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Ramadan: Lure of the Fried Goodness

Ramadan Mubarak! It‘s always this time of year that I am prompted to post at least once, not surprisingly since the blog is travel and food oriented, and during the Muslim month of fasting, one’s mind tends to turn to food… and also not surprisingly, if one has grown up in Trinidad, fried foods, specifically those traditional so-called “Indian delicacies”* are the most prevalent of those dreams!

Typical Iftar Plate, courtesy Lilandra

Courtesy my sister, Lilandra, a typical Iftar plate at a masjid.

In Trinidad (and in Guyana, I know, although the range of fried goodies doesn’t match my recollection of T&T), when you go to the masjid to break your fast, there are certain expected Iftar foods. Dates and water of course, since that is the Sunnah or practice of the Prophet Muhammad (s). Although, when I was very young, water didn’t feature as much as the stretched-to-sugary-water Trinidad tinned juice…water was available from the stand pipes in the wudu area if you were picky… An iftar plate, or table (if the food is set out for communal-style eating) would also contain a teaspoon size mound of finely grated ginger. The ginger is not pictured above, but believe me, it could look very like that grated mango chutney…causing frequent disappointment to those who rushed in before checking. The ginger is to aid in the wind or gas reduction as you eat after a day of fasting, so you are supposed to eat the ginger first (well, after the date or water). There’ll be a piece of fruit on the plate – above there are some grapes and a piece of apple, but local fruits such as bananas and watermelon are also popular.

Also not pictured on this plate, but you can see it here (also thanks Lilandra, who has many many Iftar photos), would be a legume…such as channa or black eye peas googni (boil and fried) or curry channa. These things go really well with chutney, or a la doubles, stuffed into the fried goodies.

Homemade Saheena two saheenas Aloo Pie with Cucumber Chutney

 

But of course, the MAIN item, is the particular morsel of fried goodness on the plate. Lilandra’s plate shows an accra and a saheena, but the possibilities for those fried delicacies are far more. As the majority of Trini Muslims are of Indian descent, there are certain traditions that developed out of the Indian community that are fully part of all of our Ramadan traditions. And the Indian delicacies which you might enjoy to break fast include aloo pies, pholourie, kachourieroll-up saheena, baigani, if you’re lucky, samosas or even goolgoola (a sweet fritter made with bananas). For the savoury items, chutney is essential. If you are doing communal or potluck Iftar, you might be lucky to get a variety of chutneys – tamarind, mango, pommecythere, or even cucumber – on one plate. Chutney here is not the stewed fruit kind of chutney my non-Trini readers might think of. Chutney to a Trini (similar to sour to a Guyanese) is fruit-based yes, but intended to be a savoury, spicy condiment served with these various savoury fritters.**

Baiganis for Ramadan! Kachories- with tamarind chutney Oasis Chicken Samosas

 

Now, technically Iftar (or Aftari in Urdu) refers to whatever you eat to break the fast and could include dinner (very often, when on my own, I go straight to dinner), but the concept of Iftar in T&T is popularly used just to refer to those small items you eat at the point of breaking your fast, when the Adhan (call to prayer) is made. Then we go to pray the sunset prayer (Maghrib), and then AFTER that is dinner. So if you are invited to an Iftar, remember to ask if it is Iftar AND Dinner, just to be safe ;-)

For my first Iftar this Ramadan, I was traveling. And although I broke my fast on time with some tea, it took a while to get to a meal. And all during that time I dreamed of a typical Iftar, and craved something fried and delicious. My options were limited and I ended up with calamari. Not traditional, certainly, but fried, crispy and delicious. Did it satisfy the Iftar-craving? No. Mostly because it was served with some kind of lemony mayo which in no way resembled a chutney. I should have asked for pepper sauce. Lesson learned – the craving is for fried goodness AND chutney ;-)

 


 

*Flyers and posters for bazaars and other events in T&T will proclaim somewhere “Indian delicacies” as an enticement, promising hot and crispy phoulouries, baiganis, doubles, aloo pies etc.

** This might need its own post…

Brimstone Hill Fortress, St Kitts

Brimstone Hill Fortress, St Kitts

Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage site in St Kitts and Nevis. It is actually on the island of St Kitts, or St Christopher. It’s a pretty big compound, and you can imagine it would have been bustling when occupied. There are forts and barracks and extra forts on bits of land that jut out above the sea, having a vantage point and line of sight with neighbouring islands.

