This Caribbean nation proudly celebrated 50 years of independence in 2012—but with its sublime landscapes, sensational food, riotously fun nightlife and vibrant culture drawing a new generation of appreciative visitors, the best is yet to come
Author Sam Polcer Photography Sam Polcer
WHEN CONFRONTED WITH THE BEAUTY OF THE CARIBBEAN, said the poet Derek Walcott, “the sigh of History dissolves.” This may be especially true of Trinidad and Tobago, the dual-island nation in which Walcott has spent much of his adult life, and which possesses such an abundance of natural splendor it’s a wonder anyone here can recall what they did yesterday.
But memory, it turns out, plays a big part in the life of these islands, which were first settled 7,000 years ago. Their modern history dates back to their “discovery” by Christopher Columbus in 1498, followed by colonization, economic exploitation and, in 1962, independence. Given the extraordinarily diverse population (dubbed “Trinbagonians”), which claims origins primarily in Asia, Africa and Europe, celebrating heritage is one of the things Trinidad and Tobago does best—yielding a kaleidoscope of sensory riches that both honors old traditions and combines them to create new ones.
Wrapping the nation’s yearlong 50th birthday celebration while gearing up for February’s Carnival, the cosmopolitan, passionate and proud Trinidadian capital, Port of Spain, works and plays as hard as any place in the Caribbean. But when it does come time to relax, idyllic, lightly developed Tobago has enough hidden waterfalls, secluded coves and thickets of tropical greenery to refresh the weariest of souls. It’s the best of both worlds.
DAY ONE A single blast from a foghorn rouses you in your 20th-floor suite at the Hyatt Regency Trinidad, in downtown Port of Spain. You peer out over the Gulf of Paria, where fishing and cargo boats bob in the distance, before venturing into the hazy morning air.
Your first meal is at The Breakfast Shed, a no-frills waterfront eatery whose seating area is a covered courtyard favored by boat crews and office workers. You order swordfish buljol (a kind of salad), along with fry bake: the fried unleavened bread that’s a simple but surprisingly delicious local staple. Seabirds lurk, eyeing your plate, but you feed them not.
From here, you cut through Independence Square and hang a left at Frederick Street, where a jumble of tin-roof markets, rum bars and roti shops jostle for your attention with the aid of roving touts and blown-out speaker systems. A few blocks north, you enter pastoral Queen’s Park Savannah, the city’s verdant 260-acre central park, where, even at this early hour, a handful of soccer matches are under way. It’s getting intensely hot, so you stop at a cart selling coconut water. The proprietor informs you that the park will fill up when the temperature drops in the afternoon, then hands you the most refreshing beverage you’ve ever tasted.
Continuing along the western edge of the park, you come upon the remnants of a running competition that started in the early 1900s among plantation owners to see who could build the most opulent estate. Some of the Magnificent Seven, as the buildings are known, have been lovingly maintained. Others haven’t, but even those have a kind of crumbling grandeur.
As you reach the northwest corner of the park, you realize you’ve worked up an appetite. It’s time for roti, dhalpuri bread stuffed with anything from shrimp to curried mango. You duck into Dopson’s Roti Shop, an establishment whose spare concrete design belies its wild popularity among locals. Thankfully, the place is relatively empty when you arrive. The owner suggests the boneless chicken, which you wolf down while sitting on the restaurant’s front steps.
A stack of napkins later, you visit the showroom of Yuma Mas, one of the city’s “mas camps” (“mas” being short for “masquerade”), where Carnival bands display the outfits their members will wear come February. Mannequins are draped in some of the brightest, most revealing outfits imaginable. A production assistant takes a break from sewing baubles onto feathers to ask what will become an oft-heard question: “You’re going to come back for Carnival, right?” Looking around, you start thinking that maybe you will.
Following a swim in the Hyatt’s rooftop infinity pool, you stop for a glass of wine in the chic lobby lounge and take in a mesmerizing sunset over the gulf. Then you head to Flair, chef Jason Huggins’ fine-dining restaurant on the corner of Taylor Street and Ariapita Avenue (a bustling stretch known locally as “the Avenue”). The meal starts off with a bang: cassava-stuffed shrimp with scotch bonnet-spiked tartar sauce. After devouring the fiery appetizer, you dig into crab-crusted grouper with mango-citrus relish, callaloo cream and yuca con mojo. Sated, you roll yourself outside, where evening revelers have already started spilling into the street.
Several blocks east, Drink entices you to take a seat at a sidewalk table. The wine bar turns out to be a hub for Trinidad’s creative community, and it’s not long before you’re engrossed in conversation. “If there’s one thing Trinbagonians are good at, it’s liming,” one patron tells you, explaining that “lime” is a catchall social word that locals use to describe everything from a quick chat to a big party. After a few more drinks, she invites you—along with an architect, a food writer and a fashion designer—to join her for a side trip to the St. James district for some classic Trinidadian nightlife.
Afterward, you swing through downtown to visit Zen, a thumping party spot, where you get sucked into a swirl of lights, noise and heat. By the time soca stars K Rich and Swappi hit the stage, things really begin to blur: toasts, cheers, hugs, dancing. You’re told there are spots in town that keep the party going later, but you bid your new friends adieu—you have plans to visit a large monkey first thing in the morning, and for that you’ll need some rest.