PORT OF SPAIN occupies a crucial place in T&T’s national psyche. It’s the hub of the republic’s booming economy, the home of government and the media, and the crucible of Trinidad’s rich cultural life, with legions of mas camps and panyards, art galleries and theatres. It was here that Carnival was first established in Trinidad, and – in the suburb of Laventille – that the steel pan was invented.

Spreading back from the Gulf of Paria and enclosed by crumpled green hills, Port of Spain has a dynamic, sophisticated feel that’s markedly different from the rest of the country. Some 128,000 inhabitants jostle for space in and around its compact centre, which displays a rather schizophrenic mix of the old and the new, with street traders selling cinnamon sticks or mauby bark as well as sleek new shopping malls bursting with international chains, and glinting high-rises overlooking colonial-era squares. The mishmash of architectural styles makes for an ugly first impression, especially downtown, with its traffic-choked streets and dusty commercial buildings. But there are many fine nineteenth-century buildings here, from dignified churches and state offices to quaint “gingerbread” houses, named for their decorative wooden fretwork, while grandiose mansions of colonial planters overlook the large open space of the Queen’s Park Savannah, which was created by enlightened town planners in the early nineteenth century and now affords the city some much-needed breathing room.

Stretching along the flat coastal plains to the west, the outlying districts of Woodbrook and St James are very much part of the city. Bars and restaurants line the after-dark hotspots of Ariapita Avenue and the Western Main Road, and costumes are created here at mas camps during the months preceding Carnival, when the city’s volatile mix of style, hedonism, creativity and joie de vivre explodes onto the streets as bands of fantastically arrayed revellers wind their way through downtown Port of Spain and Woodbrook to cross the Savannah stage. Spreading north and east into the Northern Range foothills, St Ann’s, Cascade, Belmont and Laventille are mostly residential, though the latter has a rather grim reputation for violent crime. North of the Savannah, leafy Maraval has some great places to eat, and is also the place to hop in a jeep taxi up to the friendly farming community of Paramin for heady city views and some welcome respite from the heat and bustle.

Brief history

Port of Spain became Trinidad’s capital almost by accident. In 1757, a series of pirate attacks on the then capital St Joseph left the residence of the new Spanish governor, Don Pedro de la Moneda, uninhabitable, prompting him to move the seat of government to the more convenient location of Puerto de España (a port of Spain). Though the town consisted of no more than two streets with a few hundred residents and was built on swampy, flood-prone ground, it did have the great advantage of a fine natural harbour, and was quickly made the permanent capital.

The colonial era

As French Catholics flooded into Trinidad in the 1780s, Port of Spain’s economy boomed and the city spread. Land was reclaimed from the sea, and streets were built over the surrounding mangrove swamps and woods. The last Spanish governor, Don Maria José Chacon, greatly facilitated this expansion when, in 1787, he diverted the St Ann’s River to the outskirts of the town, along the foot of Laventille Hill, alleviating the floods that had often troubled central Port of Spain. Chacon was less effective, however, when it came to defending the city against the British, who invaded and took over the island in 1797. In 1808, a devastating fire led the British governor, Sir Ralph Woodford, to make a number of civic improvements, establishing the Queen’s Park Savannah and developing Woodford Square. Learning from Spanish mistakes, the British also improved the city’s defences by building Fort George and Fort Picton.

Emancipation and beyond

After emancipation in 1834, freed slaves left plantations to find work in the capital, settling in the hills to the east of the city where they established the suburbs of Laventille and Belmont. With a growing population of workers, traders and entrepreneurs, Port of Spain sprawled outwards into the old plantations of Maraval and St Ann’s. Indian immigrants brought to Trinidad under indentured labour schemes settled in St James, while the population was further swelled by migrants from China, Portugal, Venezuela and Syria. The descendants of these groups, and those of the French and Spanish communities, compose the cosmopolitan mix of peoples and cultures that make Port of Spain unique today.

As the nation’s capital, Port of Spain was naturally the focus for both the political turmoil and the growing prosperity that marked the country’s history during the twentieth century. From the water riots of 1903, through the independence movement of the 1950s down to the bloody 1990 coup attempt, Woodford Square has been an arena of political strife. The dredging of the city’s deep-water harbour in the 1930s made Port of Spain the leading port of the southern Caribbean, while the discovery of offshore oil in the 1970s funded the construction of the financial district, dominated by the imposing twin towers of the Central Bank.

