Driver, Lateka orientates me, as we navigate through Port of Spain, (the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, but not the largest city) to the Culture Crossroads Inn. I was umming and aaahing about coming to Trinidad. Smaller sister island Tobago is lovely, very African and laid back. But Tobago? I'd been told of violence and houses surrounded by barbed wire. Instead, I'm faced with a lot of traffic yes, but neon lights, cute bars with thatched roofs, boutiques in gingerbread houses, malls, clean inviting buildings and smiles. It’s far more inviting than urban Jamaica, for example. The guest house, in St James, is clean, well organised and very friendly.
(I had set off with three pens in my bag, just make sure. But two of them have leaked on my flight to Trinidad. So I've managed to get ink smudges all over my nice blue hoodie, discovering this. I filled the immigration firms in with the third pen, but the officer rejected them, insisting it was green ink which is unacceptable. It doesn't look green to me, but he made me fill them all over again, with his blue biro. Apart from that, arrival at Port of Spain airport went without too much trauma.)
This trip, my mission is to explore Caribbean islands that have hitherto passed me by. I've been to Tobago some time ago, so now, I'm off to explore Trinidad, The Land of the Humming Bird, starting with Port of Spain.
St James is a very upmarket area. Mansions, manicured lawns and embassies of course. There are always embassies in the wealthy suburbs of capital cities. And yes, there is barbed wire running along the tops of some of the walls, but it's discreet and they don't look like prison compounds. Maraval Road runs along the western edge of green swathe of parkland know as (Queen's Park) The Savannah. It was once a sugar estate, but the land was bought by then Governor Woodford and a no building ban was applied.. Today, its two and half mile circumference makes The Savannah the world’s largest roundabout. Maraval Road is home to a fascinatingly Disneyesque museum of colonial mansions, in every style from Victorian to French Colonial. They’re known as The Magnificent Seven and date from 1903/4 for the most part.
First up, Stollmeyer’s Castle, first known as Killarney, bedecked with crenelations, turrets and towers of limestone and Italian marble. Apparently, it’s modelled on a wing of Balmoral Castle in Scotland. It was the first of the Magnificent Seven (the Yul Brynner), built by the planter Charles Fourier Stollmeyer and designed by the Scottish architect Robert Gillies. It was dubbed a castle by American troops billeted there during the war. So, it's been Stollmeyer's Castle, ever since. It was used as government offices earlier this century and is now being refurbished.
Whitehall, built from sparkling coral stone, is the largest and grandest of the six private residences here and has served several times as the Prime Minister’s Office (of course). This one is mock Palladian, with nods to classic Greek, Roman and Moorish architecture all incorporated.
The Roman Catholic Archbishop’s Palace is Indian Empire meets medieval style, with towers and arched Moghul style windows. Its Irish designer used red granite and marble brought over from the Emerald Isle.
Ambard’s House was designed by a French architect in ‘ French Second Empire’ style. Ambard lost the house after being unable to make his mortgage payments to Gordon Grant and Company, in 1919. Then, a Pointz Mackenzie bought it and met the same fate, to the same company, in 1923. The house was eventually sold to Mr Timothy Roodal, in 1940, with a happier ending. His family still live there. It’s advertised as the least modified of the houses, but it’s also the one in the worst state of repair. There are patches of rust.
Mille Fleurs is a charmingly delicate blue and white French Provincial mansion, built for Dr Enrique Prada, who was the Mayor of Port of Spain from 1914 to 1917. It’s now owned by the National Trust and you can wander in and have a look, though there isn’t much to see inside.
Hayes Court is the simplest of these fascinating buildings. Here Scottish cast iron meets French Colonial. It was the home of Trinidad and Tobago’s Anglican bishops.
Last up, a boy’s school, Queen’s Royal College. It’s possibly the most extraordinary building of the seven. A brilliant orange red and blue-grey façade, with German Renaissance architectural features and a 93-feet tall clock tower. I’m about as awestruck as when I walked down the Strip in Las Vegas, goggling at all the astonishing installations outside the hotels. I'll include images of all the Seven. See if you can work out which is which?
Beyond the Savannah, the Royal Botanic Garden, a riot of exotic blooms. Across the other side, the conference centre and the metallic space-age and total contrast of the Performing Arts Centre. It's more than a little controversial. The building was designed to look like the chaconia, Trinidad & Tobago’s national flower, but you can only see that from the air. It cost a phenomenal amount. It's really badly designed, using out of date technology; it leaks and the acoustics are terrible. So I read.
Now I'm wandering past a huge cemetery. Founded in 1813, Lapeyrouse is open to people of all faiths and heritages and the eclectic mix of elaborate and intricately decorated tombstones reflects this. Cemeteries are often surprisingly fascinating and this one doesn't disappoint.
