The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, which consists of two small twin islands at the southern end of the Carribean, is a great destination for those who are looking for idyllic beaches without the crowds. They may lack truly spectacular sights, but besides palm-fringed beaches, Trinidad offers elfin rainforest, wetland swamp and an interesting mix of cultures, whereas tiny Tobago has the world’s oldest rainforest reserve and some of the region’s best diving and snorkeling.
- 3 days diverse Trinidad: North coast beaches, Northern Range cloud forest and Caroni Swamp birdwatching
- 5 days of Tobago’s best beaches and dive sites: Speyside and the Caribbean coast from Charlotteville to Castara
Day 1: Trinidad’s Northern coast
Pick up your rental car and head straight towards the North Coast Road which winds along the verdant Caribbean coast and is Port of Spain’s gateway to the island’s beaches. If it’s a weekend morning, make a stop at San Antonio Green Market near the village of Santa Cruz. This fun and quite fancy food and crafts market is a great way of getting a first taste of Trinidad’s diverse cuisine, which combines Indian, African and Latin American influences. Get a few different snacks (I loved the pholouri, fried split-pea flower dough balls with spicy sauces) and juices, find a chair in a shady spot near the live music, and enjoy.
Continuing from here you’ll soon get your first view of the Caribbean Sea. After a quick stop at La Vache viewpoint, meander along the pretty coastal road, stopping at any beach that inspires you. The waters are often not very clear, but the soft yellow or greyish sand beaches against their lush jungle backdrop are fantastic. The further along you get, the quieter and more scenic they become… Be careful as there can be dangerous currents along this coast.
We had decided to spend the night in Lower Blanchisseuse, not so much a village as a string of (mostly simple) holiday homes towards the end of the tarmac road. Our B&B, Second Spring, was a little disappointing. Our room was fine but very hot, the garden and sea views did not live up to expectations, and nobody was there to receive us (a key was left in the door of our room). However, hotels and guesthouses are few and far between here and there are not many other options. Second Spring also offers a more expensive two-room cottage which looked nicer, or you could try the Laguna Mar hotel just behind Marianne Beach. On the upside, you’ll only have to share the beaches with the locals, and you might have them completely for yourself during the week!
We spent the afternoon exploring our surroundings, ending up for a sundowner at stunning Marianne Beach. The food shack on the beach serves drinks and a pretty decent fried fish with fries and bake. Be aware that both this shack and Cocos Hut, the restaurant associated with the Laguna Mar hotel and the only other restaurant around, close at dark, so consider having dinner early or bring food to prepare at home (studios at Second Spring all have kitchenettes).
While walking over Marianne Beach we discovered turtle egg shells and fresh tracks so it’s probably worth hanging out here after dark during the right season. Leatherback and other turtles come to nest on the beaches all along Trinidad’s North coast from March to early August, the eggs hatch around 60 days later. If your visit coincides, you might want to consider staying an extra day or two and head to Grande Riviere, one of the most important nesting sites. Here trained guides offer turtle-watching tours, a permit is necessary to access the beach during the laying season. Always be careful not to disturb the laying process: no flashlights (only infra-red) or flash photography.
Day 2: Northern Range cloud forest & Caroni swamp
Early the next day we headed for a morning dip in the Three Pools, a series of natural pools and waterfalls in the Marianne River. To get there, follow the trail that starts just after the entrance to Marianne Beach, and just before the old suspension bridge, on the inland side. Soon you will come to a fork, take a right uphill here. You’ll have to walk along this side of the river for about 15 minutes until you see a trail starting on the other side, wade through the river (which is shallow here) and continue along this trail. Water shoes are definitely a plus. After another 10 minutes or so you will arrive at the first pool. Leave everything you want to keep dry here (it seems pretty safe but don’t bring any valuables). Swim or wade across and scramble over the rocks to get to the second pool. Swim across this deep, emerald green pool and then climb over the slippery rocks on the right hand side to get to the third pool, locked in by steep rocky walls. The adventurous can slide over the waterfalls on the way back.
