Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   June 2002

The Complete Trinidad

by Ralph Trout
My life working throughout the Caribbean had spanned more than two decades, and my travels had taken me to every island but Trinidad. Other travelers and cruisers told tales of that island with the exotic name, tales which varied from fear to loathing. Most reports had come, unsolicited, from cranky yachties. I was in the second year of a cruise of discovery, attempting to locate another island to call home and open the next chapter of my life.

While waiting a year in Grenada for something to transform its stagnant economy, I had tired of the empty expansive beaches and elusive nightlife. The plans for the construction of a new cruiseship dock, a harbor marina and a five-star hotel all went south before I decided to follow. Almost every pickled old-timer at the Tiki Bar in Prickly Bay whom I quizzed about Trinidad related that the anchorage, water, and workmanship were all bad. Some had ventured beyond the yacht basin, but few had gone further than Port of Spain.
In early December, 1999, I secured my dinghy on the deck of my trawler, the Sea Cow, and pulled anchor, planning to complete a haulout in Trinidad and then return to the Grenadines in time for the holiday festivities.

A safe night crossing with dolphins chasing the Sea Cow's bow brought me to the mouth of the Gulf of Paria, the Bocas, at a gray dawn. The island's lush green north coast mountains hid any evidence of the island's million-plus population. Few homes and fewer roads appeared on the rugged slopes. Three islands stretch across the Dragon's Mouth from the northwest corner of Trinidad to Venezuela. The tidal current was running against me, slowing the trawler to three knots. Finally I slipped between Monos and Huevos Islands and into the Gulf of Paria. The crisp blue Caribbean water had muddied from the outflow of the Orinoco, and was topped with a slight gloss of petroleum.

Once I rounded the point I could see Chaguaramas Bay and what appeared to be the masts of at least a thousand sailboats. Many supposedly "experienced seadogs" had provided exaggerated warnings of the tides, bad holding ground and abundant marine traffic, but what I saw was the best designed area for accomplishing boat work that could be imagined. Moored along that stretch of waterfront was an incredible varieties of ships, boats and other watercraft. At first, the overall dimensions of Chaguaramas are intimidating. It is a big bay with big boatyards and big ships. The chance of finding a quiet anchorage is slim.
Peace and quiet is available further north at Scotland Bay, but that area is not accessible by road. At Chacachacare Island, the old leper colony, there is a snug harbor but that is in the middle of the gulf. A mile or two further, around Point Gourde, is Williams Bay and TTSA (Trinidad & Tobago Sailing Association) with another hundred masts and a coast guard installation. It is the best possible option for a peaceful anchorage.
The Trinidadian Customs and Immigration officers located at CrewsInn in Chaguaramas are cheerful, professional and efficient.

The Haulout
I've always thought of boatyards as purgatory - never heaven, but not quite hell. Personally I'll never understand how people can live in such a toxic atmosphere. One Brit actually boasted that he'd been on the hard for three years and never seen much else of Trinidad. I find the best boatyard recipe is to get materials organized before getting hauled, then focus on getting the work done and wander from the yard as little as possible.
Making the best of a bad thing, the Sea Cow quickly regained her smile at the IMS (Industrial Marine Services) yard. IMS has a great work area and excellent security. Of course there is a bar, restaurant, and laundry, but most people bring their boats to IMS because it lives up to its reputation for excellent service. At Peakes, Powerboats and CrewsInn, the yards are much bigger with more to distract you from arduous boat work. Every Trinidadian boatyard has its own costs, rules and labor regulations, which should be checked before making a choice. Numerous suppliers like Budget Marine and Marine Warehouse, plus smaller chandleries, make a boater's life ashore slightly easier.

The Weather!
Trinidad's weather is hot and wet but Chaguaramas' climate seems even hotter and wetter than the remainder of the island. My sweaty labor had to be performed around rainsqualls that religiously poured between 10AM and noon. Like the proverb says, putting varnish on the brush works better than a rain dance. The rainy season seems to be all the time; locals profess that from May to July and from October until December it pours, while January until May is dry, but I would never bet on it. If it is Trinidad, it is raining! It is the first island that forced me to constantly carry an umbrella.

