The Warm Capitals: Panama City, Manila, San Juan, and Port of Spain

Port of Spain, Trinidad, Tobago, architecture, dark sky, travel, photo

For many, the ideal vacation is to go where it is sunny and warm, be it the tropics or somewhere with good “Mediterranean” climate.  Be it the Caribbean, the South Pacific, or the Greek Isles, sun and fun seem to go together.  I am not as much a chaser of these climates but they definitely present great color and usually interesting and, pardon the word, warm peoples.  For the “Capital Cities” series,  I have chosen four warm capitals:  Panama City, Manila, San Juan, and Port of Spain.

Panama City, Panama

I have shared before about incredible and ever-changing Panama City, a place I have visited over four different decades and which I always enjoy.

Panama City, Panama, tropics, modern vs. old, photo, travel

Modern Panama City as seen from the Casco Viejo

As I have family there, I get to do both the things a visitor would do but also live a little like the locals when I am there.  Panama City is both old and modern and whether by visiting the old ruins of the original establishment, or exploring the old (but not as old) city or “Casco Viejo,” or entering the Canal Zone, or simply enjoying the modern life, Panama City offers great experiences.  And when those are not enough, then fly to the Pearl Islands or head to other beautiful parts of the country like the area near Chagres or Chiriqui, for example.

Manila, The Philippines

I have only visited Manila once and for a rather brief visit.  I shared in another post how the old district has much more history than I understood from centuries of Spanish rule, then American control, then Japanese occupation, and –finally- from the times after it gained its independence.

Intramuros, Manila, city walls, Manila Town Hall, Philippines, golf course, clouds, sky, Olympus

Looking from the Bayleaf’s Sky Deck towards the Manila Town Hall (notice the golf course)

While it can be quite hot and humid (as Panama City), the warmth of the people is well worth the warmth of the climate.  You’d expect that people in any large city would be short-tempered, always in a rush – a la Manhattan.  Not in Manila, where it seems the human connection is most important.  I did not get to venture outside of the city to enjoy what I hear are incredible beaches and other natural settings worth exploring.  But the city alone was well worth the visit!

San Juan, Puerto Rico

You may know from prior posts that I grew up in Puerto Rico.  We moved there when I was two and I left at 17.  15 years to make San Juan a piece of my heart, as the lovely song says:  “En mi Viejo San Juan, cuantos cuantos sueños forjé en mis noches de infancia…”  The old part of San Juan is referred to as “el Viejo San Juan” to distinguish it from the more modern city around it.

El Morro, fortress, San Juan, Puerto Rico, fields, kites, Caribbean, view, vista, photo, travel, Canon EOS Rebel

Great fields facing the ocean (note the kites and the city walls) in El Morro

The small island where old San Juan sits is connected by bridges to the rest of the city and, if you don’t pay attention, you may not catch that.

Old San Juan is truly a living museum.  Centuries old, it has not been destroyed nor significantly burned so what you see is what it was and has always been.  But it is not a lifeless museum or collection of old buildings:  people work, shop, play and live in those old buildings!  The heat of the tropics is kind in Puerto Rico due to the strong breezes coming in from the Atlantic, at least on the northern and eastern side of the island so Old San Juan is a great place to spend time as it sits higher than sea level for the most part and the breezes, combined with the shadows the buildings offer part of the day, make it comfortable even for the most cold-loving snowbird.  When you go, make sure you explore the old forts and walls erected by the Spanish centuries ago.  For more of what to see in this incredible place and the rest of Puerto Rico, check out my recommendations on experiences to have in Puerto Rico!

Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago

The capital of Trinidad and Tobago sits in the island of Trinidad.  Facing the water but with hills around it, it is a melting pot of races and cultures which results in a fun place to discover, even when it is not Carnival (which I hear is phenomenal!).  I visited for a few days and enjoyed GREAT food (whether Italian, Indian, tropical, or other!).  I loved driving around the neighborhoods and seeing some neat island architecture.

Trinindad, food, fish, rice, tropical, travel

A delicious lunch at Veni Mangé in Port of Spain was well-deserving of thanks!

While Port of Spain definitely has an industrial side to it, it has many other awesome areas to spend time in – and don’t forget Maracas Bay not too far away (passing through a beautiful tropical forest and great ocean views from the road!).

Port of Spain, Trinidad, Tobago, architecture, dark sky, travel, photo

Great architecture in Port of Spain!

Port of Spain, Trinidad, Tobago, architecture, dark sky, travel, photo

Modern architecture? Check!

The world has many capitals in the warmer climates.  In fact, quite a bit!  Here is to getting to explore many more of them!  Have any recommendations??

