The dual-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is about as far south as you can get in the Caribbean, and unless you’re a scuba diver, it may not be on your short list of destinations. But it should be, regardless of whether or not you dive.
Less than 10 miles off the coast of Venezuela, energy company executives know Trinidad as a business destination, while scuba divers from across the world come to Tobago for its diverse sea life and massive coral formations. It’s only recently that leisure travelers are getting to know 'Trinbago,' as it’s often called.
The lush tropical forests teem with wildlife, steel drums lure with the call of Calypso music and island cuisine marries the best of its cultural influences from India, Spain and Latin America for divine flavors.
With all the usual makings of a Caribbean vacation – sun, sand and surf – a rich and diverse culture and history, and an authenticity that’s almost unique, we’ve got 10 reasons you’ll want to book a ticket to T&T today.
Groove with steel pan musicians at a panyard
The Invaders, a steel pan band, make music in their panyard in downtown Port of Spain — Photo courtesy of Sally Walker Davies
Venture into any neighborhood in the capital, Port of Spain, or frankly any neighborhood in either island, and you’re bound to find a panyard. The steel pan is the only musical instrument invented in the 20th century, and it was invented in Trinidad and Tobago.
Originally, the pan was made from used 55-gallon oil drums, with the bowl of the drum marked with shapes that correspond to various notes. There are more than 200 steel bands throughout the two islands, where on any given night the sounds of Calypso mixed with modern pop music float through the air.
Most yards allow you to wander in, buy a local beer and enjoy the music as the musicians practice for performances and the ultimate steel pan party, Carnival.
Hike to a waterfall
The hike to Argyle Falls is worth it, with three levels and multiple pools to explore — Photo courtesy of Sally Walker Davies
Hiking through a rainforest is pleasurable enough, but throughout Trinidad and Tobago, the payoff can be finding a waterfall. On Tobago, follow a lush tropical forest to the island’s highest waterfall, Argyle. The triple-cascade delight is 175 feet high, and is proof that the higher you climb, the more spectacular the reward.
The calm pool at the lowest point is enticing, and the flora-festooned path to the second level offers a misty curtain and a number of natural rock tubs in which to cool off. On the very top of Argyle, the pool is the deepest, the smallest – and best of all – the one where you can get your Tarzan on, with sturdy vines available to swing out over the water.
Rum punch, one of the beverage options when liming in Trinidad and Tobago — Photo courtesy of Sally Walker Davies
Liming may be the easiest (and dare we say most enjoyable?) of all activities in the dual-island nation: It’s simply hanging out and socializing with friends, drinking and dining. That’s it. Lime at a rum bar, at the beach or on a street corner to be a part of this experience.
Liming is such a part of the Caribbean culture that Lionel Ritchie refers to it in his hit "All Night Long": "We're going to party, liming, fiesta, forever/Come on and sing along."
The term liming comes from ‘limey,’ a nickname given to British sailors, who would suck on limes to avoid scurvy while shipboard, then hang out at the local bars when in Port of Spain during World War II.
Tour a cocoa estate
A lush combination: Tobagan chocolate and rum — Photo courtesy of Sally Walker Davies
High above Tobago’s eastern windward coast, a historic cocoa plantation is on a comeback. Tobago Cocoa is part heritage park, part cocoa plantation and all about bringing a once-thriving industry back to the island.
Trinidad and Tobago was once one of top five cocoa-producing countries in the world, and sommelier and local boy Duane Dove is bringing the industry back by combining culinary expertise with the island’s indigenous Trinitario bean to produce artisan chocolates sold worldwide.
Tours include a hike through the estate to view the fine cocoa on the vine, plus a chocolate and rum tasting.
Tip: Load up and buy your bars at the estate, as they can be hard to find in local shops, although you can score a bar at Fortnum & Mason in London and in select stores in the U.S.
Find inner peace
Outside the Dattatreya Temple in Trinidad, people leave coins in the elephant's trunk — Photo courtesy of Sally Walker Davies
The people of Trinidad and Tobago are a wonderful mosaic of religious diversity, with large and active Christian, Muslim and Hindu faith communities. Two Hindu temples on Trinidad are open to the public and are striking for their differences.
