Trinidad’s main industry is not tourism, but visitors flock to the island during Carnival time for a nonstop party featuring elaborate costumes and dancing. // © Trinidad & Tobago Tourism Development Company Ltd.
Unlike many of the islands in the Caribbean, Trinidad is not dependent on tourism. Instead the country has a robust, oil-driven economy that provides a certain level of self-sufficiency. In a way, this works in Trinidad’s favor, making the island especially appealing for travelers in search of authentic experiences. You won’t find the over-the-top resorts and attractions encountered in tourism power houses such as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. Instead, on Trinidad, you’ll meet friendly people going about their business, partying in nightclubs or enjoying the beach with their families. This is one of the charms of the destination, a sense of real life occurring around the welcomed visitor.
There is one time of the year when Trinidad overflows with visitors. This is Carnival time, a date that shifts according to the date of Easter. For a week or so it’s a nonstop party on the island, especially in the capital city of Port of Spain. Dancing in the streets in elaborate costumes and steel pan competitions are the order of the day. Steel band music was born on Trinidad during World War II (Trinis call it steel pan). Scores of empty 55 gallon oil drums were left behind by U.S. forces and an unsung musical genius determined how to make them into tremendously melodic and rhythmic instruments.
One of the great aspects of Carnival in Trinidad is that it welcomes visitors to “play mas” and join one of the costumed groups that parade through the streets of the city. It takes some advance planning to order a costume, but it is well worth it travelers in search of a once-in-a lifetime experience.
One of the favorite places to cool down in Trinidad, and a yearlong attraction at that, is Maracas Beach. It’s about a 45-minute drive outside of the Port of Spain, but it’s worth it for its laidback ambience and the chance to sample some of the best bake and shark on the island. This has become the signature dish of Trinidad. Deep-fried pieces of shark are placed between two slices of fried bake (fried dough) and then customized with a wide range of condiments, from mustard to tamarind sauce. Combine this simple meal with the Maracas Beach setting for a quintessential Trinidad experience.
The cuisine in Trinidad is a major reason to visit. Multicultural Trinidad takes its cooking cues from its former occupiers, the British, Spanish and French. Mix in culinary magic from the island’s African and East Indian working class and you begin to have something really special. East Indians currently account for about 40 percent of the population of Trinidad, and their contributions to Trinidad’s culture are prevalent. Island specialties include all manner of curries; oxtail soup; Creole corn soup; macaroni pie; calaloo, a spicy soup made from the spinach-like leaves of the dasheen plant; and Rotis, which are East Indian sandwiches filled with curried meat and vegetables.
There’s one natural attraction that is pure magic. The Caroni Bird Sanctuary is comprised of a series of small canals and lakes. The sanctuary — which is home to 186 bird species — is a 25-minute drive from Port of Spain. Travelers can book a boat tour to explore the inlets winding through the mangroves of Caroni Swamp. The piece de resistance of the trip is when the boat lays anchor at the mouth of an inlet looking out on Caroni Island. Each evening thousands of scarlet ibis fly through the sky to roost in the trees on the Island. As the birds approach, they look black against the sky, but as they settle into the trees, it’s as if the island is bursting into bloom with deep red blossoms. It’s a glorious sight and a perfect way to cap off a day.
Many visitors combine a trip to Trinidad with a few days on Tobago, its sister island. While Trinidad has a cosmopolitan energy due to Port of Spain and its active business climate, Tobago is thoroughly laid back, a perfect choice for nature lovers, honeymooners and birdwatchers. Combining the two islands makes for a perfect Caribbean cocktail.