Roadside Treats on the Way to Maracas Bay, Trinidad

Trinidad, chadon beni, roadside stand, Maracas Bay, food, foodie, photo

I think I must be hungry because chadon beni has been on my mind today…  It is making me remember my trip to to Maracas Bay in Trinidad.  On the way there, we made a stop for “Trini-Treats”, a roadside kiosk with a neat array of munchies, some familiar to me having grown up in another Caribbean island, but most quite unique to Trinidad & Tobago and, therefore, new to me.  At first, I was not sure these treats were for me.  Definitely not anything with coconut; coconut is just not for me.  Mango slices immersed in some pickled liquid, Patsy’s channa, and other stuff I did not recognize made me wonder if anything here would be for me.

Trinidad, chadon beni, roadside stand, Maracas Bay, food, foodie, photo

My host and I beginning to explore all the offerings – a little overwhelming at first

Trinidad, chadon beni, roadside stand, Maracas Bay, food, foodie, photo

The young writer seriously concentrating on the options at hand

Thankfully, our local host ignored our initial hesitation and got some samples of the different items.  I was very pleasantly surprised.  My favorite was the pears immersed in chow which is some sort of pickled liquid infused with chadon beni (culantro in other parts of the Caribbean, a strong flavored herb; with some garlic and black pepper, depends on the particular jar) – a great flavor combination!

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

Pineapple slices

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

Pears

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

Mango slices

After that, we decided to get a few more of these delicious treats before continuing to Maracas Bay where bake ‘n shark awaited…  Famous “Richard’s” was closed for renovations so we just headed next door.  I loved the self-serve on the toppings and had a most delicious lunch.

Maracas Bay, bake and shark at Trinidad and Tobago

Bake and shark goodness!

This “beach” food sampler is just one example of many of the great food to be experienced in the lovely islands of Trinidad & Tobago.  Can’t wait to return!

Experiencing Good Food and Views in Trinidad and Tobago

Me strongly studying my chadon beni options

It all started with a friend telling me: “I am going to visit my cousin in Trinidad & Tobago over Thanksgiving, do you want come?” Well, the answer to that question is always “yes” (it is like a genetic thing with me) though then I have to check: can I, really. My parents would be in the midst of a move. Work was not in a hectic period. I could use points for more than half of the hotel stay. But my hometown airline didn’t travel to/from the destinations. My friend told me the relative was a foreign diplomat in T&T and that Curacao was also being thrown into the plans for a couple of days. After checking out flight cost, with this other new info, I thought this would be a good opportunity to go to places not in my top 20 but worth checking out nevertheless.

So, following my gut, like I did with the Greece opportunity, I went for it with less than a month’s notice. Phenomenal!

Trinidad

The flight Port of Spain was about 3.5 hrs from Miami.  It was later in the evening so it was a mellow flight.  We landed and the airport was pretty straightforward and on we went.  I was dropped off at my hotel (my friend was staying with the relative) and deep sleep based on the late hour (around 1AM, if memory serves me right).  The plans were for me to be picked up around 2PM since said-relative had to work part of the day.  I did what came naturally to me: sleep in.  After that, I unpacked, grabbed coffee, and relaxed outdoors in the pool area.  I was picked up a little earlier (around 1PM) and we went for lunch.

Port of Spain in Trinidad & Tobago from the Marriott Courtyard

View inland from my room at the Marriott Courtyard

Before talking about lunch, let me say I loved the variety of architecture around town.  From old houses to modern office buildings, you can find a little bit of everything in Port of Spain!

Now to lunch… the place our local hostess picked offered local cuisine.  I guess I need to be more specific since some may say there are two types of local cuisines in T&T…  Stepping back, T&T had slaves brought over as most islands in the Caribbean.  But, after slavery was abolished, the Brits (so civilized…) brought Indians as INDENTURED workers (read, slaves with pay).  I will reserve further opinions on the topic… Anyhow, there is a more traditional Caribbean cuisine with fruit sauces, etc.  but there is also Indian cuisine that is fully Trini.  So, this first lunch place was more of the Caribbean cuisine but different than the Greater Antilles’ cuisine with which I am more familiar (rice and beans and some meat).  The place was called Veni Mangé (come eat in some sort of French) (http://www.venimange.com/)  My friend’s cousin (I will call her “the cousin” going forward!) has been there many times and rents a place from a sister of the owner.  The place is located in a former house so the architecture appealed to me.  The decor seems to be Haitian art (for sale).  And the food, oh, the food!  We ordered 3 dishes to share so we could try them all.  Oxtail with dumplings, fried flying fish, and creole beef with eggplant.  Plus side dishes and some tropical red juice from a fruit I didn’t recognize (even if I did grow up in the northern Caribbean…)

Lunch at Veni Mangé in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

Lunch at Veni Mangé

The rest of the day we drove around various parts of town.  Had some drinks by a yacht club a little north of town (I think by Diego Martin or past it, at least), hanging out at the Hilton outside terrace, and even a stop at a shopping mall (I could have been anywhere in ther U.S.)!

