Some Highlights of Trinidad’s Natural & Built Heritage
In between Trinidad’s many modern buildings and ultra-contemporary homes, architectural gems peep out, legacies of Trinidad’s many influences – religious, social and economic. Among the most beautiful and appealing are the signature gingerbread houses, many Catholic churches and cathedrals, classic Islamic mosques, Hindu mandirs, 18th century mansions built by cocoa kings, former sugar plantation homes and museums, such as the National Museum and Art Gallery, which has a German Renaissance style.
For the history buff, there are a great many archaeological and historical sites in Trinidad and Tobago. Many are in the process of being protected and preserved by the National Trust, though there is still much work to be done in preserving our natural, cultural and built or achitectural heritage. A few sites require special permission to access (which can usually be done by an authorised tour guide).
The Magnificent Seven
A row of grand old houses on the western side of the Queen’s Park Savannah, were built between 1900 and 1910. The most southerly is Queen’s Royal College, whose most famous alumna is Nobel Prize-winning writer (and quintessential Trini) VS Naipaul. Hayes Court was the residence of the Anglican Bishop of Trinidad and Tobago and is still the property of the Anglican Church. It is currently under renovation. Next door is Mille Fleurs, which was built in 1904 for the Prada family. It was bought by the government in 1979, but has never been used, like many structures in this wealthy nation, and is now falling apart.
Roomor, originally known as Ambard’s House, was commissioned by a cocoa merchant. It is the only one of the seven still functioning as a private residence. Just three doors down from the Anglican bishop’s residence is the home of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Port of Spain. The building has been renovated and is used by the church.
Whitehall was, until 2008, the office of the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago since shortly after independence. It is still being renovated and restored with plans for it to be used as a Protocol House for visiting dignitaries.
The northernmost of the seven, Stollmeyer’s Castle, was originally named Killarney. It remained the property of the Stollmeyer family until the 1970s and was eventually bought by the government in 1979. It too was scheduled for conversion to a Protocol House in 2008, along with White Hall; however, the work is still ongoing.
History buffs will find cannons and other relics scattered throughout the island. The gingerbread house has delicate wooden filigree, jalousie windows, peaked roofs, dormers and a gallery. George Brown, a Scottish architect who came to Trinidad in 1880, created the gingerbread style, which can be found across the island, in remnants of stately mansions once owned by planters and merchants, as well as the humble cottages of the working class.
More: Quite a few gingerbread houses can be seen in Woodbrook, the western suburb of Port of Spain that is now the liming hub of the country. A living museum of architecture, this former sugar estate became a respectable suburb for a new emerging middle class in the early 1900s. Belmont, to the east of the Queen’s Park Savannah, has also held on to some of its beautiful old homes, which are in remarkably good condition.
The National Museum and Art Gallery
Though not part of the Queen’s Park Savannah’s Magnificent Seven, the National Museum and Art Gallery is housed in a building of significance. Established as the Royal Victoria Institute, in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the building is an example of the German Renaissance architectural style. The more celebrated example of this style in Trinidad – and no more than a stroll away from the museum – is Queen’s Royal College. The two buildings share a common architect: Daniel M. Hahn, an old boy of QRC, who received training in Germany. Today, the building houses both the national art collection and a history collection comprising artefacts from the country’s earliest known Amerindian settlements to (almost) the present day.
Admission is free, and the museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 6pm.
Two smaller museums in Port of Spain complement the main collection:
- The Museum of the City of Port of Spain: A collection designed to narrate the history of Trinidad’s capital. Opening hours: Tuesday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. Fort San Andres, South Quay, Port of Spain (opposite City Gate bus terminal). Tel: 623 5941/624 6477/623 0339
- Police Service Museum: There has been a Police Force in Trinidad since 1592, established by the Spanish. For its first two hundred years, however, it was never more than half-a-dozen strong. It is bigger, and busier, now. Opening hours: Tuesday to Thursday, 9am to 5pm; Saturday, 10am to 3pm. Old Police Headquarters, St Vincent St, Port of Spain. Tel: 624 6722.
African Legacy Tours
These inspiring and educational tours take in sites of African heritage across the two islands. Africans were first brought here in 1606 to work on tobacco plantations. However, most came in 1783 with the plantation owners of islands that the French had claimed. Emancipation was proclaimed at the Treasury Building in Port of Spain by Governor George Hill on August 1, 1834; the freedom for which the Africans had ceaselessly fought was finally achieved four years later, on August 1, 1838.
