The (North) West: Downtown Port of Spain
Thank the Spanish for the grid system that defines downtown Port of Spain. Such features of urban design date back to the Romans, but this particular iteration predates Manhattan’s by several decades. The cluster of skyscrapers along the south-western waterfront often attracts comment, but Port of Spain is not the first island city to choose to stack its offices vertically. It is, nonetheless, an unusual sight in the Caribbean.
Downtown Port of Spain is easy to cover on foot. Indeed, one can traverse more of the capital in a day than is suggested here: just ask anyone who has played mas on the city streets at Carnival.
As soon as you cross Wrightson Road, you are assailed by the town-ness of town: the signature every city has that makes it itself. In our case it’s a press of people, traffic, the sounds of vendors, taxi drivers and music, music, music.
Independence Square is simultaneously a public space and a road: do not be alarmed by this ambiguity. The thoroughfare cuts east-west separating the harbour from the town. To its south, you’ll find the towers of the Port of Spain International Waterfront on Wrightson Road (which also snakes past the western end of Independence square: again, ambiguity): modern columns of government offices; our current home for parliament (while the Red House is under repair); a small dedicated lounging and entertainment area. The ferry terminal is nearby—you’ll need it if you plan to sail to Tobago. The ferry to the southern city of San Fernando is also here. So too is the Breakfast Shed.
The Brian Lara Promenade – lined with trees, seating areas and chess-board tables – is part of Independence Square: most of the western half. The statue of Lara (our most famous cricketer for whom the walk is named) is quite modest and easy to miss: it’s at the extreme west of the paved path.
From the Promenade, turn on to Frederick Street. The statue of Captain Arthur Andrew Cipriani, eight-time mayor of the city starting from the mid-1920s and an important figure in the nation’s labour politics, stands in the middle of a small and slightly perilous roundabout (for both pedestrians and drivers; look sharp) showing the way.
Frederick Street is Port of Spain’s main shopping stretch. Even though it’s one street, keep a good sense of direction: on either side, what appears to be one establishment is really a door to a warren of smaller stores and kiosks. These mini-malls may lead to other mini-malls. Remember where you started and all will be well. Walk all the way up and you’ll be rewarded with jewellery, electronics, apparel, local food, fabric and more.
You’ve made it up to Woodford Square: site of many of the country’s significant political moments. It’s bordered by the Hall of Justice, Trinity Cathedral, the Red House (House of Parliament under repair and archaeological exploration), and Frederick Street. Commerce, law, state and religion all wrapped around the famous park. The National Library is just below.
Woodford square itself is named after Sir Ralph Woodford, governor of Trinidad from 1813 to 1828 (his tenure was curtailed by his death), who was responsible for the development of many features of Port of Spain that survive to this day. These include both the major Christian cathedrals of the capital: the Anglican Trinity Cathedral and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. He also turned the remains of an old sugar estate into the principal public space of the city: Queen’s Park Savannah – which is where we head next.
If you stick to the road you’re on, you’ll see a gradual quieting as trade gives way to offices and schools. At the top, the National Museum and Art Gallery awaits. The permanent collection is small but important and there are shows year-round.
Practically propped against the German Renaissance stylings of the Museum building is the steel and glass carapace of the National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA). Opened in 2009, the structure’s design is based on the chaconia, the national flower of Trinidad and Tobago, though this is really only evident if you see the building’s layout from above.
NAPA houses the country’s most modern performance spaces, right across the road from one of the nation’s oldest: Queen’s Park Savannah.
Every year, the Savannah is at the heart of Carnival season, hosting events like Panorama, and functioning as the main stage for the parade of bands. But it is always active (the exact nature of the action depends on the time of year) and an all-sports-welcome open green space. The Savannah is surrounded by food (and after all that walking you deserve a sno-cone or coconut water) day and night. At 3.5km circumference, it also can lay claim to being the world’s largest traffic roundabout.
On the western side of the Savannah, the Magnificent Seven, a row of grand or once grand buildings, displays a stretch of architectural variety—to say nothing of whimsy or eccentricity – all dating back to the first decade of the twentieth century. They are in varying degrees of repair and use, reflecting their diverse histories and ownership.
The Magnificent Seven
Approaching the seven from the south-western end of Maraval Road you will see them in the following order:
Queen’s Royal College
One of the most distinguished secondary schools in Trinidad, with a list of alumni including the architect of its present building (Daniel Hahn, also the designer of the Red House and the National Museum’s current home), the nation’s first Prime Minister, Eric Williams, and Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul.
Purpose-built to serve as the residence of the Anglican Bishop of Trinidad and Tobago, Hayes Court is named after Bishop Thomas Hayes, the second man to hold the office. His successor, John Francis Welsh, was the first resident of Hayes Court, and it has remained the property of the Anglican Church since its construction. However, it has not been fit for residence for some time, and the Church has recently launched a fundraising initiative for its restoration.
