The typical Caribbean vacation includes white sand beaches and turquoise seas — as well as hotel monoliths, all-inclusive packages and too much rum. That sort of holiday has its virtues, but the thrill of discovery is not among them. A resort in the Bahamas doesn’t look all that different from a resort on Grand Cayman Island, and though they’re both in the tropics, they often feel like cultural deserts.
The double island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is an exception. It’s got all the beachy beauty of other Caribbean countries but few tourists competing for cabanas (there are more turtles than people, in fact, at least during leatherback nesting season). For a biophiliac, Trinidad is a stunner. In the subtropical rain forests of the northwest, hummingbirds and blue Morpho butterflies frolic through the giant acacias and resplendent flora, and hikers happen upon waterfalls that seem enchanted.
It’s Caribbean exceptionalism at its finest, and Trinis have a natural-gas boom to thank. In the past 15 years, natural gas exports have grown from nil to 623 billion cubic feet (in 2011). Today, Trinidad and Tobago’s energy sector contributes more than 40 percent of the country’s GDP and 70 percent of its foreign exchange. This country of just 1.3 million people is the world’s sixth largest seller of liquefied natural gas.
The upshot: Unlike its Caribbean brethren, Trinidad doesn’t need your tourism — it’s doing quite nicely in the balance-of-trade department already, tanks. The downside for the visitor is that Trinidad and Tobago is somewhat harder to navigate than the Cancuns of the world. No one will cater to you, and you’ll likely need to rent a car if you want to get out of the capital, Port-of-Spain. Which you definitely should.
But the upsides are many. Visitors learn about the culture in Trinidad because it is inescapable. They learn how to lime or hang out and party, and, if they feel naughty, to whine (the national dirty dance, which rivals twerking for its suggestiveness: “You could get charged for whining like that,” goes a hit by Trini soca king Machel Montano). Travelers may well leave with an addiction to the Indo-Caribbean street food tastes of roti and doubles , as well as the beach-shack snack shark and bake. The sounds of soca will ring in their ears long after they’ve left Piarco International Airport. So will those of the steel pan bands — though that will likely be a happier ting. Then there are the arts, which Port-of-Spain showcases in a surprisingly high number of galleries and a strong postcolonial intellectual tradition. Trinidad is, after all, where writers and thinkers like Eric Williams and C.L.R. James came from. Starting in October, visitors will be able to tour the family home of V.S. Naipaul, the native Trinidadian and Nobel laureate who used it as a model for A House for Mr. Biswas.
The main landlubber event in Tobago is an annual goat race in a plush, multimillion-dollar facility.
The activities on Tobago, a 20-minute flight from the capital Port-of-Spain, are outdoorsier. The tiny dot of an island boasts a growing dive industry, thanks to protected reefs — it’s home to the world’s largest brain coral — rare sealife and centuries-old wrecks. On land, the main event is an annual goat race in a plush, multimillion-dollar facility (it hosts crab racing in the off-season, natch), but there are excellent beaches and hiking, too.
Trinidad and Tobago was a British colony for more than 150 years. In 1807, shortly after Britain wrested control of the islands from the Spanish, African slavery was formally abolished, and although sugar planters tried to circumvent abolition — as 19th century planters tended to do — slaves didn’t win de facto freedom until the mid-1800s. When they did, planters faced a serious “labor shortage.” Their solution: Import workers from China, Malaysia and, eventually, boatloads of indentured laborers from India.
No matter their ancestral roots, Trinidadians unite for the fete.
Today’s Trinidad benefits from a rich ethnic callalou , or stew, and there’s a lot of mixing in families and cultures. Trinis celebrate Christian-rooted holidays like Carnival and Christmas, Hindu ones like Diwali and Holi and Muslim ones like Eid. And here’s the ting : Everyone celebrates. No matter their ancestral roots, Trinidadians unite for the fete. It’s a hard-partying nation.
And why not? At least so long as the gas-fueled good times continue, there’s little incentive to develop other industries. Tourism Minister Stephan Cadiz is pushing to make tourism more central to its economy, but it’s not easy going. Trinidadians have been hearing for decades about the country’s need to diversify their economy and build up the tourism sector, but international arrivals have hovered at a paltry 400,000 for the past 15 years — and most visitors are there on business.
Which is just fine, actually: It leaves more of those white sand beaches for us.
Why you should care
Whether you’re a cultural maven or a nature junkie, Trinidad and Tobago has something for you.