Brimstone Hill Fortress, St Kitts

It was listed on the World Heritage List in 1999 -

“Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park is an outstanding, well-preserved example of 17th- and 18th-century military architecture in a Caribbean context. Designed by the British and built by African slave labour, the fortress is testimony to European colonial expansion, the African slave trade and the emergence of new societies in the Caribbean.”

Brimstone Hill was first used for military defence of the island by the British as far back as 1690. Against the French of course. Both the UNESCO site and the official Brimstone Hill site provide the interesting history of the Fortress, the various sieges and battles between the British and the French!

There was a particularly notable month-long siege by the French in 1782, which has been re-enacted at the Fortress (there are photos from last year, 2012 on the official site). However, later that year, and again in 1806 the Brits were more successful and in fact the reconstructed defences of Brimstone Hill Fortress led to St Kitts being called the “Gibraltar of the Caribbean“. The Fortress was abandoned in 1853, and while there was dismantling of the wooden buildings, and looting of the stone from the masonry buildings, the structures of the site are still impressively intact and provide a lot of exploring to fill an afternoon.

Brimstone Hill Fortress, St Kitts View of St Eustatius from St Kitts

And of course, the views. Lovely blue Caribbean Sea. Green hills and peaks (protected by cannons). The Fortress is on the West of the island. You have excellent line of sight to St. Eustatius (Dutch territory, part of the Netherland Antilles), and even to Montserrat.

Residents pay $5 EC, Foreigners $8 US. There is a media room showing you some historical video, and a cafe and gift shop. It’s an interesting steep hill to get up there, thankfully we had a taxi driver to do it!

I have a post in the works on the island of Nevis which has a lot of flowers, but until then you can browse my St Kitts and Nevis photo-set directly at my Flickr. The other photos with more details of the Brimstone Hill Fortress are in the slideshow below.

 

Tea on the Mount

Mt St Benedict - ChurchI visited Mount Saint Benedict, and more particularly had tea at Pax Guesthouse  in December 2010. This is part of that tour of Trinidad I was conducting with friends of mine from the US…clearly I never got around to completing the account!

“Mount Saint Benedict, or the Abbey of Our Lady of Exile, is a Benedictine abbey located in north Trinidad. It was founded in October 1912, by an order of monks from Brazil, after the Order of St Benedict of Italy [1]

The Abbey complex consists of several buildings, among them a church, a monastery, a seminary, a yoghurt factory, a drug rehab centre, and Pax Guest House. The whole complex is situated high in the Northern Range, north of St. Augustine/Tunapuna. It is visible for miles around, with its landmark tower and distinctive red-roofed buildings.”

(from Wikipedia)

 

View from Mt St BenedictWhen you’re flying into Trinidad, as the plane straightens up, facing East to land in Piarco, take a look out the left side.  Up in the hills above the St Augustine-Curepe area you will see the group of buildings that are on the Mount. From the Mount itself, you get a phenomenal view of Trinidad looking South, towards the Central Range, with the Gulf of Paria to your right. On a nice clear day, you can see beyond central into South.

The yoghurt made by the monks is pretty good stuff, and is one of the earliest (if not first) national yoghurts commercially produced and marketed island-wide. You can buy it in the store or in most grocery stores in T&T.

We booked tea at Pax Guesthouse, after our trip to Asa Wright Nature Centre, and as it turned out, after a highway explosion that delayed us both ways. So we were in the mood for some peace and relaxation. The views and the general calm were great. The tea service was a bit baffling, however…

Our server was polite, but not friendly. It was very peaceful certainly – in fact after the delivery of the tea, the server disappeared into the kitchen behind a closed door and we were pretty much on our own. There was one other table occupied, and they resorted to send their child to go tentatively knock on the door and hope and wait for someone to come out so they could order some additional rolls. The tea was fine, but it was offered in combinations with no substitutions. A particular plate was accompanied by a designated tea and you were not allowed to ask for another…weird for a teahouse. It was a warm day, we’d had a long day, someone asked for iced tea. Not available. Really? We tried suggesting how they could just do it, you know, provide some ice, pour brewed tea over it… but no go..We also swapped the teas and elements from the plates among ourselves, and whispered about being caught for breaking the rules :-)

Light Fixture at Pax Guesthouse Tea at Pax Guesthouse Light Fixture at Pax Guesthouse

The tea itself though was quite nice. One plate (as you can see) had cheese scones and a slice of raisin/fruit cake, with marmalade. Served with Earl Grey I think. I would go again, because the surroundings are great, and a nice peaceful tea is relaxing. And I really hope that this was just a one-time thing – maybe they were short-staffed. I repeat, they were polite and service was quick. It just seemed odd and not particularly friendly or welcoming.

