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Scarlet ibises, white egrets, on a balmy tropical evening

The sun has set, but the wide sky over Trinidad's Caroni Swamp is still brightly opaline, marked with wisps of pink cloud. The intensely scarlet and immaculately white birds continue to arrive in great flocks, chirruping and flapping as they settle gingerly on the tops of the dark green mangrove trees that line the swamp's long waterways. This is a daily occurrence, this return from the feeding grounds, and a spectacular routine it is.

Our guide in the long woodedn boat is a softvoiced Trinidadian of East Indian heritage. He knows the birds, studies them, photographs them, and shares his knowledge with us. When a jet roars overhead, the scarlet ibises rise en masse into the sky while the white egrets around them remain placidly on their perches. Why? we ask.The guide explains: The egrets are in their nesting period; instinct tells them to protect their young. The ibises are not nesting; instinct tells them to flee.

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The glowing sky, the dramatic swamp, the beautiful birds: All of this entrances us on a balmy West Indian evening. (And, amazingly, there are no bothersome bugs to spoil the mood.) In this island we sense the presence of South America, only seven miles away, across the "Serpent's Mouth," the narrow gulf between the island and the mainland. Because of this proximity, Trinidad abounds with birds, hundreds of species of them, many of them rare, most of them colorful. They can be found all over the island, on its forested hills, in its cultivated fields, and on its long white beaches.

TRinidad and its satellite Tobago lie far down at the southern end of the Caribbean island chain, close to the coast of Venezuela: "two islands, one nation," as the government lieks to say. Former British colonies, the islands are now an independent nation within the British Commonwealth, English-speaking, and, for the Caribbean, relatively prosperous. Oil and natural gas form the basis of the economy; the encouragement of tourism, especially on Trinidad, has been neglected until recently because the nation is not dependent on it. This accounts for the fact that although Trinidad has more miles of beach than any other West Indian island, it still has few seaside hotels.Many Trinidadians, in fact, go to Tobago for its fine, easily accessible beaches and relaxed atmosphere. For the more adventurous tourists, though, an hour's walk through a Trinidadian forest will bring them to long, empty beaches of sparkling sand and water. There are also some very good public beaches within an hour's drive from Port of Spain, notably at Maracas Bay, near the charming town of Blanchisseuse.

Port of Spain is Trinidad's big and busy capital, essential to the country but not, except at Carnival time, worth more than two or three tourist days. We stay at the Hilton, surely one of the most dramatic hotels in the world. Perched on a hill high over the city, it is an ambitious complex of glass-walled structures, open balconies, airy walkways, and lush vegetation, all of it arranged around a huge swimming pool terrace.

Called the "upside down" hotel because the entrance is at the top of the hill and most guests take elevators downm to their rooms, the Hilton hangs directly above Port of Spain's 200-acre Queen's Park Savannah.

The Hilton, like the town, is informal and racially mixed; blacks, whites, East Indians, Chinese, and others mingle with apparently little racial tension. One of the things that unites this city and, in fact, the whole nation is Carnival, the annual pre-lenten celebration that brings the Trinidadians and thousands of visitors together ofor weeks of parades, costumes, steel bands, calypso singers, competitions, dancing, dining, and all the other components of a first-class, all-out festival.

They prepare all year for the various competitions. We go one night to a Port of Spain "panyard." Under an open-sided, zinc-roofed shed 20 or so members of the "Casa Blanca" steel band perform for us beneath two bare light bulbs. I expect something pleasant, but pallid. I hear something resembling a cross between the Chicago Symphony and Count Basie at their best. The driving force, precision, and sheer musicality are totally arresting. I am converted.

Birds again, this time at the Asa Wright Nature Center in the forest some 20 miles by car from Port of Spain. The large, comfrortable old house there is full of photographers, artists, ornithologists, and bird watchers. Many of them are Americans who spend their vacations at the center. We go mainly to see the oilbirdS, whose only easily accessible colony is in a cave at the bottom of a ravine a mile from the center's house.

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The walk to the birds is an adventure, down through a steep forest trail to the cave with its rushing stream. Shoes are removed and we wade through cold water, over slippery stones into the depths. The elderly guide flashes an electric lantern at the cave wall and there are the oilbirds, sitting in their nests on ledges a few feet above our heads. Suggestive of primitive quail, they look as though they have crash-landed, balanced high on their breasts, tail feathers rising almost vertically behind. Why "oilbirds"? The early inhabitants of Trinidad, we are told, found that a fine cooking oil could be obtained by boiling down the birds when they were plump and young. Why do the birds nest in caves? No one knows. Perhaps the cooks couldn't find them there.