Built in 1904 as the residence of the Prada family, Mille Fleurs was passed through a chain of private owners before being purchased by the government in 1979, with the intention of converting it into ministerial offices. It has since fallen into a state of advanced disrepair. In 2013, the government announced plans for “emergency stabilisation” as part of larger plan to restore the property by 2015. The progress of this work can be evaluated by any passer-by.
Originally known as Ambard’s House, the name of the cocoa merchant who commissioned it, this is the only one of the seven still functioning as a private residence. It came under the ownership of Timothy Roodal in 1940, and the name Roomor is an amalgam of the names of the Roodal and Morgan families.
Three doors down from the Anglican Bishop’s residence is the residence of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Port of Spain. It predates its Protestant cousin by about six years, having been opened in 1904. The building has been renovated since its original construction, and remains a functional property of the Roman Catholic church.
Another grand house built as a private residence, White Hall was transferred to government ownership in the 1950s and became the office of the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago shortly after the country achieved independence. In 2008, it was announced the building was to be renovated and restored as part of its conversion to a Protocol House for visiting foreign dignitaries. Work is ongoing.
Commissioned by the Stollmeyer family and designed in a style said to be based on a wing of Balmoral Castle. It was original named Killarney, and remained the property of the Stollmeyer family until the 1970’s. It eventually found its way to government ownership in 1979. It was also declared scheduled for conversion to a Protocol House in 2008, along with its neighbour, White Hall. This work is not yet completed.
The straight line north ends here. From here we spill into residential areas to the west; turn east for the Emperor Valley Zoo, the President’s House and the Botanical Gardens.
If you’re staying at one of the many hotels up on this end, you might do the entire trip in reverse.
Other things to see in and around Port of Spain
Head northwest out of Port of Spain (by car is advised) toward Fort George. Perched high on a hill overlooking the capital, Fort George offers magnificent views of the city and beyond. It was built in 1804, essentially as a refuge of last resort: the summit of a complex of fortifications. Given the dire circumstances that would imply, it is perhaps fortunate it never saw military action. Latterly, the fort was converted to a signal station. It now houses a museum, well-tended grounds, and (if you are fortunate to be in Trinidad at the time of year when the sun sets before Fort George closes at 6pm) perhaps the best view of the sunset in Port of Spain.
To the west of the city, Chaguaramas is effectively the name for the entire north-western peninsula of Trinidad. It offers abundant options for recreation: marinas, from which boats can be chartered for fishing or visits to the islands off the north-west coast; hiking to caves and waterfalls; parks; a golf course; even, for the particularly active, a ziplining course. www.chagdev.com
A Day in the Middle: Central Trinidad
The area referred to as “Central” in Trinidad is not in the middle of the island. The thing that most qualifies its right to its name is the fact that it is neither truly north (read: Port of Spain) nor south (read: San Fernando).
Consider the borough of Chaguanas as your starting point. It feels compact: street vendors are at least as numerous as shops; both vehicular and pedestrian traffic are heavy. Even to the locals, if you’re not from the area, getting—and interpreting—directions can be tricky. Persevere; it’s worth visiting.
Central is a stronghold of East Indian culture. Indian indentured labourers replaced the freed slaves to keep the sugar estates going. Understandably, the newly emancipated Africans, keen to quit the sites of slavery, sped off to other parts of the island. The Indians worked the cane and even as the industry slowly dried up, they stayed. The proliferation of Hindu temples, shopping that caters to a community with an eye for Mumbai fashion, and the recent emergence of restaurants serving the dishes of the sub-continent (as opposed to the local curries), all seem to declare that part of Trinidad still feels a pull from India.
There is also significant Muslim population in Trinidad, but for now we shall focus on a tour of Hindu temples. Unlike Port of Spain, this is not a strolling activity. A rented car or tour guide will be necessary. As you drift from the town centre out to the rest of the sugar-belt, the places of worship have more space. And sometimes more fascinating histories. The Temple in the Sea at Waterloo was built by one man (with occasional neighbourly help) with a bicycle and some buckets. In the early 1930s, Siewdass Sadhu, an indentured Indian, had been granted a bit of space to build a mandir on sugar company land. When the company took back the land and destroyed the building, Siewdass decided to set his new temple where no one could claim it: in the sea. The original buildings fell into disrepair over time, but today, on the same spot, stands a larger replica and a statue of the man who all but walked on water to make it happen.
