Barbados: Total Vacation

Barbados boasts it has something for everyone. Vaneisa Baksh tries to take it all in

A little hedonism never hurt anyone. Photograph by Sean Drakes/ Blue MangoAnd they’re off! Horse-racing at the Garrison Savannah. Photograph by Mike ToyCrop Over fever. Photograph by Chris HuxleyDa Costa’s Mall- smart shopping on Broad Street. Photograph by Sean Drakes/ Blue MangoDover Beach, Christ Church. Photograph by Mike ToyFooling around on Dover Beach in the Gap’s early swinging daysHandicraft display. Photograph by Sean Drakes/ Blue MangoIt’s hard to spend much time in Barbados without stumbling on a cricket match in full swing. Photograph by Mike ToyPoolside at the Crane, Barbados’ s oldest resort hotel. Photograph by Chris HuxleySpectators surfing competition, Bathsheba, St. Joseph. Photograph by Mike ToySunbury Plantation House and Museum, popular for weddings and other lavish events. Photograph by Chris HuxleyThe Gap was also the launching pad for Alison Hinds and Square One, back in the early 90sThe Merrymen played their first shows in St Lawerence Gap in 1962. From left, Emile Straker, Robin Hunte, Willie Kerr, Peter Roett and Chris GibbsThe Sandy Lane Gold Cup, Barbados’s most prestigious horse-racing prize. Photograph by Mike ToyThe scene at Harbour Lights on Bay Street. Photograph by Mike ToyTrafalgar Square, at Bridgetown’s heart. Photograph by Mike Toy

What is it about Barbados that keeps pulling people back? “Come Back to Barbados”, the slogan used to say, and that’s what people do. One of the local tourist publications is always talking to visitors who are in Barbados for their third, fifth, seventh time, or who have been coming every year since they can remember, never seriously considering a holiday anywhere else. What is it with them?

It’s not only a visitor phenomenon, either. Consider Alison Hinds, for example (as many people do): she is Barbados’s megastar soca entertainer, the one you really have to hear if you want to boast that you know Barbados. She wasn’t even born on the island. She was born 4,000 miles away, in the eastern suburbs of London. But her parents were Barbadian, and they visited the island every year, as many Caribbean exiles do, taking young Alison with them. And every time they had to leave at the end of a visit and head back north, bitter tears would flow.

By the time she was 11, Alison was ready to stay for good. Today, she is as Bajan as they come: you wouldn’t dream for a moment that she had ever been anywhere else, except for the highly polished professionalism of her performances, perhaps. She is one of her country’s major artists and promoters.

This yearning to stay, or at least to return, again and again — it’s a striking phenomenon. What keeps people coming back? Maybe the landscape has something to do with it: those rolling green fields sloping down to coral sand beaches, spectacular even by the Caribbean’s high standards. Perhaps it’s the way the island is ringed with these superb playgrounds, so that you’re never far from white sand and irresistible blue water: calm Caribbean blues to the south and west, the Atlantic’s thunder on the east and north coasts.

It’s the sort of setting guaranteed to make people back in London and New York groan and tear their hair as the winter wind blows and the freezing sleet flies through the streets. Barbados, after all, is naturally blessed with a well-nigh perfect climate: tropical temperatures tempered by the island breeze, comfortably warm nights — the kind of weather you’d specify if you were writing a script for an ideal holiday.

But no: that may be part of it, but not all.

 

People have been coming (and coming back) to Barbados for rejuvenation and refreshment for more than 200 years. At the turn of the 18th century, businessmen, clerics, and military and naval officers from Europe and North America were frequent visitors. George Washington was just one of the more distinguished travellers, attracted, like the others, by the healthful climate and sparkling social life.