The Dattatreya Temple Compound features an 85-foot-tall Lord Hanuman statue, said to be the largest outside India. Two elephants at the entrance to the pink-hued temple provide water for washing feet before going inside.
Inside the Temple in the Sea, Hindu deities — Photo courtesy of Sally Walker Davies
Just a few miles away, the serene Temple in the Sea juts out into the shimmering water, its white exterior reflecting the sunshine. Tattered and colorful prayer flags are staked in the shallow water and the ground around the temple, and Hindu deities can be found inside. Both temples offer a peaceful atmosphere for contemplation, no matter your religion.
Indulge in a bake and shark
Bake and shark, a local speciality, easy to find at Maracas Bay — Photo courtesy of Sally Walker Davies
Get your jaws around a true Trini street food: bake and shark. Served up at huts across the street from the popular Maracas Bay beach, this traditional Trinidadian dish is as simple or as complicated as you make it.
Bake refers to the bread – a round disc of soft, puffy fried dough that seems slightly sweet and is the perfect wrapping for a lightly fried filet or bits of shark. And when we say shark, think smaller fish, like blacktip.
Once you grab your sandwich at the window, the real fun begins with piling on the condiments. A variety of sauces and chutneys, cucumbers and tomatoes, lettuce, coleslaw and more are offered in covered pans set up to form a condiment bar. You can eat at any of the tables surrounding the food stalls, or take your bake to go and enjoy it on the nearby beach.
We buried Carnival in our list just a bit, since Carnival and the dual islands are a no-brainer – they go together like bake and shark. The Carnival season really runs from late September through Ash Wednesday, with the final festivities kicking off on Sunday, when there’s a steel pan band competition and other music- and costume-filled events.
Then, at 4 a.m. on Monday morning, J’Ouvert opens the final two days of celebrations and masquerade parades. During J’Ouvert, revelers coated in paint, mud or grease – or all three! – parade through the streets of Port of Spain until the sun comes up.
Get back to nature
The scarlet ibis is the national bird of the dual-island nation — Photo courtesy of Islands of Trinidad and Tobago
Both Trinidad and Tobago are full of opportunities for eco-touring, and two of the islands’ best-known reserves are where nature lovers will be dazzled. At the Caroni Bird Sanctuary, tours are offered in a flat-bottom boat to capture the biodiversity of the Caroni Swamp.
Channels cut through a mangrove-filled tidal basin, the brackish water a perfect mix for all manner of flora and fauna (look for anacondas in the water and tree boas above). The ultimate destination of the tour is the large lagoon and habitat of the national bird, the scarlet ibis. Flocks of the red-hued birds return to the swampy reserve at dusk, in a scarlet wave across the skies.
In the lushly forested land of Trinidad’s Northern Range sits one of the Caribbean’s first nature reserves. The Asa Wright Nature Centre is 1,500 acres located around what was once a cocoa and coffee plantation called Spring Hill. The biodiversity of the nature center is spectacular, especially for birding enthusiasts, and visitors can take a naturalist-led tour or enjoy high tea at the visitors center.
Surfing is an off-the-beaten path sport in T&T, and while both islands enjoy reliable waves year-round, the winter months from November to March are really the best times to catch a big wave.
There are a number of surf schools that cater to newbies or those who need a refresher. Surf gear is limited on Tobago, so be sure you’ve got all the wax and essentials, easily found across Trinidad.
Be dazzled by ‘flying jewels’
One of Trinidad and Tobago's flying jewels, a hummingbird — Photo courtesy of Islands of Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad and Tobago have 17 species of hummingbird, and you can get up close with almost all of them at the hummingbird garden Yerette, which is also home to Theo and Gloria Ferguson, who welcome visitors on a daily basis.
Hundreds of beautiful, jewel-hued birds originally flocked to Yerette (the Amerindian word for hummingbird) when Theo, an amateur photographer, put out sugar water to attract them. His garden was already full of nectar – a staple of the hummingbird diet – and once his garden filled with the flying jewels, he decided to share the splendor with others. Reservations are required to tour Yerette.