Trinidad versus Tobago? As grudge-matches go, it would be a peculiar one. These two sisters, separated by 30km of Caribbean waters, came together in 1889, and last year celebrated 50 years of independence, following their break from Britain in 1962. Nevertheless, the pair – just off the coast of Venezuela – are profoundly different, with contrasting characters and attitudes that sometimes breed a gentle rivalry.
So, which wins out? Cosmopolitan Trinidad, roughly the size of Northumberland, is largely flat and heavily influenced by its Indian community, which constitutes half the 1.3 million-strong population. From the cities to busy market towns, life here moves quickly– at least in comparison to much of the Caribbean.
It's a stark contrast from mountainous Tobago, one-16th the size, which lures visitors with a laid-back vibe, wide biodiversity and some of the best beaches in the Caribbean. Ambitious Trinidadians can't resist relishing the stereotype that their countrymen over the water are work-shy, living life at their own slow pace.
From the average traveller's point of view it might seem that Tobago has the edge, by dint of unrivalled beaches and a far greater choice of accommodation. Virgin Atlantic resumes its winter service from Gatwick this Tuesday.
Nevertheless, the possibilities in Trinidad should not be overlooked. There's thriving nightlife on the island and a strong culinary scene to be discovered. Trinidad has embraced the modern world, thanks largely to an oil industry which took its first primitive steps in the 1850s when a well was drilled by a retired army captain.
In this title fight, though, much will depend on the desires of each Caribbean-bound traveller. From a political perspective, a small band of Tobagonians are calling for independence from its neighbour but, for the moment, the marriage is a happy one.
Trinidad: Curries and culture
I had been warned, but I just couldn't help myself. Lifting the tiny piece of lava-red chilli to my lips, I laid it gingerly on my tongue. However this wasn't any old chilli. This was the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Pepper, officially the world's hottest, as charted by the Scoville heat scale.
"I've never known anyone to try it," said Michael Abraham, a local gourmet who had agreed to share the secrets of Trinidadian cuisine with me. "Everyone on the island avoids them," he added, just before the point of impact. Within a second I realised why. The heat was overwhelming, as though someone had put a hot poker to my throat. Unable to speak, I sat in Michael's kitchen in the hills of Maraval, with a mouthful of ice cubes in a desperate bid to relieve the pain.
Some 40 minutes later, my eyes still streaming, I set off to tour the island with my guide Nick. The hazy coastline of Venezuela appeared across the Columbus Channel as we neared Port of Spain, Trinidad's busy capital of high rises and colonial mansions. Along the way images of women dancing in tiny sequinned bikinis were splashed across billboards, depicting the raucous February carnival. "Women collect their costumes in envelopes," joked Nick.
The National Museum and Art Gallery seemed like a natural place to start delving into Trinidad's history. It's housed in a former school built at the turn of the 20th century and contains a diverse collection including ceramics, carvings and weapons. The first inhabitants of the island were Amerindians, who referred to their home, rather poetically, as "land of the hummingbird" and lived here uninterrupted until Christopher Columbus sailed by in 1498 and claimed Trinidad for the Spanish.
Tensions between the two camps came to a head when Antonio Sedeño, a Spanish official, was named General of Trinidad in 1530. He set about transforming a picturesque spot on the coast known as Cu-Mucurapo ("Place of the Silk Cotton Trees"), a move that the indigenous community didn't take too kindly to. Abandoned by his men in favour of gold in Peru, General Sedeño was imprisoned by the local tribes. Rumour has it that he was later killed. Nevertheless, Trinidad remained a Spanish territory until 1797 when it was captured by the British.
Outside, dusk was descending and Port of Spain was picking up the pace. Cars sped around the packed Brian Lara Promenade, named after the native cricketing hero.
Things picked up further under the cover of darkness. Like every evening, the Queen's Park Savannah was filled with dozens of food stalls draped in the national flag. On the menu: goat curry, chicken rotis and locally caught oysters. Lights twinkled on the distant hills. The night air was warm and scented with sizzling spices.
Sandwiched between D'Juice King and another stall selling 25 varieties of chilli sauce (which I gave a wide berth) was the busiest stall of all. We joined the long queue of hungry locals waiting for a bowl of creamy corn soup.
A short drive away is St James, described by Nick as the "suburb that never sleeps". Calypso – an African and European-rooted music that originated on the islands – blared from the bars, Creole restaurants and passing cars.
"Everybody's liming," said Nick. The art of doing nothing, known here as liming, sees groups of friends gathering to eat, drink and talk for hours on end. The mellifluous sounds of steel drums drifted out from a bar. I peered inside to a see a 10-piece band drumming away happily on Trinidad's native instrument.
