WHERE TO GO
As different as chalk and cheese but bound together for the convenience of the British empire, Trinidad and Tobago share little more than their status as a republic. Known chiefly as an island of oil refineries and metropolitan verve, Trinidad offers culture, ethnic diversity, music, great food and a wealth of gorgeous beaches. A more conventional holiday destination, Tobago boasts archetypal Caribbean beaches thronged by hotels of every budget, watersports, restaurants and a rapidly developing resort ethic. Its impossible to get a full picture of all the republic has to offer without visiting both Trinidad and Tobago, but a regular plane and ferry service make it possible to see the best of both even during a short stay.
A visit to Trinidad will inevitably begin in Port of Spain, the brash, bustling capital and centre of Carnival. With its museums, art galleries and restaurants, the best of local music and art, and most of the islands accommodation, this urbane metropolis is a natural base from which to explore the rest of the country. Chaguaramas to the west is the capitals playground, a national park with a string of open-air clubs providing lively, sophisticated nightlife. For the ultimate escape, however, its not far to the rocky, wooded islands of the Bocas.
A sweeping curve of powdery sand and powerful waves, Maracas Bay is the first of many lovely beaches along the north coast. Between Blanchisseuse and Matelot runs a long stretch of completely undeveloped coastline thirty kilometres of footprint-free sand and total seclusion while the coastline further east is spectacularly rugged. Dominated by the densely forested peaks of the Northern Range, the northern interior offers excellent hiking along hunters trails, and the birdwatching is superb even the lazy can see up to forty unusual species in a morning from the verandah of the Asa Wright Nature Centre. South of the hills, the traffic-choked Eastern Main Road links the capital with the sizeable town of Arima home to the islands last remaining Caribs and provides access to swimmable rivers, caves, and the oldest Benedictine monastery in the Caribbean, from which you get an awesome view of the unravelling plains below.
Dominated by flat agricultural plains with a population of primarily Indian descent, central Trinidad provides a fascinating contrast to the north. From the ethereal Waterloo Temple to the busy market town of Chaguanas, Indian culture predominates. Just forty minutes from Port of Spain lies one of the islands richest natural attractions, the mangrove labyrinth of Caroni Swamp, home of the striking national bird, the scarlet ibis. On the east coast, the protected wetlands at Nariva are the habitat of endangered West Indian manatees and giant anacondas, while four kilometres of fine brown sand lined by groves of coconut palms make Manzanilla a favourite spot to recover from the rigours of Carnival.
The burgeoning commercial city of San Fernando is a friendly base from which to explore Trinidads "deep south", an area largely unvisited by tourists. Modern oil towns such as Fyzabad contrast with the picturesque fishing villages and calm, deserted beaches of Cedros and Erin, and Mayaro Bay on the southeast coast a stunning, palm-fringed stretch of powdery sand.
Most people travelling to Tobago head for the translucent waters, coral reefs and excellent facilities of the islands low-lying western tip, staying in one of the hundreds of hotels slung along the coastline and playing golf on the islands palm-studded greens. The vibrant capital, Scarborough offers a more genuine picture of local life with its market and historic fort, while the rugged windward or Atlantic coast is best known for the waterfall at Argyll and the islands best scuba diving at Speyside. Heavily visited by day-trippers, the leeward or Caribbean coast is lined by a precipitous snake of tarmac that passes superb beaches at Castara and Englishmans Bay, while Charlotteville in the northwest is the perfect retreat, a picturesque fishing village that tumbles down a hillside to a couple of pretty horseshoe beaches.
WHEN TO GO
Most people visit T&T between January and March, when Carnival explodes into life, the trees are in bloom and the climate is at its most forgiving: the sun shines, rain is rare and the nights are cool. By May, however, the lack of rain has parched the formerly lush landscape: greens turn to yellow, dust clouds put the views into soft focus and bush fires rage through the hills. The only relief from the aridity takes the form of brief, sudden tropical rainstorms. At the end of May, the rainy season sets in, and the skies open up with dramatic deluges. The rainy season often continues into December, but theres usually a respite from the downpours in September, a period of hot sunshine and blue skies known as the petit carem. Its an excellent time to visit, with flights at low season rates, though youll find the resorts a little quiet. Officially, the high season (Dec 15April 15) should mean hiked hotel rates on both islands, but in reality, only Tobago hoteliers bother with two rates, and many smaller hotels charge the same all year round in both islands. Many hotels in and around Port of Spain, however, put up their rates during Carnival week.
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