Epic dining tour in Caroni Swamp

Visitors watching flocks of Scarlet Ibis returning to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary mangrove swamp to roost.
 - Sureash Cholai
Visitors watching flocks of Scarlet Ibis returning to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary mangrove swamp to roost. - Sureash Cholai

BEING surrounded by water and nature, enjoying a special meal while flocks of scarlet ibis and flamingoes fly overhead is a wonderful way to spend a portion of your weekend.

This special experience can be had during the Caroni Swamp Bird Sanctuary Dinner Tour, one of many being promoted through Tourism Trinidad Ltd’s Sweet Sweet Trinidad domestic tourism campaign.

If you’ve never been to the Caroni Swamp or toured the Caroni Bird Sanctuary, Nanan’s Sunset Dinner Tour is the perfect opportunity to do so. This initiative is part of the centre’s efforts to become more attractive to locals because there are no foreign visitors during the covid19 period.

It joins other activities offered by the company within the Winston Nanan Caroni Bird Sanctuary, which include an afternoon boat tour, kayaking in the swamp, birdwatching, and wedding photoshoots. The Sunrise Breakfast Tour was also recently added to the company's offerings. Thus far, the dinner tour has been the more popular of the two and has already been sold-out for Valentine's Day.

On arriving at the centre, visitors have to sanitise before filling out a form with their contact information and indicating whether or not they have any covid19 symptoms. Tourism TT also collects contact information.

Boats wait at the Nanan's Tours jetty on Caroni Bird Sanctuary mangrove swamp at the beginning of the Sunset Dinner Tour.
- Sureash Cholai

While waiting to board, visitors are treated to fresh cane juice pressed by waiters from Rasam’s Restaurant in Grand Bazaar. That partnership with Rasam’s is part of the company’s efforts to collaborate with stakeholders and offer visitors a "fully-loaded" experience. Different menus are available and clients can customise their experience.

Visitors board a flat-bottomed boat and are seated around tables decorated with chaconias. Lisa Nanan, who runs Nanan’s along with her siblings, said each boat holds 20 people at the 50 per cent capacity stipulated in the covid19 regulations under which the park operates. The restrictions on tours of the sanctuary were lifted on October 10, 2020, after tour operators lobbied government and showed how they would be able to give tours safely.

Tour operator Lisa Nanan holds up a cup of water showing how clear the water is in the mangrove swamp of the Caroni Bird Sanctuary.
- Sureash Cholai

As the boats glide almost silently through the channels, guides from the Nanan family tell the history of the sanctuary, which is named after their father Winston Nanan. The family has been involved with the swamp and the sanctuary for almost 90 years, beginning with the current generation’s grandfather Simon Ouditt Nanan. The family is one of the first to introduce the concept of eco-tourism to TT, and was responsible for part of the area being declared the Caroni Bird Sanctuary in 1948.

The passion reverberates through the siblings’ voices as they speak about the wonders of the swamp, the birds, mammals, and other organisms that live there. Lisa explained how the channels within the mangroves were cut in 1921 to reclaim part of the swamp for rice and sugar cultivation.

The guides point out the scarlet ibises and flamingoes feeding in the swamp, the giant termite nests on which silky anteaters feed, the tree-climbing crabs on the mangrove roots which hang over the channel and brush visitors' hair as they pass underneath, the snakes curled up in the branches sleeping off their night meal, almost invisible to the inexperienced eye.

Birds flit and soar across the channel in front of the boat: blue herons, sandpipers, and others of the 186 bird species that live there. Nanan said tour operators try to leave the swamp as untouched as possible, only moving fallen trees if they affect the boats’ passage.

The sunlight through the trees gives a golden mist-like effect, which gives way to clear, brilliant blue sky littered with fluffy white clouds as the boats pass through some of the open spaces between the close-growing mangroves. A beautiful view of the Northern Range can be enjoyed as the boats go through the lagoons.

It was fascinating to learn that mangroves act as a windbreak between the land and the sea, shielding the shore from waves and high winds during storms. The four species of trees in the mangrove each have a specific location and function in that ecosystem, acting as a habitat for different organisms, including as nursery for juvenile fish.