Language and Culture
Trinidad has more of a varied population than the other Caribbean islands. There are descendants of African slaves imported after 1780; indentured laborers brought from India in 1845 and the first Chinese immigrants who arrived in 1806. The present people are a mixture of all of these, with European and Latino added. Religions are represented in the architecture of Christian cathedrals, Hindu temples, and Moslem mosques. Each segment of the population has definite holidays, culture and cuisine.
Because of the ethnic mix, Trinidadian men are handsome and the women are beautiful. They take beauty pageants seriously and boast two Miss Universes, two runners-up and one Miss World. Beauty contests are constantly held in every town and for every function. Trinidadian women seem born to pose.
Everyone speaks English and is friendly, offering assistance and directions. One night at the Cricket Wicket Bar across from the Oval Stadium I was sitting back watching the outflow after a match. A man asked why I was so sad, which I wasn't. He then bought me a beer and told me just to stand on the sidewalk and someone would soon talk to me. Sure enough, within a few minutes I was included in a new circle of conversation.
Port of Spain - Getting your Bearings
Port of Spain (POS), the capital, center of government and biggest city is less than five miles from Chaguaramas. The size of the population (1,400,000), means there is an excellent and reasonable transportation system. Having bumped around the Caribbean, I find Trinidad's maxi-taxi drivers to be the most courteous and helpful. Cars that have an "H" license plate are cars for hire. Always ask what the rate is to a destination. To get directly to or from the Piarco Airport expect to pay TT$100 (about US$17; the exchange rate is usually TT$6.2 to one US dollar). From the yachting area you can get a bus or a maxi taxi (a yellow striped van) to one of two destinations in POS for TT$4. Either route will pass many grocery stores and seriously big shopping malls for those who need a dose of rampant spending. West Mall and Long Circular Mall in St. James have incredible selections.

The first bus depot is at City Gate, which is a hub where you can obtain inexpensive transport to anywhere on Trinidad. Red striped buses service the east-west corridor including Arima and Sangre Grande. Green striped maxis travel the north-south and central areas of Trinidad, POS to San Fernado, Couva and Claxton Bay. A brown stripe means a trip to the deep south destinations of Point Fortrin, Cedros, and Siparia. Black stripes go to Princess Town, Mayaro and Rio Claro. Ask anyone at the bus station and you'll find your way easily. If your flight schedule is unhurried, the airport is only TT$10 away. Outside of City Gate are the Twin Tower buildings of the city center, and two blocks away on Frederick Street are unbelievable fabric stores. For spectacular girl watching, grab a few adult sodas and sit at City Gate from 3:30 to 5:00 any weekday afternoon.

The other bus route has a depot named Green Corner. Two first class air-conditioned movie theaters, restaurants and banks are in this area. At first glance Port of Spain seems confusing, but after studying a map you'll see that there are only a few arteries. Just a few blocks to the north of Green Corner is the Queen's Park Savannah. Everywhere you walk in the city you'll see plenty of well-groomed parks and sports stadiums. Along Targarete Avenue is the Oval where cricket is played. Joggers and cricket, soccer, rugby players put the parks to constant use. During a weekend, the Savannah might have 20 different matches played simultaneously. You can buy chilled coconuts, fried snacks, flavored ices, and even soup along the sidewalks. The streets are swept daily but some locals feel it is their duty to provide constant work for the street cleaners.

Trinidad has more birds than the other islands do, and they're visible even in residential areas. In the mornings the yellow and black kiskadee sing happily, and every evening flocks of wild green parrots squawk and cry from their roosts. Snowy white egrets walk peacefully though the parks. Beautiful aromatic, exotic flowers and blossoms of every color surround homes. Most streets contain a mixture of architectural styles and many small, wooden, corrugated-roofed homes with slanting shutters still exist from the 1940s and '50s.

Exploring POS on Foot
Hiking a circle around the Queen's Park Savannah you will discover some of Trinidad's best examples of architecture - the Magnificent Seven. On the west side of the Savannah is the Queen's Park College. Walking clockwise you'll see Ambard's Residence which is Baroque style with towers and domes. Then comes the Cardinal's residence and Whitehall, which is the Prime Minister's office built in the style of a Venetian Palace. All these buildings were constructed in 1904. At the end of that block, the street cornering the Stottlemeyer Castle leads to the wealthy area of Sinclair. The present mansions of today's elite should amaze you.

On the north side of the Savannah are the Botanical Gardens, an excellent zoo and the President's House. The zoo is the best in the Caribbean and costs only four TT dollars. If you want to see a caiman (crocodile) check it out here. Take a rest on a bench and inspect the Gardens that were laid out in 1820. Before continuing around the Savannah, take the next left just before the massive Hilton Hotel and have lunch at the Hotel Normandie or the Pelican Pub. Depending on the month of your excursion the yellow poui, the red flamboyant, or the lavender jacaranda trees will be in bloom.
On the south side you will find the National Museum and Art Gallery. This is the best museum in the Caribbean and it is free to the public. Don't rush, as this exhibition could take more than half a day to see. If history is important you must see Fort St. George which offers the absolute best view of Port of Spain. In the Laventille area is Chacon's and Picton's Fort which date from 1784.

