On Caribbean twin-island nation Trinidad and Tobago, cricket fan Peter Ellegard finds exotic birds, meets its prime minister on a golf course, goes liming – hanging out – with the locals at Sunday School and is given personal mementoes from a West Indies batting legend.
‘I don’t like cricket, I love it’ – as the 70s hit song, Dreadlock Holiday, by 10cc goes. Which is a good thing when visiting Port of Spain, the capital city of the Trinidad and Tobago Republic.
The Queen’s Park Oval, in the heart of the city, is the Caribbean’s largest cricket ground. It was also the sporting home of Brian Lara, one of cricket’s true greats until his retirement in 2007.
Everyone in Trinidad seems to know, or is related to, Lara. After an early flight from Tobago, Nick, my driver and guide for two days of golf and sightseeing, reveals that he was born in the same village, Santa Cruz, as the Lara family. Apparently, he grew up with ‘The Prince’, Lara’s nickname, and his 10 siblings.
MILLENNIUM LAKES. Arriving at nearby Millennium Lakes Golf and Country Club, I am greeted by golf administrator Lauren Lara, Brian’s sister-in-law. She introduces me to her golf tour operator husband, Richard, former manager of his cricketing brother, before I venture out. Both he and Brian are three handicappers.
The flat, open course meanders along the Arouca River and is well named, with water on almost every hole. Safely avoiding the river for both my opening drive and pitch to the green, my 23 handicap shows itself and I find the wet stuff with alarming regularity.
Having missed the club’s website pointing out that the lakes and ponds are filled with not only exotic birds, but also caimans – the Caribbean’s alligator – I hunt for lost balls in the reed-filled lake edges in blissful ignorance. Mercifully, the snappy residents stay hidden.
Opened in 2006, Millennium forms the centrepiece of an upscale residential community development, and fancy villas line several fairways. The fairways are more parched than normal in the January–May dry season because of an unusually arid rainy season, but the greens are well watered and putts roll nicely. The signature par-4 9th hole finishes with a green in front of the clubhouse beyond a pond full of water lilies. It’s all very picturesque.
EXPLORING THE CAPITAL. I check into the charming, intimate Coblentz Inn boutique hotel – an oasis of calm in the frenzy that is Port of Spain – before lunch at Shiann’s Food Palace, a city centre institution famous for its curries. Owner Lisa Nagir decorated walls with posters of Brian Lara during his cricketing pomp and he eats there regularly. I try ‘buss-up-shut’, a type of roti or flatbread, with curried chicken. Delicious.
You haven’t been to Trinidad unless you try roti, doubles, and bake and shark, according to Nick. So that night we go to Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain’s largest recreational space, for some street food. At weekends it heaves with people. I sample doubles – patties filled with spicy channa (chickpeas) – as well as corn soup, whilst enjoying a barbadine punch, made from an exotic fruit, finishing with Guinness ice cream from a street vendor in St James.
Beforehand, I take a sunset boat tour through the vast Caroni Bird Sanctuary mangrove swamp to see Trinidad’s national bird, the scarlet ibis. Huge flocks of these vivid red birds fly in to roost on mangrove islands at dusk, a spectacular sight.
BAMBOO AND BLOSSOM. After a dawn start to avoid Port of Spain’s notorious traffic, I play at the hilly St Andrews Golf Club. Laid out in 1891 through mature trees in a valley between forested mountains, it is a joy to play. It is also challenging, despite being just 6,550 yards from the back tees, thanks to streams and overhanging bamboo. The bright pink blossom of scattered, indigenous poui trees is a highlight.
Beware the short and innocuous-looking stroke index 18 hole, the par-3 15th. From the high tees you can easily over-club into the river and trees behind the green, or short-side yourself and find the gaping front bunker.
Both the 9th and 18th holes end by the colonial-style clubhouse. There, in the Hacker’s Bar & Grill, I meet another of Lara’s brothers, Robert, the club’s golf operations co-ordinator. I had hoped to meet the man himself at St Andrews, but he is off-island. However, Robert gives me a pink St Andrews golf hat that Brian has signed for me and a golf ball bearing his name and the number 375 – his record Test score for the West Indies against England in 1994. This number was eclipsed when he regained the record with an unbeaten 400 runs in 2004, once more against England. Both now have pride of place in my office.
We are set to leave Trinidad but I still haven’t tried bake and shark (a seafood sandwich), so we drive through rainforest to beautiful Maracas Beach on the north coast. I order one from Richard’s Bake and Shark, famous for serving the best, while enjoying a refreshing drink of coconut water from a freshly chopped coconut on the beach.