If mangroves are cut down, then the fish cannot grow up in the safety of the tree roots, which leads to the depletion of stocks. Nanan said this is one of the many reasons why development near or which threatens mangroves is discouraged and lobbied against by environmental groups.

A tour boat with visitors on the Caroni Bird Sanctuary mangrove swamp.
- Sureash Cholai

She said the Caroni Swamp is the largest mangrove ecosystem in TT. An acre of mangrove absorbs 300,000 gallons of water and also stores carbon, which makes mangrove systems key partners in the fight against global warming.

She said while the water may appear murky, it is clean, although not drinkable because it is salty. She warned against jumping off the boat, as the water depth varies anywhere from two to ten feet, and diving in can result in serious injury.

Dinner is served on the tour boat while patrons can watch the scarlet Ibis birds return to roost on the Caroni Bird Sanctuary mangrove swamp. - Sureash Cholai

Nanan said since the dinner tours began in December, there has been quite a good response, as people want a chance to go out with friends and experience something new. She said many people didn’t realise this was available in TT.

“It takes away stress, calms and rejuvenates. People say they come here when they’re feeling ill and go away feeling refreshed. Studies say when you’re feeling ill, depressed or stressed, surrounding yourself with nature can help you feel better.”

The piece de resistance of the dinner tour comes when the boats are moored to stakes in one of the lagoons and a three-course dinner is served with china and cutlery. On this occasion, visitors were also serenaded by saxophonist Daniel Ryan, accompanied on guitar by his brother Charles Ryan.

As the meal was served and savoured – pumpkin soup, sweet and sour melongene, chunky vegetables, creamy cassava, Hong Kong fish and lobster in garlic sauce, followed by cheesecake trifle or red velvet trifle – flocks of flamingoes, ospreys and scarlet ibises dipped and flew overhead as they returned to that part of the swamp to roost after feeding all day.

Nanan shared the story of how the first flock of flamingoes came to the swamp just after her father died in 2015: his children believe he sent them. She said even though that first flock had been hunted out of existence, a second group had come to the swamp recently and had begun to reproduce there. Any island with good habitat will encourage colonisation by any species, she said, and the family was pushing for the area to be designated an environmentally sensitive area.

On the way back to base, the sun dipped below the horizon, and the mangroves became dark and mysterious, a perfect setting for folktales.

Heidi Alert CEO (Ag) of Tourism Trinidad Ltd addresses the media during the first of Tourism Trinidad Ltd Sweet Sweet Trinidad media familiarisation tours, a Sunset Dinner Tour of the Caroni Bird Sanctuary. - Sureash Cholai

Tourism Trinidad Ltd’s Sweet Sweet Trinidad domestic tourism campaign is designed to motivate locals to holiday in TT, especially during this time when the borders are closed.

TTL CEO Heidi Alert said partnership such as the one between Nanan’s and Rasam’s was part of the campaign’s effort to strengthen links between tourism stakeholders. Some of the tour experiences available are offered by the Association of Rural Communities, Brasso Seco Tourism Association, Fondes Amandes Reforestation Project, National Trust and the Sans Souci Wildlife and Tourism Development Organisation.

Some of the staycation experiences are rainforest ziplining, nature tours, birding tours, history and heritage tours, cocoa and coffee heritage tours, cultural immersion and country experiences.

Alert said the various hotels, tourism association and community entities are responsible for facilitating tours and customer bookings and queries are done through the organisations. She said TTL’s role was to increase local awareness of tourism offerings through a marketing campaign.

She added, “We should be thankful for what we are blessed to call home. One experience I’ve had as part of the staycation campaign is that we don’t have to go far to experience what’s in our backyard. Visitors are able to experience the stories behind the attractions, and it also gives all stakeholders, including those who prepare food, and artisans who normally sell to tourists, a chance to become involved and earn income. The campaign is embracing communities which surround the destinations.

"The more we as Trinis embrace who we are, the more it bubbles over, and that passion will be the best way to keep domestic tourism going.”


"Epic dining tour in Caroni Swamp"

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