Tip of the rock: Barbados’ north coast

Far from the crowds of Bridgetown and the bustle of the south coast, the northern tip of Barbados is a rugged and picturesque landscape of hills and dramatic cliffs, caves and coves. It can feel almost like another island — but as Nixon Nelson finds, it’s still within easy reach

The view from North Point. Photograph by PHB.cz (Richard Semik) / Shutterstock.comPico Teneriffe, near Cove Bay. Photograph by Mike ToyAnimal Flower Cave’s natural “windows” overlooking the Atlantic. Photograph by Barbados Tourism AuthorityThough Barbados’s northern tip is famous for its jagged scenery, its small bays conceal sheltered pools for swimming. Photograph by Barbados Tourism AuthoritySt Nicholas Abbey sits among lush gardens and canefields. Courtesy St Nicholas abbeyFarley Hill’s impressive façade survived a fire in the 1960s. Photograph by Barbados Tourism AuthoritySt Nicholas Abbey is one of the most celebrated historical sites in northern Barbados. Photograph by Sofie Warren courtesy St Nicholas Abbey

Flying into Barbados, if the plane approaches from the right direction and elevation, you can see the whole island spread out before you like a map. To the east, the rugged, rocky Atlantic coast curves round to Ragged Point. The south coast is a long arc, interrupted by a bump at Oistins. All roads seem to run into Bridgetown, and the stretch of coastline leading to the city is one of Barbados’s tourist centres. Some of the oldest hotels and guesthouses on the island sprang up over a century ago around Hastings and Worthing. The perennially trendy nightlife zone of St Lawrence Gap is nearby, and the coast road here is lined with hotels and holiday apartments, restaurants and boutiques.

As your gaze runs past Bridgetown, the sheltered west coast of the island stretches into the distance. This is posh Barbados, home to the island’s most luxurious resorts and villas, arrayed in lush grounds. Historic Holetown sits halfway up the west coast, and if you strain your eyes as the plane curves into its descent, you may just be able to spot busy Speightstown off to the north. Past there, Barbados tapers to a barely visible point and disappears.

On an island of just twenty-one by fourteen miles, no place can really be described as remote. But Barbados’s northernmost parish of St Lucy, where the coral limestone ends at a sudden line of cliffs and the open Atlantic begins, feels a world away from the crowds of Bridgetown, the shopping and nightlife of the south coast, the popular beaches covered with deckchairs and sunbathers. At the very tip of the island is a well-named village called Retreat, and even the most ardent fans of trendy holiday delights may be refreshed by an expedition to this quietest part of Barbados, where the landscape is still decidedly rural and the ocean is a magnificent presence in three directions.

 

A journey to the north follows the highway up the west coast, past the calm blue waters of Gibbes Bay and Mullins Bay and the bustle of Speightstown. Once Barbados’s most busy port, its trade links with south-west England earned it the nickname Little Bristol. A handful of Georgian and Victorian buildings survive on Speightstown’s central streets, giving an idea of the town’s past. The oldest surviving structure may be Arlington House, now restored and home to a small museum of local history.

The true “north” begins after Port St Charles, a resort and marina on Speightstown’s outskirts. Soon you leave behind the development of the west coast strip and emerge into proper countryside, as the highway veers inland. Narrow roads lead off to the coast itself. Past Archers and Greenidge is Retreat, the closest village to North Point, and one of Barbados’s most spectacular views. The island lies well outside the main Antillean archipelago, and a line drawn straight north from here wouldn’t hit land until the coast of Canada.

At North Point, you’re surrounded by horizon, and an infinity of blue water and white spray. Atlantic swells pound the limestone cliffs and ledges, riddled with caves and blowholes. In fact, an eight-mile system of caverns has been charted here, and the easiest to visit is almost at your feet. The Animal Flower Cave — so called because it was once home to a colony of colourful sea anemones — contains strange rock formations, quiet pools, and dramatic rock “windows” just above the level of the sea. You’ll understand right away why the cave is closed to visitors during bad weather: you wouldn’t want to be inside when the ocean works itself into a fury.

Some of the cave pools here are deep enough to swim in, but if it’s a hot day and you’re ready for a dip, there are other possibilities. Though this area of coast can look forbiddingly rough, there are occasional small sandy coves with just enough shelter to make good bathing spots — but be cautious, and take local advice about which places are safe for swimming and which have dangerous currents.

If you drive inland through Spring Garden, you’ll re-emerge on the north-east coast at Little Bay, near the village of Pie Corner. At first glance, the sea here seems far too perilous for swimming — surely you’d be dashed to pieces? But look closer and you’ll notice a ledge of rock protecting a natural swimming pool, surrounded by crashing wave, blowholes, and arches. Take care as you pick your way over the jagged rocks and scurrying crabs, then enjoy a soak in the calm pool, with the cliffs looming on one side and the Atlantic booming on the other. A bit further south, Cove Bay’s rock pools are also swimmable, but only at low tide. You’ll have to get out of your car and hike a bit to get there, but the reward is the dramatic scenery of cliffs and rock pools and 240-foot Pico Teneriffe — a steep-sided peak that supposedly reminded long-ago sailors of the mountains of the Canary Islands.

 

Cove Bay marks the northern edge of the Scotland District, an area of highlands on what is otherwise a low, rolling island. Forming a rough semi-circle around Barbados’s east coast, the Scotland District falls mainly within the parish of St Andrew, and got its name, supposedly, because its lush, steep slopes reminded early settlers of the Scottish countryside. Cherry Tree Hill, south of Pico Teneriffe, offers a perfect vantage point to survey this hillier side of the island. From here you can see all the way down to Bathsheba, the shore lined with the foam of breaking Atlantic waves. The erstwhile cherry trees which gave the hill its name are mostly gone. Instead, along the road you’ll see mahogany trees at higher elevations, and sugar cane as you descend. Close at hand is one of Barbados’s oldest plantation houses.