Port of Spain today

Thanks to the expansionist dreams of former People’s National Party Prime Minister Patrick Manning, Port of Spain’s skyline now bristles with high-rise blocks, from sleek Nicholas Tower to the rash of new government buildings on Wrightson Road. The buoyant consumerism of the last twenty years or so has seen lavish developments springing up all over the city, from American-style luxury malls and exclusive gated communities to the futuristic National Academy for the Performing Arts on the Savannah and the slick new waterside promenade around the Hyatt Regency hotel. And though civic spending has contracted since the 2008 global economic collapse, with some of the high-rises still missing their interior finish and restoration of key public buildings such as the President’s House at a standstill, Port of Spain has endured, with its prettiest public squares restored again to vibrant meeting places and its outlying districts electrified by a slew of new restaurants and bars.

The Angostura saga

As T&T’s sole producer of rum, Angostura Distillers hold a special place in the hearts of local limers. Trinbagonians stick by Angostura with a nationalistic zeal, declaring its rum the best in the world and adding a dash of its aromatic bitters to everything from drinks to marinades, soups and puddings, as well as swearing by the mixture as a cure for almost any ailment.

Angostura was founded by J.G.B. Siegert, a German surgeon who left his homeland to join Simón Bolívar in the fight for Venezuelan independence from Spain. Alarmed at the debilitating stomach ailments that plagued Bolívar’s troops, Siegert began experimenting with South American herbs and spices to concoct a remedy. He succeeded in 1824, creating the secret blend of botanicals that still make up the bitters today, and named his tonic after the Venezuelan town where Bolívar’s movement was based.

Popularized by sailors who brought wind of its curative powers to England, the mixture was first exported six years later, and demand increased rapidly. Production was shifted to the more economically and politically stable Trinidad, and the George Street plant soon dominated the small town of Port of Spain. After Siegert died in 1870, the company was taken over by his sons. The founder’s great-grandson Robert Siegert, who took the helm in 1928, steered Angostura to loftier heights, establishing the Caribbean’s most modern distillery in 1949 and exporting Trinidad’s beloved product all over the world.

Around the Savannah

Marking the division between downtown and the more upmarket surrounds of the city’s upper reaches, the Queen’s Park Savannah is Port of Spain’s largest open space, and a great place to take a gentle walk and admire the capital’s prettier side. Fringing the edge of the Savannah are Port of Spain’s few concrete attractions: the National Museum, a passable zoo and the beautiful Botanical Gardens, while the palatial mansions of the Magnificent Seven, built by the colonial plantocracy, provide some architectural distraction.

Belmont

A maze of narrow lanes flanking the eastern side of the Queen’s Park Savannah, BELMONT is one of the most densely populated areas of Port of Spain. It was the city’s first suburb, settled in the early nineteenth century by Africans who had escaped slavery on other Caribbean islands, and many original wooden houses survive from this era, proudly displaying their characteristically ornate gingerbread fretwork. After emancipation, freed slaves from Trinidad and a number of peoples from West Africa also settled here. In 1868, the tribal chieftain of the Rada community – a religious group from the French protectorate of Dahomey – bought land in the area to establish a settlement. Representatives from the Mandingo, Ibo, Yoruba and Krumen tribes also came to live here, and Belmont became an established African settlement. The community was well organized and close-knit, ensuring the survival of African traditions such as the Orisha religion, whose feasts and festivities are still practised here – though you won’t see much evidence of this as a casual visitor. Belmont was also the birthplace of Stokely Carmichael (1941–1998), founder of the Black Power movement and one of its vocal activists during the 1970s. Carmichael migrated to Harlem, New York, aged 11, and his civil rights work is today commemorated by a plaque outside his former home at 54 Oxford Street, now a community education centre.

At Carnival time, the community centre just off the Savannah on Jerningham Avenue is also worth a visit, as it hosts what’s known as Five Nights, a brilliant reggae jam staged by the Twelve Tribes Rasta sect and a great antidote to the frenetic menu of soca, soca and soca.