A short drive away, the Dattatreya Yoga Centre in the village of Carapichaima has become, arguably, Trinidad’s best-known temple in a relatively short space of time. But you have only to see it to understand why, opened only in 2003, its popularity was so swift. It is exquisite. It is also pink. Enter the cool pinkness to a world of intricate stone carving and sculpture of the Dravidian style. Trinidad has no shortage of temples, but this is the only one that feels like it was accidentally dropped here. An 85 ft murti of the Hindu god Hanuman, said to be the tallest outside of India, stands nearby.
Go a bit further inland to find the Lakshmi Narayan Temple. Two things help it to stand out. The building itself is dominated by a strikingly large Shiva Lingam. It has also become well-known for its excellent vegetarian restaurant.
No entrance fees at these or any other places of worship but donations are always welcome.
More: Not all noteworthy temples are in Central. The Paschim Kaashi in St James, Port of Spain, was the first Hindu temple in Trinidad to be designed by a professional architect. In the days when cruise ships brought in most of our visitors, this was an essential stop for tour guides trying to show as much as possible in a few hours. It is still home to many of the original marble murtis installed at its opening in 1962.
Other points of interest in Central
Cocoa is making a comeback. We no longer grow it in the quantities of the past, but what makes it out there is first rate. French chocalatiers Valrhona produce a limited series bar from a single estate in Gran Couva. Estates are not generally open for touring, but interested researchers and scholars may be facilitated.
Nature lovers, rejoice, for you are in Central Trinidad. Please remember the very broad definition we’re using to describe the area: it is not Port of Spain nor is it San Fernando.
The Caroni Swamp and Bird Sanctuary just barely scrapes along the top of the region. Home to the national bird, the Scarlet Ibis, boat tours are scheduled to coincide with the sight of the reddening sky as hundreds of the birds come in around sunset to roost.
Almost 50-years-old, the Point-a-Pierre Wild Fowl trust concerns itself with research, protection, and breed-and-release programmes for over a hundred species of wetland birds and waterfowl. There is a small guest house on the beautifully kept grounds.
As you head further east across the Central plains, the Ramsar protected Nariva Swamp and Bush Bush Island are home to several endangered species of birds and mammals including red-bellied macaws and manatees. The swamp itself is Trinidad’s largest marshland—all 15,404.55 acres of it.
For all the eco-attractions mentioned above, guided tours are necessary.
The East: Past the lighthouse
Northwest-centric Trinidad tends to treat Port of Spain as its own peculiar true north. The direction “past the lighthouse” refers to anything beyond Port of Spain and environs and the lighthouse in question stands near the waterfront on reclaimed land, at the entrance to the city, reminding you that it was once in a place useful to sea-farers and not merely a curious traffic obstacle.
What we tend to refer to when we speak of the east is something rather like a large figure seven. Though very north, the Eastern Main Road takes you from the edge of Port of Spain to the town of Sangre Grande.
Apart from that, what we are thinking of are the beaches that make a straight line down the right side of the island. Toco is very nearly the easternmost part of Trinidad. Though it is very definitely on the north coast, it is also very definitely the eastern end of it. San Souci and Grand Riviere are nearby and the area is generally surfing territory.
A day in the East
The figure 7 referred to above is an entirely reasonable way to spend a day in the East. The traffic-snarled Eastern Main Road tends to restrict cars to something like the perfect pace for sightseeing, and the road itself is a corridor through one of the most densely populated parts of the country: approximately half the nation lives in the tranche of land between Port of Spain and Arima.
Once you hit Arima, or Sangre Grande, break south and head toward the coast, to see the Atlantic Ocean, and the beaches at Mayaro and Manzanilla.
It is a magnificent 7. Bustle and breeze: two Trinidads in a single excursion.
Our proposed trip, however, focuses on the top of the 7: the North-east of the country.
Start by heading east, along the EMR to the university town of St. Augustine. From there, break north and head up into the Northern Range. The Abbey of Our Lady of Exile, or the Abbey of Mount St. Benedict celebrated its centenary in 2012. It remains primarily a place of religious contemplation for the Benedictine monks who live there. There is also a guesthouse, and a shop – where you can purchase the Abbey’s own yoghurt, sold under the Pax brand, and also available in supermarkets. Enjoy a cup of tea, the view, and the abundant flora and fauna of the Northern Range.
The next stop is Arima, further along the Eastern Main Road. This is Trinidad’s fourth largest town. If you are here at the right time of year, you may be able to join the Santa Rosa Festival celebrations. Arima has strong connection to Amerindian culture. The Festival illustrates this heritage and its subsequent combination with Catholicism, introduced by the Spanish, in compelling fashion. At any time of year, however, you can visit the Santa Rosa Carib Centre, to see a permanent exhibition of Amerindian, particularly Carib, history and culture.
If you want more information, or prefer your history in the open air, visit Cleaver Woods, a man-made park which also houses a small museum of Amerindian culture.
