Bumper-to-bumper traffic. Again. Not that I’m complaining – this is traffic with a view. “These women,” says Andrew, my guide, pointing to a group of joggers jiggling around in Lycra, “they run every night, trying to lose weight for a costume that will still be too tight. A Trini carnival costume must be too small and too skimpy, or it’s deemed ill-fitting.”
If Trinidad conjures up brochure-esque images of swaying palms, turquoise water and piña coladas, then something, somewhere, has gone wrong. Located just seven miles off the coast of Venezuela, the country has spent years revelling in a very lucrative oil and gas industry, a business that has given it the somewhat unflattering, and largely unknown, label as the most industrialised nation in the Caribbean. That’s not to say it’s unappealing, though. Oh no, this is a place where life is about living: live it, or leave.
Take the February carnival that these ladies are prepping for – it’s a raucous country-wide party that puts Rio and New Orleans’ efforts to shame. Then there are the food markets, where locals gorge like it’s their last supper. Hell, even the road signs are in on the act: “Embrace life, wear a seatbelt,” they command me.
It’s impossible not to embrace life here. ‘Liming’ – the local word which basically means hanging out, having a beer, and eating – is a tradition I could quickly become accustomed to. ‘Limes’ come in various forms. My first is at a typical Trini house, where I join 55-year-old Andrew Welch (I’m hazarding a guess at his age, as for the duration of the trip he claims he’s 28) and his middle-aged mates, who’ve gathered at a BYO affair, where tables wobble under the weight of home-cooked crab curries, rotis and Stags (the locally-brewed ‘beer for men’ – according to the label, at least).
Out on the street, liming can be a lot rowdier. We swing by the capital, Port of Spain, for band practice, where locals cram into a yard and dance in the balmy heat in front of a 30-strong steel band group performing a questionable rehashed version of Michael Bolton’s (already questionable) ‘Can We Be Lovers’.
Queen's Park Savannah is transformed into a party of 50 stalls, where anyone from lawyers to lads settle down for lively picnics by their souped-up cars
For a younger scene, there’s St James – ‘the suburb that never sleeps’ – or the famous Avenue, a kilometre-long strip of clubs, which are essentially small, neon-lit bars. I settle on a stool in one called Tequila (where, ironically, it’s only rum that flows) while calypso music – the iconic beat which originated on the island in the mid-20th century – blares, and party-goers gyrate their hips at me in a wildly suggestive manner. “That’s called ‘wining’,” Andrew tells me, sensing my mixture of awe, horror and confusion. “Very common move here.”
The lingo lessons continue as we explore the country’s street-food scene. Forget hipsters, pretty cocktails and the repurposed warehouses that we’re accustomed to in London, this is non-exclusive, cheap food as it was intended.
Come dusk, the car park at Queen’s Park Savannah – a grassy plot of land that claims to be the world’s biggest gym, and roundabout – is transformed into a party of 50 stalls, where anyone from lawyers to lads settle down for lively picnics by their souped-up cars (the Trinis take huge pride in gleaming alloys, lowered suspensions and shimmery purple paint jobs).
It’s here that I try what’s surely one of the least photogenic but best-tasting street foods going: doubles. “They’re the mischievous little cousin of roti,” Andrew says, before asking the stall’s owner for “doubles with everything, slight.” Within seconds I’m handed two floppy, pancake-esque circles splatted with curried chickpeas (beige), mango chutney (beige-ish), a bit of chilli spice (that’s the “slight” part), tamarind sauce and cucumber: a sloppy brown heap that Andrew urges me to scoop up by hand.
We stall-crawl, joining grannies and children tucking into heavily-battered chicken wings slathered in a luminous buffalo sauce, foot-long, deep-fried fish and freshly made rotis. One tent has a 20-strong queue leading back through the car park. “This is Dr Fresh,” says Andrew, introducing me to the stall’s owner, who gives me a wink while hurling ingredients into four shaking blenders that are working overtime to blitz tropical, icy concoctions. “His shakes come packed with pineapple, soursap, warnings and disclaimers.” And generous glugs of rum, by the taste of it.
Talking about food and drink seems to engage the Trinis in intense chats, and I soon realise that lustily comparing notes on the last meal, and the next, is the best way to make friends with my fellow food “peongs” – that’s Trini slang for obsessives. Our edible marathon continues at Look Out, another car park/stall hotspot that’s earned its name due to the views of the twinkling capital lights in the distance. Here, locals sit in the trunks of their pick-up trucks, snacking on hefty chunks of barbecued jerk chicken, creamy corn soup made with coconut milk and chili, boiled chicken feet and my favourite – pholourie – saffron-flavoured batter that’s plopped into a boiling vat of oil, and crisped-up into squidgy, deep-fried balls that are served alongside a double-figure strong selection of zesty chutneys. Despite the crowds and queues, it’s a chilled atmosphere: the noise of the sizzling barbecue comes with a power-ballad backing track from the local radio station – as we wait in line, the 70-year-old corn soup mama, Ms Erlyn, cranks up the volume of Oleta Adams’ ‘Get Here if You Can’.
