Caribbean: Trinidad & Tobago, an Overview

Plan your getaway to an island rich in calypso and carnival.
by Dan Klinglesmith

"T & T" is an apt shorthand for Trinidad and Tobago. The tiny twosome, an island nation off Venezuela's northeastern coast, is renowned for zesty Caribbean culture amidst dynamite natural surroundings.

Pristine rainforest cloaks the isles' mountainous interiors, draping down to sandy shorelines straddling the aqua-tinted Caribbean Sea and the deep-blue Atlantic Ocean. Ethnically diverse hamlets -- predominately African and East Indian with a smidgen of Middle Eastern, European, and indigenous Arawak -- create a cultural melange across the lush landscape. One moment you're passing a Hindu temple and the next you're gyrating to a Carib-African steelband beat. Then it's off to trek through Amazonian-like rainforests for glimpses of iridescently plumed birds, or stroll aside turquoise-toned surf splashing up against palm-studded beaches every bit as postcard picturesque as some faraway South Seas escape.

Trinidad and Tobago exude a spicy Caribbean charm that until only recently was rarely sampled by vacationers, let alone honeymooners. For years, the country's ample oil revenues made tourism merely an afterthought. But government interest in economic diversification is quickly changing that attitude. Now, it's roll out the welcome mat to couples seeking a double-fused blend of explosive party time and exotic paradise.


Rhythm, rhyme, and revelry are Trinidad's claims to fame. T&T's principal island is the birthplace of calypso and steelpan drums, and it annually hosts one of the planet's premiere pull-out-all-the-stops pre-Lent carnivals (Mardi Gras is another, if you were wondering).

Port of Spain is action central, a 300,000-resident strong metropolis spread atop the forested hillocks rising out from oh-so-blue Gulf of Paria. Stay two to three days to sample the music scene and take daytrips to nearby nature sanctuaries.

Time your visit from January to mid-February to slip into the raucous Carnival scene. Port of Spain throbs with "free up," a let-go-and-hit-the-play button pre-festival warm-up period. Beginning with the New Year, 100-member steelbands tease out new riffs, costume designers stitch up hurricanes of spangles and sequins for folks to "play mas" (masquerade), and calypsonians create witty rhyming commentaries poking fun at everyone, especially politicians. Then comes mid-February, and BAM -- two days of serious party hearty.

Can't get away in January or February? No worries. March heralds the Phagwah Festival of Color, during which residents douse each other with colored water. Goat-skin "tassa" drums sound the July arrival of Hosay, an Islamic fete and parade of jeweled tadjah, shoulder-mounted floats symbolizing martyrs' tombs. Divali, a Hindu festival of light, marks October evenings, with flickering oil lamps lined atop city walls and on window sills. November vibrates with the Pan Jazz Festival, drawing international performers to match jazzy tunes to steelpan tempos.

Yes, "Trinis" love liming, the local patois for frittering away hours drinking and dancing, singing, and socializing. But that's only one way to experience the island's carefree allure. Natural highs are the other. Spend a day, or perhaps an overnight stay, at the Asa Wright Nature Center and Lodge, located an hour east of Port of Spain high in the Northern Range Forest Reserve. Birdwatchers are guaranteed a kaleidoscopic eyeful of hummingbirds and tanagers within this 200-acre wildlife sanctuary surrounding a vintage plantation estate.

More extraordinary avian adventures await at the 450-acre preserve within the Caroni Swamp National Park, a long but rewarding daytrip south of Port of Spain. Some 130 different bird species call this refuge home, with the brilliantly colored Scarlet Ibis taking top billing. The country's fire-engine red national bird makes an awesome sunset showing as hundreds return from feeding grounds in Venezuela's Orinoco Delta to roost among Caroni's mangroves.


Mother Nature favors diminutive Tobago, too. The Main Ridge Forest Reserve dominates the isle's humpbacked terrain, the oldest nature sanctuary in the Western Hemisphere. Birders by the score come here for binocular peeks at more than 400 species of feathered marvels, from green parrots to red-billed tropic birds.

David Rooks Nature Tours, (868) 756-8594, is the outfit to hook up with for an eco-tour of the island. Rooks is the expert that filmmakers like David Attenborough and royalty like H.R.H. Prince Philip of England call when they want to view Tobago's winged wonders.

Tobago may be best explored on your own, however. Rent an open-topped 4WD for the day, then head out for a spin. Remember to drive on the left (T&T was once British) as you negotiate the narrow, winding lanes that skirt the island's hilly shoreline. At every twist and turn, vistas deliver dreamy panoramas. Plenty of small villages are welcome rest stops to ease arms weary from too many steering-wheel whirls. Sidetrips to the Lure Estate Waterfalls or the Argyle Waterfall might tempt you into the waters for a enchanting tropical splash. (Do bring along a bathing suit -- modest-minded Tobagoans won't approve of skinnydipping!)

When to Go: Trinidad & Tobago at their Best

  • Best Weather: Like many islands in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago have a dry and rainy season – the dry season lasts from January to May and the rainy season runs from June through December. Temperatures during the day are warm, but not unbearable, and it is pleasantly cool in the evenings.
  • Best Prices: early September through mid-December; exact rates vary by hotel.
  • Festival Highlights: Trinidad and Tobago's lively Carnival celebrations take place during the Monday and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday, but the island is alive with flavor and fun in anticipation of Carnival in the days following Christmas! Rest up before heading to these festivals because these islanders really know how to party.
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