Birding, snorkeling in Trinidad & Tobago and Miami Art Deco quarter in South Beach

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March 27th 2019
Published: March 27th 2019
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9 – 14 March 2019

Pax Guest House, Mount St. Benedict, Trinidad.

A theme this trip has been constant contrast and it continued when we moved to Pax. We left the chaos, congestion and general bustle of Couva for the peace on Mount St. Benedict. This was a stop recommended by friends Paul & Sheila who stayed here a short while ago.

The Mount is a hill bordering the rainforest with a view down across the plain. In 1912 permission was given to build a church, monastery, convent and guest house at the top and the complex became an important centre for the Catholic Church in Trinidad. It is a good location as all the main birding sites on the island are within reach and they have a very good guide working with the guest house. The building itself brought back memories of my school, possibly built about the same time and in similar style, as a convent, although there were few nuns left by the time I arrived.

Oda & Gerard who run the guest house are a very interesting couple and reflect the diversity of Trinidad. Gerard is of Indian and Chinese descent while Oda is from the Netherlands. There was only one little hiccup. I had emailed Oda a few times and looked forward to meeting her. I also saw her and Gerard's photo online. It was late when we arrived and a very pleasant man showed us around but we did not catch his name. Then the next day a lady served breakfast but because there was a large University group in the dining room we did not have chance to speak. It was only that evening when I heard another guest, in fact Oda's uncle, call to her that I realised we had already met Oda and Gerard. The confusion arose because the photo online on their website is about 26 years old!

Oda has another uncle aged 95 who is a monk in the monastery. We chatted to the uncle who was a guest and despite a few language difficulties managed to communicate. He reminded us both of my father in mannerisms and conversation. As he is 89 perhaps it is generational pattern.

Despite being well placed for access to bird sites the traffic in Trinidad makes
Ruby throated humming birdRuby throated humming birdRuby throated humming bird

Looks black until sun catches throat and head then it is wonderful sight
travelling anywhere a challenge. One day we were returning home through a small town called Sangre Grande and it took an hour and a half to travel less than two miles through the centre. There was gridlock. It seems some roadworks were being carried out and they aggravated the congestion by putting in a one way system. The next day they changed it back and then hopefully all went well but I doubt it.

The birding is fantastic. Pax has a terrace with bird feeders and the mix of humming birds is wonderful. However trying to identify them or even get a photograph causes cognitive overload and a headache. They move so fast! They even switch position on the feeders like lightening, knocking one another off without mercy so one second you are watching one species, you blink and it is a different bird.

Our first birding outing was to a number of small stopping places known to Darren our guide for specific birds and then to the Asa Wright Centre. There we watched more feeders but also did a walk through the forest and had a lovely viewing of the Black Bearded Bell bird. Not a pretty bird but full of character with a very loud call. We also spotted the xxxxxxxx, a humming bird not much bigger than a bee and so fast it is difficult to spot. Needless to say I did not manage a photograph but took a picture of a poster in the centre. However, I thought the real thing was much more beautiful. Clearly everyone has difficulty taking a photograph.

The following day we went to a Wildfowl Trust site, a few more local sites where we had great views of the Red Breasted Blackbird and then aboard a small boat to visit Caroni Swamp. The attraction there is the roosting Scarlet Ibis. The birds are ordinary ibis dyed red from the the food they eat, tiny crustaceans in the swamp. As sunset approaches they return from feeding from all over the swamp to roost together. We had seen odd ones in various places during the day. The colour is so vibrant it takes your breath away. It looks as if it cannot possibly be real like those dyed flowers you see in some countries. Once they start to fly in to roost it is a spectacular site.

But before we reached the observation marker point on the river we had already spotted a Pygmy Kingfisher, a Black Hawk, lots of the crustaceans, tiny crabs which live on the mangrove tree roots in their thousands, and two snakes, one a Boa curled up asleep and a Silky (or Pygmy ) anteater. That was interesting but inactive, looking like a round furry ball, it was also sleeping. I believe from what we have read the anteater is a sloth, which explains the inactivity. Then we moored to wait for the returning ibis. A number of flamingos were around too. They are just starting to expand outwards from the inaccessible centre of the swamp.

