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Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago is a twin island country about 7 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Trinidad is 1,841 square miles and Tobago is much smaller at 120 square miles. Geologically, they are located in South America but are considered part of the Carib...

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Trinidad and Tobago

You remember the saying about taking life's lemons and making lemonade? The people of Trinidad went one better: They took old oil drums and created a unique style of music that has become the soundtrack to tropical relaxation.

Steel drums—made from the bottoms of oil barrels—were first heard in Port of Spain in the 1930s. The instrument says much about the people of Trinidad: They're resourceful, drawn to lively music and willing to use whatever's available to get a party started. In fact, it's said that the steel drum (also called a pan) was born when poor Trinidadians needed a musical instrument for Carnival, the festival of frantic revelry that is another of the island's claims to fame.

By contrast, Tobago, the other island in this Caribbean nation, is more like the dreamy picture that comes to mind when you hear a steel drum: swaying palms and fishing villages, sandy beaches and azure seas teeming with fish. The island moves at a more leisurely tempo than Trinidad, but with this kind of unspoiled scenery and uncrowded atmosphere, it's a slow dance that no one is in a hurry to end.

In addition to the usual offerings of beaches and watersports, both islands have stretches of tropical rain forest and nature preserves—seeing a scarlet ibis in the wild is a particularly wonderful experience. So much variety makes Trinidad and Tobago a good destination for those who want to sample a lot of the Caribbean in a small space. Trinidad also has a melange of racial contributors, so much so that they consider themselves the original Rainbow Nation.


Trinidad and Tobago are the last links in the Lesser Antilles island chain before it bumps into South America. The rich dynamics of an area where the confluence of the cool Atlantic Ocean mixes with both the effluent waters of the Orinoco River of South America and the warmer Caribbean creates an unusual marine bounty for visitors.

The southern tip of Trinidad sits just 7 mi/11 km from the coast of Venezuela. The northern third of Trinidad contains mountains known as the Northern Range, which include the island's highest peak, Cerro del Aripo (3,085 ft/941 m). The center and south of the island are relatively flat, consisting of fertile plains that give way to mangrove swamps and beaches at the coast.

Tobago, 21 mi/32 km northeast of Trinidad and considerably smaller in size, is dominated by rain-forested hills in the center of the island, with sandy beaches and lush jungles forming its perimeter.


Trinidad became the first inhabited island in the Caribbean when Mesolithic Indians made the 7-mi/11-km crossing from the South American mainland in about 5000 BC. Various Amerindian tribes followed, and in the first years AD, their population moved up through the Western Antilles all the way to Puerto Rico. When Columbus arrived at Trinidad and Tobago in 1498 on his third visit to the New World, the native population was nearly 35,000.

He named Trinidad after the Holy Trinity, which he saw represented by three peaks on the southern coast. The island was settled by the Spanish, but the colony struggled until Spain granted land to Roman Catholics from other Caribbean islands. As a result, many French planters came to the island and brought with them large numbers of slaves. In 1797, the British invaded and the island became a British holding. When Britain banned the slave trade, indentured workers from India were brought to the island to work the sugarcane plantations.

Tobago was little more than a pirate haunt until sugarcane and coffee were planted in its rich soil. The island changed hands many times before it became a British Crown colony in 1877. It united politically with Trinidad in 1888. The islands became an independent nation in 1962 and a republic in 1976.

Oil made Trinidad and Tobago one of the richest nations in the Caribbean by the 1970s, but a fall in oil prices led to difficult economic—and political—times. Expansion of the natural-gas industry in the 1990s strengthened the economy, and Trinidad and Tobago is once again in the midst of an oil-fueled economic boom.

In 1995, Trinidad elected its first prime minister of East Indian descent, an event that focused attention on the racially based political divisions in Trinidad and Tobago. Drug-related crimes are another problem facing the country: Its proximity to South America has made it a transshipment point for cocaine intended for North America.

Although British influence is still present, most obviously in the islanders' love for cricket, other nationalities are more visible today: The descendants of African slaves and indentured laborers from India now make up Trinidad's two largest ethnic groups. Those of Chinese, Middle Eastern and European descent are present in smaller numbers. In comparison, Tobago's people are quite homogenous, most tracing their heritage to Africa.


The islands' main attractions are charming people, rhythmic music, Carnival celebrations, empty beaches, colorful shopping, market-fresh food, underwater caves and reefs, Hindu temples, bird sanctuaries, watersports and relaxation.

If you like festivities and partying—especially Carnival—you'll like Trinidad, particularly the exciting nightlife of Port of Spain. If you're looking for seclusion and peace on a beautiful beach in a lush, tropical paradise, then Tobago is for you. Travelers put off by the noise and commotion of a large urban center should avoid Port of Spain, and those primarily interested in a beach vacation might prefer the already established beach culture of Tobago (although Trinidad is improving dramatically of late).


Trinidad was once part of the South American continent. For this reason, it has plants and wildlife not found on other Caribbean islands and, together with the many Caribbean species present there, accounts for the richest flora and fauna of any set of islands in the entire Caribbean.

Buccoo is the goat-racing capital of the world. Started by an Englishman in 1925, the current race has a beautiful facility built beyond the beach at Buccoo, where every Easter Tuesday the place attracts a crush of locals and visitors to Tobago.

Every street in Trinidad has two names—the ones on the maps visitors buy on the island and the ones on the street signs.

Lawbreakers beware: The practice of flogging convicted criminals has been revived on the islands. The punishment is rarely used, but its presence is seen as a means of deterring crime.

Fans of famed Trini author V.S. Naipaul can see his tidy, two-story boyhood home at 26 Nepaul St. (at the corner of Western Main Road), St. James (near Port of Spain).

As famous as Trinidad is for the steel drum, the island also is the birthplace of calypso, another lively form of music associated with the tropics. Typically, calypso features a fast beat and witty lyrics that express the singers' opinions and amusing observations—sometimes political, sometimes bawdy, sometimes both. In fact, calypso songs have been credited with making or breaking politicians.

If you spot a huge person relaxing outside a hotel on Tobago, it's not a giant, it's art: The 8-ft/2.5-m sculptures produced by the late artist Luise Kimme are carved from tree trunks and often depict islanders engaged in everyday activities such as relaxing, dancing and going to church. They are also found outside many buildings and landmarks.


In Trinidad, cruise ships dock in Port of Spain, the capital city and main port, on the western coast of the island, overlooking the Gulf of Paria. The cruise-ship complex is on the south side of the city. Crafts markets and various resources for travelers are within a short walk of the terminal.

In Tobago, most cruise ships stop at the deep-port cruise terminal, Scarborough, on the southern coast of the island. The cruise-ship terminal, which is in the center of town on Melsortar Road, dominates the harbor. The terminal houses duty-free shops, local crafts and music stores, tour operators and a tourist office.

Shore Excursions

Typical excursions on Trinidad may take you for a scenic ride through the northern mountain range, on a cultural tour, sportfishing or to a nature sanctuary.

On Tobago you might expect a glass-bottomed-boat tour, catamaran sailing, or a nature or city tour. Check with your travel agent for additional information.

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