioned and laidback charm. With sloping streets that are reminiscent of a miniature, low-key San Francisco, its warren of steep, winding lanes offer pretty sea views, while many weather-beaten gingerbread buildings have survived the rapid industrial development of recent years.
San Fernando – known as just “Sando” to locals – has always maintained an independent spirit. An oil city first and foremost, it sees many business visitors but few sightseers, and tourists are basically left to figure it out independently – though the friendly and hospitable residents make it a pleasurable place to get a flavour of Trini life. And in recent years, the burgeoning wealth from the natural gas and oil industries have helped to push up demand for quality entertainment, from the annual Jazz Festival on San Fernando Hill to a slew of high-class bars, restaurants and clubs alongside the many more grass-roots options for dining, drinking and partying.
Bordered by the Gulf of Paria on one side and the rocky, wooded outcrop of San Fernando Hill on the other, the city’s compact centre is easily negotiated on foot, with most of the historical sights, shops and transport stands located on and around Harris Promenade, a broad, elegant boulevard running west from the main junction and focal point, Library Corner.
Having served as a sacred spot for Amerindian tribes, San Fernando’s first European arrival was Sir Walter Raleigh, who put to shore here during a voyage in 1595 – he was unimpressed and sailed on. Capuchin priests established a mission in 1687, but the settlement only began to flourish after 1784, when French plantation owners attracted by the cedula were allocated land here and established the first estates; in the same year, Spanish governor José Maria Chacon named the settlement San Fernando de Naparima in honour of King Carlos III’s new son. By 1797, when the British captured the island, San Fernando had more than a thousand inhabitants, twenty sugar mills and eight rum distilleries. Surrounded by fertile agricultural land, the town continued to grow, and by 1811 the population had trebled; by the middle of the century, it was the hub of the entire south, a busy trading centre for the region’s planters, with a regular coastal steamer to Port of Spain – the overland route took three days of rough riding through forests and swamps. The arrival of the railway in 1882 led to another population increase, and by the late 1880s San Fernando had been thoroughly modernized. Suburbs grew as the plantations disappeared – the result of falling sugar prices in the 1920s – and the town was soon dominated by the expanding oil industry. Designated a city in 1988, San Fernando continued to expand through the early 1990s, bringing the northern city limits up to the oil refinery at Point-a-Pierre and increasing its population by around 10,000 (it’s a little over 60,000 today), with many inhabitants moving out to the chocolate-box housing developments on the eastern outskirts of town.