Trinidad is full of surprises.
I hadn't been there in 20 years, and what I remembered from that first visit was music, roti and birds.
Trinidad is built on trade and driven by the energy industry, unlike other Caribbean islands where tourism is the economic mainstay. However, festivals, historical sites and nature-oriented tours offer leisure visitors more than enough to do.
The music still enchanted me, a mix of steel pan, calypso and soca, hot rhythms and cool lyrics and an excitement to all of it.
I ate roti again, a daily staple of the Trinidadian diet, traditional Indian flat bread served with curries, yogurt, tomato, eggplant and other vegetables.
Sitting at Richard's, a food stand across the road from Maracas Beach, 30 minutes from the urban clamor of Port of Spain, I also tried the local favorite called Bake 'n' Shark, a doughy, deep-fried bread, split in half, stuffed with pieces of shark and topped with chutneys, tamarind sauce, hot peppers, chadon beni (similar to cilantro) and onions, all washed down with a Carib beer.
Andrew Welch, founder of Banwari Experience Ltd. (Banwari were the first inhabitants of Trinidad), had driven me to Maracas, the island's most popular beach and the one closest to Port of Spain, a half-hour drive through the island's Northern Range and hills of dense foliage.
"I decided to get into tourism because Trinidad and Tobago has so much to offer. A lot of what is out there now in terms of excursions for visitors is too sanitized," Welch said.
Welch and his team "go way beyond tourism. Our visitors must not feel this is Jamaica or Barbados or just another Caribbean island. With us, they'll meet the locals, eat our food, and revel in our entertainment," he said.
He formed his firm in 1997 and described it as "the biggest little company on the island. We tailor our tours to our guests. Our groups are very small, and we go where others don't."
Welch is part historian, part culture maven. "Trinis are full of history. We trace our roots to Africa, India, China, France, Spain and Lebanon; I want our visitors to be exposed to that," he said.
On our return to the capital, we drove the two-mile loop around Queen's Park Savannah, a grassy park that Welch said is the largest roundabout in the world.
"This is where the fat ladies jog in the weeks before Carnival so they can fit into their costumes," he joked.
I met Gerald Nickolas, aka Mr. Nick, the next day. He founded Sensational Tours in 2000 "because Trinidad is much more than oil and gas, and I want to show that to visitors."
Our all-day trek took us east from the capital into the rain forest. We climbed steep winding roads for two hours through the Arima Valley to the Asa Wright Nature Center, a 200-acre protected preserve atwitter with more than 200 species of birds and a variety of plants, trees and flowers along 10 miles of hiking trails.
Included in the package for guests who stay at least three nights at the all-inclusive, 25-room lodge at the nature center are a guided hike and a nocturnal visit to the Oilbird Colony in Dunston Cave.
The center averages 15,000 day-trippers a year, according to Jason Radix, marketing manager. (Prince Charles and Camilla peered through binoculars from the center's veranda on their recent Caribbean visit.)
"We get 2,400 overnight visitors at the lodge," Radix said. "The U.S. used to be our biggest international market, but it's declined over the past four years while the U.K. market has increased."
Returning to Port of Spain, we stopped at the 18-room Pax Guest House, built in 1932 on the grounds of a hilltop monastery and surrounded by lush gardens.
Owners Gerard Ramsawak and Oda van der Haijden offer simple accommodations, with two meals a day, evening rum punch, WiFi on the verandas and an intimate knowledge of the birds that flock to the feeders.
Trinidad, roughly the size of Rhode Island, has a lot to offer visitors. One caveat: The New Jersey-style traffic jams in and around Port of Spain "are our biggest deterrent to tourism," Nickolas said. Visitors should plan their sightseeing accordingly.
For more on the island, visit www.gotrinidadandtobago.com.
To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].