from the archives: beachfront bliss

alg-grace-bay-beach-jpgThe most developed of the 40-strong chain of islands that constitutes Turks and Caicos, Providenciales – or Provo, as the locals call it – is no mere gateway, but a destination unto itself. Pristine nature and crystal blue waters coexist easily alongside chic hotels and elaborate spas. And since Provo is also a nonstop flight from New York, the powdery Turks and Caicos beaches are a lot closer than you’d imagine. READ MORE

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wish list: faraway, so close

13063619536535391028_1If you’re like me you’ve long dreamed of Cuba, the faraway, so close island off the coast of Florida that’s been off-limits to US citizens for more than fifty years. Rich in history, culture, and all that glorious music, it’s an American traveler’s version of Snuffleupagus: a rare creature able to be seen by everybody but us. Insight Cuba, a leader in small group people-to-people travel, is about to change all that. As travel to this enigmatic island is made legal for only the third time in fifty years, this licensed tour operator has me salivating at the chance to explore the once-forbidden island with a sweepstakes, running now through June 17th. To take part, ‘Like’ the Insight Cuba Facebook page and enter via the “Win a Trip to Cuba for Two” tab at the top. A winner will be selected at random on June 18th and receive a free trip for two on the tour of their choice: Undiscovered Cuba, Cuban Music & Art or Classic Cuba. The grand prize includes round-trip airfare from Miami to Havana; first-class accommodations, meals and activities; an Insight Cuba tour leader and Cuban guide; entrance fees; in-country ground transportation and transfers; 24-hour emergency service and maybe most important of all, a U.S. Department of the Treasury License and Letter of Authorization. Underdeveloped, stubbornly unchanged for decades, the revolution and the resulting embargo may have decimated the travel industry in Cuba, but it didn’t kill it. And the irresponsible policies of our own government have done nothing to squelch the abiding curiosity about our neighbors 90 miles to the south.

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the people have spoken

carnival kit

I’ve gotten a number of e-mails from readers wondering why, despite the volume of fanciful Carnival pictures posted, I’ve neglected to document my own festive gear. In spite of my tendency to remain in the background – at least visually – the people have spoken, what can I say? Witness then my first (and likely last) personal appearance on this site. Oh and just to be clear, I’m on the right.

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no man’s land

no man's land

I can think of no better way to end my short visit to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago than today’s catamaran sail around the Caribbean coast. My destination: a little peninsula affectionately known as No Man’s Land, which more than lived up to the promise of its nickname. As always, click then double-click the image for greater detail.  And yes, the water really is that Crayola shade of  blue-green.

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tucking in, up a tree

Jemma's Sea View Kitchen

Don’t let the boarded up window on the side of the road dissuade you, Jemma’s Sea View Kitchen has one of the best views in Tobago. And yes, like the sign says, it’s a proper treehouse, too, resting in the boughs of an Indian almond tree. (Which goes a way towards explaining why the breeze from the sea – and the panorama of Goat Bay and Little Tobago – is so fine.) It’s also a popular location for home cooking, Trini-style: curried shrimp, fish stew, grilled lobster, and a handful of old-fashioned herbal drinks like maundy fizz. Beyond having a nice piece of fish or fruit, I’ve never had an affinity for Caribbean cuisine. It’s so boring – and starchy. Not so Trinidad and Tobago, however; the influence of French and Indian flavors combine to create dishes that are unique, like roti, a thin Indian bread piled with potato, chana and curried chicken, doubles, which I’ve already gone on about, and pelau, a rice and chicken jambalaya that’s closer in spirit to paella. Two new additions to the favored list, thanks to Jemma: breadfruit pie, which has all the texture and taste of a really creamy mac ‘n’ cheese and tanya fritters, a crunchy hush puppie made of ground provisions with a healthy kick of cayenne. Does the rest of the Caribbean know what’s going on here – or do they just not care?

breadfruit pie

tanya fritters

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from fallow to cocoa

tobago cocoa estate

In the early half of the last century cocoa was one of the major crops grown on Tobago and many of the island’s larger plantations, such as the Roxborough, Richmond and Goldsborough Estates – all over 100 acres and more in size – devoted their efforts to the cultivation of prized Trinitario cocoa beans. But something inexplicable happened and by the 1970s, the situation had changed drastically: cocoa production on Tobago was all but abandoned and the great estates were left to ruin. Hoping to rejuvenate the once lucrative industry, native Tobagonian Duane Dove returned to the island after several years living and working in Europe. Over the past decade he invested in reinvigorating a fallow estate and the result is Tobago Cocoa Estate: part plantation, part history park. Though no actual chocolate is produced on site – the roasting and blending of the beans happens in France – a visit to the estate still makes for an enlightening look at how an artisanal producer manages to retain the hands-on traditions of caring for the plants, harvesting the pods, and drying the beans for export. The best part, however, is saved for last: samples of the estate’s Gold Medal-winning chocolate paired with a smooth single-barrel rum.

cocoa pods

cracking open a cocoa pod

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toboggoning

tobago

There’s another post-Carnival tradition many Trinis indulge in: escaping to the laid-back sister island of Tobago for a few days of rest and relaxation. In for a penny, in for a pound, I say – so it’s off to Tobago I go.

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panorama: maracas beach

maracas beach panorama

As always, double-click the image then click again for greater detail – this time for the best beach on which to beat that Carnival hangover.

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bake and shark

bake and shark

You know me, I’ll eat anything. Yet the prospect of a dish called Bake and Shark set my stomach on edge. It’s tradition, however, to recuperate after Carnival on Maracas Beach and feed your hangover at one of the many shark shacks that line the beach. I was tentative at first – thoughts of gelatinous shark fin soup filled my head – but soon discovered that the local speciality is just a Trinidad version of the filet-o-fish. “Trinis use the whole fish,” I was told, allaying any fears I had of being handed fin on a bun. The battered filets of shark meat are served on warm bake, a fried bread common across the West Indies. Condiments are optional but I topped mine with red onion, garlic sauce, tamarind sauce, pineapple and chadon beni – a green sauce made from a local herb similar to cilantro. Needless to say, it’s about as tasty as fresh fish tacos on a beach in Baja. Plus, the trio of spicy sauces opened up my sinuses, while all that bread and batter went a long way towards mopping up any leftover alcohol floating around in my system.

richards shark shack

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more mas

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One of the chief attractions at Carnival is the music. Mostly it’s ear-splitting, bass-thumping soca cracking the air from flat bed trucks piled high with amplifiers. But every so often along comes a steel pan band, which miraculously manages to make a raft of cut down oil drums sound like an orchestra.

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carnival, or bigger is better

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carnival warm-up

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doubles

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Doubles is the breakfast of Trinidad champions – or at least the cure for an all night Carnival party: bara or fried bread, topped with chana, chandon beni, a local herb similar to cilantro, and scotch bonnet peppers. It does the body good. And goes a long way towards ameliorating a sunrise hangover.

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j’ouvert

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As the name implies, J’Ouvert is the official opening of Carnival. And this being Trinidad, the party starts early. At 4AM the various bands assemble to kick things off with music, mud and copious amounts of alcohol. Smeared with paint, oil, mud, and even chocolate, the party moves to the streets, parading through the capital of Port of Spain until the sun comes up and the bacchanal reaches a fever pitch of dancing, singing and frenzied acts of simulated sex. It’s not for the faint of heart – or the abstemious for that matter. J’Ouvert ain’t pretty – it’s rather debauched, come to think of it – but it’s also a whole lot of fun.

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