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Trip Report Trinidad & Tobago in 4 Days--Days 1 & 2

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Just got back from my social-media themed press trip to Trinidad & Tobago. The local tourism board gathered feedback from each of the journalist's followers (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and otherwise) to create an itinerary that was somewhat crowd-sourced. I received a handful of suggestions from Fodorites, and only about three or four were worked in, but each one was a winner!
Day 1: I arrived about 9pm via Continental from Newark, stopping in Houston. (TIP: For a layover meal go to Real Food in the C-gate area of Continental They make great, fresh barbecue and sandwiches.) Nothing was planned that night, so I parked it in my room at the Hyatt Regency Trinidad. What a comfortable spread! An outsize king bed and a glass enclosed rainshower that divided the bathroom/living-room area were my favorite amenities. The shower has frosted glass to cover an average-size person from the neck down, so you're not on full display in the middle of the room. The wall-mounted TV, however, is within full view, so you can watch while taking a shower (Kramer, eat your heart out!)
Day 2: We had an early start the next morning. I had a pleasant breakfast buffet (mostly standard fare with a few local dishes thrown in) on the patio overlooking the ocean before I met my fellow travelers. And, by the way my fellow travelers were a joy! These are the folks you want as your partners on the Amazing Race---not only for their extensive travel knowledge, but also because of their agreeable, roll-with-it (and there were a couple incidents that challenged patience) personalities. I highly recommend that you check out their blogs or follow them on Twitter: Steve Bennet, J.D. Andrews, Johnny Jet, and Lily Kosner.
Our first scheduled activity was a tour of the Gasparee Caves; however, our driver kind of vanished. He didn't show up for our pick-up time and was completely incommunicado (turns out he was all right, but there were a few hours of anxiety, especially for our trip leader, Jennifer). So, while Jen scrambled to get a replacement driver, we went up to the pool deck for snacks. Although we were a bit concerned that the day's intinerary was in jeopardy, we wiled away the time at the Hyatt's poolside bar overlooking an infiniti pool and ocean. Not bad as far as alternative activities go. After a couple hours, during which time Steve introduced us to 1919, a particularly exquisite blend of local rum by Angostura, we went to our second scheduled activity (alas Gasparee was scrapped). We visited Island People, one of the largest costume designers and tribes for Carnival. Here we saw a number of their fabulous Carnival costumes, a stunning array of multicolored plummage and faux gems held together by the skimpiest of bikinis. These were some sexy costumes, and it was easy to see why Trinidad's Carnival is widely considered the best party in the Caribbean. Every costume is handmade; orders sell out a year in advance as people pretty much begin planning for the next year's Carnival the day after the current year's Carnival (which this year is February 20-21).
From there it was on to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary. Most of us ate (and drank) at the pool and didn't need lunch. Johnny, however, hadn't eaten, so we asked our driver to make a stop. But he didn't just stop anywhere, he took us to one of his favorite roti shops, Patraj. There, Johnny was introduced to the 50-pound delight known as the roti. This delicious concoction is a must when visiting Trinidad. After Johnny was properly surfeited with enough channa, potatoes, curried chicken, and spices to lower our vehicle clearance, we were ready to go.
At the Caroni Bird Sanctuary, we had to wait a bit for the next tour to start. It's not the most scenic of launching points for a boat ride, and frankly I wasn't expecting much. Eventually we clambered into an old, single-engine boat with about 6 or 7 rows of backless benches that each sat about six people. The first 45 minutes to nearly an hour, you travel a narrow channel of mangrove forest, looking at nothing in particular (the guide pointed out a couple barely visible birds and, unnervingly, a couple snakes coiled in the trees above). Whatever peace you ocasionally lapse into on the calm waters is summarily disturbed by the harsh odor of the overworked boat engine.
It is the final hour when the magic happens, and when it did it more than made up for the almost punitive first hour. In a large wetland clearing, the driver pulls the boat over to a bank opposite a small island surrounded by wide rivers. From there you get the perfect vantage to witness a truly spectacular natural wonder. Moments after the driver mercifully cut the engine, a queue of white egrets in tight formation flew a straight line, not more than inches above the water's surface, for the island across from us. They immediately took position in the outer trees and then retreated out of view, deeper into the forest. Replacements started coming by the dozens, line by line over the water, landing in the trees and disappearing. Minutes later the first procession of scarlet Ibises began approaching the island, alighting on the trees. But they remained in full view on the outer branches, and as the minutes went by they came by the hundreds, gloriously speckling the trees in dazzling red. This went on for nearly a half hour, and it was enthralling. Everyone agreed that it was a tremendous payoff. Bring binoculars, because in order not to disturb the bird's flight patterns, you're parked about 300 meters away from the island where the birds roost.
Dinner was at a brand-new restaurant called Flair (I write about it in a bit more detail on the blog); it was a terrific, contemporary spot serving island food with a bit of...you guessed it, flair. The cocktail choices are delicious, innovative creations with fanciful names like "oink oink" (complete with a bacon garnish), and "a long hard night." I had pulled pork draped over a waffle drenched in a sweet, tangy barbecue sauce. Tasty!
After the briefest of respites in our hotel rooms (enough time for me to simultaneously shower and watch TV--thank you, Hyatt!), we headed for our nighttime activity.
We visited the panyards to hear one of Trinidad's top steelpan bands, The Trinidad All-Stars, practice their piece for Carnival. I was told the band had more than a hundred pieces with drum sections divided by bass, tenor, and alto, and I thought that might be a bit hyperbolic---a hundred drums? C'mon, I thought. It's probably big, maybe 20 or thirty, and pretty elaborate, but a hundred? Well, this was no exaggeration. A shimmering garden of silver steelpans were surrounded by a constellation of enormous, yellow oil-can drums. At the center were traditional drumsets and cymbals. And the music that this ensemble produced was breathtaking. The arrangements were impossibly intricate. It was truly symphonic with the bass drums sounding more like robust wind instruments---like tubas---than drums. And the melodies and harmonies soared and danced in dramatic counterpoint. At one point I thought I heard a strain of Rhapsody in Blue being vamped on. It was simply awesome. Off to the side was a small, rickety set of wooden bleachers where you could sip some Caribe beer and watch the performers, and I'll tell you I could have watched all night. I can only imagine how intense they are in full regalia, at the height of their power, during Carnival. That was the exclamation point on our first full day.
Day 3 included a literal high point in Trinidad (the splendid ascent up Mt. Saut D' Eau), Maracas beach, and a puddle-jump to Tobago, an irresistible little island---demure, beautiful, lush. In my next post you'll see why it thoroghly captivated me.

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