Woodford Square is the historical centre of Port of Spain - it's almost down town. It has a bandstand in the centre and it's home to The Old Fire station (Victorian), The National Library (new-ish), the Old Public Library (1901), The Hall of Justice (Brutalist meets modern Tropical) The Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral (Gothic Revival style 1818), The Red House - the huge and sprawling Beaux Arts Parliament building and, just round the corner, the ornate grey brick (with tower) police and CID building. It's a real celebration (or hotch potch) of old meeting new.
Trinidad’s brick red Parliament dominates. It's had an interesting history. The original Parliament building burned to the ground in 1903. This one featured on the world wide news, in 1990, when Islamic fundamentalist, Yasin Abu Bakr, and 114 of his followers stormed the the Red House taking 45 members of Parliament hostage, including Prime Minister Robinson.
Then on, to downtown Port of Spain with narrower streets and inviting bustling shops, many of them selling textiles - Syrian owned. A couple of ‘hello beautifuls’, but otherwise all is calm and friendly. Brian Lara Promenade and Independence Square, home to gardens and The Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. It’s one of the oldest buildings, completed in 1851. It’s also a welcome place to cool off. They’ve turned all the portable fans on. My phone has over heated as well as me. And I’ve walked in the shade when I can. I summon a TT Cab - the local Uber.
Fort George was built around a signal station in 1804, a Napoleonic defence, on the edge of St James. When war threatened, the merchants of Port of Spain used it to store their records, cash and valuables. But it never saw action, despite the cannons and dungeons on display today. It was eventually abandoned by the troops in 1846. During one of the British-Ashanti in what is now Ghana, the West African Prince, Kofi Nti was captured and brought to Port of Spain. In 1883 He was given the privilege of designing the pretty gingerbread style signal house that was to become his home. Today, it's a small - his stamp collection is inside.
The views across the city and the suburb of St James and out to sea, definitely reward the slog up the steep hill. You can just make out Venezuela to the west. The ferries don’t run there any more. Any traffic is strictly immigrants in this direction.
Lateka was going to ferry me to the beach at Maracas Bay, but two French guys (cable layers) staying at the inn are going that way and invite me along. It seems like a good idea, as we can split the cost three ways. But nothing is ever straightforward and driver Moses takes an hour to materialise; he’s a lovely guy with long rasta locks.
First, up to Paramina village, at over 600 metres in Trinidad's northern mountains. They rise almost straight from the sea. These are the steepest bends you ever saw, the ultimate test for a small automatic. If they’re hairpins, they are very bent ones. But the view is spectacular and continues to be, as we veer in and out along a coastal ridge. Dots of islands on a shimmering sea to the north and mountains draped in a thick cloak of greenery, with cloud splodges on the other three sides. Iridescent hummingbirds hover in the forest. This is The Land of the Hummingbird, after all and it is the national bird.
Maracas is the perfect beach. It’s the most well known in Trinidad and I’m surprised it hasn’t made it onto those Best in the World lists. Golden sand edged with sea grape and dotted with palm trees. There’s a picturesque fishing village at the west end, boats bobbing. And a line of cabins selling the renowned local dish, bake'n'shark. Fried buns with battered shark and an assortment of sauces and salads to go with it.
My new French friends, Jaques (he says he’s Jack Sparrow) and Olivier (he says he’s Oliver Twist, which isn’t quite as Caribbean) swim (even though there are red flags because of the crashing surf and the life guards are chatting in their little red and yellow huts or sleeping on the jetty) and tell me which cabin to order from. They say they are French and know about food. I do as I’m told, but opt for shrimp instead of shark. It’s divine.
Sadly, there is little time to sunbathe as the French duo say they are worried about traffic and we need to get back. Olivier and Jaques are flying back to Paris tonight to spend Christmas in France. They say they are not looking forward to the cold. Back at the guest house, Moses waits an hour or so for them to change and finish packing. I pay him my share and then discover my third of the bill also includes the waiting and airport drive fee. Perhaps the French men didn’t get paid much for their cable laying.
Seven a.m. the next morning and Oliver Twist is on the phone, living up to his name and asking for more. Somehow they have managed to miss their flight. He explains that they waited at the gate for ages, looking at the KLM plane, parked up outside. Nothing happened. No-one was around. And then they were told it was too late to board. So they’re back and its two days before the next flight. Do I want to share a car to explore further?
Well, I tell them, at least you can stay in the warm, after all. Fortunately, (I think) I’ve already got my own car booked, to visit the northern beaches, so I won’t be subsidising their voyages today. I’m carrying another legacy of our trip. There’s aways a problem with Paradise. This one is No See Ums. Tiny biting insects that cause a very nasty itch.