With tailbacks to the airport, sadly there’s no time to visit Yerette, a hummingbird haven created in the garden of a house above Maracas Valley, or the nearby Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad’s top bird-watching location. Next time.
TIME FOR TOBAGO. This island bookends my trip and is far more laidback than larger Trinidad. Both are famed for their colourful and vibrant carnival street festivals, Notting Hill Carnival being inspired by Trinidad’s, but Tobago is the beach holiday destination.
My first few days there are spent at the Grafton Beach Hotel, which is family-friendly, and next-door’s Le Grand Courlan Spa Resort, which is adult-only. Both overlook palm-fringed Stonehaven Bay. Here is an idyllic retreat, just steps from the beach where you can enjoy lunch and cocktails above the golden sands in their beachside Buccaneers Bar.
I rent a car to play at the nearby Mount Irvine Bay Resort’s golf course and to explore the area. Carved from an old sugar and coconut plantation in 1968, the resort’s restaurant is built around a 200-year-old sugar mill. This course has seen some action and it hosted Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf in its early years.
The design is delightful. Fairways lined by towering royal palm trees swoop down and back up gentle slopes, giving tantalising glimpses of the Caribbean from many holes before finishing on the 18th green just across the coast road from the beach.
Star hole is the 9th, a par 4 that starts with an elevated tee giving wonderful sea views and curves around a water hazard to a tucked-away green. My favourite hole is the par-4 18th, though, after I chip in for a birdie.
SUNDAY SCHOOL. After the golf, I visit small seaside town Buccoo, known for its annual crab and goat racing festival. At sunset I attend Sunday School, along with what seems like the whole of Tobago. The faithful are all dressed in their Sunday finery, but forget religion. Sunday School Tobago-style is one big weekly party under the stars. People come to go liming (hanging out with friends) and wining (dancing provocatively).
What an atmosphere! Everybody is liming, beer in hand, chatting away as a steel pan band fills the air with the distinctive Trinidad and Tobago sound from the stage, while several couples are wining suggestively on the dance floor.
They don’t come much more dapper than ‘The King’, a cool dude decked out in a natty green and gold outfit complete with frilly gold shirt, hat, shades and cane. He poses for tourists’ selfies in return for beers. Then a DJ comes on stage, pumping up the volume with fast-paced local Soca rhythms and the dance floor fills.
I feel a bit like Cinderella as I leave before midnight, but while I don’t lose a shoe, my minibus does get stuck in a jam from people still pouring in. Back at the Grafton Beach Hotel, I miss my pina colada nightcap as Ali, the barman, is just heading out to Sunday School. Next day he admits he left at 5am and it was still rocking.
TROPICAL PARADISE. Tobago is beautiful, with its stunning beaches lapped by the gin-clear Caribbean and Atlantic on either coast. The sea teems with coral and fish, and diving is huge here. I board a glass-bottomed boat from Store Bay to drift over Buccoo Reefand and go liming in the shallows of Nylon Pool, a submerged coral sandbank surrounded by azure sea.
Rainforest-clad mountains provide refuge for most of Tobago’s 200-plus bird species. I take a guided bird-watching hike into the Main Ridge Forest Preserve with Tobago’s bird whisperer, Newton George. The rainforest echoes to a cacophony of tropical bird song and as George points out numerous colourful species, he also mimics their calls, to which these tropical birds respond.
MADGALENA GOLF. My final Tobago base is the Magdalena Grand Beach & Golf Resort, a lavish sanctuary set on a 750-acre former plantation on the rugged south coast. Environmentally friendly, the Tobago Plantations Golf Club course is a certified Audubon Co-operative Sanctuary member that opened in 2001 and was revamped in 2013.
It is partly laid out through wetlands and artificial lakes created to enhance flora and fauna and partly alongside the coast and mangroves, which you can explore on boardwalks. Several holes are on the ocean, including the par-4 3rd, where the green gives views across the bay to the city Scarborough, while the par-3 14th hole runs alongside wind-blown Atlantic waves, skipped across by speedy kiteboarders.
After checking in, a motorcade arrives bearing the Trinidad and Tobago prime minister and his entourage. He is here for a colleague’s wedding and a cabinet meeting, the bellboy tells me, and sweeps past me as I stand by the entrance. I bump into him again by chance two days later while playing golf. My playing partner, a local golf pro, introduces me to him when we end up playing adjacent holes. Asked if I am enjoying my stay, I tell him I feel thoroughly at home. How could I not be? Especially after liming and dining, if not wining, just like the locals.