Trinidad is completely different from the other Caribbean islands, which is part of its charm and appeal. It's not for everyone, though. Because Port-of-Spain, the capital, is one of the most bustling commercial centers in the Caribbean, more business travelers than tourists are drawn here. The island -- approximately 80km (50 miles) long and 65km (40 miles) wide -- does have beaches, but the best of them are far away from the capital. The city itself, with a population of about 120,000, is hot, humid, and somewhat dirty. With the opening of its $2-million cruise-ship complex, Port-of-Spain has become a major port of call for Caribbean cruise lines.
Although Port-of-Spain, with its shopping centers, fast-food joints, modern hotels, and active nightlife, draws mixed reviews, the countryside is calmer. Far removed from the traffic jams of the capital, you can explore the fauna and flora of the island. It's estimated that there are some 700 varieties of orchids alone, plus 400 species of birds.
The people are part of the attraction on Trinidad, the most cosmopolitan island in the Caribbean. The island's polyglot population includes Syrians, Chinese, Americans, Europeans, East Indians, Parsees, Madrasis, Venezuelans, and the last of the original Amerindian settlers of the island. You'll also find Hindustanis, Javanese, Lebanese, African descendants, and Creole mixes. In all there are about 1.2 million inhabitants, whose language is English, although you may also hear the local dialect, Trinibagianese.
The Carnival of Trinidad
Called the "world's most colorful festival," the Carnival of Trinidad (www.ncctt.org) is a spectacle of dazzling costumes and gaiety. Hundreds of bands of masqueraders parade through the cities on the Monday and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday, bringing traffic to a standstill. The island seems to explode with music, fun, and dancing.
Some of the Carnival costumes cost hundreds of dollars. "Bands" might depict the birds of Trinidad, such as the scarlet ibis and the keskidee, or a bevy of women might come out in the streets dressed as cats. Costumes are often satirical and comical.
Trinidad, of course, is the land of calypso, which grew out of the folk songs of the African-West Indian immigrants. The lyrics command great attention, as they're rich in satire and innuendo. The calypsonian is a poet-musician, and lyrics have often toppled politicians from office. In banter and bravado, the calypsonian gives voice to the sufferings and aspirations of his people. At Carnival time, the artist sings his compositions to spectators in tents. There's one show a night at each of the calypso tents around town, from 8pm to midnight. Tickets for these are sold in the afternoon at most record shops.
You can attend rehearsals of steel bands at their headquarters, called panyards, beginning about 7pm. Preliminary band competitions are held at the grandstand of Queen's Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain and at Skinner Park in San Fernando, beginning 2 weeks before Carnival.
Carnival parties, or fetes, with three or four orchestras at each one, are public and are advertised in the newspaper. For a really wild time, attend a party on Sunday night before Carnival Monday. To reserve tickets, contact the National Carnival Committee, Queen's Park Savannah, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad (tel. 868/627-1357; www.ncctt.org). Hotels are booked months in advance, and most inns raise their prices -- often considerably -- over Carnival.