In Trinidad and Tobago, a joyful spirit reigns amid riches of nature.
Derrick, our garrulous tour guide, offers a biriba, a prickly looking pod he's cut open to expose a pale and pulpy fruit, as well as some peer pressure. "What's the matter?" he asks. "Don't you want to live forever?"
Trinidad also has a fruit called the Stinking Toe, which makes his question a little more difficult to answer. But Derrick repeats this mantra several times while navigating a path from Port of Spain, the capital city of the Caribbean island duo of Trinidad and Tobago, to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, a bird-filled retreat in the country's northern rain forest.
Derrick is an enthusiastic ambassador for his country who believes its riches ought to be enjoyed daily, should one of those days be our last. He makes a number of generalizations about Trinidadians, many of which seem to hold true during a short stay. Chief among them is the country's affinity for "liming," which is essentially hanging out in the company of friends and alcohol.
"Liming is what we do, we love to lime," he says. "It's all a celebration. You work to lime. Why would you want to break that? We call that souring the lime."
We pass a cricket game. "It's like baseball but longer," Derrick says. "The winner gets a lot of beer. But the loser gets beer too, so everybody wins."
This is a culture of celebration. To wit, Trinidad and Tobago are in full revelry and it's not even Carnival season yet. The nation is celebrating its 50th year of independence as well as its first Olympic gold medal since 1976.
Trinidad is unique in the Caribbean. The country sits near Venezuela and is too far south to be affected much by hurricanes. It also is largely unburdened by the sort of tourist traffic that results in sprawling resorts. Retreats are to be found, but the islands' essence seems untouched by tourism, making it a gem for those seeking a genuine Caribbean experience.
The islands also are deceptively large for looking so compact on a map. Splitting a week between the two doesn't quite do them justice. But Asa Wright is a worthwhile stop. The 1,500-acre forest was once a cocoa and coffee plantation. Today it's a magnificent birding destination full of hermits, hummingbirds and hawks, best visited with a knowledgeable guide. Should you desire to spot the elusive oilbird, you'll have to stay overnight.
The Caroni Swamp is another nearby wildlife gem best seen around dusk when the brightly colored scarlet ibises fly to one small island to roost. The swamp tour also offers the opportunity to see sloths, caimans, crabs, fish and snakes. Visitors are advised not to fiddle with dangling sticks in case they turn out to be snakes.
All sorts of tour operators work out of Port of Spain, but the Members Only company run by Trinidad native Jesse James (that's really his name) was top-shelf, with guides both knowledgeable and engaging. (James' sister, who shuttled us to Caroni, was aghast at the idea of my family eating our last meal on the island at a hotel, so she brought homemade saltfish and bake as an alternative.)
For two islands linked by government and guide books, Trinidad and Tobago are quite different. Trinidad is all extroverted energy, a seemingly unending celebration of life and culture. The pace in Tobago -- accessible by frequent 20-minute plane rides or a two-plus-hour ferry trip -- is decidedly more laid back. Trinidad is about going out, Tobago about staying in. Which makes Tobago ideal for a quiet beach rental. Castara, a fishing town on the north side, has a couple of tour operators who offer the opportunity to see the rest of the island. It has two beaches on a small bay with clear water and clean sand.
Amenities and services are limited, so think ahead about essentials.
The Cuffie River Nature Retreat, a lovely lodge nestled a few miles down a dirt road in the rain forest, provides an alternative to beaches. The retreat offers rooms with access to a kitchen, though the lodge's meals were local and savory. We weren't able to fully enjoy the retreat's winding trails as Hurricane Isaac's outer bands dropped a morning of rain that resulted in a landslide requiring the in-house guide's attention.
A full island tour affords a panorama in a few hours, from Dillon Point's impressive view of Castara to the southern beaches, which have rougher waves and fewer surfers, to a bit of liming at Glasgow's Bar which offers cold beer, a nice breeze and a fairly awesome view of Englishman's Bay.
A couple of cautionary notes: Our pre-trip research revealed a lot of concerns about crime. Although the U.S. State Department offers no travel advisories about Trinidad and Tobago, a 2011 New York Times story referenced a curfew because of drug-related crime. We neither experienced nor witnessed any threatening situations. Trinidadians suggest most of the trouble involves the drug trade and isn't in areas frequented by tourists. Tobagoans are quick to point out their quiet island is virtually crime-free. "You read reports about crime, they say there were 1,000 violent crimes in Trinidad and Tobago," one guide says. "And 999 of them are in Trinidad. Tobago, every once in a while somebody drinks too much and gets in a fight at the bar. But we suffer because of what happens there."
Another caution is that the islands' residents are committed to their revelry, which can make travel difficult at certain times. Flights from one to the other sell out well in advance of the independence celebrations. Be aware that transit between the two islands is easy, except when it isn't.
No caution is required with the food. The cuisine is impossible to describe succinctly, with African, Creole, Indian and many other influences. Cooks make great use of local fruits, vegetables, fish and the beloved chickpea.
The chickpea, or channa, is the basis for the double, one of the most popular foods in Trinidad and an essential experience. Two pieces of doughy flat bread are topped with a curried chickpea sauce. A dash of hot sauce is optional. They're sloppy.
"You have to try one without the hot sauce and one with the hot sauce," Derrick says. "Eat this and live forever."