Welcome to Grande Riviere, a picturesque village nestled along Trinidad’s North Coast, where the ocean meets a thriving community deeply connected to the magical world of sea turtles.
As you drive along the Paria Main Road, past the Grande Riviere Bridge and turn right onto Hosang Street, you’ll find yourself stepping onto the Grande Riviere Beach – a place where time seems to stand still. Trinidad’s North Coast is renowned for its nesting sites, where the magnificent, endangered Leatherbacks, the Hawksbills, the Loggerheads, the Olive Ridleys and Green Turtles all nest, but nowhere compares to Grande Riviere. There is something truly special that makes it the highest density nesting site in the world for Leatherback turtles. Here, an ancient bond has formed between the residents and these majestic creatures, forging a unique harmony between the forest, the river, the sea, and the community.
In time past the villagers of Grande Riviere relied on sea turtles as a primary food source, and lived a simple life without electricity. The only visitor to the tiny village was the parish priest, who would visit from a neighbouring village on Sunday. The villagers worked on the cocoa plantations and made small gardens or tried their luck fishing in the turbulent seas. In the decades that have since passed, a lot has changed along the one-kilometre strip of beachfront.
People realised that there was magic unfolding at the end of the street, when every year between March and August, every night, the ancient, majestic Leatherback turtles slowly emerge from the sea to bury their eggs in the coarse quartz-rich sand.
The secret of this magic lies in the power of community. Over the years, the residents have embraced their role as custodians of the turtles, creating a haven where humans and wildlife thrive together. The villagers, who once viewed turtles solely as a source of sustenance, now recognize the intrinsic value of these magnificent animals and the crucial role they play in our ecosystem.
The turtles have become a symbol of unity, transforming lives and perspectives. “My first experience with a Leatherback turtle, my first recollection, is as a child, on the beach aged 10 or 11. As the turtles were crawling back into the ocean, we would hold on to the back flippers and dive with the turtle holding our breath to see how deep we could go in one breath,” Len Peters, Chairman of the Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guide Association, remembers.
Peters has been a driving force in turtle conservation since 1989. Initially tasked by the Forestry Division of the Trinidad and Tobago government to protect the turtles through nightly patrols, Len and his passionate team, together with villagers in the North Coast villages of Fishing Pond, Matura and Grande Riviere faced the challenge of shifting their community’s perception of these remarkable animals. Their perseverance paid off as they nurtured awareness and appreciation for the turtles’ importance, both ecologically and economically.
Grande Riviere experienced a transformative moment when Italian photojournalist Piero Guerrini fell in love with the village during a ten-day visit to photograph Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. Recognising the beauty and rarity of the Leatherback turtles, Guerrini established the Mt. Plaisir Hotel, the first of its kind in Grande Riviere. This landmark project not only provided accommodation for visitors but also strengthened conservation efforts and educational awareness programs.
“At the time the place at the end of the road was just an old estate house,” Peters recalled of Guerrini’s visit. The Mt. Plaisir Hotel started with just three rooms. “For the very first time you had a project that was protecting turtles in Trinidad that was also bringing visitors to see these phenomenal animals, and now they had a place to stay,” said Peters.
He believes this was a turning point for the community. “Because of the conservation initiative the number of visitors started to increase. The number of turtles started to increase. The conservation program started to become better organised. The Data Collectors got training and began to collect data in a more organised way,” he shared. “As the program evolved, it moved from conservation to more educational awareness programs engaging villagers in different capacities. Villagers began to see the turtles in a different light. We were able to convince them over time that the turtle was worth more to the village alive than dead.”
Grande Riviere’s conservation efforts received formal recognition in 1997 when the beach was designated a protected site by legislation. Permits became necessary for visitors during the nesting season. This development opened new doors of opportunity for the villagers, as visitors were required to be accompanied by guides authorised by the Forestry Division.
This provided villagers with the opportunity to capitalise even further on the turtles’ presence, while also broadening the horizons of young and ambitious villagers who could now consider career opportunities which previously seemed out of reach in science, tourism, conservation, and entrepreneurship.
The only constant is change.
As time inevitably marched on, the Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel situated on the beach at Grande Riviere changed hands as Piero Guerrini sought a buyer who he believed would be the ideal fit to carry on the mantra of the hotel and invest in the promotion of the conservation and protection of the turtles. He approached the Hadad brothers who wholeheartedly accepted his offer to purchase the hotel.
With this purchase, HADCO Experiences is ushering in a new chapter in the story of Grande Riviere. The company’s work with the community to enhance the area and improve the lives the villagers speaks to its social and environmental goals.
Added to these efforts is the promotion of ecotourism with the gem that is Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel. Nestled on the beachfront, this eco-resort is the perfect destination to witness the nesting rituals of the resilient Leatherbacks. As the story of Grande Riviere is being written, day by day, moment by moment, it is safe to say that their calming presence signifies a bright and remarkable future for their kind and ours.