Maracas Bay

The beach to go to in Trinidad seems to be Maracas Bay.  It is a short drive from Port of Spain that includes driving through a beautiful forest and the views of the sea from up high.  However, due to some recent rains, the area of Maraval on the outskirts of Port of Spain had sustained high waters from the river and traffic moved slowly through part – however, we counted our blessings because the road had been closed earlier that day.

Flood damage in Maraval on the way to Maracas Bay in Trinidad and Tobago

The flood damage in Maraval

At some point we stopped on a roadside stand where among the things they sold as various fruits soaked in chadon beni, a delicious mix of cilantro and garlic (sometimes with black pepper too).  I tried the mango and it was outstanding (though at first it wasn’t appealing to me).

Me strongly studying my chadon beni options

Mango in chadon beni in Trinidad and Tobago

The mango in chadon beni

Maracas was very empty on this weekday and we thought it was due to people avoiding Maraval, not being sure if the road would be passable.  But after a little bit, people started appearing and the beach was a little more animated.  It was a beautiful setting, not as cove-like as the beaches we would see in Tobago.  Locals flock to this beach on the weekends and I can imagine it is a good place to be.

Maracas Bay in Trinidad and Tobago

Maracas Bay beach

Finally, the thing to do in Maracas is eat bake and shark, a sort of sandwich of shark topped with any number of toppings you self-serve on it.  Richard’s is the most famous and I hear they can have long lines.  Much to our chagrin, it was closed as they were tiling the floor of the table area (upgrade!  they must be doing well).  We ate at another one in the area and the bake and shark lived to its fame!

Maracas Bay, bake and shark at Trinidad and Tobago

Bake and shark goodness!

Tobago

Our hostess suggested we spend a day in Tobago, known for its beaches and more geared to tourism than Trinidad (they have not invested heavily in tourism since they have lots of oil – though you could be forgiven for thinking it is a poor country; where do oil profits go?!). A ferry would take a few hours so we decided to just fly over there in 20 mins.  Our flight over was at 8AM and the return was at 9PM.  We decided against staying overnight the night before or the night of because we had such limited time in Trinidad & Tobago.  Oh, and the day after, we had a 7AM flight to Curaçao!  We planned to rent a car and drive around and also our hostess got a hotel room so we could shower before heading back to Trinidad.

The Caribbean Airlines flight was efficient and quick.  Picking up the rental car at the Tobago airport was pretty straightforward.  Our hotel was pretty close to the airport so we stopped to check it out and have breakfast which was pretty nice.

Boarding our plane to Tobago!

Unfortunately, neither the car rental agency person nor the hotel clerk were terribly knowledgeable about which beaches were better to explore and our hostess only knew the one by the main resort.  The only nugget we got was that maybe Charlotteville and Englishman’s Bay were probably the ones to check out.  Charlotteville was on the other end of the island and, given the island is so small, I suggested we go and that we go there first to do the longer drive first and then make our way back to the hotel making stops anywhere we wanted based on the time left.

It took us about 1.5 hrs to make it to Charlotteville driving on a coastal road (the highway) which, though small, was in good condition (this was to be true almost everywhere!).  Right before getting to Charlotteville we passed a nice beach which the map had marked with many a SCUBA flag which must mean it has good snorkeling/diving going on.  However, it was the morning of a rainy weekday so we didn’t see anyone at the beach.

Charlotteville seemed like a quaint town or village facing the beach.  I was to learn many of the beaches here were in cove-like settings which were beautiful but which are very different from the expansive beaches in places like PR, Florida, etc.  Again, the weather was not favorable so it was empty.  I wish I had seen it with a little more life…

Beach in Charlottesville in Tobago

Charlottesville beach

From Charlotteville we started off to Englishman’s Bay halfway back to where we started from.  However, a piece of the road was sort of broken up due to rains, I suppose.  So, off the car I got to find rocks to cover up the mud.  With a deep step on the pedal and an almost empty car, the car passed and on we went.  We stopped at Bloody Bay where a school bus full of kids was playing at the beach.

After a quick stop, we kept on going back but somewhere missed a turn.  After driving through a beautiful forest-like area (it was a national park, we found out), we surfaced on the other side of the small island so we decided to just keep on going as we were starving.  We stopped at a place right before Scarborough called Café Havana.  It wasn’t really Cuban but was nice and open and just what we needed.  It was next to a beautiful hotel overlooking a small cove.  It would certainly be a place to stay at should there be a repeat visit.

Sea and sunset view in Tobago near Scarborough

Hotel view

So…

Trinidad and Tobago was not in my top 20 of places to go.  But this was a good opportunity that offered me seeing some of it through the eyes of a resident which is always better than just being a visitor.  And I liked what I saw!   I hope to return.  Who would have told me at the start of 2011 that I was to see Trinidad & Tobago and Greece in the year?  Living with spontaneity brings these happy surprises and new discoveries.  Do you have any similar travel destination surprises?

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