Trinidad is in an enviable position when it comes to tourism — it doesn’t depend on it. The country does just fine off its petroleum profits. For the traveler this is an advantage of sorts. Since Trinidad doesn’t put on any airs to impress visitors, it retains a remarkable authenticity as a destination. Travelers may have to dig a little deeper to access the island’s charms, but’s it’s well worth the effort. Here are five excursions worth seeking out.
Port of Spain (Photo: Jason Lee Pack, Getty Images/iStockphoto)
PORT OF SPAIN CITY TOUR
Most travelers will begin their visit with an overnight or more in the island’s capital city, Port of Spain. A day tour will impart a lot of information and a lot of pleasure, especially if you pencil in lunch at one of the city’s Creole restaurants. Once a year, Port of Spain throws the Caribbean’s — and one of the world’s — biggest party with its version of Carnival. If travelers are lucky enough to be in the capital during the few weeks of revelry, they’re sure to be swept up in the time of their lives. Port of Spain is also the nightlife center of the island, and there are plenty of clubs where visitors can dance to the island’s signature soca beat. Port of Spain is like any big city, so it’s smart to keep your wits about you during a visit.
A day tour should include a tour or a walk-by of Port of Spain’s main sights. These include the sprawling Queen’s Park Savannah — a city park with a 2.7-mile circumference; the Red House parliament building in Woodford Square; and The National Museum and Art Gallery, where visitors can get a crash course in Trinidad’s culture and history. While walking, keep an eye out for charming 19th-century houses sporting gingerbread-fretted woodwork. A nice place to catch a cool and shady breather is The Royal Botanic Gardens, which were established back in 1818, making it one of the oldest botanical gardens in the Caribbean.
New York City has Coney Island; Los Angeles has Malibu; and Port of Spain has Maracas Beach. This is where the city folk go to unwind for a sun-sand-and-sea getaway. The drive from the capital takes about 45 minutes to an hour and is a joy in itself, over winding roads that hug the north shore of the island, presenting beautiful mountain and sea views. Keep an eye out for the roadside vendors who sell a surprising selection of pickled fruits, a Trini specialty. These include such sweet and savory delights as pickled pears, sour prunes and red mangoes. It’s a tradition to snag a bag and then continue on to Maracas Beach.
The beach itself is one of the gentler strands along the north coast, being protected by a lovely bay. It’s a lively spot where there’s usually an equal mix of locals and tourists. As wonderful as the beach is, there’s another reason why people come to Maracas Beach — probably the main reason for some visitors — the bake-and-shark sandwich shops that line the beach. This is a Trinidadian specialty and should not be missed. The bake-and-shark sandwich starts with deep-fried batter-dipped shark placed in a soft bun. Then the fun starts, with the option of customizing a meal with an array of veggies, including chopped lettuce, pineapple, tomatoes and peppers and then dressing the sandwich with fiery pepper sauce, mustard or catsup. This is how the locals eat, so a bake-and-shark will only set you back a few bucks.
MOUNT ST. BENEDICT MONASTERY
For something different — an excursion offering serenity and food for the soul — visitors can make the 8-mile drive from Port of Spain to Mount St. Benedict. The monastery was established in 1912, making it the oldest Benedictine monastery in the Caribbean. One would think that a monastery would be a retreat closed to casual travelers. The opposite is true at Mount St. Benedict, where visitors (especially birdwatchers) arrive to hike the trails surrounding the monastery and take in scenic vistas from its hilltop position. While the monastery’s services for the aged and drug rehabilitation are off limits, visitors are welcome to tour the farm; apiary, and a shop selling the monk’s homemade yogurt, jams and jellies. There’s a restored colonial guesthouse for overnight guests.
Avocat Waterfall Hike
Trinidad has a number of waterfall hikes, with contender for most popular being Avocat Falls, which is about an hour’s drive from Port of Spain. Travelers don’t need to hire a guide, but the hike will go smoother with one, since a guide will know where to park the vehicle on Blanchisseuse-Arima Road and where to best access the trail to the waterfall.
The hike takes about 30 minutes along a trail that sometimes goes uphill and sometimes even requires hopping from stone to stone across the shallow parts of the Marianne River. Hikers’ should expect to get wet and muddy. A person doesn’t have to be a triathlete to take this hike, but it might not be a good choice for those who huff and puff walking to the mailbox. Along the way, there are several tiers of waterfalls, with the initial tiers of smaller waterfalls having pools perfect for taking a cooling dip. Continuing on, hikers then come upon the piece-de-resistance, the main Avocat Falls. While it may lack a pool for swimming, Avocat Waterfall makes up for this with its dramatic height of 65 feet.
CARONI BIRD SANCTUARY
This is one of the most magical experiences to be had in Trinidad. The 15,000 acre sanctuary — about a 25-minute drive from Port of Spain — is home to 186 bird species, including flamingoes, herons and egrets, that live in the web of small canals and lakes surrounded by lush vegetation.
A visit begins with a ride in a small boat that carries passengers through the mangroves of Caroni Swamp. The tours are timed so participants arrive on the outskirts of Caroni Island at dusk, just before sunset. This is when flocks of scarlet ibis fly to the island to roost. Watching from the boat, the scarlet ibis look like black marks in the sky. As they settle on the branches of the trees, their true scarlet color becomes evident, and the trees of the island seem to be set abloom with hundreds of red flowers. There’s nothing quite like this in the Caribbean, and it’s a true Trini treasure. Birdwatchers will be knocked out, but even travelers who never gave a second thought to birding will be set back on their heels.