Maybe Lilandra can add her observations…Would love to hear from other people who have visited. Honestly, I would go again because the place, tea and atmosphere are great.

 

The Emperor Valley Zoo

Caribbean Flamingos

The Emperor Valley Zoo in Trinidad is managed by the Zoological Society of Trinidad and Tobago, which has been around since 1947. The Zoo itself was opened in November 1952, which means it is in 60th year of operation, in its lovely location opposite the Savannah.

From the website: “The Emperor Valley Zoo (EVZ) is situated adjacent to the Botanical Gardens, Port of Spain, Trinidad. The exhibits are spread over a 7.2 acreage, with much of the flora of the original site retained, thus enhancing the overall landscape.”

You can even go on a public holiday, as the zoo is open everyday of the year except Christmas Day, Carnival Monday and Tuesday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. You can check the website for feeding times for the animals, guided tours, and interactive activities – like petting the macaws or other friendly animals (under the guidance of a zoo official of course!)

I visited the zoo in December 2012, the day before a 16-foot 200-pound anaconda was discovered in Caroni (slithering across a roadway), and was taken to the zoo. I believe subsequent checks (including an ultrasound) may have revealed it was not after all pregnant, but believe me, the Emperor Valley Zoo had a surge of visitors in the New Year to ogle the massive snake. You can search online for the various news reports etc.

I always liked the location of the zoo in the North of Port of Spain, surrounded by the green areas of the city (The Botanical Gardens and the Queen’s Park Savannah) and at the foot of Lady Chancellor Hill. There have been refurbishments very recently, to the physical grounds and animals and you can check out the list of species on their website.

To the left are some Caribbean Flamingoes, which always pose wonderfully for photos.

Coolie Butterfly closeup

There is now a small forest-walk which would allow you to see red brocket deer (mazama american trinitatis) and quenk as you walk along a fenced path going up and around the far end of the zoo. One of other cool new improvements is the restructuring of the otter enclosure, which allows you to walk underground past a glass wall looking into the water where you can see the otters swimming.

The African Spurred Tortoise took some nice photos too! Even if he didn’t smile…

And there’s a butterfly garden…where, if you wait long enough in the bright bright sun, you can get a cool macro shot of a butterfly sitting on a flower.

And I know these last two posts were out of the blue, but maybe I can try to be more consistent…

The Flickr set of my visit to the Emperor Valley Zoo.

Coconut Sweet Rice, An Experiment

Coconut Sweet Rice

Now regular readers of this blog (which may be an extinct species since I have only posted a couple times a year recently)… One-time regular readers of this blog would recognise that while I speak about my food experiences and specific dishes, I am not consistent recipe writer. So, please accept this disclaimer.

For Eid ul Fitr earlier this year (which was in August), I was in Trinidad with the parents and Lilandra. We didn’t make a tonne of stuff, since we were taking off on a grand family vacation the next day, but we did fix on certain things. Mom made sawine. I mixed up some falafel. We helped Mom make a biriyani, baked in the oven. And during the par-cooking of the rice for the biriyani, the scent of basmati rice, coconut milk and spices made us strongly, urgently, crave some sweet rice.

What is sweet rice? It is an Indian sweet, generally made for special occasions, that is also known as kheer (in Guyana, they use the Indian term also). In our village, we tend to get deliveries of sweet rice from certain families when they are celebrating a particular occasion, the way we deliver Sawine for Eid! It is like a rice pudding, and can be enjoyed warm or cold. You can make it ginger, or add raisins or nuts like almonds, but it always has at least cloves and cinnamon. It can vary in the amount of liquid in the end result, but the rice must be soft-to-mushy, and sticky. You can see some other Trini sweet rice recipes at Trini Gourmet, Cooking with Ria, or Simply Trini Cooking. This version does not have raisins, or ginger.

