Quick trips

Life is a celebration in Trinidad and Tobago

 

Going to Trinidad and Tobago

Getting there: American and Caribbean Airlines fly nonstop from Miami to Port of Spain, Trinidad, a flight of 3 hours, 45 minutes. Roundtrip airfare starts at $390 in late May. Caribbean Airlines also flies nonstop from Fort Lauderdale with roundtrip airfare starting around $775. From Port of Spain, Caribbean Airlines makes the 25-minute flight to Tobago, with roundtrip airfare starting about $66. In addition, the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago operates daily ferry service between Port of Spain and Scarborough; www.patnt.com.

Information: Trinidad & Tobago Tourism Development Co., www.gotrinidadandtobago.com.

WHERE TO STAY

Asa Wright Nature Center, Trinidad; 800-426-7781; http://asawright.org. Lodge rates, including taxes, three meals and afternoon tea, are $170 per person double occupancy, $225 single occupancy, through April 30; $150 per person double and $180 single after April 30.

The Hyatt Regency Trinidad, 1 Wrightson Rd., Port of Spain; 868-623-2222; trinidad.hyatt.com. The Hyatt is the island’s biggest hotel, with 418 rooms and 10 suites. Waterfront views, rooftop infinity pool. Because its main clientele is business travelers, rates are cheaper on weekends. Doubles from $229 ($144 weekends).

Cuffie River Nature Retreat, Tobago; 508-823-1190; www.cuffie-river.com. Ten rooms with private balconies; two rooms with fully equipped kitchens. Standard rooms from $135 through April 30, $120 after April 30; room plus full meal plan available from $305 ($295 starting May 1).

Kariwak Village Holistic Haven and Hotel, Store Bay Local Road, Crown Point, Tobago; 868-639-8442; www.kariwak.com. Eighteen cabana rooms and six garden rooms. Yoga classes, spa treatments, hammocks, garden, “ozonated” swimming pool. Rooms $165, $120 after April 30.

WHAT TO DO

Asa Wright Nature Center, Trinidad, http://asawright.org. Day visitor hours 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nonresident fees: adults $10, younger than 12 $6. Guided nature walks.

Caroni Bird Sanctuary, Butler Highway, Caroni; 868-663-0458. This is the prime place to see the national bird, the scarlet ibis. Several private tour guides provide boat tours for as little as $10.

Cuffie River Nature Retreat, 868-660-0505; www.cuffie-river.com. Guided rainforest tours.


Houston Chronicle

Derrick, our garrulous tour guide, offers a biriba, a prickly looking pod he’s cut open to expose a pale and pulpy fruit, as well as some peer pressure.“What’s the matter?” he asks.“Don’t you want to live forever?”

Trinidad also has a fruit called the Stinking Toe, which makes his question a little more difficult to answer. But Derrick repeats this mantra several times while navigating a path from Port of Spain, the capital city of the Caribbean island duo of Trinidad and Tobago, to the Asa Wright Nature Center, a bird-filled retreat in the country’s northern rain forest.

Derrick is an enthusiastic ambassador for his country who believes its riches ought to be enjoyed daily, should one of those days be our last. He makes a number of generalizations about Trinidadians, many of which seem to hold true during a short stay. Chief among them is the country’s affinity for “liming,” which is essentially hanging out in the company of friends and alcohol.

“Liming is what we do, we love to lime,” he says. “It’s all a celebration. You work to lime. Why would you want to break that? We call that souring the lime.”

We pass a pitch where cricket is being played. “It’s like baseball but longer,” Derrick says.“The winner gets a lot of beer. But the loser gets beer too, so everybody wins.”

This is a culture of celebration. Trinidad and Tobago may in full revelry even outside of Carnival season.

Trinidad is unique in the Caribbean. The country sits near Venezuela and is too far south to be affected much by hurricanes. It also is largely unburdened by the sort of tourist traffic that results in sprawling resorts. Retreats are to be found, but the islands’ essence seems unaffected by tourism, making it a gem for those seeking a genuine Caribbean experience.

