Sitting pretty just off the coast of the South American mainland it was once part of, the twin-island republic of Trinidad and Tobago (often shortened to “T&T”) is one of the Caribbean’s most diverse and underexplored destinations. The islands boast spectacular rainforests, waterfalls, savannahs and reefs, and the endless undeveloped beaches are some of the prettiest in the region, from palm-lined white sand fringed by limpid waters to secluded, wave-whipped outcrops. As the home and heart of West Indian Carnival and the place where calypso, soca and steel pan were invented, T&T is a cultural pacemaker for the Caribbean and a fantastic place to party.

Trinidad and Tobago’s economy is the most diversified and industrialized in the English-speaking Caribbean, with an average of 151,000 barrels of oil and 40 billion cubic metres of natural gas produced here each year. Because gas and oil are the main economic earners, both islands remain largely unfettered by the more noxious elements of Caribbean tourism, and are well suited to independent travellers without being fully fledged resorts. Visitors are not generally corralled in all-inclusives or holed-up on private swathes of sand and the beaches are enjoyed by locals and foreigners alike, with visitors often in the minority. Sun and sea are by no means the only draw here, however: no other Caribbean island offers such a variety of wildlife and habitats in so compact an area (roughly half the size of Hawaii Island). In Trinidad, there are tropical rainforests of mahogany and teak patrolled by howler monkeys and ocelots, wetlands harbouring manatees and anacondas, and remote beaches where giant leatherback turtles lay their eggs, while Tobago is best known for its stunning coral reefs, favoured by manta rays and shoals of brightly coloured tropical fish. Both islands also offer some brilliant opportunities for birdwatching; with more than 430 recorded species T&T has one of the richest concentrations of birds per square kilometre in the world.

The crowded and dynamic towns and cities are equally engaging, with fretworked “gingerbread” homes sitting side by side with temples, mosques, Catholic cathedrals and Anglican churches. The many ethnic groups brought to labour in the islands after slaves were freed in 1834 have given rise to a remarkably varied populace, hailing from India, China, Portugal and Syria as well as Africa, England, France and Spain. Though racial tensions are inevitably present, Trinbagonians (as they’re collectively known) generally coexist with good humour, and are proud of the multiculturalism that has so enriched the islands. This easy-going mentality is best expressed in the local propensity for “liming” – taking time out to meet friends and talk, usually over food and a beer or glass of rum.

Both islands share a party-hard ethic, and Trinidad has an electrifying music scene that rivals even that of Jamaica. T&T is the birthplace of calypso and the more fast-paced soca, as well as that quintessential sound of the Caribbean, the steel pan; you’ll hear plenty of all three year-round, but especially during the republic’s most famous party, its annual pre-Lenten Carnival. During this unique and explosive event, the no-holds-barred debauchery of the Jouvert “dirty mas” parades is followed by two days of pure joy as 5000-strong bands of intricately costumed revellers take to the streets in a celebration of life.

Where to go in Trinidad & Tobago

Bound together for the convenience of the British Empire, Trinidad and Tobago are vastly different places. Trinidad offers culture, ethnic diversity, music, clubs, great food, pristine rainforest and a wealth of undeveloped beaches. Tobago is more of a conventional Caribbean resort, its southwest replete with busy strips of white sand and hotels of every stripe, as well as plenty of bars, restaurants and places to dance under the stars. The rest of the island is relatively undeveloped, with plenty of fantastic small-scale guesthouses, but nowhere in Tobago will you find the high-rise hotels and slick resort areas of other islands in the region. It’s impossible to get a full picture of T&T without visiting both Trinidad and Tobago, and regular and inexpensive plane and ferry services between the two make it easy to see the best of each even during a short stay.

A visit to Trinidad will inevitably begin in Port of Spain, the vibrant capital which, with its restaurants, nightlife and accommodation, is a natural base from which to explore the rest of the country. To the west, Chaguaramas is the capital’s playground, with a newly redeveloped waterfront at Williams Bay and the zip line, walking and mountain biking trails, golf course and great beach of Tucker Valley. Chaguaramas is also the jumping-off point for boat trips to the rocky, wooded islands of the Bocas. A sweeping curve of powdery sand and powerful waves, Maracas Bay is the first of many lovely beaches along the north coast, some reachable by road, others only on foot. Inland, the densely forested peaks of the Northern Range offer excellent hiking and birdwatching opportunities. South of the hills, the East–West Corridor provides access to caves, swimmable rivers and waterfalls, the Yerette hummingbird centre, and the oldest Benedictine monastery in the Caribbean at Mount St Benedict.