Jeffrey is driving me to a parade of beaches along the north coast. We’re starting with Maracas, and it’s fortunate that I’ve been before, as today its raining heavily, the sea is dull grey and the mountains are obliterated. We stop to buy another bake'n'shark/shrimp for my lunch, but Jeffrey points out that it will be nicer hot, so I eat it straightaway. It’s still delicious.
Next is Tyrico Bay, which is probably still part of Maracas Bay. Jeffrey says the rip tides here are bad and there are a lot of drownings. It can’t help that the lifeguard station has been burnt down. It’s pretty, but neglected, and there’s litter strewn around. There are a patch of colourful Hindu prayer flags flying against a cloudy sky. And, at least it's stopped raining.
Las Cuevas is longer than Maracas, (a 22 kilometre horseshoe of sand) and more peaceful, with smaller waves. As the name suggests there are caves, but right at the tip of the headland. There’s a fishing village here too. There’s some debate amongst the locals as to which beach is best. This one is probably more relaxing, but I don’t think it’s as attractive. It’s not as vibrant either, but some would view that as an advantage. And it's a moot point, as it's raining again.
Through the village of La Filette, on a headland above Las Cuevas, and a couple of deep pools, water cascading over the rocks, are the remains of Fort Abercromby. It's named after Sir Ralph Abercromby, Commander of the British forces that captured Trinidad and Tobago and decorated with some ships’ cannon. The fort was built in 1797 and destroyed in 1804, by the officer in charge, who had spotted a large fleet on their way. It turned out to be Nelson, having engaged with the French and Spanish, and on his way to Trafalgar.
Yarra Beach is wild and has a river emptying prettily into it. We’re pursued by four romping, but friendly, dogs as we explore, but the rain is back with a vengeance and it’s a short excursion.
The last stop is Blanchisseuse. The village was named by Captain Frederick Mallet, who was charting and surveying the island of Trinidad following its capitulation to the British in 1797. He saw the women washing clothes in the river and blanchisseuse is French for "washerwoman".
It’s another wild and popular strip of sand which edges the mouth of the Marianne River. Jeffrey had planned lunch at a stone table here, perched above the beach, but sadly it's still bleak and uninviting and the tide is in. The river is flat calm and the mangroves reflect nicely. There’s a suspension bridge that was replaced, as it was dangerous and then reinstalled, next to the new one, as the replacement wasn’t a suspension bridge. Some of the planks have been jemmied and stolen. Yet again there won’t be any swimming or sunbathing. Home Jeffrey.
Through the mountains again. El Tucuche (936 m), the second highest peak in Trinidad's Northern Range has a pyramid shape and is visible from all sides, though the clouds do their best to prevent us. Through the amazing Bamboo Cathedral, forming arches across the road. And we have to stop to take pictures of eye catching fungi. It seems that Jeffrey is known as the Mushroom Man of Trinidad and has a dedicated Facebook page. He’s also on a You-tube documentary. Serious stuff.
We’re trying to elude the rain again, as we head south, hugging the west coast of Trinidad. Indian heritage is especially evident in this central area area, with scatterings of Hindu prayer flags and several temples and shrines.
The Sri Dattatreya Yoga Centre is a complex of temples (as part of an ashram) founded in 1986 by an Indian holy man, Sri Swamiji. Apparently, he declared the area the site of the lost Sacred Aripo River, for which he had been searching and declared that this area was once part of the Himalayas and he was then its king. That aside, it’s become an important centre for the Hindu population and has been renovated several times. In 2003 ,all the temples were rebuilt and reconsecrated. Intricate carvings were laboriously made in the concrete. And a new temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god was added, with the tallest Hanuman symbolic statue (murti) outside India (85 feet).
The opening ceremony was elaborate. It involved Sri Swamiji dropping holy Ganges and Aripo water and showering flowers on the statue, from a helicopter, and releasing white pigeons and multitudes of colourful balloons. Twenty thousand attended.
The temples have recently had another coat of paint. In Europe, they would look decidedly garish. Here, under a blue and white sky, the bright colours work wonderfully.
Just down the road, is the Temple in the Sea. Here, in contrast, a simple white domed edifice at the end of a tiled path, edged prettily with tangerine flags and flower beds. This was constructed in 1995. Half way up the path, is an even more diminutive white building, roofed with the original temple dome. This temple, a sewalla, was erected by an indentured Indian labourer Sewdass Sadhu, in the 1930s. But he built it on land owned by the Tate and Lyle Sugar Company, who ordered him to take it down. He refused and was sent to prison for 14 days and fined 100 pounds. Then they destroyed the temple.
