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TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO DRIVING TOUR

Story and photos by

Choosing an island for our Caribbean holiday was a difficult decision. We wanted a scenic island with good food and friendly people; a place where we could relax or enjoy invigorating activity, depending on our mood, and a place small enough to explore, yet big enough to keep us interested for two weeks.

Tobago beach and palm trees
Tobago beach and palm trees
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

After a thorough review of the travel brochures, we found our destination: Trinidad & Tobago.

It was -25° Celsius when we boarded our flight from Toronto on a blustery January morning. That evening, we landed in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, where a balmy temperature of 30° greeted us. A short 20-minute flight later, we were in Tobago.

Tobago has all the ingredients of a tropical paradise: sandy beaches, coconut palms, exotic fruits, flowers and a hot sun moderated by refreshing trade winds.

Driving tour of Tobago

Because Tobago is only 44 kilometers long and 12 kilometers wide, you can easily drive from one end to the other and back again in one day.

We rented a car at the airport and followed the road on the south side of the island to Scarborough, Tobago's main town. Poinsettia and hibiscus blossoms lined our route. Goats grazed by the roadside and friendly, uniformed school children waved as we drove by.

After visiting historic Fort George and the shops clustered around Scarborough's market, we continued our drive northeast through groves of bananas, grapefruit, and papayas. We arrived in Charlotteville, a fishing village clinging to a hill overlooking Man o' War Bay, just in time to see the local fishermen blowing large conch shells to announce their return.

Birding and snorkeling

From the nearby town of Speyside, you can visit the island of Little Tobago, a bird sanctuary. While hiking the trails, you may see sooty terns, red-footed and brown-footed boobies, brown noddies and red-billed tropicbirds.

Just as colorful is Buccoo Reef and Coral Gardens. As we floated in the warm water, schools of rainbow-hued fish flashed like neon around us, hovering at our fingertips.

Cruise ship anchored near Tobago
Cruise ship anchored near Tobago
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Glass-bottomed boats leave from Pigeon Point and major hotels during low-tide hours. Wear only a swim suit and bring along a towel and sunscreen. Mask, snorkel and plastic sandals are provided on board. On the way back, our tour stopped at a sandy islet for a fish barbecue complete with rum punch and dancing to a steelband.

We begrudgingly left Tobago for Trinidad. Nothing, we thought, could surpass the friendliness and the unspoiled beauty of Tobago. Nothing, we later discovered, except Trinidad.

Hindu temple and priest in Trinidad
Hindu temple and priest in Trinidad
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Trinidad has a personality of its own. It's the lively and colorful home of limbo, steelbands, calypso and carnival. It's also home to a unique population of Africans, French, Carib Indians, Spanish, East Indians and Chinese.

Driving around Trinidad

To gain a better appreciation of this multicultural potpourri, we rented a car to tour the island. Driving east of Port-of-Spain, we saw homes surrounded by fragments of colored cloth fluttering on long bamboo poles. These Hindu prayer flags are put up for major occasions like births, graduations and weddings.

We soon forgot we were on a Caribbean island and imagined ourselves in India. People harvested sugar cane, with machetes. Water buffalo slowly plodded their way through teak forests and rice paddies.

A wisp of smoke curled upwards from a cremation on an isolated river bank. When we stopped to look at a Hindu temple, the caretaker showed us around and explained the significance of the brightly enameled paintings and statues.

Trinidad's Chaguanas Market
Trinidad's Chaguanas Market
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Roti, rice and peas

Our next stop was at the Chaguanas Market. Pungent with spices and burning incense, the colorful bazaar throbbed with shoppers buying everything from bags of rice and peas to brooms made from coconut palms. Yams, plantains, lemons and shell jewelry were neatly arranged on tables.

Small stands sold roti (tasty grilled pancakes wrapped around a filling of chicken, beef, shrimp or goat curry). A sari-clad housewife bought a plump chicken for Sunday dinner, plopped it into a wicker basket next to the bananas, and deftly swung the basket on top of her head.

The Mayaro Road to Rio Claro passes through plantations of cacao, coffee, grapefruit and bananas. Driveways and front yards are covered with coffee and cocoa beans drying in the sun.

Beaches and coconut palms

Every turn in the road brings new surprises. We spotted large, black vultures and long, stocking-shaped corn-bird nests hanging from mango trees.

After reaching the coast, we drove to the beach at Mayaro Bay. It was everything we had ever imagined a tropical beach to be: a wide crescent of golden sand, 20 kilometers long, surrounded by graceful coconut palms. We stopped for a swim, then continued north along Manzanilla Road.

Coconut palms form a natural archway over the road for miles on end. On the east side, massive breakers crash against the Atlantic coast. On the west is Nariva Swamp, where locals collect tree oysters growing on mangrove tree roots.

Asa Wright Nature Center

We drove to the Asa Wright Nature Center at Spring Hill Estate, near Arima. Here, at Dunston Cave, visitors can see a rare colony of nocturnal oilbirds, also called guacharo (Steatornis caripensis). Years ago, Indians punctured these birds with sticks and set them aflame for use as torches.

The Churchill-Roosevelt Highway brought us back to Port-of-Spain. We visited the capital city's cathedrals, mosques and temples. The highlight of our stay, however, was the pre-carnival festivities.

A taxi driver took us to the mas (masquerade) camps where the costumes are made and the panyards where steelbands practice. At each place, the Trinidadians invited us into their homes to watch their preparations and join their celebrations.

Girl drinks green coconut water as a vendor opens another 'water-nut' with a machete.
Girl drinks green coconut water as a vendor opens another 'water-nut' with a machete.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Trinidadian foods

Food in Trinidad reflects the country's cosmopolitan make-up. It includes local specialties such as callaloo soup, made from crab meat, okra and dasheen leaves; crab back, minced crab meat and stuffing, served in the shell and pastelles, minced meat in corn flour pastry, baked in banana leaves.

On our final day in Trinidad, we drove to the palm-fringed beach at Maracas Bay. The North Coast Road was built by the U.S. Navy during the war. It passes through the island's northern range of mountains and offers magnificent views of the Maraval and Santa Cruz valleys. The lush green vegetation is highlighted by brilliant scarlet immortelles, trees planted for the sole purpose of providing shade for the cacao trees below.

Returning to our hotel, in Port-of-Spain, we spotted a vendor selling green coconuts from a cart. With a razor-sharp machete, he hacked off the tops of a couple "water-nuts" so we could enjoy the refreshing liquid inside.

As we left for the airport, the taxi driver who had driven us to the mas camps two days earlier, came running towards us. Smiling, he shook our hands, wished us a safe journey and invited us to return again soon.

That's exactly what we intend to do.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Trinidad and Tobago Tourism Development Company: www.goTrinidadandTobago.com