By the late Victorian era, hotels had sprung up on the south and east coasts of the island. The Crane, Barbados’s first resort hotel when it opened in July 1886, is now a private-residence resort enjoying international acclaim, and still occupies one of the best clifftop locations in the entire Caribbean.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Barbados is such a well-developed tourism destination, with hundreds of small operations offering the services visitors need to make their vacation time effortlessly fun. So assiduously has Barbados developed itself for its visitors that there’s scarcely an item on the entire global list of visitor activities and temptations that Barbados doesn’t offer. You could easily argue that nowhere else in the region has made tourism such a smooth-running, well-oiled business, with so much of its daily activity geared to the comfort and pleasure of its visitors — who, incidentally, far outnumber the local population in any given year.

Another thing. Barbados could just be the perfect size for a holiday destination: not so small that you feel claustrophobic or uneasily exclusive, but still small enough to feel like a community, with none of its many attractions very far away. Visitors and locals are accustomed to mixing and interacting easily. Whether you’re on a tight budget or an overspilling expense account, it doesn’t seem to matter. You can spend your way to oblivion at one of the ultra-posh resorts spangling the perennially stylish St James coast, but travellers with a need to economise certainly don’t have to rough it. One group of over 30 small hotels, for instance, calling themselves the Intimate Hotels of Barbados, have banded together to offer deluxe personalised services and true Bajan hospitality at very reasonable prices.

There is one thing that might just stress you out on a Barbados holiday, though, and it’s only fair that we should mention it. Some visitors have been known to have severe difficulty trying to decide among the array of possibilities, and in some cases have been so worn out by this problem that they have been forced to spend the day sprawled on their hotel’s brilliant white-sand beach, cooling off from time to time in the sea and being served hideously delicious rum punches by sympathetic hotel staff.

This, of course, is the easiest thing to do, requiring little energy, and you can go home with the sort of tan which will seriously upset those friends and family who were foolish enough to stay behind. And there are more beaches on which to indulge this archetypal torpor than you will have days to find them. Nowhere on Barbados is far from a beach, whether it’s Carlisle Bay (which you can practically walk to from downtown Bridgetown) or Sandy Beach (popular with families with small children) on the south coast, or magnificent Mullins Bay on the west coast, or secluded Gibbs Bay nearby.

For the trendy beach crowd, the mecca is Accra Beach, where tanlines and beachwear are closely and competitively scrutinised by those with a pressing need to be the most beautiful thing in sight. There are several gorgeous beaches around the island which Bajans try and keep for themselves, and so are not prominently marked on the visitor maps, and it’s always satisfying to be able to drop bits of local information to your fellow hotel guests over drinks in the evening. “Oh, we spent the day at X Beach — hardly anyone knows about it!”

 

If just lying on the sand doesn’t do it for you, though, if after a while you feel the urge for a surge of adrenaline, then you will find entertainments, sports operators and attractions of various sorts queueing up for your custom.

Have you ever gone trekking across a Caribbean island on horseback? Driven a mini-moke? Bet good money on a world-class horse race? Plunged into echoing limestone caves or lavish tropical gardens? Watched golden Caribbean rum being made, or found out how rum was first discovered (pretty much by accident)? Heard Pavarotti sing arias in the gardens of a fine old island “great house”? Been to a jazz festival in the sun, or a gospel festival? Partied all night in St Lawrence Gap?

Come to that, have you ever been windsurfing, parasailing or boogie-boarding? Bathsheba on the east coast has become a favoured international venue for serious surfers — the famous “Soup Bowl” offers amazing breaks year-round, with the thrills at their best in the August-to-November season. Have you ever sailed a yacht through deep-blue Caribbean waters into the Atlantic trade winds? Have you ever been down in a submarine to peer out of the window at turtles and barracuda, coral reefs and ancient wrecks? Have you ever been incited to walk the plank by masquerade pirates, or married on deck by a pirate captain with a black patch over one eye, jigging to soca music and desperately trying to keep from laughing and embracing the bride?

Caribbean Beat’s representative went sailing up the coastline one day in a catamaran from Cool Runnings Catamaran Cruises, and came back declaring she now understood what it means to be truly pampered. “The guys on board made sure our glasses were never empty, and tried to make us believe they cooked the delicious lunch,” she explained, somewhat defensively we thought. Since her hosts, Robert and Annika Povey, had filled the day with music, snorkelling, turtle-feeding and dancing, we should probably be grateful that she came back at all.

