“Trinidad is my land
And of it I am proud and glad
But I can’t understand
Why some people does talk it bad.
All of them who runnin’ dey mouth
Don’t know whey they talkin’ bout
They will paint here black everyday,
But the right things they would never say…”
I had to open this post with a quote from the Mighty Sniper’s timeless song Portrait of Trinidad. Even though it was a hit in 1965, the words still ring true today. Trinidad is a beautiful island with a terrible reputation right now. I wouldn’t be a responsible blogger if I didn’t get that out of the way. But Trinidad is my homeland. Of it I am proud and glad. Despite everything, it remains an island with unparallelled music, cuisine, and cultural experiences to be enjoyed.
I was born and raised in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, and I lived in Trinidad until 1998. In my college days I made it back home pretty often, but ever since I joined the ranks of the employed (and then the unemployed), it became more difficult to get back home. Not having spring, summer, or winter break will do that to you.
Before this past Mother’s Day, the last time I’d been home was 2006, Before Afrobella. Just last Christmas I broke Mama Bella’s heart by not being able to make it home for Christmas. Then came Carnival and I had to dash her hopes yet again. Then my husband and I quit the jobs that were holding us back from following our dreams. Needless to say, after that a trip to Trinidad was not on the horizon. So when my dad suggested a surprise trip home for Mother’s Day, it was impossible to resist. After all, I was about to move from sunny Miami to the Windy City – I needed to soak up the tropical rays and family love while I could!
It turned out to be impossible to contain the excitement in my close-knit, chatty family. Mama Bella’s Mother’s Day surprise wasn’t exactly a surprise… but I know I made her very happy nonetheless. I spent some much-needed family time and got back to basics. It was lovely.
Going home feels like returning to an old self. In so many ways — even my skin and hair rebelled against the 90 degree temperatures, leaving me looking like a crazy-haired spotty teenager. No matter. I was there for fun, sun, family, and good food. While I was visiting, it hit me — how on EARTH had I never written an Afrobella guide to Trinidad before? Saying “my bad” feels like an understatement. Without further ado, here are my top five favorite places in Trinidad and Tobago. Excluding my house because that’s too obvious. =)
1. Maracas Beach. I’m convinced Trinis don’t always realize how good they have it. 80 degree temperatures year round. Lush green mountains and sparkling blue waters. Nonstop fun and great food to be discovered, if you know where to look. Maracas Beach is a great place to start for all of the above, and it’s a must for any first time visitor to T&T.
The roads are steep, winding and can be unpredictable (beware of landslides and crazy drivers!). But the vista at the lookout point will absolutely take your breath away. Maracas is a beautiful beach, but people don’t just go there to wiggle their toes in the sand. Oh no. Maracas is the famous home of bake and shark.
Click ahead to 2:35 to begin the Maracas segment. And please note that the worldly Travel Channel Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern saw fit to call it “the best fish sandwich I’ve ever eaten…one of my all time top ten favorite foods, not just of this trip, not just of this year. Ever.” So you don’t just have to take it from me, take it from a man with a truly adventurous palate. The New York Times also called it “just about the best fish sandwich in the world.” I agree completely. This humble fried fish sandwich is a fine reason to beeline for the beach. Most people head straight for Richard’s, undoubtedly the most popular venue. But there’s always an insane line at Richard’s. Besides his, there are a dozen or so stands, and my dad introduced me to his favorite – Uncle Sam’s. His bake & shark is to die for, trust! Laden it with as many condiments as you can stand — pickled cucumbers, tamarind sauce, mango chutney – the list is endless. One bite and you’ll be hooked for life!
2. The Savannah. For architecture, flora, and yes – good food (this is a theme you’ll notice throughout), you can’t miss a trip around the Savannah. Actually you probably won’t be able to miss a trip around the Savannah in general — at 260 acres, it’s touted as “the world’s largest roundabout.” The Savannah is home to the Magnificent Seven — turn of the century mansions that reflect the skill, craftsmanship and creativity of Trinidad’s architects and developers. It’s also home to the Emperor Valley Zoo, which when I last visited was in such a glum state I wished with my whole heart I could buy it, restore it to glory, and bring some joy and dignity to the animals that must be so unhappy to live there. It’s a heartbreaking experience for an animal lover, and I sincerely hope the government invests money into Trinidad’s languishing cultural landmarks, including the zoo, the Botanic Gardens, and the museum. It’s been reported that a renovation has been planned and I sincerely, sincerely hope it comes to fruition. OK, off soapbox. Tour guide hat back on.
