Port of Spain is the second largest city of Trinidad and Tobago and also its capital city, located on the Gulf of Paria in northwestern Trinidad. Port of Spain is a leading city in the Caribbean, serving primarily as a retail, shipping, administrative and financial centre, home to two of the region’s largest banks. A spirited city with a vibrant street food culture and night life, Port of Spain slips below the radar as a tourist attraction except during Carnival which is the city’s main annual festival. The island is widely recognized as the birthplace of Carnival.
As you’ll know if you follow me on social media or read my previous blog post, I visited Trinidad in late December. Exploring Port of Spain was the part of my itinerary I was most looking forward to because I feel exploring a country’s capital city is the best way to experience its culture. The weekday traffic in Port of Spain is still horrible despite the government’s attempt to eliminate traffic lights and build more overpasses, so of course I went on a Sunday, making the atmosphere laid-back. Here are six highlights in Port of Spain worth seeing.
(NB- If you’re planning to explore Port of Spain on foot, wear comfortable shoes. The perimetre of the Savannah alone is 3.5km (2.2mi)! 😳)
Emperor Valley Zoo
Emperor Valley is Trinidad’s largest zoo, located north of the Savannah and home to over 2,300 animals and 200 species, both local and imported. It was first opened in 1952 and is named for the large blue Emperor morpho butterfly which once frequented the valley in which the zoo is located. It has more exotic species than Kingston’s Hope Zoo, including giraffes, Bengal tigers, a chimpanzee, otters, kangaroos and llamas. They also have lions, Capuchin monkeys, capybaras, crocodiles, raccoons, ocelots, macaws, other parrots and birds including the stunning national bird of Trinidad and Tobago the scarlet ibis, flamingos, zebras, snakes and fish. It was a delight strolling around and admiring all the animals that I would likely never have a chance to see otherwise, although there’s always this pang of sadness which washes over me as I know visiting the zoo fuels an industry which captures and cages animals merely for my entertainment. Nonetheless, I did give feeding the giraffes a go and got a slobbery slippery lick of my palm in thanks. When it comes to their big scary animals like the tigers and lions, it was certainly reassuring to see electrified fences– to keep the animals in and daredevil human fingers and hands out. The Christmas decor was in full swing here and while it was only the children posing for pictures next to them, I couldn’t resist one. Admission was $50TT if memory serves correct (roughly 1,000JMD). Set aside 3 hours to properly enjoy the zoo.
The Royal Botanic Gardens
The Royal Botanic Gardens were established in 1818, and is one of the world’s oldest botanical gardens. It spreads out on 61.8 acres (25 hectares) and contains some 700 trees, 13% of which are indigenous to Trinidad and Tobago, while the others are collected from every continent of the world. The garden was beautiful and well-tended, arranged into smaller gardens with nifty names. It seemed as well utilized as our own Royal Botanical Gardens in Jamaica, with couples, families and groups of friends playing games, chatting and picnicking. I even saw a wedding procession taking photos on the verdant expansive lawns. This garden is free to enter and open from 6am-6pm. I highly recommend it for fellow nature-lovers.
Queen’s Park Savannah
This is the Savannah I’ve been referring to and using as a landmark throughout the entire article so far because you really can’t miss it. It’s HUUUUUGE. I’ve heard about this place a lot by listening to soca for years, so seeing it felt surreal. The annual carnival road march processions end here so no wonder they sing about it. Once used for growing sugar, it really is a magnificent roundabout– the largest in the world actually. Its circumference is the whole of 3.5km! I still can’t get over that. I guess that’s why so many people were jogging around it. Jog around it 1 1/2 times and you have completed a whole 5K! I can only imagine what it looks like coming to life for Carnival Monday and Tuesday; it is also the venue for Calypso Monarch, the Carnival King and Queen Competitions and the finals of the Panorama steelpan competition. What I saw instead two months away from Carnival was an empty grassland– or savannah if you will, ha!– and a paved area dividing the field down the middle which was the site of a street food paradise.