The tours celebrate the rich legacy of the Africans, as well as the contributions of their descendants, to the heritage and culture of Trinidad and Tobago. You will learn about their resistance, Maroonage, Pan Africanism and links to continental Africa, as well as their spirituality and ancient legends, new discoveries and modern heroes. Tel. 461-8637
Emperor Valley Zoo
Tigers, giraffes, lions, macaws and lots of snakes. Kids will love it. The young giraffes are adorable and the new lions and tigers are big draws. Get a good look at some of the many species of monkeys, parrots, macaws, snakes, fish and reptiles that inhabit the forests of this land. Open every day exept Christmas and carnival. Admission: Adults TT$30, children TT$15, 8am–5:30pm (weekdays) and 8am–6:00pm (weekends). www.zstt.org
High in the hills overlooking Port of Spain, the Gulf of Paria, west Trinidad and Central Trinidad is Fort George. The British landed on this coast in 1797 and snatched the island from Spain. Fort George (1804), 1,100ft above Port of Spain, became the main defence against attack. But it never experienced any military action, was decommissioned in 1846 and become a signal station in 1883. Original cannon, cannon balls and part of the dungeon remain. But the real attraction now is the panoramic view (the hills to the west are Venezuela’s Paria peninsula). Open 10am to 6pm, admission free.
Angostura Museum and Barcant Butterfly Collection
Located on Eastern Main Road/Trinity Avenue, Laventille. View the famous collection of Trinidad’s colourful butterflies, including the beautiful Blue Emperor. Hear the history of the company’s unique bitters, tour the manufacturing room, bottling plant and distillery and sample some of Angostura’s much-loved rums. Tours begin at 9.30am and 1.30pm, Monday to Friday and last approximately two hours; advance booking required. www.facebook.com/AngosturaMuseumAndBarcantButterflyCollection
UWI Zoology Museum
Located at the Natural Sciences Building, UWI, St Augustine The University of the West Indies Zoology Museum is the largest and most significant collection of zoological specimens in Trinidad & Tobago. Tours of the Zoology Museum can be booked for any time between 8am and 4pm, Monday to Friday. Admission: free. www.facebook.com/uwizoologymuseum
This sprawling retreat covers ten acres of land in Valencia and is a wonderful escape in the east for the whole family. Attractions include a butterfly and bird sanctuary, a river, a mini-zoo, greenhouses, and fishing in a tilapia pond. Rods and lines are provided; you have to walk with bait. You can keep what you catch – perhaps even curry or fry it up in one of the outdoor cooking sheds, which come equipped with a gas tank, ring stove, table, chairs, sink, water and electricity. Wander among the 95 varieties of trees, many laden with fruit. Kids won’t get bored; not with a basketball court, football field, cricket pitch and a pool all on site. The resort uses solar water heating, composting and 100% recycling. www.facebook.com/valencia.ecoresort
Lopinot Historical Complex
A cocoa and coffee estate was established here around 1806 by Count Charles Joseph of Lopinot (Compte de Lopinot), who had fled to Trinidad in 1791 to escape the Haitian revolution. He built a tapia estate house, prison and slave quarters and died in 1819, but legend has it that on dark, stormy nights he appears on a black horse dressed in military regalia and gallops across the Lopinot savannah. The visitor centre/museum is on the site of the old great house, near the remains of a cocoa house, a jail, and the Count’s grave. The village has a strong Spanish heritage, and is a parang music stronghold.
Asa Wright Nature Centre and Lodge
Nestled at the head of the Arima valley, this is birdwatchers’ paradise, and a conservation and study centre for professional and amateur naturalists. The original estate was purchased by Dr. Newcome Wright and his Icelandic wife Asa in 1947, and has since become a conservation and research centre with an international reputation. The century-old great house has been preserved, and houses a dining hall and an open verandah for observation, especially of birds. Dunston Cave is the most easily accessible place to see nocturnal oilbirds. The Arima River flows through the property, and there are various trails with guided tours. Guests stay in the main house or small cottages. www.asawright.org.
Mount St Benedict
This is the largest Benedictine Monastery in the Caribbean. Built in 1912, 800 feet above the plains, its Pax Guesthouse is simple and comfortable (the manager is a storehouse of knowledge about the surrounding nature trails, birds and animals, plants and trees). The monks make and sell yoghurt, and the Pax Abbey Shop sells religious items. Afternoon tea is available. http://www.mountstbenedictabbey.org/the-pax-abbey-shop.html
La Vega, Gran Couva
This 250-acre estate is a lovely, relaxing way to explore Trinidad’s natural treasures. Just 15 minutes off the Solomon Hochoy Highway, La Vega is a garden centre, plant nursery and nature park combined. At the garden centre you will find ornamentals, fruit trees, herbs and vegetables, most of which are produced here in a greenhouse on the estate. The owner is a fruit aficionado and cultivates trees from around the world, including rambutan, durian, longan, mangoes, sugar apples, giant peewah and dongs, and sweet passion fruit. The ornamental collection includes Thai bougainvilleas, dwarf ixoras, dwarf white frangipani (Plumeria pudica) and the yellow leaf duranta.