The flat agricultural plains of central Trinidad provide a fascinating contrast to the north. From the ethereal Waterloo Temple in the Sea and the nearby Hanuman Murti statue to the busy market town of Chaguanas, Indian culture predominates; there’s plenty of natural allure too, from the scarlet ibis that inhabit the mangrove labyrinth of Caroni Swamp to the manatees and monkeys in the protected wetlands at Nariva. Endless swathes of fine brown sand lined by groves of coconut palms make Manzanilla and Mayaro favourite spots for some beach time. The burgeoning city of San Fernando is a friendly base from which to explore the largely unvisited “deep south”, where modern oil towns such as Fyzabad contrast with the spectacular coastline and wetlands around Cedros and Icacos.

Most people travelling to Tobago head for the translucent waters, coral reefs and excellent facilities around Crown Point on the low-lying southwestern tip. The vibrant capital, Scarborough, with its market and historic fort, offers a more genuine picture of local life, while the rugged windward (or Atlantic) coast is best known for the waterfall and cocoa estate at Argyle and the island’s finest snorkelling and scuba diving at Speyside. The leeward (or Caribbean) coast promises some superb beaches, kicking off with the clear green waters of Mount Irvine and the wide sweeps of sand at Stonehaven Bay and Turtle Beach; further afield there’s the twin bays at Castara to the palm-lined swathe of Englishman’s Bay. On the northeast tip, the pretty village of Charlotteville has the sublime Pirate’s Bay as well as the none-too-shabby Man O’War Bay.

Top image © PHB.cz (Richard Semik)/Shutterstock

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Carnival

Trinidad’s Carnival is all about participation: rather than watching from the sidelines as in Rio – whether young or old, big or small, anyone with a willingness to “wine their waist” and “get on bad” is welcome to sign up with a masquerade band, which gets you a costume and the chance to dance through the streets alongside tens of thousands of fellow revellers. Preceded by weeks of all-night outdoor fetes, as parties here are known, as well as competitions for the best steel bands and calypso and soca singers, the main event starts at 4am on Carnival Sunday with Jouvert (pronounced “jou-vay”). This anarchic and raunchy street party is pure, unadulterated bacchanalia, with generous coatings of mud, chocolate, oil or body paint – and libations of local rum, of course – helping you lose all inhibitions and slip and slide through the streets until morning in an anonymous mass of dirty, drunken, happy humanity, chipping along to steel bands, sound-system trucks or the traditional “rhythm section” percussionists. Once the sun is fully up, and a sluice down with a hose has dispensed with the worst of the mud, the masquerade bands hit the streets, their costumed followers dancing along in the wake of the pounding soca. Monday is a mere warm-up for the main parade the following day, however, when full costumes are worn and the streets are awash with colour. The music trucks are back in earnest and the city reverberates with music, becoming one giant street party, until “las lap” and total exhaustion closes proceedings for another year.

Fact file

• Standing at about 1.34 million, T&T’s population is around 40 percent Indian, 39 percent black, 18 percent mixed-race, 0.6 percent white and 0.4 percent Chinese. Its population is theologically diverse, too: with 26 percent Roman Catholic, 25 percent Protestant, 23 percent Hindu, 6 percent Muslim, 3 percent Presbyterian and 6 percent adhered to African-based religions such as Spiritual Baptist and Orisha.

Go into almost any bar in the world and you’ll see a bottle of Angostura bitters, produced in Trinidad and an essential ingredient of many classic cocktails. Its aromatic blend of herbs, spices and alcohol is such a guarded secret that no single person is permitted to know the full recipe.

Trinidad is one of the world’s most important nesting sites for the giant leatherback turtle. Grande Riviere on the north coast sees one of the world’s highest density of nests, with some 500 turtles visiting per night at the height of the season.

The peculiar Pitch Lake, at La Brea on Trinidad’s southwestern coast, is the world’s largest natural reservoir of asphalt.

• In 2006, T&T became the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup, though the Soca Warriors didn’t manage to score a goal in the tournament, drawing one match and losing two more before being knocked out.

T&T lie outside the region’s hurricane belt, and haven’t suffered a big blast since Flora in 1963, though minor earthquakes occur at an average of one per month.

Native to southern Trinidad, the Moruga Scorpion is officially the second hottest pepper in the world, notching up two million units on the Scoville heat scale, just a fraction less than the Carolina Reaper.

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Andy Turner
10/16/2020
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