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Port of Spain (Trinidad) Overview
Trinidad is not your typical Caribbean port. Cruise ships dock right next to Port of Spain's downtown, which has an urban feel, with skyscrapers, a financial center, arcade malls and debilitating rush-hour traffic. The city is a regional, financial and business center and has one of the fastest-growing economies in the Caribbean. Oil and natural gas production, not tourism, is the island's biggest industry. The nearest swimming beach is an hour away.
Port of Spain, with 50,000 residents, is the largest city in the nation of Trinidad and Tobago, made up of the two sister islands. Trinidad was "discovered" by Columbus in 1498 and controlled by the Spanish (hence, the name) until the British navy showed up in 1797 and took control. Although the island nation gained independence in 1962, remnants of British rule include the use of English as the national language and left-hand driving.
Other than that, Trinidad's culture is mostly influenced by the Indians, Africans and Chinese brought over in the 19th century to be indentured workers in the sugar industry. The island is now 40 percent people of Indian descent, 38 percent of African descent and the rest a mix of Europeans (with a small percentage of Chinese). The multicultural society is quite harmonious, and visitors can benefit from the wide variety of ethnic cuisines -- including Indian, Creole and Chinese -- found in Port of Spain's restaurants.
Port of Spain's biggest draw is the Queen's Park Savannah, once a sugar plantation and now a public green space. Surrounding the park are early 20th-century mansions, a botanical garden and a zoo. But, you'd be remiss if you didn't venture farther afield to visit the island's more natural areas. Trinidad is a birding haven, with more than 400 species of birds that can be seen at the Asa Wright Nature Centre and Caroni Swamp. Hikes through the mountains and rainforests lead to natural pools and waterfalls, as well as wildlife sightings. And, although Tobago (out of reach for short port calls) is better known for its beaches and water sports, Trinidad's Maracas Bay could be the ideal Caribbean beach, with its white sands, turquoise waters and notable lack of large hotel and resort complexes cluttering up the shoreline.
Only longer cruises to the Southern Caribbean and South America will call in Trinidad; its southerly location off the coast of Venezuela prevents it from being a mainstay of seven-night Southern Caribbean cruises. Lines that visit Port of Spain include Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Fred. Olsen and Compagnie du Ponant.
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Other Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Banana Coast (Trujillo) • Dominica • Falmouth • Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades) • Havana • Labadee • Manzanillo • Miami • Ocho Rios • Orlando (Port Canaveral) • Port Canaveral • Port of Palm Beach • Port of Spain (Trinidad) • Santo Domingo • St. Maarten
Any drink made with locally produced Angostura bitters or rum is worth a taste.
For a Trinidadian souvenir, consider purchasing steel pan drums (small ones that will fit in your luggage), Angostura rum or bitters, fabrics, local condiments like tamarind chutney, leather goods or handmade soaps and lotions. In Port of Spain, you'll find shopping opportunities in the port terminal and in the arcade malls along Charlotte, Henry and Frederick Streets.
English is the official language, but most people speak a Trinidadian Creole English dialect.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Local currency is the Trinidad and Tobago dollar; check www.xe.com for current conversion rates. The Trinidad and Tobago dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar at a rate of TT$6.30 to $1. U.S. dollars are accepted in many places, so be sure to ask which type of dollar is being quoted if you're unsure. You can find many banks and ATM's along Independence Ave., a short walk from the port. Credit cards are accepted in most restaurants and shops and even at some Bake & Shark stands on the beach.
Where You're Docked
The King's Wharf cruise terminal at Port of Spain is located in the city center on Wrightson Road, within easy walking distance of restaurants, shops and banks.
Inside the port facility are several souvenir and clothing shops and stalls, as well as duty-free shops. It's a good place to pick up souvenirs, as the stores downtown mostly cater to locals. There's also a tourist office, but you'll find the red-shirted tourist board representatives throughout the port and downtown, handing out maps and directing cruise travelers to the city's main attractions. A taxi dispatcher can help you get a cab and tell you the fixed rates for popular destinations.
On Foot: It's a very easy walk -- just several blocks -- to Trinidad's downtown, centered on Independence and Frederick Streets. If you head up Independence Ave. from the waterfront, turn left on Frederick Street and take it until it ends, you'll reach the Queen's Park Savannah, Magnificent Seven, Botanical Gardens and Zoo -- but this is a much longer walk of about 20 to 30 minutes.
By Taxi: Taxis in Trinidad are not metered, so be sure to agree on a price before you get in. There are fixed rates from the port to the major tourist attractions; for example, a cab for up to four people to Maracas Bay costs $90 for dropoff, pickup and a few hours at the beach, while a ride to the Savannah will cost $15. Government-regulated cabs have license plates that start with the letter H and can be hailed at the port (taxi dispatchers can assist you) or at the taxi stands you'll see scattered around downtown and by the Queen's Park Savannah.