The islands also are deceptively large for looking so compact on a map. Splitting a week between the two doesn’t quite do them justice. But Asa Wright is a worthwhile stop. The 1,500-acre forest was once a cocoa and coffee plantation. Today it’s a magnificent birding destination full of hermits, hummingbirds and hawks, best visited with a knowledgeable guide. Should you desire to spot the elusive oilbird, you’ll have to stay overnight.

The Caroni Swamp is another nearby wildlife gem best seen around dusk when the brightly colored scarlet ibises fly to one small island to roost. The swamp tour also offers the opportunity to see sloths, caimans, crabs, fish and snakes. In fact visitors are advised not to fiddle with dangling sticks in case they turn out to be snakes.

All sorts of tour operators work out of Port of Spain, but the Members Only company run by Trinidad native Jesse James (that’s really his name) was top-shelf, with guides both knowledgeable and engaging. (James’ sister, who shuttled us to Caroni, was aghast at the idea of my family eating our last meal on the island at a hotel so she brought homemade saltfish and bake as an alternative.)

For two islands linked by government and guide books, Trinidad and Tobago are quite different. Trinidad is all extroverted energy, a seemingly unending celebration of life and culture. The pace in Tobago — accessible by frequent 25-minute plane rides or a two-plus hour ferry trip — is decidedly more laid back. Trinidad is about going out, Tobago about staying in. Which makes Tobago ideal for a quiet beach rental.

Castara, a fishing town on the north side, has couple of tour operators who offer the opportunity to see the rest of the island. It has two beaches on a small bay with clear water and clean beaches. Amenities and services are limited, so think ahead about essentials.

The Cuffie River Nature Retreat, a lovely lodge nestled a few miles down a dirt road in the rain forest, provides an alternative to beaches. The retreat offers rooms with access to a kitchen, though the lodge’s meals were local and savory. We weren’t able to fully enjoy the retreat’s winding trails as Hurricane Isaac’s outer bands dropped a morning of rain that resulted in a landslide requiring the in-house guide’s attention.

A full island tour affords a panorama in a few hours, from Dillon Point’s impressive view of Castara to the southern beaches, which have rougher waves and fewer surfers, to a bit of liming at Glasgow’s Bar which offers cold beer, a nice breeze and a fairly awesome view of Englishman’s Bay.

A couple of cautionary notes: Our pre-trip research revealed a lot of concerns about crime. Though the U.S. offers no travel advisories about Trinidad and Tobago, a 2011 New York Times story referenced a curfew because of drug-related crime. We neither experienced nor witnessed any threatening situations. Trinidadians suggest most of the trouble involves the drug trade and isn’t in areas frequented by tourists.

Tobagoans are quick to point out their quiet island is virtually crime free. “You read reports about crime, they say there were 1,000 violent crimes in Trinidad and Tobago,” one guide says. “And 999 of them are in Trinidad. Tobago, every once in a while somebody drinks too much and gets in a fight at the bar. But we suffer because of what happens there.”

Another caution is that the islands’ residents are committed to their revelry, which can make travel difficult at certain times. Flights from one to the other sell out well in advance of the independence celebrations. Be aware that transit between the two islands is easy, except when it isn’t.

No caution is required with the food. The cuisine is impossible to describe succinctly, with African, Creole, Indian and numerous other influences. Cooks make great use of local fruits, vegetables, fish and the beloved chickpea.

The chickpea, or channa, is the basis for the double, one of the most popular foods in Trinidad and an essential experience. Two pieces of doughy flat bread are topped with a curried chickpea sauce. A dash of hot sauce is optional. They’re sloppy, which is why Derrick recommends always finding a double stand with a large water cooler for cleaning up afterward.

“You have to try one without the hot sauce and one with the hot sauce,” he says. “Eat this and live forever.”

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