Trinidad: small island off the coast of Venezuela; big sister to Tobago; filled with oil reserves; the financial centre of the Caribbean; home to Carnival, calypso, steel pan, Maracas Bay, and the Pitch Lake. What more do you need to know?
A lot, actually. With its quirky dialect, plethora of multicultural events, and cosmopolitan population, this small country of 1.5 million is an intoxicating treat for the traveller who longs for something other than sun, sea, and sand from his Caribbean vacation. Trinidad, it’s safe to say, is full of surprises. So strap on your alpagatas (soft rope sandals) and let’s run through the ABCs.
• Let’s start with Angostura Bitters, the single most widely distributed bar ingredient in the world (how like a Trini to start with the suggestion of an alcoholic beverage). This concoction of tropical herbs and plants — created by Dr Johann Siegert in 1824 and named after the town of Angostura in Venezuela — adds flavour to your favourite cocktails and an unmistakable kick to Trinidad’s gutsy cuisine. If you’ve had too much of either, add a few drops of bitters to club soda and you’ve got the perfect remedy for a queasy stomach. You can also visit the Angostura Distillery in Laventille, home of Angostura Bitters, and take a guided tour of the interesting museum devoted to its history.
• Trinidad is the business hub of the Caribbean. With the region’s strongest economy, world-class business infrastructure, a skilled labour force, and industries technologically abreast of their global counterparts, the island is an investment magnet. Of course, if you’re here on business, remember this: Trinidad may be up with the times, but our cool Caribbean attitude sometimes finds us behind it. Meetings and conferences often start late, there are slightly different working hours here, and the atmosphere in office environments can be almost horizontal by international standards.
• Trinidadians love their bellies and are fearless when it comes to trying something new, which makes the local cuisine an adventure for visitors. No region is missing from the culinary landscape — you’ll find everything from classic French fare and spicy Middle Eastern dishes to hearty Italian favourites and trendy sushi. For a taste of Trini creole food, try Veni Mangé, the Verandah, or the Breakfast Shed. And don’t miss our street food: doubles is the breakfast of champions, pholourie will fuel your strolls around the Queen’s Park Savannah, corn soup from Alfredo’s on the Brian Lara Promenade will give you the strength to go on, and shark and bake is obligatory at Maracas Bay.
• Trinidad is no hardship post, and Port of Spain is home to numerous diplomatic missions, a great convenience for visitors. The national days of various countries are observed in diplomatic and business circles, and events like trade fairs and the annual European Film Festival are enjoyed by the masses. For a listing of nations with missions here, visit www.visittnt.com/General/things/foreign-missions. Mountains, rivers, waterfalls, rain forests, swamps, savannahs, and more birds than any of our island neighbours. Yes, Trinidad is ripe for ecotourism. Bird lovers flock to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, with its amazing view down the Arima valley, a verandah where you can get up close and personal with hummingbirds, honeycreepers, and bananaquits, and accommodation for naturalists both professional and amateur. The Pointe-à-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust is the world’s only wildlife sanctuary set in the middle of an oil refinery. The Caroni Bird Sanctuary is home to the scarlet ibis, Trinidad’s national bird. An evening boat tour offers the unforgettable sight of thousands of these stunning birds on their way back to their roosting area. Don’t forget the Devil’s Woodyard — a set of mud volcanoes in Piparo; Matura, a major nesting site for leatherback turtles; and the stunningly lovely north coast, where you can swim in the Caribbean Sea or hike to forest waterfalls.
• Paris and Milan don’t have a monopoly on fashion. Trinis love to “make style”. Local haute couturiers like Claudia Pegus, Heather Jones, and Meiling have won recognition at fashion events around the region and even further afield. Radical Designs, which started off in a garage, is now the biggest fashion chain in the Caribbean. And these are just the big names. Smaller fashion houses like The Cloth, Designer Look, Zadd and Eastman, NAC, and Millhouse also help make Trinidad the trendiest island in the Caribbean.
• Trinidad has a rich visual arts history, so make time on your trip to visit a gallery. Exhibitions occur throughout the year; on some nights, collectors and art lovers may have as many as five private viewings to attend. Don’t forget the National Museum and Art Gallery, on Memorial Park just south of the Savannah. Here you can view the work of some of the country’s finest talents, like Sybil Atteck, Carlisle Chang, LeRoy Clarke, Isaiah Boodhoo, and Peter Minshall.
History lesson: Trinidad was first home to Amerindian peoples, then colonised by the Spanish, settled by French planters, and conquered by the British, before independence in 1962. Along the way, significant numbers of African, Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern people came or were brought here. No wonder we have such a rich ethnic and cultural heritage. A glance at the calendar of national holidays and festivals reveals how diverse our people are. Religious celebrations like Shouter Baptist Liberation Day, Divali, Eid-ul-Fitr, Hosay, Corpus Christi, and Phagwa happen alongside the Prime Minister’s Best Village Competition, Labour Day, and, of course, Carnival.
• Is whey yuh say? The Trini idiom is unfailingly inventive, and not too hard for visitors to pick up. Any local will be more than glad to interpret— probably at great length and using many hand gestures — or pick up a copy of Cote Ci Cote La, a popular dictionary which will help explain the meanings of words and phrases like “ent,” “ah eh able,” “is you to ketch”, and “in a timing.”
• Trinidadians are a superstitious breed, and if you’re here long enough you’re bound to hear about jumbies, spirits or ghosts which turn up in countless old wives’ tales. Our folklore features jumbies of all kinds, from the sinister la diablesse and soucouyant to naughty douens. One well-known superstition says you must always walk backwards into your house after midnight, to keep evil spirits outside.