You can find EVERYthing Trini food and then some at the Savannah by night. Pholourie, doubles, aloo pie, pelau, gyros, bake and shark, corn soup, souse, smoothies and ice cream made from local fruit like sapodilla (naseberry), soursop and fruits I haven’t seen before in Jamaica like the barbadine (it tasted like a cross between custard apple and sweetsop). There was even pan chicken! Like actual real yaadies doing their thing. The Jamaican flag lured me over and the accent sealed it. Wow-ee! I hope the names of the food don’t go over the top of your heads– Google whatever sounds interesting because I don’t want to make this post any lengthier by going into descriptions for everything.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the eager friendliness, hospitality and customer service from all the vendors when my loudmouthed boyfriend felt the need to tell all the vendors I’m Jamaican and that he wants me to try everything. I was impressed…. portions were literally doubled for FREE! Another allowed me to use his table and chair to sit and try the different sauces for the pholourie properly. I could hardly manage– dem ‘tretch mi maw! I was more full at the end of this day than I was after Christmas dinner. It’s not even like he knew any of the vendors and I’ll likely never see any of them again. The pholourie is all I took a picture of. Remember that everything in the Savannah is street food so my hands were full.. plus I didn’t always want to be that tourist.
The National Academy for Performing Arts (NAPA) North
NAPA North is home to the performing arts in northern Trinidad. NAPA is committed to the development of performing arts in the island, including a state-of-the-art facility for the advancement of the national musical instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, the steelpan– the only percussion instrument invented in the 20th century. The exterior of the building is a work of art consisting of a cluster of domes configured to resemble the twin island republic’s national flower, the chaconia. Its highest point is 100 feet, its capacity 1,500 people and the dome encloses an acoustically-designed performance hall, practice rooms, teaching rooms, state-of-the-art lighting and sound features, landscaped grounds and a small hotel for visiting performers. I was told I’m fortunate to see it in all its glory with the fountains on.
Memorial Park is located at the top of Frederick Street in Port of Spain. A cenotaph commands the centre of the square honouring Trinidad and Tobago nationals which lost their lives in the first and second World War, much like the National Heroes Park in Jamaica.
The Magnificent Seven
The Magnificent Seven are seven mansions in a row located alongside Queen’s Park Savannah on Maraval Road in the St Clair neighborhood. They were built between 1902 and 1910 on land that was previously farmland and are listed as heritage sites. The buildings from first to last as you’ll pass them driving around the one-way Circular Road which borders the Savannah are (following photos aren’t my own):
- Queen’s Royal College, a prominent boys’ high school built in German Renaissance style.
- Hayes Court, residence for the Anglican Bishop to Trinidad built in French colonial style.
- Mille Fleurs, a state-owned building which was a former private residence but has deteriorated significantly over the years due to disuse.
- Ambard’s House, named for the French architect Lucien Ambard who designed and built the French Second Empire style house. Today it is a well-maintained and protected private residence.
- The Archbishop’s House, official residence of the Archbishop of Port of Spain designed by an Irish architect in Indian Empire architecture style, complete with a chapel and sacristy on the first floor.
- White Hall is the largest residence on the road, built by Joseph Leon Agostini, a cocoa planter, inspired by Moorish Mediterranean architecture.
- Stollmeyer’s Castle is a Scottish Baronial style residence named for Charles Fourier Stollmeyer, who hired the Scottish architect Robert Gillies to design the house, which is said to be patterned after a wing of Balmoral Castle. Today, it has been restored for use by visiting foreign dignitaries. This building was the most impressive and my favourite of the seven.
Exploring Port of Spain for a day made me draw several parallels between this city and my own beloved Kingston, capital city of Jamaica. Port of Spain is vibrant and full of beautiful architecture, history, culture, rhythm and charm. However, much like Kingston, Port of Spain records the highest crime rate for the nation as a product of its surrounding depressed neighbourhoods, most infamously the Laventille Hills. Despite this, Laventille is often seen as the spiritual heartbeat of Trinidad, birthing steel-pan and the musical genre of calypso, much as how reggae and dancehall music were born in the deep gritty slums of Kingston as a means by which the city’s most oppressed and impoverished could escape their struggles.
Hopefully the next time I see Port of Spain is for Trinidad Carnival 2021 (speaking it into being).
‘Til next time, ✌🏽.
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