By Car: There are no national car rental agencies at the port, but a few local agencies have offices nearby. If you do choose to rent a car in Port of Spain, remember that driving is U.K.-style on the left, and traffic can be very heavy. If you have a short day in port, you're probably better off taking a taxi or tour to destinations outside the city.
Watch Out For
On Sundays and public holidays, downtown Port of Spain is deserted, and it's not recommended for tourists to walk around by themselves, as they run the risk of getting mugged. Also, watch out for unauthorized taxis. The rates are cheaper, but they are not regulated by the government.
Rush hour is fierce in Trinidad between the hours of 6 and 9 a.m. and 2:30 and 6 p.m. With 50,000 people living in Port of Spain and 300,000 commuting into the city for work, the streets are jammed with cars, and the going is slow. If you're on an independent excursion, leave plenty of time to get back to the port. Driving is British-style, on the left.
Queen's Park Savannah and the Magnificent Seven: The Queen's Park Savannah, once a sugar cane plantation and now a public recreation area, occupies 260 acres of land and is surrounded by a road, affectionately dubbed the longest roundabout in the world. Locals come here to walk, jog, play football or cricket, and watch outdoor concerts. Around the park lie the Magnificent Seven, seven turn-of-the-20th-century grand mansions, most of which have fallen into disrepair (though plans are in the works to start refurbishing them). Also by the savannah are restaurants, the botanical garden, a zoo, and the new National Academy for the Performing Arts, which just opened in November 2009 and has a modern design, reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House.
Royal Botanical Gardens: The Royal Botanical Gardens, located just north of the Queen's Park Savannah, houses one of the oldest collections of exotic trees and plants in the world. It's a great place for a pretty walk or picnic outdoors. Admission is free. (It's open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.)
Asa Wright Nature Center: Bird-watchers flock to this 1,500-acre nature preserve to catch a glimpse of some of Trinidad's 425 bird species, including colorful toucans and parrots. Located about an hour from the port, the Asa Wright Nature Center offers guided nature walks, a restaurant, a hotel and a gift shop. The land, formerly a coffee-cocoa-citrus plantation, is now covered with rainforest and caves and is home to birds, bats, butterflies, lizards, iguanas, armadillos and agouti. You'll need to a full day there to properly explore the grounds. (It's open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and guided walks are offered at 10:30 and 1:30.)
Fort George: For a view over Port of Spain and the harbor, drive up to Fort George, set on a peak more than 1,000 feet above the city. It was built in 1804 as a defensive site and was later turned into a signal station for ships. Visitors today can see original cannons and some of the dungeons. Admission is free. (It's open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Been There, Done That
Emperor Valley Zoo: Animal-lovers and families can have a great day out at Trinidad's zoo , located adjacent to the Royal Botanical Gardens and across from the Queen's Park Savannah. The zoo houses hundreds of local and foreign birds, mammals, reptiles and fish, including monkeys, tigers, crocodiles and flamingoes. There's a cafeteria on-site and plenty of places for picnicking. (It's open daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
National Museum and Art Gallery: The diverse exhibitions at Trinidad's main museum include displays on early Amerindian history, the technology of the oil industry, Carnival, steel pan music and the island's geology, flora and fauna. Admission is free. (It's open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. It's located at 117 Frederick Street.)
Caroni Bird Swamp: The 20-square-mile mangrove wetland that makes up the Caroni Bird Swamp is home to more than 200 species of birds. The big-name attraction there is the Scarlet Ibis, a bright red bird that's the national bird of Trinidad, even gracing the country's coat of arms. Visitors take tours through the waterways on motorized canoes and may see snakes, anteaters, caimans and a wide variety of birds. The best time to visit is at dusk, when the scarlet Ibises come home to nest for the night, but most cruise travelers visit in the morning, when bird viewings are possible but not as plentiful. It's a half-hour drive from Port of Spain.
Hiking: Trinidad's mountain ranges and rainforests make for great hiking, with opportunities to see birds and wildlife, explore caves and swim in natural pools by waterfalls. Short day-hikes are within driving distance of Port of Spain, but you'd do best to hire a guide for the best experience within a limited port call. Try The Pathmaster, Caribbean Discovery Tours or Banwari Experience.
Tobago is better known than Trinidad for its beaches, and most beaches on Trinidad are far away and not convenient for cruise travelers to visit in a one-day stop. However, Maracas Bay is only an hour's drive from the cruise port and is actually quite a beautiful Caribbean beach that's well worth a visit. This popular spot has clean, white sand, lots of palm trees, waves for jumping, and a plethora of Bake & Shark stands for a local lunch. Changing stations and bathrooms are available for a small fee, so be sure to bring some local currency.
Trinidad's multicultural population ensures that local food encompasses a wide variety of ethnic cuisines. Port of Spain's restaurants serve up authentic Indian, Creole and Chinese cuisine. Trinidadian favorites include curries and rotis (Indian flatbread), callaloo (a stew made from dasheen leaves), macaroni pie and local fish like flying fish or kingfish. Street food and snacks are unique (like the super-hot tamarind balls or sugary coconut chip chip), and the quintessential beach food is a Bake & Shark sandwich.
