Asa Wright: the phoenix of the Arima Valley | Backstory

Janine Mendes-Franco maps the rich history of Trinidad’s renowned Asa Wright Nature Centre — and how it may now point the way to the island’s eco-tourism future

  • Photo courtesy HADCO Experiences
  • A channel-billed toucan perches on a branch at the AWNC. Photo courtesy Rachel Lee Young
  • Rooms at the refurbished AWNC ecolodge. Photo courtesy HADCO Experiences
  • The Jade Vine Terrace at the AWNC. Photo courtesy HADCO Experiences
  • One of the AWNC’s unique attractions is its rare oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) colony. Photo by ImageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo
  • A blue-tailed emerald (Chlorostilbon mellisugus) hummingbird feeds on a pink fairy duster (calliandra inaequilatera). Photo by Rich Wagner/Alamy Stock Photo

On 12 April, 2023 — 131 years to the day Asa Wright (née Guðmundsdóttir) was born in Laugardalur, the “hot spring valley” of Iceland — I made the trek to another spring, nearly 4,500 miles away from her homeland. Spring Hill Estate — now the Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC), nestled in the lush Arima Valley rainforest — was purchased by Asa and her English husband Henry Newcome Wright in 1946, soon after they arrived in Trinidad.

Much has changed since those early days. Some of the bluffs beyond the Centre’s ambit are scarred from quarrying. The Arima-Blanchisseuse access road is precarious in parts, the result of questionable farming practices and the regular passage of heavy vehicles. And yet, as I walk the attentively maintained trails of the property, I get the sense that the important things endure.

How Spring Hill became an internationally treasured, enduring nature lodge — against seemingly insurmountable odds — is a story that meanders like the Arima River, widening its delta as it flows, extending its reach.

After Henry’s death in 1955, Asa continued to run the estate despite dwindling profits from the sale of cocoa, coffee and citrus. Ever resourceful, she began taking in guests — mostly scientists associated with the New York Zoological Society — visiting on the recommendation of her neighbour, naturalist Dr William Beebe. A bond between hospitality and conservation was born — out of a love for the untouched beauty of the valley, the biodiverse wildlife wondrously observed within its bounds, and the friendships forged on the house’s verandah.

Love, as it is wont to do, spurred action. In 1967, four years before Asa’s death, faithful friends of Spring Hill — mostly based abroad — raised the funds to acquire the property and establish the Asa Wright Nature Centre in trust as a wildlife sanctuary. It would not, however, be a typical undertaking.

In addition to protection and preservation, the AWNC was to model an ecologically sustainable relationship between its “agriculturally developed portions” and the surrounding rainforest, while also concentrating on the site’s potential for scientific research and education — the core work of the Trust.

Another objective was to grow the levels of international interest the property was already attracting, thanks in no small part to its array of hummingbirds, manakins, bearded bellbirds, toucans, and rare oilbird colony.

The Arima Valley, however, was not the only part of the island in which conservation consciousness was growing. At the same time the Wrights were putting down roots in Spring Hill, Simon Oudit Nanan — who had been taking people on boat tours of the Caroni Swamp since the late 1930s — was lobbying for the island’s largest mangrove wetland to be deemed a protected area; by 1948, he succeeded.

Sharing similar interests, he and Asa would occasionally meet to discuss issues pertaining to conservation. The connection could have ended there — but this is Trinidad, where trails cross and destinies intertwine, creating something both new and reassuringly familiar in the process.

Such commonalities often begin in the most unassuming of ways. Simon Nanan and Charles Hadad were cricket buddies who shared an affinity for the outdoors and had children around the same age. Weekends and holidays spent together exploring the swamp left a lasting impression on two of the kids in particular: Winston Nanan would go on to become a respected, self-taught ornithologist who deepened the work his father had begun; John Hadad pursued engineering but would always turn to nature to decompress.

After the death of his own father, Hadad took the leap into entrepreneurship with his two younger brothers, Robert and Joseph, as a way to support the family. HADCO Limited, initially a food and beverage distribution company, gradually diversified — the most recent addition being its Experiences, which offer customised eco-tourism packages focused on responsible exploration of local flora and fauna, connection with surrounding communities, and preservation of wildlife ecosystems.

“There was a deep appreciation for the offering the country has in terms of its wildlife,” Hadad says. “So HADCO coming back to that was a no-brainer when the RFP went out.”

That Request for Proposals was issued by the AWNC’s Board of Management in September 2021 for the operation of the ecolodge at Spring Hill Estate. For over 50 years, the Board’s hybrid roles had included environmentalist and educator, researcher and hotelier — not to mention an employer of the surrounding community — with varying degrees of success. And then came Covid-19.

The pandemic was not the first time the Centre was forced to shut its doors. The Black Power Revolution of 1970 caused a nine-month closure and there were others over the years, but none so long or devastating as this. The various threads holding the Asa Wright tapestry together, already tenuous, began to unravel (the Centre currently has a matter before the country’s Industrial Court).

With a vision of “selling the authentic form of Trinidad & Tobago to the world”, the Hadads became the concession holders for the next 10 years.

“HADCO Experiences at the Asa Wright Nature Centre is our first foray into that, with Mt Plaisir coming on, which was serendipitous too,” Hadad tells me.

For close to three decades, Piero Guerrini ran the beloved Mt Plaisir Hotel in Grand Rivière. Its beach is a major leatherback turtle nesting site from March through August, and its nearby forests are home to the endemic and critically endangered piping-guan (or pawi).

The various threads holding the Asa Wright tapestry together, already tenuous, began to unravel

Having become friends with the Hadads after years of them patronising the hotel, they were the first Guerrini approached when he was ready to sell — which happened to be at the same time HADCO Experiences was submitting its bid for the AWNC.   