And so when the biriyani went into the oven, we decided to make some sweet rice. Par-cook in spiced water and coconut milk in the microwave, add the dairy milks and finish in the oven. Points to note based on our experience

  • Basmati Rice, while lovely, retains a certain individuality of texture of the grains no matter the length of cooking. The more usual rice is white rice, so that the end product is traditionally a mushier mixture. However, the basmati sweet rice, with its distinct grains and added flavour, was quite a nice change.
  • Just boil the rice, don’t bother trying to microwave rice for this.
  • No matter how much you think it might be nice, don’t boil the rice in the milk…let the rice cook in the flavoured water first…
  • Baking the sweet rice resulted in a lovely colour and hint of caramel flavour. Yum.
  • It might be interesting to try this with more coconut milk, or the coconut flavoured milks that are now available. Or putting in bits of coconut.
  • Many recipes use a whole tin of condensed milk, but Mom insisted that only half tin was necessary. It was sweet enough for our taste, but bear that in mind if you want it sweeter, and especially if you want to serve it cold, where increased sweetness might be necessary.

So, how did we make this?

COCONUT SWEET RICE EXPERIMENT

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (basmati) rice
  • 2 sticks cinnamon
  • 6 cloves
  • 6 elaichi (cardamom) pods
  • pinch of salt
  • 6 cups liquid
    • about 200 g (half tin) of condensed milk
    • about 400g (1 tin) of evaporated milk
    • coconut milk powder to taste (maybe 5 tablespoons, or more, or half a tin of coconut milk)
    • water to make up the rest of 6 cups of liquid

How?

1. Put rice, water, salt and spices in a pot. Let soak for at least half hour.

2. Add coconut milk to the pot and boil rice until cooked (but not necessarily mushy). Take off heat.

3. Add evaporated and condensed milks, STIR VERY WELL UNTIL DISSOLVED. Add more water if necessary.

4. Pour rice mixture into a greased oven-safe dish. Cover tightly with foil.

Bake in 350 deg C oven (stirring occasionally) until rice soft and liquid mostly absorbed.

Enjoy! Especially the brown bits. The flavours will be subtle, not necessarily overpowering with coconut or any of the individual spices, but the overall taste will be more complex than a regular sweet rice dish. So I thought anyway…

Fresh Carite!

Fried Carite“FRESH CAAAAAREEET, FRY-DRY, CRO-CRO, BIG BIG SHRIMP!!!”

Does that sound familiar? One of the benefits of living on an island is the availability of fresh fish. In Trinidad and Tobago, even if you live 10 minutes from the coast and a fish market, the fresh fish will come to you, straight from the sea. Fish is sold from vans which go through our village, very often driven by the fisherman himself. Fish vans come equipped with a loudspeaker set up, so that they can announce themselves, and more importantly, their offerings for the morning. So, some mornings, the loud sing-song of the fish-van might very well declare that “Carite, Fry-Dry, Cro-Cro and big big Shrimp” are available. Other mornings, you might hear “Fresh Cro-Cro, Salmon, Red-Fish” etc. Always sung loudly!

I don’t know if the fish van system works in other islands in the Caribbean, but it is a daily feature of life in our part of the world. We’re close enough to several fishing areas on the Central West Coast of Trinidad to be assured that the fish really is fresh. Of course, vans going through the villages and towns selling things is a typical T&T practice.

Raw Carite (fish)

You remember, of course, that we get hot bread and pastries from our Bread Vans. And we have market vans too, selling produce. Many of the original Syrian immigrants to T&T (like my grandfather) made a good living going all over the country selling cloth. Just yesterday, the parents were approached by Venenzuelans selling household wares out of a vehicle going along our road.

The fish we bought today, was Carite. One of my favourite fishes, which is lovely when hot from the oil. It was bought this morning, seasoned up (green seasoning etc) and left to marinate until just before we broke fast at sunset. Carite is Cero Mackerel or Scomberomorus regalis and is found exclusively in the Western Atlantic Ocean and part of the Caribbean Sea. I posted some photos of the fish when raw, and with the head and tail. Those parts are premium cuts for some people…me, I stick to the flesh.