Opening up the Gap

It may well be the largest all-inclusive party in the world: a pulsing, synergetic mix of old and new, fused through a common devotion to the pleasure principle. St Lawrence Gap on the south coast is the heartland of Barbados’ merriment. Its seductive cluster of hotels, pubs, clubs, and restaurants on placid Dover Beach is a powerful magnet for fun seekers with energy to burn.

The Gap does not derive its name from any lack; it comes from the Barbadian tendency to say “swing in the gap” when asked for directions — meaning turn into a side street or lane. Gaps are common in this small island — driving along a stretch of about 50 metres, I passed Fitts, School, Pounder and Grant’s Gaps.

After a long bout of construction work from the government’s south coast water project and a major makeover within, the Gap re-launched itself a few months ago with a bang. Mindful that its charm springs as much from its enduring links to the past as from its youthful exuberance, the St Lawrence Gap Association has lovingly restored and re-energised its community without damaging any of its rich heritage.

New boardwalks sparkle under ornate blue street lamps. Hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, cafes and booths mingle with homes, apartments, an Internet café and sports stores, centred around the Dover Sports Ground. Double-width sidewalks take up as much space as the paved road that snakes through the Gap, inviting pedestrians to walk, not drive the short distances between destinations.

At the first curve, the refurbished St Lawrence’s Church, a centenarian, boasts its original façade. Congregations are soothed by the sound of waves splashing outside the church windows, harmonising with their invocations.

Next door, the St Lawrence Hotel, another centenarian, has grown and had a facelift, but she too retains the hospitable veneer that distinguished her when she was one of only two hotels in the area, at the turn of the 19th century.

The St Lawrence, famed for its Sunday buffet lunches for more than 50 years, featured live entertainment when only one other place offered it.

Emile Straker, of the world-famous Merrymen calypso group, remembers those days back in the 50s, when the road was paved with sand, and Dover Woods was a thicket of casuarina trees (many of them still there today).

The Merrymen actually played their first shows in St Lawrence Gap in 1962, and its members have precious memories of the swinging location that was the first place in the island to give live bands a home.

Straker, looking for all the world like a folk singer in his denim shirt and straw hat, recalls returning from Canada in 1961 and getting a gig at the Drift Wood Cellar Bar (Southwinds Hotel now stands on the spot). Soon his friends Robin Hunte, Stephen Fields and Chris Gibbs joined him; they played twice a week for US$17.50 a night.

Hunte grew up in a house called “Ladysmith” right in the Gap (the façade of the house has been incorporated into the Southwinds Hotel — even the “Ladysmith” wall plaque is still intact). His family owned the land where the Dover Conference Centre stands, and he remembers when it was a sleepy neighbourhood with little traffic. “You had to walk out to the main road to get a bus, or ride your bicycle,” he says.

But on Friday nights the place would come alive with music, and the Drift Wood Cellar Bar was the place to be. The Merrymen, playing local folk music, attracted such large crowds that they had to relocate to the cellar. They started the first Bajan discotheque, Mary’s Moustache, whose allure was its UV lights, which picked up the quirky little white moustaches that patrons had to wear. (Perhaps that’s the origin of the “Got Milk?” campaign!)

Mary’s Moustache was smoky, dingy and dark, with little alcoves beckoning intimacy. It was always packed; built for 75 people, it could hold, “depending on how compatible they were,” up to 150, says Robin Hunte.

People came in droves from all around the island, all age groups. Tourists loved it, and the American Seabees stationed in Barbados practically lived there.

It was in that cellar that new bands made their debuts. Soon, the Merrymen made an album called Caribbean Treasure Chest. On that album was the song that changed their lives: The Big Bamboo.

The Merrymen had found a merry launching pad.