In addition to the revamped rooms and restaurant, many of the upgrades at Mt Plaisir have been location-responsive: marine-grade finishes, a new roof, generator, and modernised drainage system. HADCO Experiences partnered with the Environmental Management Authority and the Trinidad & Tobago Electricity Commission to ensure the area’s street lights use red, turtle-safe bulbs, and it is renovating the community’s tourism office — lodged in a rustic cocoa house — to create a more welcoming atmosphere from which to sell turtle-watching passes and conduct orientation sessions.

The restoration of the AWNC property, meanwhile, has proven a much larger undertaking. The initial budget of TT$7 million (approximately US$1 million) doubled as the works progressed over the course of nine months, but the Hadad brothers believe that Trinidad & Tobago has a rare opportunity to be a leader in providing a bona fide eco-tourism experience. “What we have to offer in 2,000 square miles is very potent, concentrated and undiscovered. Any foreigner we’ve brought here, the reaction is always, ‘How is this so amazing and beautiful?’”

Many of the changes to the property are subtle but significant, like burying all overhead lines — it makes you feel off-the-grid. A mobile app provides keyless room entry, and trails will be digitally mapped using a GPS system, with staff carrying tracking devices that facilitate less disruptive communication and allow guests greater accessibility.

Among the green initiatives, solar-powered lights scattered along the undulating pathways to the rooms reduce light pollution. The comfortable, minimalist rooms are cooled by low-carbon emission air-conditioning units accessed through a United Nations grant programme. The smoke-free lodge recycles everything from paper to cooking oil, and no single-use plastics are permitted; guests can refill their own water bottles at filtered water stations. Water supply to the property is predominantly spring-fed and treated on site.

From doors to light fixtures, many original features were saved, not simply out of a desire to preserve the historical integrity of the main house, but to minimise waste. Its tapia walls remain sturdy, untouched by electrical wiring. Damaged fretwork was replicated with such precision that the seams are barely visible. Newcome Wright’s hammock hooks remain where they always were on the western side of the verandah, protruding from two pillars like all-seeing eyes. There are stories here, and the understated refurbishment of the Centre makes space for them to be told.

Though the concrete façades of the Jade Vine Terrace and the security building could use some softening, the built environment otherwise disappears — a supporting actor content to let the real stars shine: 200 bird species, including 18 species of hummingbirds; gold tegu lizards bolting across the leaf litter; timorous agoutis, coats russet in the sun; stunning butterflies flitting from flower to flower — all easily observed from the comfort of the verandah.

Beyond it, batimamselles (dragonflies) sassily skimming the surface of the Clearwater Pool; spears of light slicing their way through the canopy of mystical silk cottons and blazing immortelles, the whisper of embracing branches in stark contrast to the guttural blares of oilbirds in their velvet cave.

What we have to offer in 2,000 square miles is very potent, concentrated and undiscovered. Any foreigner we’ve brought here, the reaction is always, ‘How is this so amazing and beautiful?’

It’s probably as close to unspoilt paradise as you can get; it’s the reason a 1999 issue of Audubon magazine named Asa Wright one of the world’s best eco-lodges. By positioning the Centre in the upper echelons of eco-tourism — spurred by efforts to secure a five-star eco-resort rating and a Green Key Eco-Rating within a few years — HADCO Experiences is determined to reclaim those laurels.

If they succeed, they will be building on the priceless legacy of the AWNC’s work, marked by key milestones — publications like neotropical ornithologist Richard ffrench’s definitive Guide to the Birds of Trinidad & Tobago (1973); numerous local and regional awards for its efforts towards environmental preservation, including the Caribbean Conservation Association award (1992) and the national honour of the Hummingbird Medal Gold (1993); intermittent purchases of hundreds of acres of surrounding estates and forest reserve to grow the footprint of protected land; partnerships with educational institutions in the pursuit of education and community outreach.

Naturally, there are challenges. Quarrying operations in such close proximity feel counterintuitive to the spirit of Asa Wright — but also underscore the need for the Centre’s survival. Because HADCO Experiences is less about duality and more about co-existence, it takes such issues to the verandah, so to speak.

Engaging in conversation, just like the Wrights and their guests did on Spring Hill’s breezy balcony, has the power to change things. According to Judith Gobin, current chair of AWNC’s board, conservation does not always require a hands-off approach. Sometimes, it calls for wise use.

HADCO has developed a good rapport with National Quarries, which has already begun conducting staggered blasts to lessen the intensity of the tremors. The state company is also reportedly moving towards more environmentally sensitive excavation methods like trenching, as well as re-greening and other types of hillside rehabilitation.

Despite the positive feedback Asa Wright 2.0 has received from overseas partners, there has been an outcry in the domestic market about pricing, with some suggesting the rates may be out of reach for most locals.

“Premium eco-tourism is an untested market locally,” Hadad counters. “We believe in the financial sustainability of a very pure, authentic, eco model, [and] we are hoping that we could turn a profit within about two to three years.

“HADCO is a for-profit company;  we’re very clear about that,” Hadad continues. “But we have always been an organisation that believes sustainability can be better achieved through a combination of for-profit and social conscience … We want to do things the right way.”

In that vein, the AWNC’s education arm, accustomed to facilitating about 3,000 primary level students each year, will resume on-site tours by September at no cost to schools.

Amidst perceptions that the new rate scale is withholding citizens’ patrimony from them, the reality is that without the AWNC being liquid enough to fund its core mission, there may be no patrimony left to preserve. And that may be the most crucial connection of all.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.