From here we took the beautiful, if potholed, Arima-Blanchisseuse Road that cuts right across the Northern Range. The road winds through lush cloud forest, now and again opening up to sweeping views. We had wanted to stop for early lunch and some relaxed birdwatching at Asa Wright Nature Centre, but we unfortunately found it closed for the month. Check and make reservations ahead, but this seems a lovely place to stop for a few hours, or even spend a night.
Devoid of a lunch restaurant we tried to get some food in Arima, but this turned out to be quite difficult on a Sunday afternoon… we ended up buying bananas and coconuts at the market, and were actually very happy with this healthy lunch!
That afternoon we had planned a kayaking tour of Caroni swamp, a mangrove wetland famous for the big flocks of scarlet ibis roosting there. We had tried to book with Courtenay Rooks of Paria Springs, but unfortunately he wasn’t available that day, so we opted for Nanan’s instead. This turned out to be a bit of a disaster. They let us go off on our own in a kayak, the boat would pick us up an hour or two later to finish the tour and bring us back. However, a misunderstanding about the directions meant the boat never found us. Eventually we managed to get some cell phone signal and contact Nanan’s, who sent another boat to “rescue” us just before nightfall. We considered ourselves rather lucky when we saw how crammed full of people the other boats were.
The people from Nanan’s did feel very guilty and were extremely kind to us, but I would not recommend their services. Sitting in an overcrowded and noisy motor boat is hardly a good way to see wildlife, but the long paddle to the lagoon where the ibises roost without a guide to point out anything of interest was not very enjoyable either. The scarlet ibises make for a beautiful sight, but if you’re hoping for an experience of Caroni’s unique nature I recommend you wait for a day Courtenay is available to take you on a private tour.
A lovely place to stay not far from Caroni swamp is Pax Guesthouse, constructed in 1916 by the Mount St Benedict Monastery next door, on top of a hill overlooking the Caroni plains. Staying in this atmospheric place feels a bit like traveling in time. Rooms are simple but clean and fresh. After having imagined spending the night lost in the middle of a swamp, we were very happy to get there just in time for a shower and dinner. Pax Guesthouse serves a good home cooked meal at 7.30, on the candle-lit outdoor terrace. Service is personal and friendly, but although we had read about hikes and birdwatching on nearby trails, nobody seemed able to give us any information about this.
Day 3: hummingbirds at Yerette
After an easy morning at Pax Guesthouse, enjoying our breakfast on the terrace while watching the busy birdlife, we drove half an hour to Yerette in the Maracas Valley for yet more birds. Yerette, the “home of the hummingbird”, is actually a private house. The owner, Theo Ferguson, has managed to make quite an attraction out of his garden. Although not very big and in the middle of a residential neighborhood, there are definitely enough hummingbirds here to impress anyone. Theo started feeding them several years ago and his garden is now visited by 14 of the 18 species of hummingbird found in Trinidad and Tobago.
Theo loves hummingbirds, and he loves talking about them, so he decided to open up his house to visitors. He also knows how to sell it: Yerette is often visited by tour groups and if you happen to be there at the same time as a group, the experience is all but intimate… but seeing so many hummingbirds at such close range is magical and the lunch Theo’s wife Gloria prepares (go for the full lunch!) is absolutely delicious, so although the whole experience is a little expensive, in my opinion it’s worth it.
I could have stayed for hours more staring at the tiny creatures and trying to get the perfect shot of all fourteen types, but after lunch it was time to head to the airport for the next part of our trip: Trinidad’s little sister island, Tobago.
Upon arrival in Tobago, we picked up our rental car and headed straight to Charlotteville, on the opposite side of the island. Tobago might be less than 40 kilometers in length, but because of the winding roads the trip still takes a good hour-and-a-half. Roads are in a relatively good state but they are barely illuminated at night, so not everyone will feel comfortable driving in the dark here. Like in Trinidad, the further away you get from the airport and the main tourist area of Crown Point, the quieter and more pristine the beaches become. The Caribbean shoreline around Charlotteville is by far the wildest and most beautiful part of Tobago, so you will be rewarded for your effort!