St Lawrence Gap would also be the launching pad for the young group Square One, which had been around for just a couple of years when it started playing at Ship Inn, After Dark and the Reggae Lounge. These days, Alison Hinds, the band’s wildly popular lead singer, is one of the hottest names in the Caribbean’s entertainment pantheon. But in 1990, when Square One started playing in the Gap, her experience was limited to a tent called the Untouchables (run by another Barbadian star, MacFingall) and the odd hotel gig.

“When we started at Ship Inn, six of us used to fit on that tiny stage. The people were right there in your face. You could just stretch your arm from the stage and get a drink from the bar,” she says, with a grin.

“Now Ship Inn has a lot more room. The last time we played there — Crop-Over — we used the outside stage. But the vibe is still there. That’s why I like Ship Inn,” she says.

After Dark, she says, played an important role in Square One’s history. They introduced Terry Arthur, pannist, percussionist and now composer to a raving crowd, and packed the place whenever they played. At the Reggae Lounge, they played on Sunday nights. “We’d get good crowds, mixed between tourists and locals,” she said, “and it was always very interactive in the Gap.”

“I like the changes I’ve seen happen so far,” she says. “This is a great place for weekly street parties.” While it has come a long way from the Sundays when Hinds used to stroll down to Dover Beach with her cousin Sherwin to romp their teenage afternoons away, the charm of the past and the energy of the present still make it irresistible to swing into the Gap.

 

I once took a taxi to North Point, where Barbados’s cliffs fall spectacularly into the sea amid crashing breakers. The courtly old gentleman driver regaled me with stories of each parish as we cruised through, and patiently allowed me to jump out now and then to exclaim over some stunning beach or landscape. At craggy North Point, I stood on the rocks watching the waves pound and etch their moods and their power into the island’s fabric. The dramatic rock formations, and the knowledge that this island was really living, growing coral, stirred a deep awareness of time and growth and the indomitable force of nature.

There’s something satisfying about knowing that, while Barbados once had one of the most draconian slave plantation systems in the Caribbean, the ghosts have been exorcised, and what remains has become part of the tourism business from which the island earns its keep.

The Barbados Museum and Historical Society (near the horse-racing track at the Garrison) and the National Trust preserve the island’s history and showcase it for visitors who want to understand the links between present and past. The Museum itself was once the stockade of the British garrison stationed here, and perhaps the most intriguing of the historical displays is a reconstructed 19th-century prison cell — an edifying contrast to the sumptuous collection of plantation house furniture that occupies a nearby wing.

You can read the past in the island’s landscape too. Plantation great houses, once the centre of vast and vastly profitable estates, have become visitor attractions, far outdoing most of the modern vacation villas in charm and grandeur. Sugar cane still occupies much of the agricultural land; at the height of its prosperity in the 18th and 19th centuries, the sugar plantocracy enjoyed a degree of power and luxury unsurpassed in the Caribbean, reflected in great houses like St Nicholas Abbey and Drax Hall, built in the mid-17th century, two of only three Jacobean mansions still standing in the New World.

Some of these grand buildings remain privately owned, but many have become hotels or classy restaurants; most offer tours of their main rooms, usually full of period furnishings. Villa Nova, once the holiday home of former British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden, is now a luxury boutique hotel; Sunbury Plantation House is a popular venue for weddings and other parties. For a Sunday treat, pay a visit to the 350-year-old Fisherpond Plantation House, and join John and Rain Chandler for lunch (but make a reservation). You can savour aperitifs in the sunny gardens before sinking into Rain’s sumptuous buffet; catch John in conversation, and he might just tell you about the ghostly, smartly-dressed gentleman who appears every now and again in the corridors of the old house, or the invisible girl whose laughter echoes in its hallways.

And isn’t it great that the old traditional “crop over” — the day when, at the end of the harvesting season, sugar workers would be permitted a little innocent merriment as the last sheaves were brought in, so they could say “Thank God that’s over” — has now become the biggest event on the Barbadian calendar, an enormous quasi-Carnival which draws many thousands of visitors from all over the world to enjoy Bajan music, dance, cabaret, shopping and masquerading? After one time, as they say, is two.