Food and Drink
The rich ethnic mix of the country is reflected in Trindiadian cuisine. Good, reasonably priced food is readily available, and Oriental and Indian food is common. Jenny's Steakhouse on Cipriani Boulevard is a great place for Chinese or continental fare. Jenny Sharma is a beautiful woman who has the best bar in Port of Spain. Her blue two-storey Victorian mansion is the home of the very best lime in Trinidad. Make certain that you come early on Friday night or be prepared to stand. The Kapok Restaurant, just off the Savannah, has excellent oriental cuisine - but don't wear shorts as they won't serve you if you are in casual attire. On Ariapita Ave is Ragoo's which offers a comedy club, Veni Mange which has livingroom comfort with good music (but is only open on Friday night), Roxanne's which serves Middle Eastern fare and Frankie's which has the best barbecue value.

Every large shopping mall has a food court with mouth-watering delights. Bakes (breads) come as dough baked in an oven, roasted in a skillet or deep-fried. Any bake with fried shark or stewed saltfish (bujhol) is a delicious local breakfast and will be less than TT$10. A roti is an East Indian version of a soft taco. There are four types of roti; plain flour skin, dalphuri skin with chickpeas, unleavened sada, and buss-up-shut which is a chopped up skin made with more shortening. Another local belly filler is called a "double", which is fried dough filled with curried chana (chickpeas). I think Trinidad consumes more chickpeas than anywhere else in the world, and locals also love curry and hot pepper, so beware! The local Carib beer is very good. Stag, Howler and Heineken are also brewed locally and cost between TT$6 and $10. Rum is relatively expensive. The finely powdered Nestle's instant coffee is like rocket fuel and is usually TT$3 a cup. Everything is less expensive than the other islands. Fresh shrimp at roadside markets are TT$12 to $15 a pound and fresh fish can be had for TT$6 to $15.

Entertainment and Carnival
There is always something worth experiencing in Trinidad, but you have to pay attention to more than a dozen excellent FM radio stations and read the three daily newspapers to discover what's happening. Trinidad takes pride in being the birthplace of calypso and steel pan bands. If you haven't heard Trini steel pan music, you are really missing something. When the Sea Cow was finally glistening, I couldn't leave because it was already December and time to get ready for Carnival, which is almost a religious word in Trinidad. Whatever you may have heard about Carnival, the reality surpasses any description. Locals love to party and their Carnival is the father of all parties. January and February are the months of anticipation, listening to bands play at huge fêtes all over the island. The party finishes on Ash Wednesday, and J'Ouvert on the preceding Thursday night signals the beginning of the real, hard-core bacchanal. People daub paint or smear mud over their bodies and go wild in the streets. Finally on Monday and Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of people get decadent for two entire days! All ages, from children to grandmothers, move to the beat. Trinidadians can really move their hips. Beautiful women and men in skimpy costumes gyrate, following trailer trucks carrying bands playing great calypso or soca music. Everyone dances slowly through the streets of POS. Then on Ash Wednesday it is over and next year's festivities are already awaited. Carnival is for all ages, but not for the stupid or faint of heart.

Get Off the Boat!
If yacht maintenance has exhausted your energy, get off the boat or out of the yard. The least expensive auto rentals in the Caribbean can be had at Econo-Car in Chaguaramas for only TT$90 a day. Trinidad roads are laid out simply with Eastern, Western, Northern, and Southern Main roads. Each section of the country will provide an excellent scenic day trip and inexpensive lodgings can be found. The Tourism Department and yachting associations will provide maps and a list of hotels and guesthouses. Few other islands have crowded six-lane highways, so to reduce tensions behind the wheel remember: timing is essential. Leave for a destination outside of Port of Spain (POS) either before seven in the morning or after nine-thirty to avoid being stuck in a miles-long traffic jam! There is another lapse in traffic around one-thirty in the afternoon. Try to return at three-thirty or after five. Saturday afternoons and Sundays are excellent days to drive.

Driving Around Trinidad
The main tourist beaches are on the north shore and to get there you must pass through Maraval, just west of POS. After eight miles of scenic winding along the Northern Coast Road, Maracas Bay appears. The surf is usually rolling, the beach is huge and only crowded on weekends. Maracas is famous for its huts that sell hot fried shark-and-bake sandwiches. Each vendor will have a half dozen condiments from coleslaw to stewed mangoes to dress up the snack. Mountains surround Maracas, and it is rare to get a solid day of sun. Las Cuevas Bay, ten minutes further on the same road, is my favorite beach because it usually has more sun. It is very wide and seldom crowded. A great day trip is to hit these beaches and then to drive east to the small fishing village of Blanchisseuse. You can't get lost as there is only one road. Almond Brook has a modern first class bed and breakfast there and Fred Zeller, a very talkative German sailor, runs an excellent restaurant and bar.
This eastward road ends at a small peaceful bay, but from this village the road turns south across the Northern Mountain Range through a rainforest. The views are spectacular. The Asa Wright Nature Center, a former cocoa and coffee plantation, is now a bird sanctuary and nature reserve on the southern slope. Accommodations are available to watch various varieties of birds including the oilbirds, which make their home in the nearby Dunston Cave. Following this route will take you to the town of Arima and then onto the Churchill Roosevelt Highway back to POS. This is a full day trip.
A drive to Toco at the northeast point is the only dead-end tour of the island. Toco is worth seeing but you must make a long back track. The lighthouse is at the end of the road, and the best beach that I've found in Trinidad lies just before it. Pack a lunch, as Toco has no restaurants even though it is a tourist center. There is a beautiful bay for swimming at Salybia and turtles nest all along this coast. This is another full day trip.