Our base in Charlotteville for the next three nights was CharlotteVilla, located just behind the beach. The upper floor apartment is pleasant and spacious, with a wraparound balcony. There is no AC but fans work well enough to stay cool at night. Charlotteville is a charming but sleepy fishing village, scenically nestled against verdant hills overlooking Man O’War Bay. Besides the beautiful, quiet beaches, there is not much to do. There are a handful of restaurants but most evenings only one of them stays open: Sharon and Pheb’s, which is a great place but can get boring after a couple of times. CharlotteVilla has a kitchen with everything you might need, but getting supplies like olive oil is not easy anywhere after Scarborough, so come prepared if you plan on cooking. There are a couple of little grocery stores in town for basics, plus a bar for alcoholic drinks and a fruit and veg stand on the main square on most days. Alternatively, right next to the ERIC dive centre you can find Lucille’s little cabin, where you can pre-order homemade meals Lucille makes with vegetables from her organic garden (which is also a community project).
Day 4: Speyside diving and Pirate’s Bay beach
If you want to go diving in Tobago there are plenty of options, both on the Caribbean and the Atlantic side of the island. Marine life is abundant and includes about 300 species of coral and an array of colorful fish. There are good chances of seeing turtles, sharks and stingrays, and sometimes dolphins and manta rays. Tiny Tobago has a big choice of dive sites both for beginners and for more advanced divers, including lots of drift dives. Although it can be cheaper to opt for a multi-day package with one operator, we preferred to book dives with various operators located in different parts of the island to try as many different diving areas as possible.
To start off, we had booked a double dive with Tobago Dive Experience in Speyside. Our first dive site was Japanese Gardens, a lovely dive if it wouldn’t have been for the terrible visibility. The normally turquoise Atlantic Ocean can occasionally turn a murky yellowish-green because of outflow from the Orinoco river in Venezuela, especially during the height of the rainy season (July to September). It is thanks to these nutrient-rich waters of the Orinoco that marine life around Tobago is so prolific, but it’s not great for diving and especially not for underwater photography. The otherworldly, radioactive-looking atmosphere did make for a very special dive experience, especially on our next dive, the Kelleston Drain, which took us past the famous giant brain coral, a centuries old colony of brain corals over 5 meters wide. A pretty surreal experience!
Fortunately, the Caribbean side of the island tends to have better visibility, so we were happy our next dives would be there. After diving we had lunch just across the street from the dive shop at Jemma’s, which has a lovely setting on the beach and serves tasty Creole food. Speyside’s beach is not the most attractive for swimming though, so after lunch we decided to head back to Charlotteville. We made a little detour to the viewpoint at Flagstaff Hill, but this is not particularly impressive and you might as well skip it.
Spend the afternoon at Pirate’s Bay, reputedly Tobago’s best beach. Getting there involves a little effort but is absolutely worth it. At the eastern end of Charlottesville’s beach the road turns into a narrow dirt track along the cliffs, after a pretty intense 15-minute uphill walk you will get to the steep concrete stairs leading down to Pirate’s Bay. The idyllic beach has become quite popular with locals on the weekends, but at other times you can find it completely deserted. It is possible to drive there in a 4×4, but the narrow road is not for the faint of heart. Near the top the road becomes a little wider, you can turn and park here (make sure to leave room for other vehicles to turn!). You can also snorkel here from Charlottesville. It’s a bit of a swim but it’s over a nice shallow reef with lots of life (start off a little before the eastern end of Man O’War Bay Beach, where the reef becomes too shallow to swim). Alternatively, you can ask one of the fishermen to drop you off and pick you up for a small fee.
Day 5: Charlotteville diving
Another day, another dive. After a morning swimming and snorkeling around Man O’War Bay and Pirate’s Bay, we went for two afternoon dives with ERIC (Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville). ERIC is a not-for-profit focused on ecological conservation and sustainable use of Tobago’s reefs and beaches working together with the local community. It is a little more expensive than most, but your money helps research and conservation. They are also involved with NEST (North East Sea Turtles), a community based organization that aims to protect and patrol Tobago’s turtle nesting beaches, of which Man O’War Bay beach is one.