If you’re going to get anywhere, make sure it’s Maracas Bay. A 60-minute winding drive from the capital, it’s the most accessible – if not the best – beach on the island. Families gather on a long, wide stretch of sand flanked by palms and shallow water, but surprisingly, that’s not the main reason to visit.
Tobago – Trinidad’s easygoing little sister – is an island boasting some of the Caribbean’s best beaches
This is a food-loving nation after all, and one block from the sand, a long line forms at Richard’s Bake & Shark, a stall that serves one of the country’s most famous dishes – deep-fried shark (crispy, meaty, sensational) stuffed inside deep-fried bread and loaded with tamarind sauce, mango chutney, garlic sauce and salad. Prime bikini fodder.
Perfect, then, that Trinidad’s easygoing little sister is an island boasting some of the Caribbean’s best beaches. Just 30 miles (a 20-minute flight) away, I find that Tobago is the ideal place to kick back after a few days exploring Trinidad’s bustling liming scene. Here in Tobago, the vibe is infectiously sleepy; a lost-world ambience created by wild, deserted stretches of sand and lush rainforest – a backdrop that inspired the island of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Almost 300 years on, the landscape’s similarly rustic. If you’re seeking a turn-down service, manicured sands and an all-in bar then you’ve come to the wrong place. But then again, that’s what makes it so right. Tobago has largely escaped the Caribbean’s influx of American resort hotels – instead, a handful of boutique guesthouses scatter the shores, one of them being Castara Retreats – 12 deeply loved wooden lodges that dot the tree-packed hillside of the fishing village of Castara.
I’ve abandoned my four-poster bed to float on my back in the tranquil sea, while a couple of friendly dogs guard my belongings and a few intrigued fisherman haul nets around me on the blissfully empty beach
Open-air bedrooms mean you fall asleep to distant calypso notes from the village bar and wake up to the sound of playful birds and gentle waves lapping the shore. It overlooks one of the prettiest bays I’ve seen in the Caribbean, a view so irresistible that by 7am I’ve abandoned my four-poster bed to float on my back in the tranquil sea, while a couple of friendly dogs guard my belongings and a few intrigued fisherman haul nets around me on the blissfully empty beach.
You could spend weeks exploring Tobago’s 120km of coves, from Englishman’s Bay – where the English reportedly first landed on the island in the 18th century, and now a come-hither sweep of sand without a soul in sight – to Turtle Beach, where baby leatherbacks hatch from their eggs from July to September.
If lethargy-guilt kicks in, the small island (24 miles long, six miles wide) is easy to explore by road. Mr Brown, my Tobagan-born driver takes me across it, swinging the car around empty, winding lanes where warm rain drenches trees that make up the oldest protected rainforest in the Caribbean.
Continuing on we spot defunct coco plantations (due to be resurrected over the coming years because of an unexpected demand for Tobago’s fine chocolate), past roadside blue and pink houses and rum shacks and on to the capital of Scarborough (yes, after that Scarborough, because the English wanted familiar names when they first arrived) – a town where colourful street art is accompanied by a vaguely fast-paced lifestyle. In relative terms, anyway.
Meanwhile at Fort King George on the top of the island, you’ll gather a true sense of Tobago’s interesting and varied history: the land was tossed more than 30 times between European powers from the 16th to the 19th century, a time when the economy was based on the export of rum, sugar and cotton. The now-peaceful fort also offers the best views over the island, out across the beaches and over the Tobagans’ most cherished landmark. “That’s our stadium,” the museum guide tells proudly, leaning against a shiny old cannon, “we named it after the Tobagon-born Manchester United superstar Dwight Yorke.”
Jokes about Yorke’s X-rated romps will fall flat in Tobago (I tried, you have been warned), but aside from that, the Tobagan people are always up for a laugh and a lime.
At Pigeon Point, the island’s beach-lined pay-to-enter Nature Reserve, I meet Duane Kenny, a 36-year-old Tobagan who spends his days surfing and teaching watersports. He takes 15 minutes talking me through the basics of stand-up paddleboarding – bend knees, keep paddling, don’t look down – before he releases me to unsteadily navigate this spectacular part of coastline.
It’s harder than he made out, but seeing Tobago like this – the leisurely pace, no crowds, skimming across the water at sunset – suits the island down to a capital T. As we drag our boards back up onto dry land, Duane points at the beach bar, gestures the internationally recognised hand signal for a bottle of beer and throws me a question: “Wanna lime?” In Trinidad and Tobago, the answer is always yes.
For more information visit gotrinidadandtobago.com; British Airways offers return flights from £555pp, ba.com; a week at Castara Retreats costs from £525pp, castararetreats.com; book stand-up paddleboarding via standuppaddletobago.com and Trinidad street food tours at banwaricaribbean.com