Another delightful day can be had driving east from POS through Valencia to Manzanilla. This Eastern Main Road route traverses miles of continuous beaches and coconut plantations. The road passes Nariva Swamp and if you are lucky you might see a big caiman sunning. This area is where the locals party on holidays. The waters are usually rough and dangerous, drowning several during each festivity. At Mayaro accommodations and restaurants are available. At the southwest Galoeta Point, Amoco Oil has a huge operation. Oil is the big money in Trinidad so catering to tourism is considered unnecessary. Maps show a route from the south coast to Rio Claro, but unless road conditions have improved a return to Mayaro is necessary. Rio Claro is in the interior and on the fringe of the teak forest. Unfriendly water buffaloes might permit a photo but the one I chose wanted privacy. The next stop is Tabaquite to Chaguanas and back to POS. These roads cover the interior of the island and are usually in good condition, uncrowded but slow going so don't hurry. There are plenty of Kodak moments along the way.

The best road in Trinidad is the southbound Uriah Butler Highway. It is a fast moving two-lane road that will carry you to San Fernando in less than an hour from POS. San Fernando is a bustling oil port. Following the south road the next stop is La Brea which is the site of the Pitch Lake and the first of many oil production plants along the west coast. Further along the Southern Main Road, the island returns to more a basic existence with coconut plantations and fishing at the villages of Cedros and Icacos. At the southwest point is Columbus Bay where the famous explorer supposedly lost his anchor, which is now displayed at the National Museum. This beach is huge, very tropical and seldom occupied. Again it is about a half-hour retracing to Point Fortrin where excellent rooms can be had at The Cinnamon House if the day has already been too long. A great way to return north is to head east to Erin picking a route as you go. Unique dry mud volcanoes are located at Debe. The driving is good and the views incredibly green and luxuriant, including agricultural land, cattle and cane farms. If you have the time, I recommend making a large circle and taking the Cunapo Southern Road through New Grant, Biche, and Poole. This is a long drive but awesomely beautiful.
On the west coast, south of POS, is an area named Caroni that consists of a river, a mangrove swamp and plains. The 40-square-mile Caroni Swamp is the home of Trinidad's national bird, the scarlet ibis. The ibis becomes brilliant red by eating the local crabs, shrimp and snails, which are rich in carotene. Just before sunset, flocks of the red birds gather to roost in the mangrove trees transforming green bush to a glowing red.

If you are timid and don't wish to meander far from Chaguaramas, perhaps indulge in a mountain bike rental. Peddle your way to the War Museum or the golf course, or to bathe at Maqueripe Bay which was a WWII submarine base. Good local food can be sampled at The Island Roti Shop and it is possible to send your e-mail at The Ocean Internet Café. Both are located at Tardieu Marine.
Security and Common Sense
Trinidad has a slightly gray reputation that is unfounded. News on the Chaguaramas VHF Net can contribute more to fear than safety. Incidents are bound to happen, but reports passed along the Net tend toward exaggeration. Many yachties who have visited Trinidad dwell on the negative and overstate the crime problem, but everything is a function of numbers. With more than a million people here, there has to be crime. Any big city has its bad areas, but locals will point them out so you can avoid them.
Unfortunately the country's three daily newspapers also dwell on the morbid stories. Domestic abuse is prevalent, but the highways are the big killers. Motor vehicle fatalities greatly outweigh the murders. Presently there is a major crackdown on bad driving, but again Trinidad has more than 300,000 vehicles on its roads.
I was given wise words to remember. "If you are looking for trouble, there's plenty to find in Trinidad." In other words, use your common sense and you should be okay. Don't over-indulge in rum or walk down dark streets alone. If you rent a car, drive very carefully.

Try not to be unreasonably afraid, as Trinidad has so much to see. If you explore, you'll stay and stay and stay.  Trinidadians are truly friendly, the cuisine is excellent, and lively arts such as theater plays and music are instantly available. Experience one Carnival and you might put off your departure indefinitely, as I did.

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