There are 7,000 islands which make up the Caribbean, stretching from the coast of Florida down to South America, and, in this brand new series for ITV1, Sir Trevor McDonald goes beyond the images of the region in the glossy travel brochures to discover why the rich mixture of people and cultures make it like no other place on earth.
Sir Trevor begins his journey by visiting three islands which typify the contrasts in the Caribbean. In the first part of The Secret Caribbean with Trevor McDonald:
He takes in the ‘faded romance’ of Cuba, the Caribbean’s biggest island, a country where almost everything is half a century old. He visits the oldest cigar making factory on the island, and learns about living under a communist regime where food is rationed and a television can cost more than a home.
Sir Richard Branson gives the roving reporter a personal tour around his own £200m paradise island in the stunning tax haven of the British Virgin Islands where guests pay £30,000 a night to enjoy the luxury surroundings, the tremendous views, the white sandy beaches and the crystal clear waters.
Trevor travels to his birthplace, Trinidad, for one of the highlights of the country’s calendar, a two-day long carnival. Trevor models a hand-crafted costume and soaks up the noisy, bright atmosphere as bands of up to 1000 people dance through the streets.
In Cuba, Trevor discovers a country where in large part time has stood still. When Fidel Castro overthrew the government 50 years ago America responded by imposing a trade embargo on the island – as a result many things there are more than 50 years old, including many of the cars.
With a local journalist as his guide, Juan, Trevor travels around the capital city, Havana, in a bright red classic Chevrolet.
Trevor says: “The entire city is enveloped by a sense of faded elegance. Buildings once grand and magnificent show signs of weary neglect.”
Juan explains to Trevor what life is like under a communist regime where everyone is paid equally, from doctors to taxi drivers, unemployment is less than two per cent and there are reminders everywhere that the state is in control – especially in the media.
The news presenter meets his Cuban counterpart, newsreader Mariuska Diaz to see how her daily life compares. They discuss News at Ten’s lighthearted ‘And finally…’ tales which take a different twist in Cuba – the story at the end of the bulletin that day is about a school being named after communist icon, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
Trevor tours the news studio and chats to Mariuska about her fame but soon discovers that celebrity status is discouraged in the country and the newsreaders are jacks of all trades – even applying their own make-up before a bulletin. Trevor is also surprised to learn that the newsreader has a second job to supplement her wage – as an MC in a club.
Juan shows Trevor his two-bedroom apartment bought for the equivalent of $200 from the government – then he takes him to an electrical shop, with nearly bare shelves. As consumerism is discouraged in Cuba, the government taxes goods, resulting in a television costing more than Juan’s apartment and some things taken for granted in Britain, like toasters, being almost impossible to obtain.
Trevor’s shopping trip with Juan, as he picks up his monthly food rations, is a world apart from a supermarket run in the UK. Trevor watches in amazement as the Cuban reporter gets rice and grains and even cigarettes and matches at a subsidised rate – his whole monthly shop costs the equivalent of just $2.
At the cigar factory, Trevor follows workers as they collect the tobacco and roll the leaves, producing three million cigars a year by hand that sell for up to £30 each in the west – more than the workers earn in a single month.
The atmosphere in the factory is buzzing as the workers chat and smoke but Trevor is astonished to see them all stop and stand in silence as the national anthem is played before the daily newspaper is read out to them.
And Trevor faces a test to his resolve when he is offered a freshly made cigar – something he gave up smoking 25 years ago.
As he leaves Cuba, Trevor says: “I wonder whether the era of a new American president will bring meaningful change to Cuba. I felt the place evokes in the visitor a real feeling of old world romance. People I met are anxious to embrace change but it seemed to me only on their own terms.”
Trevor’s stops off at the British Virgin Islands, a paradise far removed from his Cuban experience: “They are a little bit of Britain in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. The Queen is still sovereign in these parts and it’s easy to see why Britain is keen to keep an influence. The natural beauty, combined with generous tax breaks, makes these islands a magnet for some of Britain’s richest people.”
Thirty years ago Richard Branson bought Necker Island for £60,000 when it was completely barren. He has now developed it into a luxury residence which employs 70 people.
Trevor takes a look around Necker and meets some of the guests who have splashed out and flown in from New York for a three night mini-break. And Richard invites him into the office where he runs his multi-billion pound empire – a hammock over-looking the ocean.
Richard tells the programme: “We’ve had an offer in excess of £200m, but it’s priceless, we’d never sell it, it’s one of those things which is absolutely priceless. It’s a nice position to be in, I’m lucky, I am spoilt, I accept that and I pinch myself every morning.”
Trevor also rolls up his trousers and wades to the shore for a sneak preview of Richard’s latest purchase, Mosquito Island, which he plans to transform into an eco-friendly retreat with its own water and power supplies.
Finally, Trevor goes back to his roots in Trinidad, where the memories come flooding back as he takes in the annual carnival. The island, one of the richest in the Caribbean after an oil boom, gained independence in 1962 but has always retained a robust sense of its own identity, which is particularly evident on carnival day.
The numerous bands which make up the carnival each have a historical or social theme and Trevor watches as they parade through the streets in their colourful costumes, playing music and singing all through the day and late into the night.
Carnival dancers can be on their feet for up to 15 hours at a time and Trevor meets some of troupe as they show him their elaborate feathered and shiny costumes, some of which cost up to £1000. He joins in with the spirit of things, donning one of the outlandish outfits.
Steel drums are synonymous with the rhythm of the annual celebrations. He meets the man who makes the carefully crafted instruments, sold all over the world, which Trevor refers to as the ‘heartbeat’ of the carnival.
Trevor says: “Watching the festival this year brought back for me a flood of warm memories. For two days Trinidadians put all their problems behind them and lose themselves with abandon in a riot of noise and colour.
“They know there will be a more sober tomorrow but that simply means 364 days till the next carnival.”
Sunday, 28 June 2009, 8:00PM – 9:00PM