 

Speaking of shopping, Barbados knows perfectly well that no holiday destination is complete without varied and interesting shops to browse in, with decent prices and some good local products to consider taking home to show off with. Duty-free shopping is well-organised in Barbados, and (unlike many other destinations) as long as you can show your passport and return ticket at the shop, you can take away your purchases for use during your stay (alcohol and camera film are major exceptions).

Bridgetown’s Broad Street and some of the surrounding streets are shopping central, and will entice you with jewellery, perfumes, European china and crystal and other goodies. There’s more duty free at the cruise terminal, and branches of Cave Shepherd, Barbados’s ubiquitous department store, are scattered up and down the island. The Cloister, over on Hincks Street, is one of the English-speaking Caribbean’s best bookshops — definitely worth a detour.

A vigorous shopping expedition tends to produce a fine appetite, and here the choice is even more stressful than elsewhere. Will you permit yourself to be pampered at one of the upscale (in some cases very upscale) restaurants strung out along the south and west coasts? After all, a little hedonism never hurt anyone. (Even a lot probably won’t do too much damage.) But do make sure to try some less exalted local fare as well, in the plainer restaurants or small roadside establishments. Flying fish is of course essential, and has become a sort of culinary emblem of Barbados. But any kind of seafood is a sure bet. Bajan cou-cou is a proud specialty, a polenta-like dish made from corn meal flavoured with salt pork.

And here’s an idea. Of course you can have your evening cocktail at one of the many sophisticated west coast bars and lounges, watching the sun go down as smoothly as your thick, voluptuous, creamy Bajan piña colada or some other exquisite concoction lovingly mixed by the busy barman. But remember too that Barbados, about 24 miles by 14, allegedly has more than one thousand rumshops — plain, simple local roadside bars, village watering holes, community centres and talk shops all at the same time. The ambience is cool, the talk is intense (you may feel you need sub-titles until you get your ear tuned in), the drinks are serious and not fancy, and the proprietors can usually produce some tasty “cutters” in the form of fish cakes or chicken wings. It is one way to engage Barbadian people outside the usual tourist context.

What to talk about? Just mention cricket, and within minutes you’ll be deeply embroiled in a heartfelt debate that’s part poetry and part statistics. Cricket, merely a passion elsewhere in the West Indies, is in Barbados a religion. Cricket fields abound; the island has probably produced more fine cricketers per square mile than any other place on earth. If you ramble through the countryside in search of sea views, historic ruins or elaborate gardens, the odds are you’ll stumble upon a casual cricket match.

 

Darnley Boxill, former Barbados cricketer and designer of an internationally adopted cricket scoring system, sits watching a friendly game between the English Little Kingshill Cricket Club and the Dover Cricket Club, based near St Lawrence Gap on the south coast. It is a hot Tuesday afternoon and, from their fielding, it seems clear that the English visitors are not in peak condition. In fact, it looks suspiciously as if they have had a late night; perhaps they are still celebrating their wicketkeeper’s wedding a few days earlier at the exquisite Emerald Palm restaurant on the west coast — a coral-stone country house surrounded by beautiful gardens, gazebos and waterfalls.

In any case, it appears that the Little Kingshills must have had a fantastic time. This is one of the dangers of visiting Barbados: excessive relaxation and pleasure. Darnley recalls similarly memorable nights, including a cabaret show he once saw, featuring Dancing Monique’s “carpet dance”, which slithered to an electrifying crawl to the teasing of  the steelpan music. Darnley too has clearly known good times.

Dancing Monique is long gone to her well-deserved retirement, but Barbados is still as sultry as it was in her heyday. As the sun sets, the nicely browned tourists trail away from the glorious beaches, and night sneaks in, crackling with excitement. Clubs and nightclubs offer late nights of music and dancing to every imaginable beat. Latin dancing is a recent craze, but there’s always reggae, soca, calypso, zouk, pop, rock, ringbang, and even romantic ballads for gentle after-dinner nostalgia.