Small shrimp, fried

 

It is white when cooked, moist and a bit sweet. Lovely fried, or curried. Carite seems to be the Spanish name, although we pronounce it “CAA-REET”. Today, we ate it with fried rice and a potato salad, but it is equally good with rice and dhal. The fish was coated in cornmeal and flour, and deep-fried to golden-brown. So very good.

Also from the fish van today, small sweet shrimp. Took Mom ages to clean, but they were good. Same cornmeal and flour coating, then deep fried.

And, it’s more than halfway over, but Ramadan Mubarak! I am sure I’ll at least post again around Eid ul Fitr, but obviously I make no promises otherwise…

Your once-a-year blogger,

Chennette.

Ramadan musings: I miss coffee

Turkish CoffeeIt’s the 5th day of fasting and as I approach the lunch hour, I am not hungry but I do miss having coffee in the office. I spent the first 20 years of my life not liking coffee at all unless it was heavily sugared and milky a la wake-coffee (you know the huge vats of coffee they mix up for village wakes to go along with the piles of crix? that was the only time I drank coffee). My parents are coffee drinkers. They always had a pot of Hong Wing on the stove, and then later in the percolator. Even though it’s been years since it’s been used for that purpose, we still call that old pot the coffee pot never mind it’s been used for ginger tea, creole chocolate, dipping… But I digress.

As I said, the parents were avid coffee drinkers. And because of that, none of us four siblings intended to get hooked on coffee. See, my parents would drink coffee in the morning, have it during the day at work, then come back and have more in the evening. Probably no more than three cups a day…so not that bad. However, during Ramadan…that’s when we children noticed that this coffee drinking thing wasn’t all that great. Because the parents got the cravings during the day for coffee. Now, it wasn’t a full-blown having-the-shakes kind of addiction…three cups of coffee a day will not do that for everyone, but it affected them enough that  they decided to cut down the amount of coffee they have even outside of Ramadan to reduce the cravings during fasting. Smart as we were, us children decided that we would avoid that trap by not becoming coffee-drinkers in the first place. Right.

That lasted until my second year of undergrad. Caught up in the need to stay awake and uhm…cram… before exams, my roommate and I started brewing stronger and stronger tea, graduating to tea leaves and finally giving in to the lure of coffee as the primary caffeine source. That year it was mostly instant coffee (we were on a budget and new to the coffee game). By the next year, final year, we had friends who brewed coffee, and we even got requests to bring Hong Wing from Trinidad for the Jamaican neighbours. My siblings continued their avoidance of coffee though. And although I started out drinking the milkiest sweetest coffee to counteract the bitterness, I gradually grew to actually appreciate the taste of good coffee. Even to the point where I can and do drink it without milk. But you will never convince me that coffee isn’t meant to be enjoyed as a (lightly at least) sweetened drink.

And so we come to present-day, where I have bags of coffee beans from around the world in my freezer and a coffee grinder permanently on my counter, right next to the toaster. The brother is the only sibling who has a regular coffee drinking habit, although Lilandra seems to succumb to the need for caffeine when she’s on the road. My father was most upset by my coffee-drinking habit though when I started drinking their coffee during visits home. How was I to know that they carefully measure out exactly 3 cups of coffee for them to have one each in the morning and then split the remainder later in the day. I messed up their routine and I got pointed questions at night about whether I was planning on drinking coffee in the morning so they would know how to plan. And if I skipped coffee that day and they were forced to drink the extra! Horrors! ;-) Apparently, my delivering premium global coffee to them at periodic intervals in my travel has no connection to whether I should actually partake in the coffee at home…parents….

I am not a fan of the usual commercial coffee specialties…chock-full of flavoured syrups that all have an underlying vanilla-essencey taste. I generally order a regular brewed coffee until I determine if the caramel syrup and mocha ingredients warrant a special treat. I still try to limit my coffee intake though – to avoid developing habits. I used to not drink coffee at home and never on weekends (like a 2-day purge?). Only in the office and socially. That meant I needed to get proper coffee-making tools in the office or else I would be forced to drink the acidic, flavourless Nescafe instant. So in my office now, I have a lovely cafetiere and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.