Undeterred, in 1947, Sadhu began to transport stones, cement, and sand on his bike, eventually creating a rocky pathway into the gulf, which no one owned. He built another temple there, in 1952, although that gradually fell into disrepair (other than aforesaid dome). It’s a lovely story of persistence, in the face of colonial bureaucracy, and it’s a delightful spot too. Mudskippers frolic and the fishing boats are covered in pelicans and sand pipers. In the distance, Venezuela.
Further south, past a nitrogen processing plant (LNG), with incongruously a preserved Word War II watch tower peeking out behind the barricades and back onto the three lane highway. The road has immaculately manicured verges and shopping centres, which look as if they have been lifted straight from the USA. Here is Trinidad’s second city, San Fernando. It’s more populated than Port of Spain, with apartment blocks and shanty houses rammed between the more affluent chalets bungalows and assorted mansions. It’s a colourful view from the top of San Fernando Hill. This looms above with a sheer cliff face. The town grandees quarried half of it away, before deciding it might be wise not to lose the whole sugar loaf peak.
Below and beyond, the harbour, docks and the oil terminal. Trinidad has relied on oil and other industries to support its economy. It hasn’t been thought necessary to encourage tourism, as in Tobago. So far. The refinery is closed now.
Right to the south west corner of oddly shaped Trinidad. (It’s a rectangle with some corners pinched out more than others. And no main road all the way round. Parts of the east are difficult to access.) Here is La Brea, (Pitch Lake), the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world. and a major supplier to the international market. I’m told there are only two other large pitch lakes. This one is 109 acres and holds approximately 10 million tonnes of asphalt. Enough to last for another 400 years. It was brought to the world’s attention by Sir Walter Raleigh, who used the pitch to caulk his ships.
Trinidadians advocate it as the eight wonder of the world. I’m not sure I would go that far, but it’s a unique visit. A giant squishy car park. We have to employ a guide, Amina, as the hot bitumen lurks just beneath the deceptively dry surface, which cracks and solidifies and throws up bubbles of methane. It’s covered with pools of water, elegantly reflecting the sky and concealing fissures, which can trap and maul feet. There are horrific stories of people who have been swallowed up and burnt to a crisp. I stay diligently behind Amina, as we splash up to our shins, along channels lined with grasses. Jacana bob between the stalks behind us and water lilies provide splashes of colour.
I’m finally able to make use of my swimsuit, as I’m told the water has restorative properties. As long as I’m careful where I bathe of course. Properly supervised, I manage five minutes in my allotted pool, before we have to finish. The rain has returned.
I’ve already taken much too readily to the Trinidadian bake'n'shark (I'm so glad they don't put calories on the menus here). Jeffrey is determined to introduce me to other cultural delights. And there are plenty. Food in Trinidad is a glorious melange of the exotic. Flavours from India (many of the population have roots in the subcontinent) have married with those from West Africa, China and Syria and of the indigenous people.
Barbecue is good, with smokeries on the roadside. Pork is ubiquitous, as on many islands. Chow are fruits, or other goodies, soaked in garlic, herbs and spices and sold from jars on stalls along the road side. The mango and pineapple are very tasty. ‘Hot sauce ma’am?’ There are all manner of cakes and pastries and sweet delights, again on roadside stalls (alongside an assortment of drinks- spiked with alcohol or otherwise) and in the many bakeries. Batter balls (ackee and other assortments) with tamarind dips, cheese pies, potato pies (more garlic than potato), sticky and sweet coconut bread, cassava pone (with pumpkin and coconut - it’s delicious) and so it goes on. I’m less keen on the national dish, callaloo. It’s a thick soup made from dasheen leaves (greens) and cooked with an assortment of herbs and spices. I’ve tried it once in St Lucia. That was enough.
And, on the way home, at different times, we visit the roti (hotte) shop and a doubles stand in a food court, opposite the Queens Oval cricket ground, in POS. Doubles were invented in Trinidad and are the perfect example of Indian meets Caribbean:
two fried flat breads with a curried chickpea filling stuffed in between. Roti is a similar fusion, more widespread in the Caribbean and very popular here. I’m sampling shrimp curry in a roti wrap. That’s also wonderful. I daren’t weigh myself. Or wear anything other than my sarong.
So, Trinidad has been nothing like I expected. I've felt totally safe all the time. (Although, I was told to be careful where I walked at night.) The beaches are gorgeous (Trinidad's main and more or less only similarity with Tobago). The mountains are stunning. The pitch lake, totally unexpected. The diversity is intriguing and makes for a vibrant cultural experience. The temples are exhilarating, the people warm, welcoming and helpful and the food glorious. I'm so glad I came.
Or read more about Trinidad and Tobago here.
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