There were eight adults and a child in the boat, plus the driver, Ravi, and our guide Darren. Ravi and Darren worked very hard to spot things of interest. Then when we moored they brought out rum punch and chow. Chow has a much longer name which I can't remember but it is delicious so I must look up the recipe. It can be made from various fruits or vegetables. We had pineapples finely sliced and cut
Black bearded Bell birdBlack bearded Bell birdBlack bearded Bell bird

Interesting more than pretty with a very loud call
into bite sized pieces and then marinaded in a mix of cilantro, garlic, black pepper and a touch of lime. I think there were a couple of other ingredients that I have forgotten. It was very refreshing and unexpectedly savoury, not a taste I would normally connect with pineapple at all.

The ibis started to fly in, arriving in groups, and landing in the trees. Then it started to rain heavily. The boat did not have a cover but Ravi quickly unfolded a huge plastic sheet which was passed above the heads of the whole group and we held it in position. It just added to the excitement as the pressure was on us all to try not to soak our neighbours by allowing the water collecting on the top to run down like rivulets over the edge. It required a certain degree of skill and dexterity, not easy while I was still trying to take photos and videos. I can tell you, it takes more than two hands to hold the plastic cover in place, lift it enough to see birds arriving, switch camera controls on and off whilst keeping it out of the rain, focus it, then most importantly remembering to keep your rum punch upright. Having said that everyone on board was very friendly and did not get upset if showered every now and then! Perhaps I would have been more competent without the rum punch. Who knows?

Darren feared that our third and final bird watching day might be an anti-climax after Caroni. It was easier as most of the day was spent in the car visiting sites on the east coast, which is less developed than the west, more agricultural and for that reason, full of raptors. We saw a Crane hawk, Black hawk and others. Then had a good sighting of a Green Kingfisher, but the stars of the day were a flock of bright blue and yellow macaws which flew over our heads and around in a circle for a couple of minutes. When the sun catches their colours they are really bright. It was good to see them as efforts are being made to reintroduce them as trapping to sell to the pet trade depopulated the area to extinction. Each bird can bring a lot of money on the illegal market. I enjoyed seeing literally the other side to Trinidad, a contrast with the west and much more traditional and undeveloped. The journey home was the challenge because of the traffic.

14-24 March 2019

Lillibets, Castara, Tobago and return to Trinidad

We took the 4pm ferry from Port of Spain to Scarborough Tobago where we were collected by Kat and delivered to Castara on the other side of the island. He chatted and told us about 'entertainment' in Castara. Three nights each week a different restaurant will have live music or a bonfire. They take it in turns. Castara is only a hamlet with a shop, couple of kiosks, just about a handful of bars/restaurants and the beach. The road runs across the top of rainforested hills and drops down a rough track steeply to the beach. So steeply I had to close my eyes and Kat said, if I get this wrong we go for a swim. The whole journey he had been saying we are going to the capital of paradise. He is right, it is for us a perfect place, one of the best ever. It is on a small bay with an arc of about 220 degrees so providing some protection from the open sea.

Lillibets, our accommodation, is built into the steep hillside and we are on the top, the third floor. This provides a fantastic view over the bay. There are only four apartments and the owners space on the ground level. We can watch the occasional little boat go out to fish. They usually sell their catch when they come back. That also attracts blue rays to eat the scraps from the fish cleaning. It is a very calm place. Not exactly quiet as we have lots of roosters, dogs, birds and at night bats, all contributing their own sounds but overall it is very relaxing.

The star attraction is the sea, only three minutes walk from our room. It is full of life. Visible from above are huge dark areas close in to the shore. These are dense clouds of tiny fish. I have never seen such huge numbers covering so vast an area. When snorkelling over the top of them it becomes disorienting as it is impossible to see the sand or anything else but the huge dark moving and glistening mass of tiny bodies. They don't even move when you are amongst them. The birds sit on the surface having a wonderful time, dipping down whenever they want a snack or even a banquet.

Then off to the right, following the rocks, the coral starts. In places it is damaged but the further you go the better it gets. Then you see hard corals in colours ranging from yellow, through green, blue and violet to grey. There are fewer soft corals. The purple and violet ones are especially pretty. So far I have seen the large blue rays, a mix of fish, four sea snakes of the same species but some much bigger than the others, and a beautiful group of small squid. I don't know if there is a collective noun for squid but if there isn't I would suggest 'a symphony' as watching them, at least 60 in the group, suspended together mid water, and fluttering their skirts, with florescent turquoise line and dots along their bodies, they really do look like a chorus in a ballet.

