19 January 2016

Holiday Destination: Trinidad and Tobago

December 17 - 31, 2015

Naturally, 2015 had to end somewhere exotic to bring a year of adventurous travel to a fitting close. From the East Coast, the Caribbean was a no brainer, and after ruling out the islands that provided nothing beyond stunning beaches, (hedonists we are not! I swear!) Trinidad and Tobago became our choice. This southernmost - just 8 miles from the coast of Venezuela - and least popular vacation destination in the Caribbean, is also the wealthiest in the region. A thriving economy based on oil, gas, and manufacturing has produced a substantial middle class population. Its mix of cultures, with ancestries from India, Africa, Europe, and Latin America gives it a richness which is immediately apparent in the local cuisine and the music.
A week in the capital, Port of Spain (POS), an emerging vibrant city, gave us the experience of learning about a new country and its people. Built up, clean, residents spiffily attired in the latest name brands, it was hard to believe we were on a Caribbean island (but for the fierce tropical heat and the accents and coconut palms and screeching parrots!).

Arriving at our VRBO rental in the upmarket Newtown area, we were reminded of South Africa. Heavy security in the form of gates, burglar guards, high walls, and barbed wire pointed to economic disparity and high crime. We had to be cautious at night, sticking to lit up busy areas. Luckily,  Kaisos Blues Bar, right next door, served excellent pina coladas, and their nightly live Jazz concerts were probably the city's best entertainment. Top restaurants, stores, and the city's main tourist attractions were minutes from us too.

Queen's Park Savannah, a block from us, is the focal point of the wild Carnival celebrations in late February, an event that draws floods of visitors to POS. In the day time the park, a wide grassy field studded with trees, is deserted due to the brutal tropical heat. But at dusk, when we strolled across the park, we saw lots of locals exercising, jogging or playing soccer and cricket. Vendors selling coconut water, and a night food market provide colorful atmosphere. We marched across the park, passed the Magnificent 7, an over the top row of mansions, then to the Royal Botanic Gardens. This peaceful setting was perfect for an early evening stroll. Massive trees, subtle tropical fragrances, and beautiful bird calls spiked up our moods. Every few minutes the peace was disturbed by noisy green parrots fluttering across treetops in flocks. 

It was cloudy with off and on drizzle, when we first ventured downtown. We noticed a vegetarian restaurant just before hitting the main shopping areas, so we ordered our first traditional Trini lunch of pumpkin, callalloo (made with greens and okra), and chickpeas. A blended drink of fresh tropical fruit juice and coconut milk was delicious and refreshing. Then we continued on to busy Frederick Street, found coffee at a Rico's, a Starbucks like chain, and headed over to Independence Square,
 a shaded, paved promenade between two parallel streets. Concrete chess tables and benches scattered about draw locals here to relax and "lime" (local lingo for hanging out with buddies). Arriving at the striking 18th century Church of Immaculate Conception, we were accosted by a vagabond who wanted Daryl's coffee! We turned around and entered bustling Charlotte Street, lined with produce vendors selling tropical fruit and very healthy looking vegetables. Weaving our way through the crowd and constant stream of traffic, we escaped to Frederick Street. With festive shopping in full swing, the stores and modern shopping malls were packed with locals whose ancestors came mainly from Africa and India. I kept thinking how close we were to Venezuela, and how far away we were from home.
A friendly woman called Michelle, of English descent, was our tour guide for a day. She drove us to the Asa Wright Bird Sanctuary in the Northern Ranges which stretch from the east to the west coasts of Trinidad. On the one hour drive out of the traffic clogged city and into the lush countryside, she gave us a lot of background about the country's history and geography. 

At the Asa Wright Center we, along with lots of other western tourists, sat on the verandah for a while to do some birdwatching. We saw brightly hued hummingbirds and honeycreepers. Then, on a guided hike through the sanctuary, we saw more birds and other wildlife.
Traditional Trini food: Roti skins - aka dhalpuri - are filled with split pea, and stuffed with spicy curries. Calalloo - a mixture of okra and a green spinach like herb called "bhaji", spicy chickpeas and pumpkin are common fillings. Shiann's, down the street from us, served the best roti wraps, and a long line of locals at lunch time was proof.
A popular street snack is doubles - spicy chickpea curry inside two small fried flatbreads. I never missed an opportunity to get these - and loved them every time.
At the Caroni Bird Sanctuary we went on a boat tour through the Caroni waterways during the last hours of daylight. Dense clumps of mangroves smothered the banks.