• Easter time here is kite season. Parents and children take to the Savannah and other open spaces, armed with “chickichongs” (small makeshift paper kites) or, for the more serious, full-scale “mad bulls”.
• A true Trini can turn any event into a lime, a get-together of family, friends, even total strangers, depending on the situation. Liming may even be the national pastime, assuming any number of forms, from straightforward hanging out at home to river limes, involving car loads of people spending the day by a beautiful river, cooking, swimming, and enjoying good company.
• Music runs through the veins of every Trini. We walk to a rhythm, our speech patterns have a distinctive melody, and when we hear a good tune, you don’t have to tell us twice to move. We enjoy American pop as much as anyone, but local music is what truly energises the people. Carnival moves to the beat of calypso, soca, and chutney. Christmas ushers in parang, which combines Spanish lyrics, Venezuelan instruments, and Trinidad rhythms. And don’t talk about the steel pan. The Panorama competition is a key part of Carnival, and no visitor should be allowed to leave without visiting a panyard to hear a steel orchestra practice on its home ground.
• Whether you’re a 24-hour party person or just enjoy the occasional night on the town, there is no shortage of nightlife in this island. There are cinemas, casinos, and restaurants to keep you entertained, and bars and nightclubs open late, even on weekdays. A nighttime drive through St James (a.k.a. “the city that never sleeps”) in western Port of Spain is a sure cure for boredom.
• The expression “only in Trinidad” is one that visitors quickly understand. Political references aside, there are numerous everyday occurrences that it seems can only happen here. Only in Trinidad are there “Carnival babies” — born nine months after Carnival. Only in Trinidad is coconut water the acceptable chaser for scotch. Only in Trinidad do you go to the gym for a month before Carnival just so you can fit into that skimpy costume.
• The flowering poui tree marks the seasons in Trinidad as surely as autumn leaves do in temperate places. The dry season brings a profusion of these yellow, pink, and purple blossoms, along the slopes of the Northern Range and in parks and gardens. The pink poui ushers in Carnival, while the resplendent yellow mourns its passing.
The Queen’s Park Savannah, to give it the full name, is Port of Spain’s largest green space, a perfect venue for joggers, people wanting to escape the hustle of urban life, and those thirsty for cold coconut water. The Magnificent Seven on its western side are a group of ornate early 20th-century mansions. To the north, mountains. At its southern end, the Grand Stand, Carnival ground zero.
• We like to party and “get on bad”, but Trinis are also a pious bunch, and most major religions are represented here. Churches, temples, kingdom halls, mandirs, and mosques stand side by side, many of them impressive structures worth visiting. An 85-foot-tall statue of the Hindu god Hanuman, reputed to be the tallest of its kind outside India, has become a landmark in Carapichima in central Trinidad. The nearby Waterloo Temple is better known as “the temple in the sea”. Labourer Siewdass Sadhu spent 25 years constructing it after he was not allowed to build on sugar estate land. And the Tortuga Roman Catholic Church in Gran Couva, one of the country’s oldest ecclesiastical structures, recently enjoyed a full restoration. The French stained glass windows are worth the drive.
• English is the official language of Trinidad, but be prepared for encounters with Spanish speakers. Ties between Trinidad and South American countries, especially Venezuela, are growing, with many people coming to the island to learn English. The result is mucho caliente, with feisty Latin Americans adding to our cultural mix with their culture. Look out for merengue and salsa nights at clubs and spicy Latin American cuisine at restaurants.
• Trinidad has a tropical climate, so pack accordingly. You don’t need your cardigan here, since daytime temperatures are usually above 30º Celsuis even in the rainy season. The dry season runs from January to May, with the rainy season kicking in from June. But there is lots of sunshine all through the year, making it easy to work up a tan.
• Trinidad has three universities — the University of the West Indies, the University of Trinidad and Tobago, and the “University of Woodford Square”. The latter grants no degrees; it is a meeting place in the heart of Port of Spain that union leaders, environmental activists, political parties, and homeless folk use as a platform for sharing their opinions with the public.
• Trinidad is home to many very important people, and we’re not talking about the president or prime minister. Star cricketer Brian Lara is a Trini. So are track and field champions Darrel Brown and Ato Boldon. Ace footballers Stern John and Shaka Hislop: Trinis. Wendy Fitzwilliam, Miss Universe 1998: Trini. Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul: Trini.
• Trinidadians love anything to do with water — water sports, water fights, and especially “wet fetes” (parties where water is the theme and everyone gets a good soaking). But probably the most cherished Trini pastime where water is involved is a trip to the beach. Favourite spots include Maracas, Las Cuevas, and Blanchisseuse on the north coast, Mayaro and Manzanilla on the east coast, and Toco and Salybia at the north-east corner of the island.
• If there is one entity that truly captures the vitality and energy of Trinis, it would have to be the soca band Xtatik. Probably the most popular performing group in the Caribbean, this powerhouse combines dynamic stage performances with heart-thumping music arrangements. Xtatik rules the Carnival season, causing congestion on the streets on Carnival Monday and Tuesday.
• The Chaguaramas peninsula is home to Trinidad’s yachting scene. The island’s location just south of the hurricane belt makes it a haven for boat owners in the Caribbean, and a whole industry of marine repairs, construction services, and support facilities like hotels and restaurants has sprung up to serve these yachties’ needs.
• “So free, like a zandolie in a mango tree”, go the lyrics to a song by the Orange Sky, a local rock band. A zandolie is a small lizard; you’ll spot hundreds of them while you’re here, basking in the sun, enjoying the good Trini life, apparently without a care in the world. Maybe you could learn something from a lizard.