It was midnight when I arrived back at my hotel, the Coblentz Inn. I was in The Oval room, adorned with old photos of the local cricket ground and a mural depicting the action of a game and, simultaneously, the island's irrepressible energy.
Tobago Beaches and barbecues
Fought over by the French, Dutch and British, Tobago's early history is one of change and conflict. The island switched hands more than 30 times between the 16th and 19th centuries, a period that saw its economy strengthen with the export of rum, sugar and cotton.
However, the plantations were destroyed during the French colonisation and the economy of Tobago, with its dominant Creole culture, is now almost entirely dependent on tourism.
At first sight, Tobago is the ideal Caribbean island, with miles of perfect beaches; sleepy hinterlands with houses painted in shades of red, yellow and blue; and winding mountain roads where shacks dispensing rum and freshly baked coconut cakes pop up. A glance at a map reveals places with heartwarming names such as Pleasant Prospect and the unnerving Dead Bay.
Unlike Trinidad, Tobago's biggest draw is its coastline: 120km of quiet coves, lagoons, mangroves and coral reefs frequented by manta rays and spinner dolphins. Tobago started protecting its natural assets long before the "eco" label was bandied about. Significant work has been done to help the leatherback turtles that nest on many of the beaches between March and June, while the central Main Ridge Forest Reserve has been protected since 1776.
It's a place my guide, Junior Thomas, knows well. He led the way deep into the reserve of gorges and waterfalls following the 5km Gilpin Trail. "I've been coming here since I was nine. Me and my dad would spend hours here exploring and looking for animals," he said before mimicking the birdcall of a few of the 250 species found among the giant tipuana trees. A blue-crowned motmot, as seen on the TT$5 bill, sat on a branch overhead. Later, a hummingbird soared past in a flash of iridescent green.
A hearty lunch had been earned and there was no finer place than Jemma's Seaview Kitchen and Treehouse Restaurant where a feast of barbecued chicken and breadfruit pie awaited. A huge almond tree stands in the centre of the dining area; outside, at sea, is Little Tobago, a rocky refuge for giant green iguanas.
To meet growing demand, there's accommodation to suit all. I stayed at the new Magdalena Grand Beach Resort, a 178-room property set among tropical gardens –although its location on the windswept Atlantic Coast means the beach is a little blustery. Those seeking seclusion should book at Stonehaven. The luxurious colonial villas – four-poster beds and private infinity pools – are popular with Hollywood stars.
Among the very best beaches on the island are Englishman's Bay, sleepy and secluded, and lively Pigeon Point, lined with restaurants and shacks, where I met Captain Rick the following day.
Running his hand through his long dreadlocks, he welcomed me aboard his speedboat. We set sail from the island's western tip, crossing the calm Caribbean Sea and passing popular snorkelling spots and small villages where fishermen were busy hauling in their long nets.
"People work hard here but there's no stress, like on Trinidad," said Captain Rick.
Peppered along this stretch of coast are nearly 30 bays; many family friendly, others remote and only accessible by boat. Over the years, some have been christened with curious nicknames. "This is Washerwoman's Bay," the skipper announced upon cutting the engine in a small cove of volcanic rocks and sparkling teal water. I was puzzled. "My great grandfather's generation would bring their girlfriends here to cleanse them before marriage," he explained matter-of-factly.
A pod of spinner dolphins joined us. Most swam leisurely around the boat but several somersaulted from the water, playing without a care in the world. "They must be Tobagonian dolphins," chuckled Captain Rick.
Getting there and getting around
British Airways (ba.com) flies to Trinidad via Saint Lucia and Tobago via Antigua from Gatwick. Tobago is also served by Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com) and Monarch (monarch.co.uk) from Gatwick. Caribbean Airlines (caribbean-airlines.com) flies from Gatwick to Trinidad. It also flies between Trinidad and Tobago from US$48 (£30) one-way.
Inter-island ferries (ttitferry.com) cost from TT$37 (£3.50).
Coblentz Inn (coblentzinn.com). Doubles from £78, B&B.
Magdalena Grand Beach Resort (magdalenagrand.com). Doubles from £116, B&B.
Stonehaven Villas (stonehavenvillas.com). Doubles from £171, room only.
National Museum and Art Gallery: 001 868 623 5941
Rainforest Tours: 001 868 344 5431; uniquetourstobago.com
Tobago Waterholics: 001 868 688 7669; tobagowaterholics.com
Trinidad and Tobago Tourist Board: 0844 846 0812; gotrinidadandtobago.com