Carnival accommodation

The run-up to Carnival is easily the busiest time of year in Port of Spain, and if you intend to stay anywhere in the city during this time it’s essential to book well in advance. Regular Carnivalgoers reserve their accommodation for the following year on Ash Wednesday, and it’s a good idea to book very early if you have your heart set on a particular place – or area, with downtown, Woodbrook, Newtown and St Clair being the most convenient for the parade route. It’s a good idea to check the classified sections of newspapers (also available online), where rooms in private houses are advertised, sometimes at very reasonable rates, alongside last-minute vacancies in hotels and guesthouses.

Carnival prices, which can be more than double normal rates, usually apply from the Wednesday or Friday preceding Carnival through to Ash Wednesday. The majority of hotels and guesthouses insist on five- to eight-night minimum stays, which you’ll have to pay for even if you don’t stay there the whole period.

Downtown Port of Spain

Dating back to the 1780s, downtown Port of Spain is the city’s oldest district, and in places it still looks the part, though the colonial-era buildings on the backstreets are fast giving way to a rash of new development. Constantly reinventing itself in a frenzy of modernization, this is the capital’s shopping and financial centre. Within the compact grid of streets surrounding broad Independence Square/Brian Lara Promenade and bustling Frederick Street, shops jostle for space with old Spanish warehouses, coffee exporters’ offices, finance houses and the paraphernalia of the docks, while the thoroughfares are jammed with traffic, pedestrians and pavement vendors.

Hosay

The Islamic festival of Hosay, commemorating the martyrdom of Mohammad’s grandsons Hussein and Hassan during the jihad (Holy War) in Persia, has been celebrated in Trinidad since the first Indian Muslims arrived in 1845. The festival’s exposure to the island’s other cultures has turned it into something resembling Carnival, with wining and loud music, but in recent years local Shi’a Muslims have taken great pains to restore the occasion’s solemnity. This hasn’t stopped St James’ bars from making a mint on Hosay night, however – many locals watch the proceedings with a beer or rum in hand, much to the consternation of devout Muslims.

Hosay is celebrated in Curepe, Tunapuna, Couva and Cedros, but the best place to see it is undoubtedly St James. Trinis of all religions come here to view the festivities, which are held over four days (dates change according to the Islamic calendar; see wbestoftrinidad.com/culture.html). All of the night parades start at 11pm and continue into the early hours of the morning.

Laventille

Tumbling down the hillside that borders Port of Spain to the east, LAVENTILLE was established by freed slaves who settled here in the 1840s – right “on the eyebrow of the enemy”, as the Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace rather beautifully put it. The city’s most impoverished and crime-ridden area, it remains a volatile place, said to be a stronghold of the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen and forever used as a political football by politicians keen to swing the African vote. The birthplace of the steel pan, Laventille’s winding lanes are lined with a dense mishmash of buildings – some made from salvaged boards topped with rusting galvanized iron, others veritable palaces – which sit on steep and twisting streets in defiance of gravity. However, due to the volatility of the area, it’s not a place for a casual wander; if you do want to get a flavour of Laventille it’s best to go on a walking tour with local Elwyn Francis who also works as a tour guide for the Chaguaramas Development Authority and is well placed to gauge if it’s a good time to visit; violent flare-ups sometimes make it best avoided.

Though Laventille proper isn’t a place for sightseeing, it is worth making the trek out to its outskirts, where the rows of old warehouses between the highway and the Eastern Main Road hold the massive complex of the Angostura Distillers, producers of T&T’s famous bitters, as well as its rums, from Black Label and White Oak to Forres Park puncheon and the premium Single Barrel and 1919 brands. Tours of the rum factory cover the history of the company as well as a look around the bottling plant, distillery and bitters production area; you’ll also see the 700-plus specimens of the Barcant Butterfly Collection, and get to sample the rums. Tours are only available to groups of ten or more; call to see if it’s possible to fit in with existing bookings.

