Back in September when I got wind of a flight deal from New York to Trinidad around Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday timing, it was definitely one of those “book now and figure it out later” moments. Fast forward to the first wintery New York City day and I was so grateful to have a Caribbean escape in-pocket. Off we were, me and my boy Brian, to a little turn up in Trinidad and turn down in Tobago.
I had long heard of Trinidad’s carnival as one of the largest in the world, and definitely the most notorious of the Caribbean. Known for over-the-top fetes with huge productions, elaborate costumes and unmatched energy, West Indians and non-island people alike have eagerly informed me that it’s something everyone should experience at least once in their life. I wasn’t able to stick around for the peak of carnival, but carnival season was definitely underway so I got to taste a bit of the flavor while exploring the sister islands of Trinidad and Tobago.
Day 1 – Touch Down and Find The Locals
As soon as we touched down in the airport in Port of Spain, I felt right at home. I don’t know if this is a fact, but I want to assume that Brooklyn, NY has the largest Trinidadian population outside of Trinidad. So growing up we all ate traditional Trinidadian meals, listened to Trinidadian soca music, etc. Not to mention a majority of my family is from Grenada which shares a similar culture to Trinidad in many respects, so in other words, these were my brothers and sisters.
Our driver, Nick of Sensational Tours, met us at the gate with a huge grin and lots of laughs off the bat. My type of guy. He was an amazing guide as we walked, ate and laughed our way through Trinidad from coast to coast, but first, to our hotel to unwind for the first night.
Only a short 20 minute drive from the airport , we stayed at the Hyatt Regency Trinidad. We hopped out and immediately ran to the infinity pool which offered an amazing view of the ocean and the sunset every night. The bartenders were friendly, the weather was hot and the drinks were nice and cold – we were officially in the West Indies and it couldn’t feel better.
The Hyatt Regency Trinidad is located perfectly in the heart of Port of Spain or “town,” so we were in close proximity to everything that we would need for our own adventures for night one. We walked over to KFC in Independence Square. There were a lot of locals in the area, which is exactly what I wanted from the experience. Dancehall and soca was blasting from cars and speakers, vendors were selling everything possible on the street side, and people were deciding on their plans for the evening. We arrived to KFC which lived up to the standards (in case you didn’t know, KFC in Trinidad, Jamaica and other islands are known for having amazingly seasoned chicken and their own unique West Indian spin on the standard U.S. menu.)
We then head back to the hotel to nap (signs of getting old) and then get ready to party at Aeripeta Ave, a strip of bars, nightclubs and local food spots where Trini natives party most nights out of the week. The vibe on Aeripeta Ave was so alive. We literally walked the strip to decide on which clubs we’d enter, stumbled in and had the time of our lives. You had your choice of soca and dancehall clubs, hip hop clubs, EDM clubs and more – all music was on point. It was clear that the night was going to end up great, and it did. Nice and spent, we called a taxi back to the Hyatt Regency Trinidad and completely knocked out in their welcoming beds. We would need to be up in a few hours for our full day tour with Sensational Tours, but it was a night well spent!
Day 2 – Taking In The Sites and Learning What Makes Trinidad Unique
QUICK CULTURE AND FOOD LESSON
Before we had breakfast, Nick from Sensational Tours gave us a quick informal cultural lesson of the breakdown of Trinidadian people since it related directly the breakdown of food. Like most of the West Indies, there’s a huge black population in Trinidad, originally comprised of slaves brought from West Africa. Over the decades, mainly the black people in Trinidad have developed what’s called creole foods that are savory and filling. Some examples of creole food include saltfish, calalloo, sausage and egg, stew chicken, rice and peas etc.
The second largest group is the Indian population in Trinidad, which I always knew about , but I didn’t realize was quite as prevalent as it is until I saw it first-hand. Decades ago, India transported thousands of citizens to Trinidad, and with that also came an influx of spices and traditional meals like roti, dahl, pholourie and doubles. A variation of the traditional Indian preparation of the foods, they are some of the most delicious meals and snacks you could ever ask for.
Additionally there is a splash of Chinese, Spanish and more, giving Trinidad a distinct assortment of cultures. There is some mixing, but I wouldn’t quite call Trinidad a blend or melting pot because for the most part, the cultural groups are standalone, seemingly not so much out of hatred and racism, but more out of personal pride as a subculture within a larger Trinidadian culture.
Rise and shine (and yawn) at 8am after a long night of partying, we met our guide Nick at the Breakfast Shed, a quad of locally owned restaurants right next to our hotel that served creole food. For breakfast, we had coconut bake and saltfish with a sour sop juice as we looked out at the ocean. It was an amazing way to start our day.
From breakfast we went to Fort George, which has a rich history of overlooking pirate ships coming up to the shores of Trinidad. This preserved location gave us an amazing view of this side of Trinidad.
We then went on to the Waterloo area where many of the Indian-Trinidadians reside. We visited Hanuman Temple, which was elaborate and beautiful in design.
From there we visited Yuma Mas Camp which was putting its final touches on their carnival designs. I was VERY impressed with their pieces, especially the one below, and it was a privilege to be on their production grounds during such a busy season for them. After all, it was crunch time, only a few weeks before carnival!
Yuma starts designing for the follow year’s carnival RIGHT after the current carnival. So designs begin February – April, May is the month of critique, and from June through the next year is the process of sourcing products like feathers and jewels and then actual production. Front line costumes (the most elaborate) are produced locally in Trinidad. Yuma has their sites set on European carnivals in the upcoming years.
Finally we made it to Maracas Beach. Trinidad is lush and green land, but there aren’t many swimmable beaches around the island, so Maracas is sort of the go-to for locals around the island and visitors alike.
The best part of the beach though, was the food. There are tons of vendors selling Bake and Shark. For those who are not from this side of the Caribbean, the thought of eating shark might scare you, but trust me it is good. We were advised by my Trini friends to either try Richard’s or Natalie’s. We had Richard’s and dressed it with all the toppings we selected, and it was SOOOO good. Honestly, I might say this was my favorite meal while in Trinidad and I’m sad that I didn’t get a few more. The next time I visit, I will have one, go to the beach, and then before heading home have another. Maybe pack a few more for the ride home. I’m greedy for thinking of this in advance, but it is how I feel.
On the way back from Maracas, we stopped at a lookout point that gave a great view of beach from up town. Everyone lined up against the rail taking their selfies against the amazing backdrop, and who were we to not do the same?
We were now on our way to the St. James area to sample the street foods of Trinidad, something that I was looking forward to.
We had doubles from a random street vendor which turned out to be the best doubles I’d ever had. We found an Indian lady who made us two well-packed chicken rotis. We were advised to stop by B&M Ice Cream truck to have some Guinness ice Cream.
(If you've never had doubles before I know this might look like a handful of slop, but trust me it is one of the most delicious things you will ever eat in your LIFE!)
Then we headed over to Queens Savannah Park and was delighted by a steal pan group who was practicing and getting in their final stride for carnival time.
While at Queens Savannah Park, we also ordered some corn soup and jerk chicken because… why stop eating? Ha!
The last step on our journey was back to the hotel where we’d call it a night and prepare for one last possible breakfast at the Breakfast Shed before heading to Tobago for some beautiful beaches and water fun!