But it’s Ramadan. And I am fasting. Fasting started on the weekend so I didn’t notice the absence of coffee until Monday. Argh. Nothing to help me cope with the schedule of meetings. No comforting hot mug to balance the air-conditioning. No pick-me-up in the early afternoon. No coffee-break excuse to socialise. Sigh.

And here it is Wednesday, and although I have no headache or symptoms, I have taken to the blog to ramble on about coffee. Because I miss it.

It’s Ramadan!

I know. It’s been almost a year since I last posted. Since Eid ul Fitr, at the END of the last Ramadan. And here we are, again at Ramadan. I am not sure at this point I have any of my regular readers still :-) but welcome to you if you are here. If you are new…please feel free to browse the archives, there are still many recipes and posts that might be interesting for Ramadan, or generally to interest Caribbean foodies and travelers.Chennette has been mostly offline for almost a year…not even posting photos to Flickr! Longest break ever since I started this whole online life. I blame it on my day job. There were many developments and I suppose I needed a break to assess how to allocate my time, deal with the blog etc. Not to mention the wonkiness of my previously-trusty D80. I am now in possession of a Nikon D7000, but I am still learning the new controls…especially VIDEO!

 

Now, I don’t promise that this is a re-opening of the blog, but it’s Ramadan, and given my particular voice in the ever-growing field of Trini food-bloggers, I wanted to post during this month. The traditions and practices of this month of fasting, leading up to one of the 2 official celebrations in the Muslim calendar, are an important part of my life and history, and a part of the Trini culture that isn’t as well known.So, this isn’t quite the daily posting of Ramadan that Lilandra did some time ago but here goes :-)

 

Kachorie - insidesDay 1 (the days really begin at sunset) – the first night of Ramadan was a Friday, which was great! I excused myself from a meeting in time to get home to prepare for the first tarawih prayers, soak some split peas for kachourie, and got to bed a reasonable hour. I had cereal (Nestle Gold) and rice milk for Suhr and lots of water. Slept late (usual for me after a long week) but managed to get up, make grocery, come back and make a pastry for quiche, grind the kachourie mixture and saute mushrooms and onions. I was mixing the quiche custard when sister-the-elder and 2 of her 4 progeny arrived. Made 2 regular msuroom-onion-broccoli quiches and 6 mini-cheese quiches (for the little vegetable-haters). Fried kachourie with tamarind chutney to break fast and the quiche for dinner. Hot Trini creole chocolate for later.

 

Day 2 – quiche for Suhr. Tired from the burst of activity the day before. Household chorse. Quiche and kachourie for Iftar.

 

Day 3 – Water and dates for Suhr. First day at the office fasting. Coffee-withdrawal leading to headache. Didn’t make it to sister-the-elder’s spaghetti dinner. Sugar and caffeine fix in the form of Coke.

 

Day 4 – Water for Suhr. At work, so no coffee-withdrawals yet.

 

Next on my list – TAKE PHOTOS!!

‘Id Mubarak!

Masjid an Nabi

It’s ‘Id ul Fitr once again, the Muslim celebration that comes after the month of fasting, Ramadhan. I haven’t posted in a while but what else is new ;) Rest assured that there are cookings and plannings going on in the household, particularly as this year I am in la casa familial in Trinidad. Even got here a couple days before so I could be part of the planning with Lilandra and Mom.

So what’s on the menu?

Eid ul Fitr menu - Lamb Biriyani

  • Mutton biriyani - for dinner this evening as ‘Id technically begins from the setting of the sun on the last day of fasting.
  • Baked lamb
  • Super cheesey 3-cheese scalloped potatoes
  • Caramelised onion and mushroom tart (on phyllo)
  • Za’atar
  • flat bread
  • Hummus
  • Saheena (the kind that is dasheen bhaji leaves rolled up around ground dhal)
  • Samosas
  • Gulab jamoon
  • And of course….sawine!
  • I hope everyone enjoys Eid, and of course the 49th anniversary of Trinidad and Tobago’s independence! Fortunate T&T with 2 holidays to celebrate Eid ul Fitr this year :-)

    Asa Wright Nature Centre

    Hummingbird on tree I started these posts about Trinidad and Tobago back in January, and although I haven’t continued since February, there are still a few more places to visit from my must-see list for Trinidad and Tobago! Asa Wright Nature Centre is in the Northern Range in Trinidad, in the North-East-ish area of the island (it’s not all the way to Toco, which is the North-East peninsula, but just above the Borough of Arima). It’s a nature reserve in the mountains, originally comprising an old cocoa and coffee estate, which has been somewhat expanded over the years, so the reserve now comprises 1500 acres in the Arima and Aripo Valleys.

