The oil-rich bigger brother to vacationer’s paradise Tobago doesn’t need your tourist dollars. Hotels cater largely to business travelers, and there are no all-inclusive resorts.
Enterprising travelers in search of a more eclectic alternative to the typical, laid-back Caribbean vacation will find themselves right at home on this island of 1.3 million near Venezuela. Port of Spain, the cosmpolitan capital, boasts some of the region’s best food and nightlife, while Trinidad’s scenic north coast offers unrivaled bird-watching and secluded, postcard-worthy beaches.
Carnival is the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago’s gem, a dynamic spectacle of pageantry and culture that unfolds on the streets of Port of Spain on the Monday and Tuesday before Lent. In 2016, it’s set for Feb. 8 and 9. With its elaborate costumes, historical symbolism and frenetic soundtrack of soca and steelpan, it’s the inspiration for all other Caribbean carnivals (including New York’s West Indian American Day Parade), and the axis around which the Trinidad and Tobago calendar revolves.
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Finding a room in Port of Spain — or anywhere in Trinidad — come Carnival time is a tall order. Devotees return yearly, booking their next trip as soon as they return home. Fortunately, the festive spirit that culminates with Carnival Monday and Tuesday lives year-round. Carnival has expanded in recent years into a months-long “season” full of calypso competitions, beauty pageants, steelpan battles and extravagant outdoor fetes, kicking off around Christmastime. And “liming,” as Trinbagonians call leisurely drinking sessions with friends, is sometimes referred to as the national pastime.
Ariapita Ave., in Port of Spain’s Woodbrook area, is the place to lime, with bar after bar offering specials on Carib and Stag beer. Set in a converted 19th century Gingerbread house typical of the neighborhood, Shaker’s (shakerstrinidad.com), a cocktail bar on the avenue, is an ideal perch for people watching, with plenty of outdoor seating and its own blend of Angostura rum. Aria Lounge is Port of Spain’s swankiest new club, with DJs spinning EDM, hip-hop and soca across several floors. De Nu Pub, formerly Mas Camp Pub, is the place for live calypso.
For a classic Caribbean rum bar experience, visit Brooklyn Bar on nearby Carlos St. Port of Spain’s oldest drinking establishment is also its most wallet-friendly: Beers, advertised as Trinidad’s coldest, run just $10TT, or about $1.50 in U.S. currency.
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The real star of “The Avenue” is the food. Trinidad is a polyglot culture, and its cuisine blends West African, East Indian, Chinese, French Creole, Spanish, English and Middle Eastern flavors into one spicy mix. By day, takeaway shops selling roti and cow-heel soup, comfort foods of respective Indian and African origin, cater to local office workers. By night, street vendors furnish drinkers with gyros, pepper pot and the ubiquitous doubles: channa (curied chickpeas) served piping hot between two thin, fried flatbread slices known as bara.
Doubles are to liming what pizza is to bar-hopping in New York. One makes a great pre- or post-game snack; down two or three, and you’ve got yourself a meal. And, at about 75 cents a pop, the price is certainly right.
Just as a New York hot dog is incomplete without some combination of ketchup, mustard, sauerkraut and relish, doubles has its own set of requisite condiments, including tangy chadon beni (culantro), sweet mango-based chutney, and fiery pepper sauce. Ordering these requires a certain finesse. An emphatic “Pepper!” turns your doubles red hot; for more manageable heat, ask for yours with “slight,” and stretch out that “i.”
For an even broader selection of Trini street food, head to Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain’s version of Central Park. Every night except Sunday you’ll find vendors selling everything from corn soup to ice cream made with local fruits like soursop and barbadine. Seek out Blackie the Oyster Man, who serves his signature shellfish in a glass with a deliciously spicy cocktail sauce.
If table service is more your speed, you can’t do better than Veni Mange, an Ariapita Ave. staple known for its hearty Creole cuisine. Owner Rosemary Hezekiah furnishes the place with works from Trinidad’s best folk artists; you may just leave with a belly full of crab and callaloo and a new painting. As with any cosmopolitan city, you’ll also find sushi places, Italian bistros, gastropubs and fine-dining establishments. Of the latter group, Chef Khalid Muhammad’s Chaud (chaudkm.com), in the St. Ann’s area, is widely considered the best.
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In Trinidad, even beach trips are food-driven. Maracas Bay, the island’s most popular beach, is treasured as much for Bake and Shark, a delicious fried fish sandwich, as for its calm waters and idyllic scenery. The pioneering Richard’s Bake and Shark, with its help-yourself condiments station, is the most popular of the half-dozen stalls here. Top yours with veggies, fruit slices and a delicious garlic sauce, and wash it all down with a Stag.
If you’d rather avoid the crowds and carbs at Maracas, head east along the North Coast Rd. to the beaches at Las Cuevas and Blanchisseuse. Near the island’s northeast extreme are Grande Riviere and Matura, quiet fishing villages which host nesting sea turtles during the summer months. Observational tours, conducted by the Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guide Association (turtlevillagetrust.org) and Nature Seekers Eco-Tours (natureseekers.org), respectively, are among Trinidad’s most family-friendly attractions.
Trinidad is something of a Caribbean Galapagos, with biodiversity unmatched elswehere in the region, including 400 species of birds. Bird-watchers flock to the Asa Wright Nature Centre and Lodge (asawright.org), set amidst the rainforest in the mountainous Northern Range. Guided tours leave twice daily; hardcore birders can stay overnight in on-site cottages.
The best place to see Trinidad’s national bird, the scarlet ibis, is in the Caroni Sanctuary, where the Caroni River meets the Gulf of Paria, south of Port of Spain. Nanan Eco Tours (nananecotours.com) is one of several operators offering boat rides into the sanctuary at sundown, when these crimson-colored creatures come to roost. Just $10 gets you admission to a show so spectacular it’s been deemed worthy of its own BBC documentary.
For a different sort of natural wonder, head further south to Pitch Lake in the town of La Brea. It’s the world’s largest natural asphalt deposit. Trinidad’s most surreal tourist attraction is a 250-foot-deep, semi-solid pool that’s both an active industrial site and a place for healing sulfur baths.
Guest houses can be found near many of Trinidad’s points of interest, but if you plan to explore the whole island, basing yourself in Port of Spain is ideal. Here you’ll find the majority of the island’s full-service hotels, and the best access to transportation. The Hyatt Regency is the largest and best positioned of Trinidad’s major hotels, with stunning views of the Gulf of Paria — on a good day, you can see across to Venezuela to the west.
And the Tobago and San Fernando ferry terminals are a quick walk away, making it a convenient launching point for trips to Trinidad’s twin isle, and its less-explored southern half.
If You Go...
Jetblue and Caribbean Air offer non-stop flights to Port of Spain from JFK, starting at about $343 round trip.
Rooms at the Hyatt Regency (trinidad.hyatt.com) start at $249 on weekdays, $199 on weekends. The Kapok Hotel (kapokhotel.com) in Port of Spain’s St. Clair area is a more affordable alternative, at $149/night. L’Orchidee, a guest house near the Trinidad Botanical Gardens in leafy St. Ann, gets high marks for its hospitality. Rooms start at $110; book at trinidadhosthomes.com.
Rental cars can be had for as little as $39 a day. However, roads in Trinidad’s Northern Range are treacherous, and best left to experts. Drivers can be hired at day rates of $75-$100, depending on distance and destination.