Maraval

Some 5km north of central Port of Spain via Circular Road from the northwest corner of the Savannah, MARAVAL lies at the base of the Northern Range, surrounded by lush green hills. What was once a small village on the outskirts of the capital has now mushroomed into an upmarket residential suburb, with a sprinkling of hotels and guesthouses. Past the open-plan Ellerslie Plaza Shopping Centre, Maraval’s main thoroughfare (and the route to Maracas Beach) Saddle Road is lined with shops and houses; just up from the junction with Long Circular Road, the Shoppes of Maraval and adjacent Royal Palm Plaza include a supermarket, pharmacy and several fast-food restaurants.

St Ann’s and Cascade

From the northeast corner of the Queen’s Park Savannah, St Ann’s Road heads past the Queen’s Hall, a favourite venue for pre-Carnival calypso revues, drama, dance and fashion shows. The leafy suburb of ST ANN’S melts almost seamlessly into the equally well-to-do CASCADE to the east, both residential districts that offer little in the way of sightseeing.

Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project

It’s well worth heading to the far reaches of St Ann’s to seek out the brilliant Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project, which, as the name suggests, has been doing marvellous work replanting the denuded St Ann’s hillsides and creating “fire paths” to stop seasonal bush fires in their tracks. Some 7000 trees have already been planted, and the project’s land is laced with easy hiking trails that afford lovely views of the city. Guided walks are available, during which you can learn more about the project’s work, and relax afterwards with a natural juice made with fruits from the trees which now flourish on the hillside.

St James

West of Woodbrook, the grittier district of ST JAMES is a cosmopolitan place that’s known as the “city that never sleeps” thanks to the string of bars and street-food stalls along the Western Main Road. The area of today’s St James was the first place that the British set foot on Trinidadian soil; landing in 1797, they are said to have found the courage required to capture Port of Spain in the rum produced at what was then the Peru sugar-cane estate. After emancipation, the area was settled by Indian indentured labourers, and the names they gave to their streets – Calcutta, Delhi and Madras – bear witness to their homesickness. Today, the estate is long-gone, but rum remains central to the life of the area by way of the street-front bars and slightly seedy clubs that line the Western Main Road, best visited after dark when music blares and stalls serve food late into the night for queues of hungry limers. St James’ Indian population have also stayed very visible, with a smattering of mosques and puja flags in many front gardens along the residential backstreets. The area is also notable as the focus of the annual Muslim Hosay processions.

Visiting panyards

The best way to hear steel pan is live, in the open air – there is nothing as romantic as listening to its rich chiming harmonies drifting on the wind on a warm starry night. Throughout the year Port of Spain hosts events in which pan features prominently, but in the run-up to Carnival, it’s well worth taking a tour around the city’s panyards, where the musicians gather most nights to practise their compositions for the Panorama competition. Visitors are welcome (crowds get quite sizeable as the big day approaches), and there’s always a bar and somewhere to sit and take in the music – though bear in mind that you may hear a section of a song being practised over and over again rather than the whole thing. Panyards are also open at other times, though the scene isn’t as animated.

If you don’t have a car or want to get a better insight into pan, one of the best ways to visit the yards is to take an evening tour with Gunda Harewood of Island Experiences. Details of Port of Spain’s better-known panyards appear in our Carnival Listings section; Phase II, Invaders, Silver Stars, Renegades and All Stars usually draw the biggest crowds. For full listings of the country’s pan bands, visit pantrinbago.co.tt.

Woodbrook

Immediately west of the downtown area, and demarked by Philipps Street to the east and the Maraval River to the west, the elegant old district of WOODBROOK was established in the early twentieth century on land that once formed part of a sugar estate owned by the Siegert family, creators of Trinidad’s famous Angostura bitters. Many of the streets here – such as Carlos, Luis and Siegert – bear their names, and you’ll still see plenty of the houses built by the original middle-class inhabitants, with wonderful fretworked bargeboards and delicate balustrades and finials. Running straight through the centre of Woodbrook, the wide boulevard of Ariapita Avenue, the capital’s primary liming and dining location, lined with bars and restaurants and a lively place to be most nights of the week. The Avenue is also one of the busiest parts of town during Carnival, with a main judging point at Adam Smith Square, and stalls and crowds lining the tarmac. Woodbrook’s backstreets, meanwhile, hold a healthy sprinkling of mas camps, where the Carnival bands have their bases, as well as a host of inexpensive guesthouses.

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Andy Turner
10/16/2020
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