ONE of the world’s biggest and best street carnivals, great music and rum, lots of rum. What’s not to like about a trip to Trinidad and Tobago?
Trinidad, just 11 kilometres off the coast of Venezuela and geographically originally part of South America, not only has an ideal climate for producing rum, a product of ripe sugar cane, but also has a reputation as a cultural melting pot of people who love to party.
Trinidad was a Spanish colony from the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1498 until taken over by the English in 1797. It declared independence from Britain in 1962 and is today dotted with gracious colonial buildings in various states of disrepair.
Both islands move to a musical beat with Trinidad the birthplace of steel pan, calypso, soca and chutney, all intensely individualistic musical styles – and while there is wealth from the local oil boom, life here moves at a leisurely pace.
The locals – particularly over the carnival period in February - operate in a sociable semi inebriated state they call “liming” – a state induced by the excellent local Angostura rums and fine Trinibagonian brews.
Carnival, a bacchanalian celebration of music and bare flesh, sees many participants wear masks, or “play mas” in the local dialect, dancing all day under the blazing hot Caribbean sun.
For those who associate Trinidad and Tobago with sun, sand and surf it may come as a surprise that the waterfront capital of Port of Spain does not actually have any beaches. It’s got cafes, bars, cricket pitches, calypso musicians, steel bands, limbo, the annual carnival and the Angostura rum distillery – but no beaches.
So you hire a car, get on a bus, or jump in a taxi, and a few minutes later - after a spectacular ride through tropical scenery - you find yourself at Maracas Bay, a world-class beach to match anything you’d find in Thailand or Tropical North Queensland. Think a semi-circular sandy beach populated by beautiful people and surrounded by steep cliffs covered in tropical green.
Many of the visitors are not at Maracas Bay (right) for sunbathing and a wave or two, however – they come here to eat. The beachfront is dotted with stalls selling a local speciality known as bake and shark.
Bake and shark is the favourite local fast food; a fillet of shark meat prepared with island herbs and spices, ginger and pepper, then deep fried and served in a sugary bun with a selection of salads, including tamarind, pineapple and an exquisitely hot pepper sauce.
Pair one with a Carib or Stag beer, or a Planter’s Punch of Angostura bitters, fresh fruit juice and rum, and you have a feast fit for a prince at a pauper’s price. Locals argue over which is the best bake and shark stall, but the longest lines seem to be at Richard’s – where you create your own sandwich by adding as many salad items and condiments as you wish.
For other authentic experiences visit the Port Authority Canteen on the edge of the harbour - a favourite with local workers – or stop at one of the stalls that dot the road between Port of Spain and Maracas Bay and sample some fresh coconut, or dried tropical fruits.
Trinidad’s many cultures-– African, Indian, South American, British and Spanish – have melded to create a unique cuisine – although it is also said there are more KFC shops per head of population than anywhere on earth.
One “must do” is a visit to Angostura, which makes both aromatic bitters and world-class rums and is synonymous with Trinidad and Tobago. Tourists are welcome to visit its distillery and museum in the Port of Spain suburb of Laventille.
The bitters have been made from the same original (and secret) recipe of herbs and spices since 1824. They are used as a food additive, as well as for adding an extra element to cocktails like pink gins, Singapore Slings, mojitos and Champagne cocktails.
Rum is a newer venture but Angostura produces around 7-8 million cases a year – including two that have gained popularity in Australia: the 1919 and the 1824 (a tribute to the year the company was founded). See www.angostura.com for details.
Despite the booze, and local herbal cigarettes, the friendliness of the islanders - and their lack of aggression - is noticeable. Put several thousand Australians under the sun all day with plenty of alcohol and pretty girls, as is the case during Carnival, and you would have a very different result.
|Bake and Shark|
It is this atmosphere that has produced such great sportsmen as Brian Lara – “the Prince of Port of Spain” – and former Sydney FC striker Dwight Yorke, after whom a stadium has been named on Tobago.
Trinidad is gritty and real; Tobago dotted with more typical Caribbean resorts. But Trinidad has quality accommodation, including the Hyatt Regency on the waterfront - the ideal base from which to sample the many bars and cafes on Ariapita Avenue – or the Trinidad Hilton, built on a hillside overlooking the city and the green expanse of the Queen’s Park Savannah, a vast parkland that comes alive during Carnival.
Cruise ships visit here in their dozens from November to April while yachties congregate in Chaguaramas, just outside the capital, and explore the many nearby islands.
Carnival, a riotous parade of bands and masqueraders through the streets, is the best time to visit, but Port of Spain residents will tell you: “Carnival is a 12-month state of mind here.”
Qantas operates daily services from Brisbane and Sydney to Dallas Fort Worth, and regular flights to Los Angeles, with onward connections to Miami and Port of Spain with code share partner American Airlines. To book visit www.qantas.com.