You can find solitude amid the many trees and trails. Fish for tilapia with bamboo rods in ponds, take a ride on a pedal boat, ride the water slides or climb the jungle gym. You can take a tour of the greenhouses, orchards and fields and learn about the plants and trees of Trinidad. A resident chef is on hand to whip up Thai curries and grilled sandwiches. Try the premium homemade ice creams or sorbets made with local flavours, such as silk fig and peanut and prune, for dessert.
If you wish to stay overnight, a luxurious two-storey thatched hut with its own patio and bathroom is available, as well as catered meals.
Open daily, 9am to 5pm, including Sundays and public holidays, except Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Admission: TT$25, children under 13, TT$15. www.lavegaestate.com
Temple in the Sea at Waterloo
The Waterloo Temple stands in the water 500 feet offshore at the end of a causeway. It was built in the 1940s by a devout East Indian labourer named Sewdass Saddhu (whose statue is in the temple’s parking lot): forbidden to build a temple on land, he built it in the sea instead, beyond the control of colonial officials and sugar owners. It was extensively renovated and enlarged in 1995 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of indentured Indians’ arrival in Trinidad. The causeway is generally open from 6am to 6pm: the temple itself is open at the caretaker’s discretion.
Caroni Swamp & Bird Sanctuary
Probably the island’s best known attraction, and nesting site of the national bird: the scarlet ibis. A rewarding excursion for any nature lover, especially birders. Boat trips leave 4pm (though some companies operate trips all day), meandering through freshwater marshland and mangrove forest. Look for a variety of birds, marine life (including caiman) and tree-dwelling animals like the silky anteater and tree boa.
San Fernando Hill
Once a sacred Amerindian site known as Naparima, the San Fernando Hill stands like a monument, a green one, in the midst of all the industry and construction of south Trinidad. From the top you can see why San Fernando seems even more crowded and busier than Port of Spain: this is the commercial hub of the energy industries in the south-west of the island (you can see the Pointe-à-Pierre refinery to the north), on which much of T&T’s enormous wealth is based. The town has spread in all directions and up here, parakeets and other birds have found shelter in the trees. Visitor facilities, lookouts, picnic huts and a children’s play park make this a lovely location for a family outing, and it is one of the main event venues in the city.
To get to San Fernando Hill, leave the highway at the San Fernando exit, turn left onto the San Fernando bypass, and at its crest take a right turn; almost immediately Circular Road branches off to the right, and by Soong’s Great Wall restaurant a small signposted road on the left climbs the hill almost to the summit.
Vintage car museum
For more than 40 years San Fernando businessman Brij Maharaj has been collecting antique cars and restoring them. Among his collection are historically important automobiles, including the oldest working vehicle in the country – a 1918 Ford Model T Runabout. Many of his cars are the only examples of their kind locally; while two are believed to be the only ones in the world today. The museum also has a collection of antique motorcycles, bicycles and vintage automobile collectibles.
Brij Maharaj Auto & Heritage Museum, 2 Hubert Rance Street, Vistabella. Open to the public once a month by appointment. Admission: free. email@example.com
The Pitch Lake at La Brea
Ninety-five acres of pitch. One massive car park, some say. And well, basically that’s what the largest deposit of naturally occurring tar in the world looks like from the surface. This ‘slow motion black hole’ constantly pulls things into itself, and is said to have ‘feelers’ stretching outward for several miles, veins of pitch stretching out from the main lake. It is over 350ft deep at the centre of the lake. A 40ft by 40ft hole refills within three days. Sir Walter Raleigh first used this pitch to seal his ship to prevent leaks. The tar has been actively mined for many years, and the asphalt collected has been used on roads and airport runways around the world.
Some parts are almost liquid and can be pulled up, like taffy. You will see small bubbling puddles and smell the gases that escape from within.
Pointe-à-Pierre Wildfowl Trust
Hidden away on the grounds of the Petrotrin Oil Refinery is the Pointe-à-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust, 25 hectares with free roaming wildlife and enclosed breeding areas. The learning centre at the entrance displays insects, shells and Amerindian artefacts. Wear insect repellent. Open Monday to Friday 8am to 5pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am to 5pm. Advance bookings are necessary to enter the refinery. www.papwildfowltrust.org
The oldest evidence of human activity on Caribbean soil is in Trinidad: the archaeological site at Banwari Trace has yielded artefacts dating back to 5,000 BC. These were once the belongings of the Ortoiroid people, named after the Ortoire river. “Banwari Man”, the human skeleton found lying in a crouched burial position by the Trinidad & Tobago Historical Society Society in 1969, is preserved at the University of the West Indies (St. Augustine). Banwari Trace was included in the 2004 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund. Access requires permission from the National Trust.