That’s the real problem with Barbados, actually. You’re spoiled for choice, from the moment you set down at Grantley Adams International Airport. And that, surely, must be the reason why people are always coming back. They can’t make that agonising decision. They can’t cover all the options before the return flight is due. They lie on the beach in anguish, thinking about it. That must be the key to it all.

Well, take it easy. There’s no hurry. Lie back in your deck chair while you make up your mind. Sip that piña colada; it may help the selection process.

Because Barbados isn’t going away.

And you’ll be back.

 

Barbados by night

Believe it or not, it’s possible to have a smashing Barbados vacation without ever making it to the beach or catching a single ray of tropical sunshine — except maybe a glimpse of dawn as you stagger back to your hotel room. There are those who claim the nightlife is the hottest part of the Barbados scene, and one night — as you find yourself gyrating enthusiastically against some superb, equally enthusiastic individual, at some pulsating joint packed with vacationing rock stars, minor European royalty and hospitable locals — maybe you’ll start to agree.

Those who know say Harbour Lights is the place to be on Monday nights. The weekly Beach Party Extravaganza at this converted beach-house just outside Bridgetown means fire-eating, limbo, dancing barefoot in the sand, and an all-night barbecue grill for those wee-hour cravings.

For a less strenuous evening out, try live steelpan music at the Coach House, or jazz at the Waterfront Café, where the André Woodvine Group often plays on a Saturday night. The Casbah in Holetown is a house-music, neon-lit metropolitan-style disco — look out for supermodels vacationing incognito. Or for an authentic look at Barbadian culture, take in dinner and the show at Bajan Roots & Rhythms, every Wednesday and Friday at the Plantation Theatre — a high-energy tribute to the island’s musical heritage.

And of course for the serious party-goer a night out in St Lawrence Gap, the entertainment capital of the south coast, is obligatory. The Ship Inn is merely the best-known nightspot in the Gap — check out live bands on Thursdays and Saturdays, including major acts like Square One and krosfyah, if you’re lucky. After Dark, with its huge courtyard, is the place for massive fete events, or you can hide out in its posh, private-club-like bar. And the Reggae Lounge down the Gap is a sanctuary for fans of the Jamaican sound.

Just remember, the real action doesn’t get started till 10.30 or thereabouts — if you plan to see the party through to it’s end, prepare for a real, romping all-nighter!

 

The Year in Barbados

January

• Barbados Horticultural Society Annual Open Gardens Programme and Flower and Garden Show

• Barbados Jazz Festival (10th anniversary)

February

• Barbados in Bloom

• Barbados Gold Cup Festival (horse-racing)

• Holetown Festival (commemorates first landing of settlers at Holetown in 1627)

• Sir Garry Sobers Seniors Cricket Festival

March

• Barbados Sandy Lane Gold Cup

• Holder’s Opera Season

• Barbados Open Golf Championship

April

• International cricket (West Indies vs Australia)

• Banks Barbados Guineas

• Oistins Fish Festival

• The Mutual Mount Gay 2003 International Game Fishing Tournament

• Caribbean Sixes Tournament (cricket)

• Sir Garfield Sobers Golf Invitational

• Congaline Music Festival

May

• Barbados International Track & Field Classic

• International Rugby Sevens

• Celtic Festival

• Barbados Gospelfest

• Banks/Passoa Carlisle Bay Water Festival

June

• Bajan Unifest (open to team sports for university students)

July

• Crop Over Festival

• Sir Garfield Sobers Schools Cricket Tournament (15th anniversary)

• Nation Fun Ride

• Pinnacle Feeds Barbados Midsummer Classic

• Schools Summerfest

August

• United Insurance Barbados Derby

• Banks Hockey Festival

October

• Sun, Sea and Slams International Bridge Festival

• Junior Jazz Fest

• Sir Garfield Sobers Schools Golf Tournament

• Fred Rumsey Cricket Festival

• Blowing in de Windies (schools’ rugby)

• Eat! Drink! Barbados!

