It’s Carnival time in Trinidad & Tobago. It’s that time of year when folks anticipating the self-restraints of the Lenten period, have one last celebration before they tuck excess away for six weeks. This dual-island nation is noted for its festive Carnival, which includes parades, concerts, parties and elaborate costumes. But as anyone who has ever lived in “TT” will tell you, Trinidad is in a constant, euphoric year-round rehearsal for this event, and placid Tobago is where everyone goes to recoup. That’s why the islands complement each other so completely.
Deep in History
Over the years, Amerindians, Spaniards, Africans, the French, Brits, East Indians and others have populated the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago, which is nine miles off the coast of South America. On August 31, 1962, the islands gained independence from Britain, in 1976 they became a joint republic and today Trinidad & Tobago is one of the wealthiest nations in the Caribbean. Carnival can be traced to the 1800s when French plantation owners from Martinique organized masquerade balls. African slaves created a parallel celebration called Canboulay that spawned calypso music and evolved into today’s Carnival, which is traditionally the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
Downtown Port of Spain, Trinidad
Port of Spain, the bustling capital city on the northeast coast of Trinidad since 1757, is now inundated with government buildings, historic mansions and monuments. It’s the island’s hub and a major Caribbean center that once hosted the Fifth Summit of the America’s, which attracted world leaders such as President Obama. The city’s Queen’s Park Savannah, a flat grassy 260-acre meadow, is equivalent to New York’s Central Park. Joggers and traffic move around the 2.2-mile circumference where vendors sell food. The Savannah and its Grand Stand are the central venues for Carnival’s Parade of Bands, the Carnival King and Queen Contest and the Panorama Steelpan Competitions. Nearby places to visit: Royal Botanical Gardens; Queen’s Hall Performing Arts Center; the Magnificent Seven, a group of late Victorian buildings.
The drive north from Port of Spain to Trinidad’s top beach is over Mt. Saut D’Eau and through a rain forest that has idyllic vistas of the Caribbean Sea. The U-shaped beach looks something like St. Thomas’s Magens Bay, and is just about as popular with tourists. The waves and undertow make this more of a sun-soaking shoreline than a carefree swimmable beach, but people ride the waves anyway. The sands are renowned, but the Bake and Shark huts, which feature fried shark filet on a bun with toppings that range from tomatoes to garlic sauce, are absolutely legendary. The most popular eatery is Richard’s, but the locals often prefer Natalie’s.
Caroni Bird Sanctuary/Wetlands
The Caroni Swamp, just south of the capital Port of Spain on the western shore is home to 200 bird species, including the island’s national bird, the Scarlet Ibis. On a boat that traverses a labyrinth of channels that snake through 20 square miles, a guide points out four-eyed-fish, tree boas, caimans and hummingbirds who pose as if they are extras from central casting. Tour towards the end of the afternoon, and you’ll gather with other bird watchers as they make their way to a swamp area that is the home of the Ibis. By day the bright red birds feed in neighboring Venezuela, 10 miles away. At sunset they return to the trees in this mangrove. Wait patiently, sit quietly and the crimson-colored birds fly in from all corners, landing on treetops and turning them into lively plants that look like they’ve blossoming with kinetic red flowers. It’s quite the spectacle.
The Lime Fete, Carnival’s Swank Event
The Lime fete, an annual celebration and charity event that supports the United Way Trinidad & Tobago, is now in its fourth year and is one of “the” see-and-be-seen gala events in Trinidad. Tickets cost hundred of dollars to this all-inclusive, eat and drink until you drop soiree. It takes place at the seafront Hyatt Regency Trinidad on Carnival Wednesday. Guests choose Platinum or Diamond level tickets and enjoy an unrivaled selection of culinary temptations: Mexican cuisine; Peruvian food; Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean seafood; local authentic island fare; and vegetarian delights. Signature cocktails like “Lime Time” and “Forbidden Lime” flow like a river. Musical acts like KES the Band featuring Kees Diffenthaller and Roy Cape All Stars featuring Blaxx performed this year. The trendy cutting edge décor provides a swank backdrop for the guests who stick largely to the dress code: white with at touch of lime.
Tobago’s Quiet Beaches
It’s just a 20-minute northeast flight to Tobago, and the contrast to Trinidad couldn’t be more dramatic when you land. Trinidad is multiethnic. Tobago has mostly people of African descent. There are no crowded highways. Fewer people. It’s like the difference between New York City and Key West. The pace would make a snail envious. Your heartbeat slows. Your eyes rest. You decompress. Houses, buildings and businesses are spread apart. After an island tour by car (visit Tobago Cocoa Estate Plantation, port city of Scarborough, Fort King George), take a catamaran ride on the Island Girl, which leaves from Mt. Irvine Beach for an hour voyage to Cotton Bay. What’s at Cotton Bay? Nothing. It’s a small sliver of beach. You can swim, snorkel and sunbathe as the crew prepares and serves a tasty lunch of stewed chicken, grilled Mahi Mahi and potato salad. It’s a perfect time to taste Trinidad & Tobago’s unique drinks: LLB (lemon/lime soda with a touch of bitters), Carib Beer (light and sweet) or Samba Lager (heavier and more filling).
Getting There and Staying Put
A new flight from JFK on JetBlue (http://www.jetblue.com) arrives daily at Piarco Airport in Trinidad. The Hilton Trinidad Hotel, on a well-landscaped hillside above Queen’s Park Savannah, has a business center, pool and tennis courts. The newer Hyatt Regency Trinidad in downtown Port of Spain is more upscale and urban. The venerable Coco Reef Tobago is seconds away from the isle’s airport and has placid ocean views. Those in need of a real escape should try the chic, 38-room boutique hotel, Blue Waters Inn, Tobago’s top getaway.
Carnival is a good reason to go to Trinidad & Tobago. And there are more than enough reasons to stay.
For more information about Trinidad & Tobago go to: http://www.gotrinidadandtobago.com
Visit Dwight Brown at www.DwightBrownInk.com.