    The Centre has a main house, restaurant, overnight accommodation and picnic areas for day visits. You call ahead to book a tour and guided hike through the forest trails, with the knowledgeable guides showing you the flora and fauna – we saw squirrels, bell birds, white bearded manakins, purple honeycreepers, corn birds, LOTS of hummingbirds, large lizards, and some semi-tame agouti! The main trail (Discovery Trail) they take all visitors on is fairly easy – going gently downhill (so unfortunately, the route back to the house is uphill, but gentle…). There are many other trails, but I think you have to arrange a special tour in advance for these…also if you are in a large group, school tour etc. But if you are really into eco-tourism and hiking through nature, I think you might want to look into a longer, more expansive hike/trail, so give them a call (or email) to find out what’s possible.

    the view of the reserve

    I think I first went to Asa Wright as part of a UWI Biological Society visit in my first year on campus, where we did go beyond the main trail and passed over some streams and near a waterfall. That certainly is not on the usual path – although there are a couple waterfall rock pools within easy access which visitors are allowed to use. The Centre is a hotspot for birdwatching in particular, and the main house has the greatest verandah set up to see the birds…many species…not to mention the view of the mountains and valley!

    Swooping inThere are bird feeders strategically located around the verandah, and the hummingbird feeders are hung right around. The day we visited in December, there were 2 humingbirds in particular who had both set their sights on one particular feeder, notwithstanding the 5 or 6 other feeders around and the fact that there were no other hummingbirds around. So for the duration of our visit, we were treated to these 2, alternately commandeering the desired feeder, while the other waited on a nearby tree, and then swooping in fast to scare off the one at the feeder. Over and over and over. It did give me lots of chances to get some action shots of these super-fast birds though, plus the entertainment factor!

    Asa Wright has facilities for overnight stays, in the main house, or in cottages on the grounds. In fact if you want to see the oil bird habitat, you have to be staying at least 3 nights, since it’s an night trek, and they try to limit the number of disturbances for these birds. The restaurant is on premises, but if you are just a day-visitor you need to order a meal in advance. Otherwise you are limited to ordering food from the verandah bar (mostly sandwiches, but not bad at all). They serve coffee which they grow on the grounds (remember, a former coffee estate!) and make use of the fertile lands to have a kitchen garden for their restaurant use.

    Asa Wright - Variety of BirdsAs with any service, things are dependent on the people involved. My previous visits have all encountered super friendly and informative persons at Asa Wright. It was always a bit of a hassle to make arrangements in the days before cellphones and email as you had to call a number in Arima (no phones up the mountains) and wait for confirmations etc. These days it’s much easier although you still have to call or email the day before to book the tour/trail. They do normal tours at 10.30 am and at 1.30 pm, which is included in the visitor’s entrance fee.

    The day we were heading up there, we were early, until we hit unexpected and awful traffic in Maloney. Snail crawling through Arima. We called ahead to let them know we were running late but were trying to make it on time. The call kept dropping (which is why we weren’t able to reserve lunch) but at some point they told us, well the guide will wait for 10 minutes and then leave with the tour and we might have to be taken to catch up. Ok…no problem. I used my best skills to drive up the mountain and we got there JUST on time. Paid etc, went to find the guide and realised…it was just us for this tour. Only us…the guide would have been setting off on the trail all by herself? Small blip though, and the lady serving us our sandwiches afterwards was super nice. Even though we didn’t get our coffee.

    After our relatively short hike, we came back and limed on the verandah for a couple hours at least. I do know we were still there when people came for their 1.30 tour. It’s just so very relaxing to sit on that verandah and look out at the beautiful Northern Range mountains. One day, I think I must stay overnight to fully take advantage of that place.

    We had to leave eventually, since we had reservations for Tea at Mount St Benedict! All the way down this mountain above Arima and up the mountain above St Augustine :-) More on that in the next post… (although you can see Chookooloonks posted about her visit there recently).

    Slideshow of my Flickr set on Asa Wright

    For more of my touring the homeland, you can see these posts -