Island Beat (September/October 1996)

News from around the islands

A Dash of Bitters

What respectable bar or kitchen in the world does not have a bottle of Angostura bitters? First made in 1824 and now produced exclusively in Trinidad, Angostura bitters is an aromatic blend of herbs developed by Dr J. G. B. Siegert who was then living in the town of Angostura in Venezuela.

Born in Germany, Dr Siegert had fought with distinction in the Napoleonic Wars, and was seeking even more adventure in the New World. In Venezuela, he became the personal doctor of the great South American Liberator, General Simon Bolivar. It was in his service that the concoction was devised to ease the stomach ailments suffered by the troops in the tropics. It was named Angostura after the town on the Orinoco that was Bolivar’s base, and which was later re-named Ciudad Bolivar.

By the time of his death in 1870, Dr Siegert was exporting Angostura Aromatic Bitters all over the world. But Venezuela was wracked by internal strife, and Siegert’s sons, Carlos and Alfredo, moved their manufacturing operation down the Orinoco River to Trinidad. Several streets in Woodbrook, a residential district of Port of Spain, bear the names of the Siegert descendants — Alfredo, Carlos, Luis — as well as Siegert Square.

Since then, Angostura aromatic bitters — exported to every country in the world — has never been made anywhere else but Trinidad. It is used as a flavour for food and drink, a secret ingredient that adds “that magic touch.” Every chef, every kitchen, uses it.

Today, the Angostura empire, though no longer in the hands of Siegert descendants, still manufactures Angostura bitters according to a secret recipe passed on to the head chemist and the Chief Executive Officer. The secret is also kept in a vault on the plant. And in order to keep anyone from guessing, the company is allowed by the government to import the ingredients for the bitters free of customs regulations.

But Angostura is not just about bitters. It is one of the largest distillers of fine spirits, with the highest level of technology, in the hemisphere. Every year, Angostura exports some 16 million litres of rum. Recently, the company moved to bring all its operations onto a 20-acre compound just east of Port of Spain. It is now opening its doors to the public for regular tours of the plant. In addition to informative guided walks through the working plant — the laboratories, distillery, cask warehouse, and the place where the coopers put the oak casks together – the tour visits the Butterfly Room where Malcolm Barcant’s collection of butterflies, the largest in the world, is kept under special conditions.

One thing you are sure to notice is the smells of the plant: aromatic herbs, cinnamon, sweet molasses, and the sharp rang of raw rum.

An art gallery displays the work of some of Trinidad and Tobago’s “as yet unrecognised artists.” A feature of the tour is The Story of Angostura, a re-enactment of the life and work of Dr Siegert and his sons, on video in the auditorium. At the end of the tour, visitors are treated to a complimentary drink in the Visitors Bar before browsing in the Gift Shop. There is also the Angostura Museum.

If you want to learn the secrets of rum, take the Angostura tour through the plant every Wednesday at ten. Angostura blends several fine rums, gin, vodka, rum punch and coffee liqueur. What you will not learn is the secret of “the magic touch” that creates the historic Angostura bitters.

– Pat Ganase


Tobago: Villas In Paradise

The BWIA flight had been long and — with a two-year-old — challenging. When the plane landed at Crown Point Airport in Tobago, Nessle breathed a sigh of relief. They had directions that would get them, in an hour, to their “home on an island” for the next two weeks. The car rental was easy enough: they chose a small jeep-style vehicle and traversed the island to the north coast fishing village of Charlotteville.

There, a holiday cottage was waiting for them, set in a luxuriant tropical garden, a stone’s throw from the shore. The three-bedroom bungalow was simply but comfortably furnished, down to a small library, the collection of previous occupants. The village centre was within walking distance, and a commissary on the grounds offered everything from bread to steak and wine.

Many visitors — especially those en famille or with friends — opt for villa accommodation rather than a hotel room these days. “Initially, most visitors stay in hotels, but when they realise how friendly people are, how easy to get around, they become more adventurous, and look for ‘home away from home’ accommodations,” says Christine Charbonne, who manages rentals for some of the more exclusive residences.

The advantages of villa accommodation on an island like Tobago are many, say Ricky and Annamaria; they like to rent a lovely home overlooking the bay at Speyside, Tobago. They like to watch the sun go down from the spacious open verandah under deep overhanging eaves that circle the house. Some nights they even sleep out there. Everyone takes turns cooking. “We could walk around all day in T-shirts or swim suits, have a cup of coffee anytime, and be as informal as we want,” said Ricky, an airline engineer who now lives in Abu Dhabi. Other friends developed the tradition of renting a roomy plantation house near Scarborough to celebrate Christmas and welcome the New Year.

As more visitors to Tobago opt for villa vacations, there has been a modest construction boom in residential projects owned by locals (many of them from the sister island, Trinidad) but available as rentals to visitors. These rentals also give many would-be residents the opportunity to see if they would like to live on the island.

Some of the more luxurious holiday homes are in the Mount Irvine and Grafton areas, where land was bought and homes built as investments for the retirement years of their owners. At some time of the year or other, they are all available for short-term holiday rentals.

