The Unexpected Caribbean: Lively, Lovable Trinidad

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While all the tourist promotion focuses on neighboring Tobago, its bigger sister can supply a far more interesting and less expensive tropical vacation

World-class Carnival, calypso, steel drum music, and two masters of the English language--author V. S. Naipaul and playwright/poet Derek Walcott, both Nobel Laureates--all connect artistically with Trinidad in the West Indies. Among Caribbean countries, Trinidad ranks as an arts powerhouse.

Yet for most Caribbean vacationers, Trinidad's small sister island in the twinned Republic of Trinidad and Tobago remains better known. That disparity follows an almost half-century-old national decision to promote tourism in picturesque, resource-poor Tobago while developing Trinidad's rich oil and natural-gas deposits.

Result is that tourism in Trinidad remains a "Trini thing," distinct, pleasurable, homegrown, and largely outside the international mainstream, driven by local investment with few cost-inflating imports. That, plus the six-to-one exchange rate between Trinidad and Tobago's dollar and the U.S. dollar, ensures Trinidad's position as the best year-round buy in Caribbean travel.

And even though farthest removed from North America and therefore more expensive to reach than, say, the Bahamas or Jamaica, among islands of the region Trinidad also ranks as the most complex and rewarding. Both American Airlines and BWIA West Indies Airways (800/538-2942, bwee.com) fly into Port-of-Spain. BWIA flies nonstop from New York, Washington, D.C., Toronto and Miami with recent prices of $400-$600 round-trip. American Airlines (800/433-7300, aa.com) flies nonstop from Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Port-of-Spain starting at $259 and $109 round-trip, respectively. (All prices in this article are stated in U.S. dollars. When calling Trinidad from the U.S., first dial 1, then the area code, 868, followed by the seven-digit number.)

Trinidad has the flowers, rain forest, peaks, fertile valleys, and beaches beautifully common to most of the Caribbean. But Trinidad also claims exceptional natural features such as La Brea Pitch Lake, the wildlife-filled Caroni and Nariva Swamps, the mountainside Asa Wright Nature Centre, the bird-breeding grounds of the Pointe-à-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust, and exquisite birding everywhere. Its mineral deposits make the country comparatively wealthy. Result is a rare widespread worldliness among English-speaking islanders.

This sophistication combines well with Trinidad's legendary blend of East Indians, Blacks, and mixed ethnicities. Trinidadians are one of the most racially tolerant people anywhere in the world, with a culture adapted from around the globe that, in everything from food to architecture, ranks distinctively as Trinidad's own.

Sun, sand, and sea may constitute the standard-issue Tropics. But colorful, one-of-a-kind, and affordable Trinidad supplies travelers with the gift-wrapped version.

A little geography

Trinidad lies at the southern cusp of the Caribbean archipelago. It's whisper-close to Venezuela. Morning weather reports announce fronts moving up from Brazil. Yet Trinidad is only a five-hour flight from New York, less than four hours from Miami.

The island is 50 miles north-south, 37 east-west, big enough to accommodate northern mountains that rise to 3,085 feet, with beaches that ring almost the entire coast (the best beaches skirt the Northern Range). The island is more than ten times the size of sister isle Tobago.

Metropolitan Port-of-Spain, with 300,000 of Trinidad's 1.3 million people, is the second-largest English-speaking capital in the region but by far the safest for visitors and the most cosmopolitan. The city rises from a protected gulf in the northwest. The vast industrial complex at Point Lisas that taps Trinidad's oil and natural-gas reserves lies 17 miles south along the coast. Much of the interior remains planted in sugar that controlled the economy from the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. It's here, in dusty Chaguanas, where Naipaul first lived.

Port-of-Spain and north-coast beaches are where most first-time visitors want to be. The contrast between urban sophistication and rural style captures what Trinidad vacationing is about. Street life is at the heart of it. People teem colorfully dressed, prone to hang out--what Trinis call "liming"--even in town, stopping their cars along narrow streets to chat. Buildings are colorful and ornamented, often topped by hand-painted signs. Tropical yards remain in the heart of the city full of broad-leaf palms that rattle in wind and suggest the sound and rhythms of "pan," the steel drum music that backs the ubiquitous calypsos.

Port-of-Spain lays out like a hand. The palm is a great green and open space called the Queen's Park Savannah--Port-of-Spain's Central Park--that connects the old, narrow-street commercial city with its more green and spread-out residential districts. Through Belmont, St. Clair, St. James, and Woodbrook, Victorian houses with steep-sloped roofs and Asian-inspired architectural details are juxtaposed among family groceries, "pan yards" where bands practice, and shops that specialize in East Indian foods, notably the national dish called roti (which means "bread" in Hindi), a meat-, seafood-, or vegetable-filled, pitalike yeasted bread, and like-styled "doubles."