First built in 1658, St Nicholas Abbey was never actually an abbey in the literal sense — there are no monks’ cells or cloisters to be found. But it is one of merely three surviving Jacobean houses in the New World, with Dutch gables over its main portico and chimneys of coral stone. For three and a half centuries it has been a family residence, and today, scrupulously restored, it is one of the architectural treasures of Barbados, with a Chinese Chippendale staircase and cedar-panelled rooms containing antique furnishings.

The surrounding acres also continue to serve as a working sugar plantation. For centuries, the wealth of Barbados was earned by the backbreaking labour of enslaved Africans. Archaeologists working on the St Nicholas Abbey plantation have recovered hundreds of artifacts from the enslaved community here, and there are plans to restore some of the former factory buildings to display these and tell the story of those plantation inhabitants who did not enjoy the comforts of the great house.

And the current owners have made efforts to revive another aspect of the plantation’s history, setting up a rum distillery, one of four in Barbados, using a traditional pot-still to craft a high-end rum sold in numbered bottles. You won’t find St Nicholas Abbey Rum anywhere else on the island, and the shop here also sells molasses and brown sugar from the vicinity, plus jellies and chutneys made with fruits from the plantation gardens.

 

If you’ve sampled the spirits of St Nicholas Abbey and been navigating the winding roads of St Lucy all day, you may be ready for a breather. Heading uphill again, you’ll soon come to Farley Hill, a site as famous for its history as its views. Through the mahogany trees and across a manicured lawn you’ll see an imposing Georgian stone façade pierced by great windows, and a view of trees behind. Farley Hill, built in the early nineteenth century, was once one of Barbados’s grandest mansions, famously used as a location in the 1957 film Island in the Sun — the story of a love affair across racial boundaries, starring Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine. Less than ten years later, a fire destroyed the house’s interior and roof, but the solid stone walls withstood the flames.

The ruins, carefully stabilised, hint at Farley Hill’s onetime grandeur, and now form the backdrop to a popular picnicking spot, also often used as a venue for outdoor concerts. If there’s a jazz or reggae performance on at Farley Hill during your time in Barbados, consider yourself lucky. Otherwise, the views through the mahogany trees and the refreshing Trade Winds coming off the sea are worth a visit.

From one of the benches facing south, you can clearly see the half-bowl-shaped formation of the Scotland District, and the lush vegetation unique to this part of the island. Looking out at this wild country of hills and cliffs, rock stacks and gullies, you may wonder how Barbados got its reputation for having a tame, flat landscape. As the vast Atlantic thrums below and the oceanic breeze threatens to take your hat, you may find yourself resolving to spend more time exploring this northern reach, where geology seems dramatic, weather is a kind of performance, and the crowds of fellow tourists feel much further than twenty miles away.

 

The story of St Lucy

The only one of Barbados’s eleven parishes named for a woman (patron saint of the blind), St Lucy occupies the island’s northern tip, at the opposite end from the airport and the teeming south coast. Unlike the nearby west coast, with its numerous resorts, hotels, and restaurants, St Lucy remains relatively untouched, its rocky landscape dotted with small villages. Bajans say this is where you can get a glimpse of what the island was like generations ago, before the arrival of mass tourism. Relatively few visitors come this far north, and St Lucy lacks the calm white sand beaches of the south and west coasts, but instead enjoys a dramatic coastline of cliffs and coves, perfect for rambling on foot in search of views.

Barbados’s first prime minister, Errol Barrow, was born here, and during the Second World War there was a small US Navy base at Harrison’s Point. The parish itself was formed in the seventeenth century, but the present parish church in Nessfield was built in 1837, replacing an older structure.

 

Animal or flower?

Discovered in 1780 by a pair of explorers, the Animal Flower Cave sits near Barbados’s northern tip. Formed by wave erosion over many eons, the cave entrance is now six feet above the high-water level. Geologists have determined that the island is rising at the rate of an inch every thousand years — do the arithmetic and you can work out the age of the cave!

“Animal flower” is the local name for the sea anemone, an aquatic creature related to jellyfish and corals. Anemones’ colourful tentacles and frills give them a floral appearance, but are deadly to small fish and shrimp which stray within reach and find themselves stunned with toxins and promptly swallowed. (Only a few species have toxins powerful enough to injure humans.) At a sign of danger, the tentacles retract and the anemone looks like a lump of jelly — or an unopened bud.

The number of anemones in the Animal Flower Cave has dwindled over the years, though a few are still to be found. For most visitors nowadays, the main attraction is the chance to explore a coastal cavern, accessed though steps built into a natural blowhole, and swim in the underground pool among ribbons of reflected light.

 

Jacobean style

Named for the reign of King James VI of Scotland and I of England, Jacobean architecture — whose era fell in the early seventeenth century — is characterised by classical elements transported to Britain via Flanders and Germany. That means symmetrical design, classical columns and pilasters, curved Dutch gables, and often intricate stone carving.

Barbadian architecture and history buffs will tell you that the island has not one but two surviving Jacobean great houses: St Nicholas Abbey in St Peter, near the boundary with St Lucy, and Drax Hall in St George, near the centre of the island. Like St Nicholas Abbey, Drax Hall has Dutch roof gables, coral finials, and a fine wooden staircase, but it is a private residence not open to the public.

There is only one other complete Jacobean mansion in the new world: Bacon’s Castle in rural Virginia, which — like Barbados — was a wealthy English plantation colony in the seventeenth century, depending on indentured and later enslaved labour.

 

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