“They are really beautiful homes, some with swimming pools, three or four bedrooms, air-conditioned, all appliances — some with video, CD deck – fully furnished, and equipped for the beach, you know, towels, coolers, all the paraphernalia. One particularly elegant residence has a lovely garden and gazebo, swimming pool, barbecue facilities. Housekeeping is part of the package, but cooking would cost a little extra,” says Gillian de Pass of Eckel & Quesnel. They range from US$200-$300 per night in the low season to US$400- $500 in the high.

Most visitors are regulars, booking year after year, so it’s wise to book well in advance, three to four months at least. The Christmas to Easter period is the busiest, and in July/August Tobago is full of vacationing Trinidadians.

Over the next few months, new villas are going up in Bon Accord, in Speyside and at No Mans Land, across from Buccoo Reef. New homes are also being built in the Englishman’s Bay area.

In the heart of the Grafton Estate, over-looking Buccoo Reef, Sanctuary Resorts  offers exclusive villas for vacationing or ownership. Three-bedroom apartments – with pool (or jacuzzi) — and a hotel are also being built on the 21-acre Sanctuary estate. The facilities include housekeeping, cooking, babysitting on request, and access to tours and car rentals. After the hotel is built, it will feature activities and an entertainment centre for the children.

Sanctuary’s villas are part of the popular trend to ownership-rental: you purchase land, construct a villa, and rent it out until you are ready to move in, says Jackie Whitling.

“Most of the persons buying property in Tobago,” says realtor Lyndon Skeete, “are Trinidadians who may have lived abroad for a long time or married a foreigner, wanting to come back home.” Although he also has many enquiries from foreigners, only about two percent end in a purchase. He also manages design and construction, and holiday rentals, until the owners wish to take possession.

Patricia Phillips of Island Investments confirms that many of her prospective real estate buyers have family in Trinidad: “They see Tobago as unspoilt, and it’s still part of the same country, but without the crime and development problems.” Over 85 percent of her real estate clients have T&T connections.

She agrees that the more exclusive properties are on the Mount Irvine or Grafton coast; with some new developments in the Arnos Vale area. For those who want to purchase land, a parcel — about two lots – in a developed area runs to about US$ 75,000. In virgin territory, a five-acre piece might be worth US$100,000.

There have been a number of enquiries for the still forested north coast, Charlotteville, L’Anse Fourmi and Bloody Bay. But these areas are principally owned by large estates and old families. In the L’Anse Fourmi district, minimum plots are 25 acres, primarily earmarked for eco- tourism.

Dawn Glaiser’s company, Nealco Real Estate, is involved in developing the 360-acre Grand Courland project which will feature villas, a hotel and golf course, and a commercial district. Their agents in the UK and Italy report that the average European visitor is looking for something authentic: safe and comfortable, yes, but “they don’t want to see what they see elsewhere, they want the character of the island.” Several of her villa rentals fit this bill: the Grafton Great House, the Lagoon Lodge in Bon Accord which features exotic birds and kayaking; and the colonial style Sandpiper on Grafton Beach.

All real estate projects and new developments in Tobago are supervised by the Town & Country Planning Division, and must adhere to the rules, requiring approvals from a number of overseeing authorities.

Rentals or real estate listings are available directly from agencies in Trinidad or Tobago, and can also be accessed on the Internet.

The best Tobago relationships, according to all the agents, start with holidays, and sometimes end with a dream home.

– Pat Ganase


Up River in Guyana

Throughout the vast length and breadth of Guyana you will find rivers. There are hundreds of them, from mighty expanses like the Essequibo and the Demerara to tiny, still creeks barely three feet wide.

The capital, Georgetown, is about six feet below sea-level, and only avoids being the confluence of these great rivers and the sea with the help of an elaborate system of kokers, sluice gates which drain the land at low tide.

Guyana’s rivers provide a means of travel when the jungle growth is nearly impenetrable, and offer scenes of peerless beauty at the jasper ledges of Orinduik and the legendary drop at Kaieteur where the Potaro River plunges 741 feet to the rocks below.

Several tour operators can show you the highlights of Guyana’s rivers. Jad Rahaman’s Whitewater Tours might be better described as “white-knuckle tours”. Aboard his custom-built 40-foot aluminum-hulled boat Lyn Ya, visitors thunder defiantly up and down rapids previously regarded as impassable. Don’t worry — most of his tours are relatively tame, though stories abound about his more adventuresome, non-commercial touring. Whitewater’s adventure centres on a beautifully appointed wooden lodge on Barracara Island in the Mazaruni River. Styled in the manner of Amerindian architecture, it offers many modern amenities and accepts limited numbers of overnight visitors.

Shell Beach Adventures offers a relaxing tour up the Supenaam River by way of the Essequibo, with several stops to observe historical ruins, Amerindian villages and the country’s lush flora and fauna.

Your tours of the rivers of Guyana will always be tempered by the reality that these intricate waterways are the true highways of Guyana. You will see it in the way that boats slow as they pass each other on the smaller rivers: the turbulence of their passing slows to a gentle slap of greeting. You will be amused by the stark contrasts of brightly coloured life vests, their festive yellows and reds so out of place in an earthy setting of black water below and dark green foliage arching overhead. And always there are the tiny canoes, the corials, laden in the evening with families, their shopping and school-books, steadily paddling their way homeward.

– Mark Lyndersay

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.