The Savannah park is two-and-three-quarters of a mile around and hugely popular for informal recreation and special events. Carnival climaxes here each Fat Tuesday (late February or early March) after two months of heightening fervor. Traffic whirls around carousel-like. The immediately surrounding and mostly well-to-do districts contain famous sites: the National Museum and Art Gallery; the "Magnificent Seven," a row of landmark mansions that once sheltered rival plantation barons and that today includes the Prime Minister's office; the Emperor Valley Zoo; the Royal Botanic Gardens; and the "upside-down" Trinidad Hilton (one of two ritzy hotels, the other the Crowne Plaza, both government owned). Nearby is the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, where 43 years ago Derek Walcott established the island's theater tradition.

Above Queen's Park Savannah, fingers of the hand reach up through the valleys of the Northern Range to lovely suburbs. Below, the old city improvises its twenty-first-century way along narrow nineteenth-century streets before emptying along a broad boulevard on filled land that connects south around the bay to Point Lisas, east to towns that array below foothills of the Northern Range, and west around Chaguaramas [shah-gwa-rah-mus], site of an American base during World War II and today a sprawling yacht haven with a fascinating military museum near a tasteless rich suburb.

Many affordable places to stay

The city's affordable lodging ranges from guesthouses and small hotels to homestays. They're found through all parts of the city and surrounding area. Of those described below, all include private bath and air-conditioning except when otherwise noted. Rates are for two.

A standout in St. Ann's and only a five-minute walk from the Savannah is Alicia's House, a rambling old residence converted to guest use and popular with traveling West Indians. It's gorgeously floral under its entry arch with 17 rooms, all different, surrounding patios and courtyards and swimming pool. Alicia's is a best buy (7 Coblentz Gardens, Port-of-Spain, 623-2802, aliciashousetrinidad.com, $45-$50 including tax; full breakfast $8).

A mile southwest across the Savannah and walking-close to restaurants along Ariapita Avenue and Tragarete Road is architect Bernard Mackay's Gingerbread House. The building dates from the 1920s but stylistically suggests the nineteenth century, ornamentally trimmed and thoroughly renovated by Bernard in 1989. He offers three guest rooms, all different, all high-ceilinged. Neighbors include famed Carnival designer Peter Minshall and fashion designer Meiling (8 Carlos St., Woodbrook, Port-of-Spain, 625-6841, trinidadgingerbreadhouse.com; $35 includes tax and full breakfast). Another top buy. Two blocks west just below Tragarete Road is Williams Villa, the home of retired nurse Edris Todd-Williams whose late husband was a mayor of Port-of-Spain. Health-consciously hospitable, Edris rents six homey rooms and includes full breakfast in the rate (69 Luis St., Woodbrook, Port-of-Spain, 628-0824, williamsvilla.com; $65, tax and service included).

Nearer the Savannah and walking-close to everything downtown is the urban Par-May-La's Inn with 12 rooms on two floors. Maids will do personal laundry; you handle the ironing (53 Picton St., Newtown, Port-of-Spain, 628-2008, parmaylas@trinidad.net; $65 includes tax and continental breakfast, add $2 for a full American breakfast or a vegetarian roti with pumpkin and bok choy, tax included).

Roads up those fingers of the Maraval Valley crest in the Northern Range before dropping to Trinidad's best beaches. Well shy of the crest, Port-of-Spain shows off wealthy style as distinctive markets, bakeries, and bookshops appear in shopping plazas up Saddle Road. Guesthouses here remain affordable.

Two well-run establishments, with in-room phones, include Carnetta's Inn, with 14 rooms (99 Saddle Rd., Maraval, 628-2732, carnettasinn.com; $55, $60 with kitchenette) and, farther up, The Morgan's (48 Perseverance Rd., Haleland Park, Maraval, 629-2587, morga@cablenett.net; $60, including full breakfast). Rooms at Carnetta's are woody, Scandinavian modern. The inn distinctively straddles the Maraval River with a nice B&B style to it, breakfast served on the porch of the owners' house. Rooms at The Morgan's are more upholstered. Guests have use of a pool, two hot tubs, and kitchen.

Affordable food, handheld to graciously served Food, like music, celebrates Port-of-Spain's glory.