November

• Independence Pro Surfing Championships & Banks Pro Long Board Classic

• National Independence Festival of Creative Arts

• Seniors Cricket Festival

• Nation Fun Walk

December

• Run Barbados 10K & Marathon Series

Public holidays

New Year’s Day, January 1; Errol Barrow Day, January 21; Good Friday, April 18; Easter Monday, April 21; Heroes’ Day, April 28; Labour Day, May 1; Whit Monday, June 9; Emancipation Day, August 1 ; Kadooment Day, August 4; Independence Day, November 30; Christmas Day, December 25; Boxing Day, December 26

 

Bajan spirit

The people of Barbados are unique in the Caribbean. They have a special self-reliance, a spirit of innovation bred, no doubt, by surviving centuries of slavery in such a small place. The best way to understand this spirit is to take a break from the usual tourist activities, spend some time chatting with ordinary Bajans, listen to their yarns, told in their unmistakable clipped-consonant accent.

Wayne Johnson describes himself as an airbrush artist. He visits a few hotels and invites guests to describe what they’d like painted on a t-shirt, then he goes home and executes it for the next day. He’s learned a lot since he started. It’s not challenging, he says, not as much as his “real work,” which is painting murals, signs and scenery. But it pays the bills, and is going to help build his studio in a year’s time. He likes doing the airbrush stuff, especially when customers gawk over how realistic his depictions of their desires are; but it is only the pathway to his real calling as an artist, he feels, and though he’s not there yet, he is determined to keep plodding on.

The man at the side of the road is dreaming his big dreams just as you once did. Circumstances do not always proffer the means to chase a dream, but it’s always fascinating to follow the trail.

 

One night, a sudden shower cut short a walk, and as I sheltered under the eave of a shuttered store, I struck up a conversation with Ronnie, a vendor of necklaces and bracelets. I’d offered to help him carry his merchandise to the safety of the awning, but he demurred, insisting that he could manage. “Where do you get your stuff?” I asked, curious about the origins of this intriguing array of coral and other stones. He said he travelled sometimes to other places, and selected whatever caught his eye. He’d bring it back and take it apart to understand its structure. Then he’d use the technique to assemble his own tasteful designs.

“I want my stuff to be different,” he said. By day he was a craftsman, and at night he was the marketer and salesman of his pieces. He was full of raw energy: talking about the perpetual struggle to vend on the streets, in direct competition with big stores.

“We have to make a living too,” he said. “What I am doing here is creating something special and unique. You can’t buy my designs in a store.” One day, he mused, his designs would be world famous.

This is one of the striking things about the Barbadian psyche: the ability to conceptualise on a grand scale. Striking because of the small size of the island, but understandable when you consider the long link with the England of empire. Who else but a Barbadian could have sent that reassuring telegram to the Mother Country on the brink of war, urging her to push on, as Barbados was behind her?

 

The determination of Philip Als and Nils Mannerstedt to enter this year’s Atlantic Rowing Challenge is a case in point. Philip is Barbadian, while Niels, originally from Sweden, has lived here for 12 years. They plan to enter this October’s race from Tenerife to Barbados, and with a mountain of obstacles in their way, they are calmly preparing to take on the gruelling challenge. This is the race’s third year, and the record is just over 41 days, though most teams take closer to 100 to complete the 3,000-mile course. Since the race ends at Barbados, the two novices have confidently called their preparation campaign “Team Rowing Home 2003”.

It’s remarkable to feel their confidence even as they recount their hurdles. This is just another of Barbados’s grand ambitions.

