The past week’s relentless winter weather kept us thinking about warmer places and how little the Caribbean folks know about winter. We’re used to the hard cold and shoveling piles of snow that will melt away (but hopefully not too quickly) come spring. The Caribbean folks have a puzzled look when we talk about fishing though holes in ice, skating on sheets of ice and sliding or skiing on piles of snow. Snow is only something they have only seen on television.
We do an amazing job of managing our way through winter’s tough times almost without incident, but it can be a challenge. And if you’ve been to Florida or points south it’s hard to not dream about palm trees and white sand beaches, especially when there are photos showing that wonderfully warm turquoise-tinted water. After shoveling last week’s 10 inches of new white fluff, we warmed up by looking through photos of our recent trip to the two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago.
I mentioned that Trinidad, especially around the capitol city of Port-of-Spain, is busy and bustling. The opposite is true in much-smaller Tobago (pronounced tow-BAY-go). While Trinidad is only about twice the size of Yellow Medicine County, Tobago, less than 26 miles long and 9 miles at its widest, is only about one seventh the size of Trinidad. The difference doesn’t end there. With just 55,000 of the county’s 1.3 million people, Tobago is laid-back and rural. The largest city, Scarborough, has 15,000 of the island’s population and Crown Point, 10 miles away on the western tip, has a few thousand folks along with some free roaming chickens and a goat pasture.
The eastern end of Tobago has a few fishing villages and the rest of the island is rimmed with sparsely occupied beaches and coral reefs encircling an interior mountainous rain forest. The twice-daily ferry between Port-of-Spain and Scarborough that carries cars and passengers costs $10. However, that three-hour ferry ride is notorious for sea-sickness in the rough water. There are also 20 round-trip flights each day between Port-of Spain and Tobago on Caribbean Airlines, which is owned by the Trinidad and Tobago federal government. That 25-minute flight costs $24 (with free checked baggage) and lands you at Crown Point where almost all the ac-commodations are.
The ferry sounds interesting but with a $15 cab ride from Scarborough to Crown Point, flying is as cheap and there’s no sea-sickness. And, we were only a five-minute walk to our hotel cabana, which was another three-minute walk to the wonderful uncrowded beach. Now, I wouldn’t say that Tobago is for everyone. It is rather remote, not too easy for Midwesterners to get to and very rural. However, it has a charm of its own and has the something special that keeps visitors coming back. While we had to fly to Miami and then to Port of Spain and then take the short hop to Tobago, many visitors we talked to were British or Canadian which reflects the long-standing ties that Trinidad and Tobago have to Britain, as a territory and later as a member of the Commonwealth. English became, and still is, the operating language although there’s a strong Caribbean dialect that challenges a mid-westerner’s ear. The Brits and Canadians have direct flights from Toronto and London to both Port-of-Spain and Crown Point.
There are also direct flights from the U.S. each day from Miami, Houston or the New York area and some weekly and seasonal direct flights from other Florida airports. Both Trinidad and Tobago have a long history of attracting European explorers and visitors, dating back to Columbus’ third voyage in 1498. His crew “discovered” the islands, then populated with an estimated 35,000 Amerindians. They greeted his ships with flying arrows, but that skirmish ended soon and Columbus wrote that the island was the friendliest of those he had visited on his four voyages. The first permanent Spanish settlers came to Trinidad in 1592 although the Spanish apparently treated the islands as only a brief stop on their way to the riches of South America. France had setters there, too, and for awhile took effective control of both islands. However, the British extended their Caribbean presence south, from Granada and other island colonies, in the late 1700s. They established defense forts at Port-of-Spain and Crown Point. The stone walls at Fort Milford, next to our hotel at Crown Point, were built by the British in 1777, then occupied by the French soon thereafter and recaptured by the Brits in 1792. Five British canons and one French canon remain there in what is a small historical park, on a lava-bed bluff overlooking the never-ending waves. From that point on, the British oversaw Trinidad.
Tobago was linked administratively to the larger island and they were governed as one colony. They established small-scale sugar cane plantations and brought waves of Africans as slaves. Slave trading ended in 1807 and slavery was abolished in 1834. A system of indentured service was established attracting thousands from the far-away British colony of India. This set the stage for the melting pot that modern day Trinidad and Tobago has become. Forty percent of the population has East Indian heritage, 40 percent has African heritage and smaller segments of the populations are British, Syrian, Lebanese and native Amerindian. Finally, in 1962 Trinidad and Tobago were granted independence from the British.
The country’s natural resources have been a foundation of economic stability, although there have been some sharp ups and downs with the oil, natural gas and bauxite markets. Banking is a big part of the economy in Port-of-Spain with the county’s central bank and other gleaming glass towers serving as headquarters for several banks and a busy stock exchange. The looming crisis in nearby Venezuela seems a bit remote but it is only a few miles away and there are Spanish-speaking refugees from there, arriving penniless and starving. That’s putting a bit of a strain on Trinidad and Tobago’s finances but so far they are managing to deal with it.
Meanwhile in Tobago there is talk of more tourism development. That seems inevitable but it’s happening slowly and there have been setbacks. The locals seem happy with the status quo but those many miles of unspoiled beaches and the year-round summer weather are bound to attract more folks in the coming years. Going back there seems like a nice dream. That white snow we are buried in does has some resemblance to the white sand along Tobago’s shores. Can spring and summer be far away?