At stalls around the Savannah park, cutlass-wielding vendors open iced coconuts for refreshing coconut water. Roti shops line Tragarete Road. Restaurants deliciously work locally grown produce and tropical fruits and nuts into dishes. Coconut silkily flavors breads, soups, and drinks. Trinis love sweets supplied by ubiquitous vendors in the form of brown-sugared coconut drops, peanut brittle, tamarind balls, and fresh-fruit ice creams, while restaurant desserts include chrystophene (mock apple) pie, luscious guava paste, and coconut bread pudding with rum glaze.

Downtown roti shops like Curry Masala, Patraj, and The Hott Shoppe, plus storefronts like the Pepper Pies Shop, which serves a wider variety of Indian take-out, all satisfy for midday meals at $3-$5 including a sweet drink. The little Manna Café in a yellow gingerbread house on St. Vincent Street specializes in low cholesterol foods, while the Breakfast Shed behind yellow zinc sheeting at the cruise-ship complex serves three meals daily of what a local nurse calls "the highest-cholesterol, highest-sodium, most delicious food you can get."

Almost all the city's best restaurants serve meals at considerably less than comparable U.S. meals. Stylish in mahogany and stone atop the Kapok Hotel, Tiki Village specializes in Polynesian food. More than 170 entrées including shrimp, fish, beef, pork, and chicken cost less than $10, many $6 or $7. Starters and dessert together add another $6. With 25 percent for tax and tip, many diners will enjoy meals for $20 including drinks.

Also in town, the excellent Woodford Café on Tragarete Road occupies a remodeled grocery and rum shop redolent of the colonial city with old neighborhood photos, Carnival costumes, and live steel drum music (three-course dinners about $20).

Lazing along north coast beaches Trinidad's pulse slows on the north coast. At popular Maracas Bay, Trinis are out picnicking weekends. Steel bands play while "shark-and-bake" stalls dispense fried fish in buns laced with free condiments, washed down with a Carib, the local lager. Midweek, vacationers can have the beach largely to themselves, whether driving the 30 minutes each way over and back while staying in the city or else moving on to one of the north shore's affordable lodgings. To get there, taxis are more expensive than renting a car in Port-of-Spain's airport. Try Econo-Car Rentals (669-2342), whose prices start at $25 a day.

The coastal vacation village of choice is another 30 minutes east from Maracas Bay. That's Blanchisseuse, affordable and totally relaxed, named for laundresses once said to be prevalent here along the Marianne River. Pronounced "blon-she-suhze," the village hugs half a mile of two-lane road beside the sea. Hills rise sharply behind. A hundred-year-old suspension bridge across the river marks the end of town, from where the road turns to dirt, then trail. Eric Blackman rents river kayaks and leads hiking tours to hillside waterfalls. But mostly visitors hang out at the beaches, in the hotel bars, and rum shops, dancing at the Casbah, sampling Rennie Bobb's woodcarvings.

Upscale in design but casual in dress like everyplace else in town is Surf's Country Inn. Three hillside rooms with double-door balconies plus terrace restaurant and lounge form a charming compound with a lovely view through dense tropical foliage to the twisty road below, a striking cove beach and the sea (North Coast Rd., Blanchisseuse, 669-2475, fax 669-3016; $60 includes tax, service, and breakfast; four-course meals about $15).

Largest compound, just before the suspension bridge, is Laguna Mar Beach Resort with 16 rooms in three hillside lodges and an indoor-outdoor restaurant. Back of the restaurant is the big beach at the river mouth. Rooms are high-ceilinged, simply furnished, and, like all in the village, fan-cooled, unscreened, and, almost everywhere, with mosquito netting--as easy to arrange as it is sensible. (Mile Marker 651/2, Paria Main Rd., Blanchisseuse, 669-2963, lagunamar.com; $75-$85.)

Two B&Bs offer three arty rooms, each only steps from dramatic cove beaches: Second Spring lies more quietly west of the village on the sea; Almond Brook in the heart of the village and across from Rennie Bobb's studio. (Second Spring, Lamp Post 191, Paria Main Rd., Blanchisseuse, 669-3909; $50, hot plate and fridge; cottage $70, full kitchen; continental breakfast $5 per person. Almond Brook, Lamp Post 16, Paria Main Rd., Blanchisseuse, 678-0822; $50 for a double includes full breakfast and use of kitchen. Both include tax and service.)

Herb Hiller is a former executive director of the Caribbean Travel Association.Wyatt Gallery's photographs were exhibited at The Mercedes-Benz Manhattan Gallery from October 2nd - November 2nd, 2003. The gallery is located at 536 W. 41st Street at 11th Avenue.For more information, go to wyattgallery.com

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