We saw crabs, and OMG(!) a snake all coiled up on a branch above. Lots of small blue herons and egrets swooped around us. The highlight occurred when we arrived at the lake right at sunset. Huge flocks of scarlet ibis, the country's national bird, appeared. They began to adorn the lush trees which covered the island in front of us. Time to roost. Apart from the cries of the birds, there was such tranquility and the natural world around us was just magical. On the ride back, in the dark, the driver flashed his light on caimans on the banks. Yikes! 

We allowed ourselves the luxury of 3 nights at the Hyatt by the waterfront for a different experience of POS. From our room we enjoyed stunning views of the Gulf of Paria, especially at sunset, always with rum and pineapple juice cocktails for the full tropical experience! The hotel's location, however, was not ideal to access restaurants, bars, and the Savannah after dark due to high crime. But blissful evening temperatures meant hanging out on the hotel terrace, and enjoying festive songs and old jazz favorites by seriously talented musicians.

Black cake, similar to Christmas pudding in taste and appearance, is a rich, moist, rum soaked fruit cake, and a traditional Christmas dessert in Trinidad. We'd discovered a gourmet bakery on French Street on our first day, where we'd found excellent bread and scones. Before leaving the city for Tobago, we returned there for this cake. On Christmas day and the days after, we savored every morsel of this sensational treat.

Our second week, which started on Christmas Eve, was all about soaking up the beauty and tranquility of paradisical Tobago. We stayed in a remote fishing village called Castara, which lay at the bottom of steep rain forested cliffs. Sublime vistas from our luxurious Castara Retreat apartment kept us in a state of euphoria. Lying on a hammock in the open walled living area, I caught up with my reading, and experienced the joy of gawking at tropical birds. Outside our apartment was a huge mango tree studded with epiphytes. 

We moved to a different apartment - Blue Mango - on Day 4 where we traded luxury for thrilling sunset views. We were closer to the water, on a headland, and from our balcony we were transfixed by views of both Little and Big Bays. As darkness fell, fireflies flittered about in the bushes below us. While our apartment was basic, almost shabby, and small, the beauty around us was pretty astonishing.
I could tell I was in paradise because every morning I awoke to a parade of gorgeous feathered visitors. Seeing the motmot was special. Other birds we saw were bananaquits, royal terns, kingbirds, barred antshrikes, hummingbirds, grey tanagers, magnificent frigate birds, pelicans, and parrots.
We started each day before sunrise with a walk on the beach, and getting splashed by the powerful, but lovely water. Fishermen fueled up their boats, and flocks of pelicans swooped over us. After sunrise, the air temperature rapidly rose, giving us the perfect excuse to lie on the hammock, and read.

Coconut bake is a traditional bread served at breakfast time. Chino's Coffee House made the best on the island, fresh and warm in the morning. Roasted coconut, the primary ingredient, renders the bread crispy and and delicious.What a treat with morning coffee!
A full day in the Crown Point area of Tobago - the most built up and crowded part, gave us a chance to check out the much hyped Pigeon Point Beach.
We rose at dawn and strolled to this protected park. And yes, it was indeed like the pages of a travel brochure with palm fringed beaches of white powdery sand, and heaps of coral and that perfect turquoise hued water. What pure joy to tread on the soft sand as we made our way to Store Bay Beach. Here, the calm, warm water beckoned. We had our most enjoyable swim of the vacation here. This was followed by a buffet breakfast which included delicious coconut bake, juicy pineapple, and scrambled eggs. We were staying at the Tropikist Hotel, right on the beach, so great sea views from our table enhanced the whole experience.

A 20 minute flight later got us back to POS on New Year's Eve. We spent a quiet evening at the Hyatt, listening to soothing live music on the terrace beside the Gulf of Paria. We needed a good night's sleep before the long flight home the next day, so we were sound asleep when fireworks were set off to herald in 2016.

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