From Arima, head yet further east – as east as the land will allow – to Toco. The Galera Point lighthouse stands over a park and picnic area. This area was once so remote from the rest of the island that the British were able to establish a presence (in 1631) without attracting the attention of the Spanish, who claimed Trinidad at the time. Indeed, so out of sight of Spanish eyes were the British, they were expelled by an alliance of Dutch and Amerindians, six years after they arrived. Only then did the Spanish mobilise to drive the Dutch out of the east.
This remoteness persisted until 1930, when the first road connecting Toco to Sangre Grande was built. And Toco still has the feel of a place apart from the rest of the country.
Other things to do in the East:
Asa Wright Nature Centre
It is advisable to allow a full day for a trip to the Asa Wright Nature Centre. It is 1500 acres of protected, forested land: a haven for birdwatchers and biologists. The animals also seem to enjoy the place. The Centre offers guided tours, and has a restaurant and guesthouse. For more information, visit www.asawright.org
A village in the foothills of the Northern Range, to the north of Arouca. Lopinot is the name of the French soldier and aristocrat who established a cocoa plantation, La Reconnaissance, here in the early nineteenth century. The plantation house and two cocoa drying houses from his estate have been preserved. There are nature trails and restaurants (www.mariposalopinot.com), and the village itself retains memories of the past in old buildings and more than a couple of ghost stories.
The South: Oil and Music
South, by which we usually mean the city of San Fernando, is, as one might intuit, located in the general direction of the southern shores of the island. This is where all that big-industry activity that so much sets us apart from our Caribbean neighbours happens. This is oil country – throughout the area are the offices of the major energy companies. Usine Ste. Madeline, once the world’s largest sugar refinery, lay just outside the city.
South has also made significant contribution to the arts in Trinidad and Tobago. In particular, soca stars. Seven-time Soca Monarch winner Super Blue (Austin Lyons) and his daughter Faye Ann Lyons Alvarez – who has three such titles herself – are both from Point Fortin, as is Iwer George. Soca superstar Machel Montano is from nearby Siparia. The most consistent challenger to this axis of Southern soca dominance is Arima-born Bunji Garlin (Ian Alvarez), and he is Faye Ann’s husband.
So tune the radio to some soca, turn up the volume, and point your car south.
A day in South
San Fernando is just the beginning of South. The intention is to discover, so start by leaving San Fernando and heading (more) south to the town of Debe. In Trinidad, it is best to start the day with doubles. You can put together a exhaustive journey around the country simply by asking for directions to the best doubles in the land – no two answers will be the same (unless you choose to ask the question of people standing in the same line for the same doubles).
For this guide, the best doubles are in Debe. There is no need to be picky once you’re there, whichever hands serve your snack in this town will be expert. From Debe, head further south (there really is more to this part of the island than San Fernando) to Siparia, to pay respects to La Divina Pastora.
From Siparia, head west to Fyzabad, the oil belt town which lit the spark that ignited Trinidad’s labour movement. Pass through Charlie King Junction, and see the statue of Uriah Butler outside the trade union offices.
From Fyzabad, push further west, to the coastal town of Point Fortin. If you are fortunate, you may be able to catch a football match. Point Fortin Civic FC is not one of the island’s traditional football powerhouses, but its ground is far enough away from everywhere else that the journey can have a sapping effect on visiting teams. Matches are often above-average competitive, and a Trinidadian football crowd is always knowledgeable.
If there is no football, and you are not in time for Borough Day (see Festivals section), Point Fortin may not occupy too much of your time. In which case, head for the tip of the south-western peninsula: Icacos. You are now closer to Venezuela than San Fernando. And San Fernando is three hours away, so you may want to start heading back.
Other things to do in South:
Point-a-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust
North of San Fernando, so not technically South, but close enough. Few sites in Trinidad present the adjacency of industry and ecology better than this wetland habitat in an oil refinery complex.
The Trust welcomes visitors, and there is a learning centre on site to put its work (it supports research, educational and advocacy initiatives) into context. Almost 80% of visitors annually are students: the Trust plays an important role in revealing the extent and importance of Trinidad’s wetland habitats to its next generation. http://www.papwildfowltrust.org
On the southwest coast, between San Fernando and Point Fortin, is La Brea, a fishing village which is also home to the world’s largest natural deposit of asphalt. You will smell it before you see it. A small office and car park mark the official entrance to the Pitch Lake, and accredited guides can be hired for tours of the parts of the lake safe to tread. Unaccredited, but no less enthusiastic, guides also seek to bring visitors across its sticky surface.
The most famous of Trinidad’s mud volcanoes, which got its name because its earthy eructations sounded to some like the devil coming to fell the woods. The woodyard is near Princes Town, which has the distinction of being the place where, it is alleged, doubles were invented.