You can find a selection of casual dining options in the malls on Frederick Street, as well a wide variety of cuisines on Ariapita Street and around the Queen's Park Savannah.
Situated right on the waterfront, the Breakfast Shed (Wrightson Road) is a five-minute walk from the cruise terminal. The food-court-style restaurant specializes in Creole food. You can sip local cocoa and coffee while you enjoy the view.
For some of the best roti in the Port of Spain area, head to Shiann (3 Cipriani Blvd.). Decide whether you want your curry wrapped in the roti or the roti on the side, pick a flavor of curry (beef, chicken, chickpeas with potato), and then add hot sauce and sides. It's not high frills, but it's truly Trinidadian and definitely delicious.
For true North Indian cuisine, as opposed to the local version, Apsara (13 Queen's Park East, 868-627-7364) will offer you plenty of choices with its extensive menu (great for vegetarians). The colorful restaurant is divided into several rooms, with brightly colored walls and chairs, tasseled quilts hanging from the ceiling and depictions of Indian gods and goddesses. It's right across from the Queen's Park Savannah. If you'd prefer Thai food, Tamnak Thai shares the same building.
For gourmet food with a Caribbean twist, try Battimamzelle (44 Coblentz Avenue, 868-621-0591, http://www.coblentzinn.com/restaurant.html), located in the Coblentz Inn, north of the Savannah. The limited menu includes Pineapple and Passionfruit Glazed Kingfish, Spicy Island Chicken marinated in local herbs and Oysters Three Ways. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Port of Spain's Restaurant Row can be found on Ariapita Street, a quick cab ride or easy walk from the cruise port (from the waterfront Hyatt, take Colville Street until it intersects with Ariapita). Try Veni Mange (#67A) for local food (callaloo soup, West Indian hot pot) and plenty of veggie-friendly fare, or Irie Bites (#71) for Jamaican jerk cuisine and a laid-back vibe. El Pecos on the Grill (#68) is a carnivore's paradise of grilled meats.
The ultimate beach lunch is a Bake & Shark sandwich at Maracas Bay (try Richard's for the popular pick or Asha's for the most choices). The menus are fairly limited but center on the Bake & Shark sandwich -- grilled shark meat on fried bread, which you top with your choice of sauces, veggies and fixin's. It's best when washed down with a cold local beer, like Carib or Stag. Some venues, like Asha's, offer a choice of proteins that include chicken, shrimp, cheese, kingfish, salmon and flying fish -- all on frybread.
If you're spending the day at the Asa Wright Nature Centre (Blanchisseuse Road, 868-667-5162, http://www.asawright.org/visitors/visitors.html), you can eat lunch at its buffet restaurant, which includes a choice of meat or fish, vegetable sides, salads and desserts. Sunday lunch is a special menu with soup, local foods and its signature pie. You must make reservations in advance for lunch, which costs $140TT ($200TT on Sundays) and is served from noon to 1 p.m.
Staying in Touch
Look for Internet cafes -- like Tech at #60 -- along Frederick Street. Another option is Computer Planet Ltd. (Ariapita Ave. and Luis St.).
Best Highlights Tour: For a twist on the typical city tour, book the "Port of Spain Highlights and Angostura Distillery" tour; it begins with a bus ride through town past the Parliament Building and Magnificent Seven and includes a quick visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens and a photo stop at the Lady Young Lookout. The highlight of the trip is a tour of the Angostura Bitters Distillery, complete with a complimentary beverage.
Best for Beach Bums: Drive past Trinidad's city highlights, as well as countryside areas, on your way to Maracas Beach. You'll have a few hours there to swim, soak up the sun or try a Bake & Shark lunch. Changing facilities and showers are available.
Best for Nature Lovers: The "Rainforest Adventure and Asa Wright Tour" takes you to Trinidad's 200-acre wildlife sanctuary, an hour's drive from Port of Spain. There, you'll go on a guided walk through a tropical forest to see birds (more than 400 varieties live there) and exotic trees and flowers. If you're lucky, you might see a toucan!
Best for Religious Travelers: A unique, slower-paced tour is the "Trinidad Highlight's and Mount St. Benedict Monastery" excursion. It starts like the other highlights tours with a drive through the city, with a brief stop at the gardens and a lookout, before heading to the hilltop Roman Catholic monastery, the oldest Benedictine monastery in the region. A guided tour of the church and guesthouse will enlighten visitors about the history and culture of the monks, and it's followed by tea, coffee, fruit punch and homemade bread, served on the terrace where you can spot tiny, beautifully colored birds.
For More Information
Trinidad & Tobago Tourism: (868) 675-7034)
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Trinidad and Tobago
Independent Traveler Forums: Trinidad and Tobago
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor