Trinidad; A mosaic of cultures, cuisines, and architecture

The history of the island of Trinidad in many ways resembles that of the United States: It was a land to which many immigrant groups came seeking a new chance and a land to which blacks from West Africa came as slaves. But whereas America is a melting pot, Trinidad is a mosaic, each ethnic group retaining its customs and sense of community to a much higher degree than in the US.

On a walk through Port of Spain, the principal city of the island and the capital of the country of Trinidad and Tobago, one encounters East Indians, West Africans, Syrians, Lebanese, Chinese, Japanese, and native Amerindians, among others. The human tapestry is interwoven with British customs and a tropical, almost Polynesian, ambiance. The politics and economics are no less complicated.

Trinidad counters every stereotype about the Caribbean and about the kind of tourist who goes there. Architecturally, Trinidad is rich, but its beaches are hard to reach. Many tourists don't stay at beach-front resorts, preferring instead the West Indian guest houses, akin to European pensions. The tourists one finds in these places are rarely uncultured sunbathers, but are frequently sophisticated globe-trotters. Said one British merchant in a Port of Spain guest house: ''I have traveled in nearly every country in Asia and Africa, yet I still find Trinidad among the most distinctive.''

The twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is one of the hemisphere's major oil producers. Like other oil-rich nations - Venezuela, Nigeria, and Algeria, for example - development in Trinidad has been quick and chaotic; the trappings of modernity are everywhere, but frequently the phones don't work, and the bureaucracy is oppressive.

This simply means a trip to Trinidad has to be planned more carefully than, say, a trip to Greece. For instance, it is sometimes hard to telephone a hotel from the airport, and one does not wander around at night expecting to find a good restaurant or nightclub. Good restaurants and nightclubs exist in abundance in Trinidad, but they are interspersed among many tasteless establishments offering canned entertainment. Trinidad is a place where a guidebook is essential.

Frommer's Dollarwise Guide to the Caribbean is particularly helpful, because it makes food and lodging recommendations for all budgets, but here are some of my own suggestions:

* Upon air arrival at Piarco International Airport, don't just jump into a private taxi. The journey to Port of Spain will cost $18. To the left as you exit the terminal building will be a stand for shared taxis, in which the same journey costs only $6 per person.

* Don't stay in a Port of Spain hotel unless it borders on the Queen's Park Savannah, since the ones not lining the Savannah are all in depressing locations.

* If you are traveling alone, stay at a guest house where the atmosphere is informal and your prospects of meeting other travelers that much greater. My favorite Port of Spain guest house is Monique's in Maraval, northwest of town. Monique's is a quintessential West Indian establishment: Several rooms of a private villa are rented out, with meals taken together in the villa dining room. The rooms are first class, the porch opens to a lovely mountain vista, and the villa seems always filled with interesting travelers. Singles are around $23 and doubles $30. Breakfast is extra but well worth it, consisting of cornflakes, eggs, bacon, cheese, and toast.

* Since Trinidad is one island in the Caribbean which offers a lot for the intellect, do some reading before your trip. I recommend ''The Middle Passage'' and ''The Suffrage of Elvira,'' both by V.S. Naipaul. Though Naipaul can be very negative about his native homeland, he is also very perceptive. One caveat though: Bear in mind that the racial upheavals Naipaul predicted in those books never quite took place. Unlike neighboring Guyana, Trinidad today is racially a very peaceful place.

A good way to get acquainted with Trinidad is to take a morning stroll around the Queen's Park Savannah, a 200-acre park with a race course and cricket field. On the Savannah's western edge is Queen Park's West, which Naipaul in ''The Middle Passage'' called ''one of the most beautiful streets in the world.'' He referred to the architecture, and his description is no exaggeration.

There is the Queen's Royal College, a bright pink building in the Westminster style. Adjacent is the Roodal family home with a French baroque facade. A few feet farther down is the early 20th-century Stollmeyer house, which looks like a miniature Rhineland castle. Nor can one forget the Moorish-styled Prime Minister's Office, also on Queen's Park West.

More than any other place, the Savannah area recalls England, while Woodford Square in downtown Port of Spain seems more in keeping with New Delhi or Bombay. The deep-sienna color of the neo-Renaissance Red House reminded me of the red sandstone structures in those Indian cities. Woodford Square is surrounded by stores. Half of Trinidad's population is Indian, and many of the shops offer the kind of merchandise one is likely to find in India: ivory articles, saris, wooden figurines of Hindu goddesses.

The uniqueness of Port of Spain has to do with the wonderful sense of disorientation it creates; every angle of vision seems to belong to a different continent - Europe, Asia, the Americas. It is like being at a world's fair.

For $2, a shared taxi will transport you to the Caroni Swamp, one of the world's best bird sanctuaries, about half an hour from Trinidad's capital. Get to the swamp about 3:30 in the afternoon, in time to book a place on one of the wooden barges that sail into the protected area, where thousands of snow-white egrets and scarlet ibises roost before dark.

I know the idea of ''bird watching'' may not inspire some people. But the Caroni sanctuary is truly something special. I've never been up the Amazon or Orinoco, but the trip on the wooden barge ($8 a person) must surely provide an intimation of what such a journey would be like. The sheet of muddy water extends to the horizon on a pancake-flat landscape. The water is bordered by a dense jungle of mangrove trees, whose needlelike roots are specked with crabs. Alligatorlike caimans rest on the muddy banks.

For sunbathing, Maracas is the closest beach to Port of Spain, and even Maracas is almost 20 miles away. Serious sunbathers either shouldn't go to Trinidad, or should combine it with a trip to one or more nearby islands with good, accessible beaches - like Tobago, Barbados, or Grenada.

For eating, my favorite is Mangal's at 13 Queen's Park East, featuring a multicourse Indian meal in an elegant dining room with a view of the racecourse on the Savannah. Count on spending about $12 a person.

Many of the hotels have discos seven nights a week. The one at the Holiday Inn is particularly good. In my opinion, the best calypso in the West Indies is heard at Sparrow's near Port of Spain. Go on a Saturday night when the Mighty Sparrow himself gives a performance. Now in his mid-50s, the Mighty Sparrow is arguably the best calypso singer of all time.

Trindad, discovered by Columbus in 1498, offers some of the cultural depth of the Old World in the heart of the New World.

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