The lone hotel of Trinidad's impressively wild and rugged north coast, Mount Plaisir Estate, is the focal point of the tiny fishing village Grande Riviere. Local people slide in for an evening drink at the bar, the restaurant cooks up excellent callaloo, shark steaks and homemade bread and the rooms have driftwood sculptures and unlockable stable doors that open up right on to the beach.
Tranquillised by a lullaby of crashing waves, my first night's sleep was broken by a call from outside. Yards from my door, a 12ft-long leatherback turtle lumbered up the sand, dug a hole with her flippers and laid her eggs in the sand. A month later, I returned, and was again woken to see hundreds of hand-sized hatchlings scrabbling from the sand and making for the ocean.
After two months of free daytime soca concerts, open-air parties every night and calypso outings, Trinbagonians conquer pre-carnival exhaustion with rum-laced coffee and hit the streets at 1am for Jouvert, a small- hours celebration that sees the capital erupt with abandoned sensuality. Sequinned costumes and "pretty masquerade" are abandoned in favour of hideous blue devils, grotesque fantasy creatures and the mud, paint and engine oil of "dirty mas".
Opting for the latter, I dressed in my oldest shorts and headed downtown. Revellers thrusting glasses of neat rum into the car and dancing on the roof made finding my mud band a little problematic, but eventually, I acquired my own covering of gunge and melted into the thronging crowd. Pulsing soca and free-flowing rum kept us slithering together. I swiftly lost track of my friends, my inhibitions and any ability to tell whose slimy body was pressed against mine.
As dawn returned reality to the hallucinogenic scene, I found myself heading for the beach to wash off an inexplicable but thorough coating of gold spray paint, and by 10am, I was back on the streets with the remnants of the night before adding a brown sheen to my deep red costume and a permanent cheesy grin to my face.
A night in the Trinidadian rainforest with only a tarpaulin between me and the tarantulas was followed by a second day's hard hiking alongside a fiftysomething soldier, bush expert and professional guide named Snake. Sustained by an abandoned orange orchard, we covered innumerable hills and gullies and stopped for a waterfall dip before tackling the murderously sunlit track that led downhill to Guanapo Gorge.
A half-kilometre of river flowing fast between 30 metre walls of solid smooth rock, you enter the upstream end of the gorge by jumping from the top of a massive boulder which partially dams the water and creates a pitch-black eddying pool below. I was persuaded to jump in first.
Fully clothed, I made clumsy process, but by the time we reached the shallow downstream end, my army trousers felt entirely appropriate as I chopped away stray branches and emerged dripping and triumphant.
A last day spent haring around the island ended at a recommended pizza restaurant. Cool stares from the posse hanging out by the entrance made me overly self-conscious and doubly horrified when I discovered my car keys swinging smugly in the ignition behind firmly locked doors.
Preliminary prods with a long stick proved unsuccessful, but as the growing crowd's increasingly gleeful suggestions descended to the ridiculous, the restaurant's waitress calmly unscrewed the jeep's back window and placed the keys in my sweating palms.
With a stunning sense of style, I reversed into the bumper of a car parking next to me. Surveying the minimal dents, the driver refused to let me pay for the damage. Flustered and red-faced, I gathered up what was left of my dignity and drove off, the papers jammed into the notebook that I'd left on the roof creating a snowstorm down the road.
After tea and hummingbird-watching at the terrace of a guesthouse set in the grounds of a Benedictine monastery in the foothills of the northern range, I set off on an uphill hike. Scrambling to the top of a 40ft fire tower as the sun began to set, the breeze carried osprey's keening cries and the first chirrups of the frog symphony that marks out a Caribbean evening. Below, the endless flatlands of the island's central plains unravelled; lights twinkled on, billows of smoke curled up from burning cane fields and the sky turned technicolour over the Caroni mangrove swamps.
trinidad and tobago
National airline BWIA offers daily scheduled flights from Heathrow to Trinidad, pounds 500-750. Caledonian airlines' two-week return to Tobago from Gatwick costs from pounds 259 including tax. You can fly on to Trinidad for around TT350 return (pounds 35).
WHERE TO STAY
At Pax Guesthouse at Mount St Benedict (phone and fax 001 868 662 4084, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) double rooms cost $75 including breakfast and a three-course dinner. At Mount Plaisir Estate (001 868 670 8381 or 680 4553, fax 680 4553) rooms cost from $50-70 per night; some of the rooms sleep up to six.
WHAT TO SEE
Lawrence "Snakeman" Pierre can be contacted in Trinidad on 001 868 632 4204; guided trips to Guanapo Gorge, $40-70.
For information on carnival and Jouvert, see the Rough Guide or contact the tourist board (TIDCO) in Trinidad (001 868 623 1923, fax 623 8124, e-mail email@example.com) or in the UK on 0181 367 3752, fax 0181 367 9949.