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Brightly coloured chalk powder is a hallmark of Phagwa, a Hindu spring festival. Indentured workers from India brought the celebration to the islands decades ago. (ANDREA DE SILVA/REUTERS)
Brightly coloured chalk powder is a hallmark of Phagwa, a Hindu spring festival. Indentured workers from India brought the celebration to the islands decades ago. (ANDREA DE SILVA/REUTERS)

The gorgeous Caribbean island most people overlook Add to ...

The final twists and turns are paved, but steep beyond belief. Our driver is cautious but looking tense, concentrating to maintain traction on a road he’s seeing for the first time.

“Wow, they could really use some signage,” says the cabbie, Deoraj Narine.

His comment prompts a birding enthusiast from Vancouver to pipe up from the back seat: “You’d almost think they don’t want tourists to find this place.”

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This place is Yerette, a hilltop hummingbird sanctuary on the high slopes above the Maracas Valley that offers close-up viewing of more than a dozen types of hummingbirds, as well as lush gardens filled with orchids and ferns.

But “this place” might apply equally to Trinidad and Tobago. Despite its gorgeous beaches, direct flights, diverse food and culture, and fascinating wildlife, the two-island country isn’t yet a prime destination for North American sun-seekers.

Some know T&T as “the land of the hummingbird” and the country that gave us steel-drum music. Others know it for the annual pre-Lenten Carnival, a splashy blowout of soca, calypso, dancing, costumes and food. But T&T is also one of the Caribbean’s wealthiest countries and, unlike regional rivals, hasn’t gone in for heavy promotion of tourism. About half the economic activity of Barbados and the Bahamas flows from tourism, but the sector yields less than 8 per cent of Trinidad and Tobago’s gross domestic product.

“Diverse economies are more stable [than ones dependent on seasonal tourism],” said Miki Batcharasingh, a Canadian who was back in his homeland on a business trip. T&T also has manufacturing and oil-and-gas industries, he noted. “Here in Port of Spain, there’s banking, insurance, the university. … When Trinidad gets serious about tourism, and it will soon, it has the wealth to do it up right.”

T&T has two key assets to lure visitors: the diversity of its wildlife and geography, and the historic South Asian connections that infuse its food, culture and even local accents.

South Asian spices, for example, are part of the signature styles of Trinbagonian foods such as rotis, doubles (curried chickpea sandwiches) and bake and shark (deep-fried shark sandwiches).

And the South Asian influence is seen in some spectacular Hindu temples. “The temples, Christian churches and the [Islamic] masjids all peacefully co-exist. It’s an example for all the world,” Narine the cabbie told us on the Yerette trip. He recounted how his ancestors came from India in 1845, at the start of a 70-year period in which indentured workers replaced freed slaves on island plantations.

Port of Spain, the capital since 1757, is a busy port city that is rich in history and best enjoyed with the help of local tour guides. Guides also provide tours to places such as La Brea, the world’s largest pitch lake – a burping, hissing asphalt deposit, with supposedly therapeutic sulphuric waters, surrounded by cashew and mango trees. Located on Trinidad’s southwestern coast, it’s a designated UNESCO heritage site.

It’s estimated that T&T has a stunning 470 species of birds and 650 types of butterflies. And nearly 1,000 types of fish inhabit surrounding waters, making both islands popular with divers.

On the east coast, you can explore the Nariva Swamp, a huge inland wetland that is home to howler monkeys, manatees, anteaters and more than 100 species of birds, such as scarlet ibises, wild ducks, and the blue-and-gold macaw.

Nature lovers also flock to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, which boasts 400 bird species as well as butterflies, reptiles and 2,000 types of flowering plants. The eco-resort centre, founded 45 years ago on a former cacao and coffee plantation, is in the lush Northern Mountain Range and has drawn fans such as Prince Charles, David Attenborough and the Dalai Lama.

On an uphill trail through steamy jungle to the centre’s lodge, I met Scotsman Charlie West, a serious birder who said he wanted to see Asa Wright “for years, maybe decades.” His rating? “Absolutely brilliant.”

Back at the lodge, over rum punches, birders from four continents were as pumped as those of us who, hours earlier, wouldn’t have known a white-collared trogon from a golden-headed manakin.

The next day, it was back to Port of Spain, where I met a different type of tourist on the Hyatt Regency patio.

“I’m here to catch rays, have a few drinks and golf in Tobago,” said a relaxed Dan Levell. The New Jersey resident said he takes island vacations every year and has seen 24 Caribbean countries. “But now I can’t believe I’ve never been to T&T … It’s not on the radar in America.”

The writer attended a Caribbean Tourism Organization conference on sustainable tourism in Trinidad and Tobago; his trip was subsidized by the CTO. It did not review or approve this article.

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