The Savannah is another spot for unique cuisine and cultural experiences. At Carnival it is the blazing epicenter of the costume and steelpan competitions. It’s home to Apsara, the Indian restaurant rated #1 in the country according to Trip Advisor. And it’s the best place to come for coconut water straight from the nut, and for Indian delicacies like pholourie and saheena.
This photo captures two things I sincerely miss about home — All Saints Church, the church I grew up attending. I can honestly say the priest I had there as a child, was the coolest, most interesting, wonderful priest I could ever have hoped for. Father Winston Joseph can now be found in West Palm Beach at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and if you’re in the area and looking for a house of worship, I heartily encourage you to check him out! I miss good ol’ All Saints, and coconut water. I could go for a fresh, cold coconut water right this minute! That’s gonna be REALLY hard to find in Chicago!
3. St. James. Tony Bennett might have left his heart in San Francisco, but mine may be wandering somewhere around St. James, drinking rum at Smokey & Bunty or Arthur’s Place — RIP, Mr. Goddard — or somewhere on Western Main Road buying a roti. Trinis affectionately call it the city that never sleeps, but anyone who’s been to the Big Apple (or any other major city in the world) will find that title amusing. Still, it’s undeniable that something crazy and probably drunken is poppin’ off in St. James at any hour of the night or early morning. My trip home isn’t complete without a drive through, just for the people watching.
4. Woodbrook. If you’re looking for fine dining of any kind, this neighborhood should be your first port of call. There’s Italian, Chinese, and other cuisines common to the Western palate… but why eat stuff you can get anywhere in the world? When in Trinidad, I enjoy as much Trini food as possible. I haven’t been to Woodford Cafe in a while, but I’ve always enjoyed my meals there. I love the vibe at Sweet Lime. And on my last visit I fell head over heels with Veni Mange, the quirky, colorful, vibrant restaurant owned by cultural icon Allison Hennessey and her fantastic sister Roses Hezekiah. It’s all about tropic ambiance — art explodes off the wals and even the tables and chairs are painted, and the jalousies add an old time Trini touch that I loved. I’m mad at myself that I didn’t order the chip chip cocktail (even Fodors gave it a mention!) but I loved the stewed beef and dumplings I ordered. Another awesome New York Times review makes me want to go back. Their callaloo really is to die for.
5. Tobago. In general. It is with great regret that I admit that I haven’t been back to Tobago since my honeymoon (which as of this week was seven years ago)! I’ve been meaning to go back ever since. Trinidad is built up and busy. Tobago remains a beachy, laid back jewel of an island. I miss it. Store Bay is the place for local souveniers and Tobago’s culinary specialty, curry crab and dumpling. Glass bottom boats take tourists out to the coral reefs from the beach at Store Bay and the gorgeous Pigeon Point, it’s an enjoyable trip even for a non-seafarer like me.
There are lush accomodations to be found in Tobago for sure. If you’re looking to live the lavish life complete with cocktails on the beach, I highly recommend the stunning Coco Reef. I assure you, it can provide the idyllic island escape of your dreams. For nature lovers looking for a more rustic experience, I urge you to check out the ArnosVale Hotel. At 4 p.m. every day the hotel offers a truly amazing high tea that bird watchers the world over flock to witness. Set high in the thickly vegetated hillside, the restaurant’s balcony features a long, deep trough that is filled with fruit. Birds from all over the island come to enjoy the bounty. I’m talking about brightly colored, beautiful songbirds the likes of which you hardly ever see! It’s something to be experienced, for sure.
And there you have it – some of my favorite spots in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s smart to visit just about any of these places with a large group, as much as I hate to admit it, my homeland isn’t as safe as it used to be. But if you’re a smart, savvy traveler with your head on your shoulders and the brains to be aware of your surroundings, stash your money safely and flash your wealth at your own risk — you should be just fine.
It must be noted that I’m from Port of Spain AKA “the West,” so I know I’ve left out a legion of fantastic places to visit throughout the rest of Trinidad. And Tobago, for that matter. All the more reason for me to go back home soon! For even more Trini delights, check out this stunning NY Times multimedia feature. I’d LOVE to hear feedback from my fellow Trinis in the comments — where did I forget to mention? Where should I visit next time I come home? What did I miss?