The dive sites we visited, Landslide and Booby Island, both in Man O’War Bay, were enjoyable but not exactly exciting. You see more or less the same as you would snorkeling. The nicest thing turned out to be the surface time between dives, when we were joined by a huge group of dolphins hunting around our boat. In my opinion, diving around Charlotteville is mostly interesting for novice divers.
Day 6: Castara
Leave Charlotteville for Castara, taking your time for the beautiful coastal road. Consider a morning hike in the Tobago Forest Reserve, the oldest protected rainforest in the world. Afterwards you can head to Scarborough, Tobago’s messy but not charmless capital, for lunch at the Blue Crab, where you can escape the heat in the nautical themed dining room with a delicious Creole meal.
Castara is by far the most touristy place above Buccoo, but it’s still very laid back and pleasantly unorganized. It’s a little more lively than Charlotteville and offers more choice in terms of accommodation and restaurants. I highly recommend staying at Castara Retreats, which has lovely rooms set in jungle-like surroundings, perched high above Castara Bay with amazing views. It also happens to have the best restaurant in town, serving Caribbean-style meals which are actually original, plus some great cocktails.
Castara Bay is a good spot for snorkeling (keep an eye out for stingrays), especially from the little beach on the northern end which is overlooked by the Boat House. On Wednesday evening there is African drumming here, whereas on Thursdays there is a beach bonfire in front of Cascreole on the main beach. The bonfire was a little underwhelming when we were there but might be more fun during high season (assuming Tobago has one).
Day 7: Sisters Rocks diving, Parlatuvier and Englishman’s Bay
The following day we had organized a double dive with Richie, an independent dive master who lives in Castara (you can reach him on +1 (868) 766-8897). Upon request, he took us diving at the Sisters Rocks and Devil’s Steps. We drove to scenic Parlatuvier Bay, from where Richie had organized a boat with a local fisherman. Richie is a good diver and knows the area very well, however he might be a bit too casual for not-so-experienced divers. The dives are not very deep or difficult, but only do this when you feel comfortable and know what you are doing. That said, both dives were great. The scenery was beautiful and we saw turtles, sharks, stingrays and more. Definitely my favorite dives in Tobago!
Afterwards we headed to secluded Englishman’s Bay for lunch at Eula’s restaurant. They serve a decent roti, but the main reason to come here is the beautiful, calm beach with it’s jungle backdrop. You can hire lounge chairs from Eula’s and there is good snorkeling.
Day 8: back to Crown Point
Slowly make your way back to Crown Point and the airport. We stopped along the road at Grafton Caledonia Bird Sanctuary, even though we had read mixed reviews. It’s a nice, quiet spot with plenty of birds around, although all are commonly seen all over the island. The place is badly in need of maintenance, it’s ok for a quick stop (if you have a 4×4, the last bit of road is a little steep and bumpy) but definitely not unmissable.
I do recommend a visit to the Kimme Museum, our next stop. The wonderfully eccentric house just off Orange Hill Road used to be the residence of late German artist Luise Kimme and is filled with her colorful statues and paintings. Presided over by friendly caretakers, the museum is open Sundays from 10 AM to 2 PM, or on appointment.
Have lunch at Shore Things, a cosy spot looking out over the Atlantic in the middle of an otherwise uninteresting coastline. They also sell some crafts and postcards. Don’t miss the little chocolate store on the ground floor of the same building. The chocolates don’t look like much but are actually very good, made with local cacao and interesting flavors. Better eat them straight away though as they melt immediately!
After this it was time to head to the airport. Flights between Trinidad and Tobago, operated by Caribbean Airlines, go up and down like a shuttle service. They seem to be delayed as a matter of course, so if you have a connecting flight either plan plenty of time in between or ask to be put on an earlier flight as soon as you arrive at the airport, there are often some free places on planes and staff is very helpful.
Trinidad and Tobago make for a great Caribbean beach holiday without the crowds, with some lush nature and eclectic culture thrown in the mix. A few days of relaxing on these islands is also the perfect companion to a jungle trip in nearby Guyana (see Guyana jungle and savannah – 10 day itinerary) or an immersion in the region’s history in Suriname (see Paramaribo and Commewijne plantations – 5 days in Suriname).
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