Before we reached Castara we had plans to visit other parts of Tobago as we did on a previous visit some years ago. We soon changed our minds. We were so content in the bay that we found that we had everything we needed. I snorkelled a couple of times each day, Jim usually just once. One day we bought fish on the beach and cooked that for supper, much more than we should have eaten but we decided it was better to eat it whilst fresh. Three nights we ate out at a small restaurant on the beach. They did not sell alcohol so people popped into the nearby shop and came to eat with a bag of bottles.

Reluctantly we had to leave to take the ferry back to Trinidad from where we took a flight to Miami. Queueing in line to check in was interesting. There was a group of people from the US who had been in Trinidad for Dragon boat racing, and a couple also from the US who had been running a course training people to free dive. The guy was very enthusiastic, explaining that his wife is an international free diving champion in all three categories of free diving and trying to persuade us that we should try it. He failed. It is fascinating how humans perceive things differently. His main argument for his sport was the sense of total freedom you have as you descend as deep as possible on one breath, with or without weight or fins, then ascend to the surface before being able to take a second breath. I think he said his wife goes below 60 metres. Being restricted to what you can achieve on that sole breath does not sound like freedom to me. Give me at least one cylinder of air to breathe, if not two, then I might talk of freedom. How much can you stop and look at on the way up and down on one breath? But each to his own and they were clearly very fit and loved their sport.

25-27 March 2019

La Quinta, Miami Airport

We had booked in at an airport hotel for two nights. Although having flown through Miami a few times we have never visited the city or beaches so this time we decided we would. We took the free airport shuttle which dropped us off at the bus station near the airport then took a bus to the beaches. These are located on a long island which runs north to south just offshore so the road crosses lots of waterways. Miami Beach is to the north. South Beach as it sounds runs from roughly midway to the southern point. This is where we headed to visit the Art Deco area.

We have visited Napier four or five times and love their Art Deco buildings but the area here is on a completely different scale. The buildings are bigger, more varied and cover a huge area. We arrived early morning and there was very little traffic and even fewer pedestrians, mainly joggers. The streets are full of restaurants so they were open for breakfast. It was very pleasant wandering around looking at the buildings before it became too hot. Then we stopped for lunch where there was a 'beach lunch' menu, that is something reasonably light. We had tacos and quesadillas both of which were good. We were disappointed with the sign about all day happy hour two for one beers and cocktail. I thought I might indulge in a cocktail to match the ambiance but they cost $35 each. No wonder there is a two for one offer. They are still expensive at half the price, plus the 20% service charge, taxes and yes, on top of that a note on the bill says a tip is expected! We took a beer which was a more reasonable $9 for two.

As we had an all day bus pass ($5) we took the bus along the island to Haulaway Marina and back. The further north of South Beach you travel, the fewer Art Deco buildings you see, and those left tend to be on the mainland rather than the ocean side as developers obviously bought up buildings and land by the beach front to build condos. They stretch all along through Miami Beach, huge buildings averaging 15 to 30 floors and some look as if they might have fifty apartments on each floor. No wonder there is always demand for the bars and restaurants, Despite the overwhelming condos the whole of the island area is well laid out, clean with lots of greenery and small park areas, mainly I think, for the millions of dogs who own condo owners.

We returned to South Beach which had changed dramatically in our absence. It was tail end of Spring Break in the US so still lots of young people in groups and they had finally come down for breakfast and to start partying again. The beach was jammed, with hardly space to lay a towel, as were the bars and restaurants. It was only three o'clock in the afternoon but the celebrations were well under way. The beach is very wide, about a hundred metres, but only the strip falling away into the sea is prized for lying on. Behind this line there is sixty metres of empty sand.

I was clearly time for us to leave and take the bus back to the airport station, then the free people mover monorail into the airport and back on the hotel shuttle bus. It sounds complicated but once you know how to do it it is very simple. If anyone has enough waiting time at the airport when changing planes I would recommend visiting South beach.

Now we are waiting to leave for our flight home. After visiting Gilli and Anna we go to collect our new motorhome in Southampton. Then, if we can get to grips with the more advanced technology including a solar panel and tank for LPG, we will start to make our way to the Channel. Exactly where we head from there is not yet decided. Our new vehicle is also Astrid but to save confusion her everyday name will be A2. We will let you know how we get on with her in the next blog.

Additional photos below
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31st March 2019

Great read Sue and enjoyed hearing your views on the islands - we so loved Trinidad and glad that you both had excellent birding too with Darren. Do call in to see us if you pass this way on your way to Southampton to collect A2.

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