 

Some Barbadian highlights

Natural wonders

  • Andromeda Gardens
  • Flower Forest
  • Folkestone Park & Marine Reserve
  • Graeme Hall Bird Sanctuary
  • Harrison’s Cave
  • Joe’s River Tropical Rain Forest
  • Turner’s Hall Woods
  • Welchman Hall Gully

Bajan products

  • Banks (Barbados) Breweries Ltd
  • Malibu Beach Club & Visitor’s Centre
  • The Mount Gay Rum Visitor’s Centre
  • The Rum Distillery & Heritage Park

Historic sites

  • The Barbados Museum & Historical Society
  • Francia Plantation
  • Garrison Historic Area
  • George Washington House
  • Gun Hill Signal Station
  • Jewish Synagogue
  • Morgan Lewis Mill
  • National Trust Open House Programme
  • Sam Lord’s Castle
  • St Nicholas Abbey
  • Sunbury Plantation House
  • Trafalgar Square
  • Tyrol Cot

Parks and zoos

  • Barbados Wildlife Reserve & Grenade Hall Forest & Signal Station
  • Bathsheba
  • Barclays Park
  • Bath Beach
  • Farley Hill National Park
  • King George V Memorial Park
  • Queen’s Park
  • River Bay
  • Three Houses Park

Special tours

  • Atlantis Submarines (B’dos) Inc
  • Highland Adventure Land
  • Johnson’s Tours (B’dos) Ltd
  • Ultimate Outback Tours
  • Island Safari Barbados Ltd
  • Springvale Eco-Heritage Museum & Tour

 

Barbados: the facts

The island

Twenty-one miles long and 14 across at its widest, Barbados lies about 80 miles east of the volcanic Windward chain, a coral island jutting out into the Atlantic. Mt Hillaby, at 1,104 feet, is its loftiest point; the landscape is basically gently rolling countryside, much of it still covered with lush cane fields and dotted with picturesque villages. The supposed resemblance to the English countryside, plus some Bajans’ more-British-than-the-queen manners, account for the island’s two chief nicknames: Little England and Bimshire.

History

• First settled, more than 1,500 years ago, by Amerindians.

• Portuguese sailors were the first Europeans to visit the island; they named it for the bearded fig trees they saw growing along the beaches.

• The first English settlers arrived in 1627 and found the island uninhabited; no one knows why it had been abandoned by its Amerindian natives.

• The House of Assembly — the third oldest legislative body in the western hemisphere — was founded in 1639.

• From the 1650s to the 20th century, sugar was king of Barbados; the island was long dominated by wealthy white planters.

• Over the last half-century tourism has replaced sugar as Barbados’s main industry.

• Barbados became independent in 1966. The British monarch is the head of state, represented by a governor-general.

The people

With a population of 265,000, Barbados is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Most of its citizens today are descendents of the Africans brought in during slavery to work the sugar plantations. The deep racial divisions which were colonialism’s most pernicious legacy have been largely bridged; black, white and mixed Barbadians live and play comfortably together, celebrating the unique Bajan culture they have in common.

Getting there

BWIA West Indies Airways operates daily flights to Barbados from North America, Europe and the Caribbean. Contact BWIA for current schedules:

North America and the Caribbean: 1-800-538-2942

UK: 20-8577-1100

Airport

Grantley Adams International Airport is 11 miles from the capital, Bridgetown. Taxis have fixed fares from the airport to major hotels and into town. Car rental services are available at the airport, in Bridgetown, and along the south coast. A local driving permit is necessary (US$5). Drive on the left, please.

• Departure tax for visits over 24 hours: US$12.50 (Bds $25)

Climate

Tropical; average temperature of 29°C. Rainy season from June to December.

Currency

Barbados dollar (Bds$1.98=US$1 approximately). Major credit cards are widely accepted.

Language

English, with an unmistakable accent that sounds part Scottish, part Irish.

Taxes

There is a 15% VAT on goods and services. At hotels and restaurants, VAT is 7.5%, with a service charge of 10%.

Time

Atlantic Standard Time (EST+1, GMT-4)

Utilities

• Electricity 110v/50 cycles

• Telecommunications include international direct dialling, credit card calling, phonecards, cellular phones and pagers; international access code 246.

BWIA West Indies Airways

Sunjet House, Fairchild Street, Bridgetown; tel.: (800) 538-2942.

Barbados Tourism Authority

Tel.: (246) 427-2623

Barbados Hotel & Tourism Association

Tel.: (246) 426-5041