"The Hindus came to Trinidad in 1843 and they are coming to Tobago in 1980," someone remarks. He means that many prosperous Indian Trinidadians are buying property on the smaller island. So are plenty of other people. The weekend flights from Trinidad to Tobago are crowded with citizens going to their vacation homes. We fly there on a Wednesday night with no crowds and a gentle landing at Crown Point Airport, only 20 minutes from Trinidad.

Tobago is far smaller than Trinidad, and its beaches are easier to reach. There are half a dozen or so good hotels near the water, though none of them, oddly, are directly on a beach. (This may be a legacy of the hurricane the devastated the island in 1963.) We stay at the Mount Irvine Bay Hotel, a few minutes' drive from the airport and from Scarborough, Tobago's charming capital.

We arrive after dark, in time for dinner in the hotel's "sugar mill" restaurant. The swooping, tree-trunk-shaped brick mill is surrounded by candle-lit tables arranged on a terrace overlooking the luminous green swimming pool. The night is softly warm and fragrant and I notice that at least half of the tables are occupied by vacationing Trinidadians of all colors. This pleasurable use of their own islands seems to be, in my experience, exceptional in the West Indies. Here there is far less of the racial demarcation that characterizes other island resorts. I wish they could all be this way, but Trinidad and Tobago are unusual.

Tobago is said to offer some of the best scuba-diving sites in the world. Less adventurous than the divers, we go snorkeling and enjoy paddling above busy parrotfish in the vast, shallow coral reef off Pigeon Point. Afterward, there is a picnic with a steel band in an open hut on the point. One of us celebrates his birthday and we sing "For Hehs a Jolly Good Fellow" to him, accompanied by the band and two dozen lithe black children cavorting in the azure water below.

On this quiet island we seem to see more of the British colonial heritage than we did on Trinidad: old, silent plantations with empty wooden stables and a huge abandoned metal water wheel manufactured in 19th-century England. There are even a few elderly Englishmen, lifelong residents of Tobago. We visit, for instance, the Grafton Estate, where a sprightly English lady and her equally sprightly brother preside over an old-style plantation house. The house, built for the lady on her wedding in 1934, rises high on a hill surrounded by a forest full of birds. Here many birds, notably the corico, the pheasantlike national bird of Tobago, come to feed on the balcony of the house, pecking at a mash distributed by a old black man. ("Are you American?" he asks me; "most Americans tip the men who feed the birds." I tip him, gladly, and wonder what he says to others. "Are you Swedish? Most Swedes . . . .")

The Tobagan government subsidizes the bird-preserving activities of the estate, and the brother and sister, in turn, play gracious host and hostess to numerous casual visitors. After a walk around the estate led by the brother ("I was an engineer in England for many years. Helped develop the 'dam-busters' bomb. Have you heard of it?"), our party is treated to fresh lime juice. The sister asks me to help her pick limes from a tree deep in the underbrush behind the house. Plowing confidently andbare-legged through the tall grass, she anticipates my thoughts: "Don't worry! There are no poisonous snakes on Tobago." Another point for the island.

On the grounds of the Mount Irvine Bay Hotel there is a "Tobago Museum of History," only one large room, really, with an interesting collection arranged neatly in cabinets. Here grotesque pre-Columbian Indian sculpture is displayed side by side with colonial artifacts adn geological samples. The island's history is also outlined and from it an especially interesting event emerges: Tobago was once a Latvian possession. At one point in the European jousting over West Indian islands in the 17th century, the Duke of Courland (present-day Latvia) was a brief and unlikely entry into the lists; a Latvian expedition, complete with settlers, established itself in Tobago. It was quickly annihilated by mroe powerful rivals of the duke, but the memory of its remains. The museum recognizes the unusual episode with several dolls in 19th-century Latvian peasant costumes donated by a bemused Canadian visitor. So, in addition to all of the obvious pleasures of Trinidad and Tobago, those of us who delight in obscure facts can also remark, casually, that we have vacationed on the only former Latvian island in the Caribbean.

BWIA, Trinidad and Tobago's international airline, offers daily L-1011 TriStar jet service to Port of Spain from New York, Toronto, and Miami. (The BWIA fare to Trinidad also includes a free round trip to Tobago; simply ask that your ticket be stamped "Trinidad & Tobago.") Expect about seven hours of travel time from New York. The Trinidad and Tobago Tourist Board at 400 Madison Avenue , New York, N.Y. 10017, offers a varied selection of package tours as well as information about the islands. Combined prices per person for air fare and land packages can range from around $400 on up, depending on the season, point of departure, hotels (the Trinidad Hilton and the Tobago Mount Irvine Bay are in the luxury category), meals, special arrangements, etc. For bird fanciers, Wonder Bird Tours, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10036, ofers field trips, including accommodations. The latter include the Asa Wright Nature Center, where comfortable double-occupancy rooms and three good meals a day can be had for $38.50 a day per person, including service.

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