CARIB-Trinidad250By four in the morning I was starting to wonder what I was doing, nearly naked, painted in silver mud and dancing through the streets of a tropical city. Even though I am on the greying side of fifty I wasn’t alone in the dawning light. Tens of thousands of people, some even more ancient then me, were dancing through the streets of Trinidad’s Port of Spain, having a great time kicking off Carnival.

Carnival, that wonderful two days leading up to Lent when adults can behave like the kids they wish they still were, will be held Feb. 23 and 24 in 2009.

Rio and New Orleans hold Carnivals, but nothing like this. In those cities you get to watch from behind police barricades while the people who are really having fun ride along on floats. In Trinidad, you are the parade. You join a mas band (masquerade club) dress up and make a fool of yourself; nobody cares because they’re all doing it too.

As many as 300,000 people from all over the world take part and if you’re a cruising sailor spending the winter in the Caribbean, this is a no-miss event.

J’Ouvert is the official 2 a.m. starting gun for Carnival followed by two days of non-stop activity.

Many Carnival events actually take place before J’Ouvert. There are competitions for soca singers, pan (steel) bands and costumes. Even the kids get in on the act and Kiddie’s Carnival is one of those delights you never hear about unless you know someone from Port of Spain.

“Grannies are the most important people on the island during carnival,” was how my pal Andy explained the conscience-salving Kiddie’s Carnival. “Every year, kids are turned over to their grandparents while mommy and daddy take to the streets.”

Just before they abandon their parental responsibilities (which the kids don’t mind because the grannies’ spoil them), the kids have their own Carnival. “This carnival is a bribe to make the parents feel better about leaving their kids for four days.”

Like adult Carnival, the kids have their own traditions of fancy dress. There are Young French Gentlemen, regal chevaliers, and traditional sailors with gob hats, fake beards and discreet pipes while butterflies and plumes are favoured by the girls.

No matter what they wear, the kids have a great time bouncing along to the booming parade beat. This isn’t martial music either. The driving soca that surrounds you forces you to dance. I got so good I could moonwalk better than Michael Jackson in a packed courtroom.

Then comes J’Ouvert and for the next thirty hours there is little time for sleep.

Over on sister island Tobago, there’s a Carnival as well, but Tobagonians’ kicks come during Angostura Race Week.

Shunned by the Formula One fraternity it lacks big money attitude and rock stars so the door is open to pure fun. Yachts competing in Angostura Race Week range in length from Santa Cruz 70s to pocket rockets like the Van De Stadt 24. Boats compete in six classes governed under ISF rules and the Caribbean Sailing Association measurement system.

It’s a safe bet that the idea for a major regatta in the southern Caribbean emerged after a few sundowners and Tobago seemed like a good location. Situated between Trinidad and Grenada, racers coming from the north have an overnight hop and it is easy enough for southern yachts from Trinidad and Venezuela to get there in a day. The closest charter operation is The Moorings on Grenada.

With Tobago, when you aren’t sailing, there’s more to see and do than just lying on the beach – although the beaches are absolutely splendid.

Near Crown Point, where the races are held, there is a collection of terrific restaurants featuring international and Creole cuisine. Tobago’s national dish is curried crab with dumplings. It’s hot and the heat doesn’t come from the dish itself. It’s in the sauce.

Everybody makes their own hot sauce here, but one thing they all have in common is their kick. A little (read half a small coffee spoon) goes a long way.

Our friend Andy offered to show my partner, Laurie, and I the sights. We jumped into his van for a trip up to Speyside, the world famous dive region at the northeast tip of the island.  Along the way, we stopped for a short hike in the rain forest at the Main Ridge Recreation Site. The Main Ridge Site is the oldest forest reserve in the western hemisphere. It dates back to 1765 and was established by sugar planters to protect the watershed from deforestation.

Hiking through steaming glades alongside a stream lined with heliconias and a hundred other plants, our guide Newton talked to the birds by whistling their songs and they responded by coming closer for a look.

After the hike we hit the Treehouse Restaurant – built in a massive spreading Sea Grape tree – near Speyside. The catch of the day was spiny lobster and unlike most Caribbean Islands where tourism has taken off, Tobago doesn’t come with a sunshine tax. Food, drink and entertainment are still reasonably priced.

Speyside is legendary for its diving. The main highway is lined with dive shops and there are half a dozen guesthouses and hotels that cater specifically to the underwater crowd.

While the majority of Tobago’s 40,000 people live along the turbulent Atlantic coast, the best cruising ground is on the west side in the Caribbean. From Store Bay in the south to Pirate’s Bay in the north, you could take weeks to gunkhole up this shore.

Bottoms here are mainly coral sand and nearly every small bay has a windward reef that you can anchor behind overnight. Tobagonians are very conscious of the health of their reefs and it is illegal to set your hook into the coral itself.

Many of the island’s beaches are nesting sites for ocean-roving leatherback turtles. If you’re lucky you can watch this miracle although you are expected to respect the rules regarding the use of flashlights and flash photography is banned.

Tobago still has little in the way of facilities for visiting yachters. Most yachting services are situated on Trinidad at Chaguaramas Bay. Chaguaramas is the hurricane hole to end all. It is a broad bay protected by Trinidad’s northern range of mountains and lies outside the hurricane zone. This is the most extensive service and repair set-up in the southern Caribbean.


Because there is a plague of Internet sites claiming some official role, the two best websites to get information about this year’s Carnival are:

The National Carnival Bands Association

T&T Tourism

For cruising info, you can’t do better than:

Chris Doyle’s Cruising Guide To Trinidad and Tobago

Angostura Race Week