“The roads,” insisted my aunt Hyacinth, who has lived in Barbados for more than 30 years. “Don’t forget to say what good roads we have.”
Well, I thought- though far too polite to disagree aloud- that doesn’t sound like a very exciting subject. It’s certainly not what brings visitors to Barbados in droves. Shouldn’t she be rhapsodizing about the talcum-powder beaches, the translucent turquoise seas, the spiffy resorts that are the last word in luxury? Surely that’s what Barbados is all about?
As it turned out, Aunt Hyacinth was right, though not the way she meant it. Roads are a big deal in Barbados. The island is only 21 miles long and 14 miles wide, yet it boasts over 900 miles of road. A cursory glance at Barbados touring map shows a tangle of roadways guaranteed to lose even the most navigationally-minded visitor.
There’s a reason for this. It seems that in days past, the big sugar estates all built their own roads to transport their produce to Bridgetown, staying as much as possible within their own parishes. That’s why, in Barbados, it’s virtually impossible to get directly from A to B – unless A happens to stand for Anywhere and B for Bridgetown, the island’s capital, from which all the major arteries radiate.
On the road
All this must make road maintenance a major headache for the authorities; but for the visitor, it makes Barbados an adventure. Not the Jungle Book type of adventure that one might expect of a tropical island (though don’t be surprised if a curious monkey drops down in front of your car on a country road: they’re sufficiently numerous here to be considered pests by local farmers). But rather, a gentle adventure: a pleasantly uncertain feeling of not knowing quite where you are or where you’re heading, but that it can’t be all that far from where you started out.
This fact, added to the douceur of the countryside, makes Barbados ideal touring territory. Much of the island consists of mildly rolling terrain, covered with sugar cane or pasture land, and dotted with tiny picturesque villages. Because most of the original rain forest was long ago stripped away to facilitate the
cultivation of cane, the island landscape seems almost Wordsworthian in nature: an English pastoral painting done in tropical hues. Was it just a coincidence, one wonders, that Barbados’s sole colonisers, from 1627 until 1966, were the British; or did the island somehow remind them of home? It comes as no surprise that the only region that could be described as rugged – sharp hills, deep ravines – is known as the Scotland District.
The highest point in Barbados is Mt. Hillaby, 1,116feet (336 metres) above sea level: from its summit, you can see both the east and west coasts of the island. Similar panoramic views can be had from Cherry Tree Hill, or from the lovely Farley Hill National Park, its burnt-out mansion a monumental ruined hulk in the background.
If you’re seeking drama, the north-east coast is the place: cliffs and caves and huge seething seas, great flat tableaux washed by the waves, tumbled boulders and blowholes spouting like whales. Here, the Atlantic shows in no uncertain terms that it is not a force to be trifled with: it’s a wholly different animal from the serene Caribbean on Barbados’s celebrated west coast. Gazing eastwards out to sea, with nothing but water between oneself and Africa, it’s suddenly easy to understand the terrible immensity that faces the sailor – and to feel a strange, indescribable pang.
Because of the wild desolateness of the northern cliffs, it is not possible to drive along the coastline in this region; if you’re in a car, you must make a series of loops and backtracks. One of me most spectacular vistas is to be found at North Point, which is also the site of the Animal Flower Cave, a popular tourist attraction. A natural sea-cave carved out of the limestone by relentless wave action, its shallow rock pools were once home to colonies of large anemones (“animal flowers”). Most are now defunct, though an effort at rehabilitation is under way. The caves themselves, however, are dramatic, and they offer an intriguing, almost eye-level perspective of the angry seas that beat just below – so close, indeed, that at high tide some of the caves are flooded.
Other memorable views can be had at River Bay, where a deep inlet of sea runs like a finger between steep cliffs, forming calm pools ideal for bathing, while outside in the bay the waves crash dangerously; and at Little Bay, with its blowholes and rocky bathtubs and the needle point of Pico Teneriffe looming in the distance.
You just have to figure out how to get there. There’s actually an alternative to murdering your road map – one which offers quite unexpected rewards. It is a mistake to assume that the island’s multitudinous roads are strictly for cars. Read on!
Rolling, rolling, rolling …
Ever thought of biking in Barbados? The fact is, mountain bikes are an ideal way to traverse the cliff tops. I am not what the French would call sportif; in fact I loathe most physical exercise with a passion. But I have to admit that of all the experiences I had in Barbados, this was the one I enjoyed the most. There is an amazing feeling of liberation that comes from swooping down a deserted country road under your own steam, waving triumphantly to small children and indifferent cows as you go by.
I was lucky to hook up with Robert Quintyne, the young founder and chief guide of Irie Mountain Bikes; we decided on a tour of St Lucy, Barbados’s northernmost parish. The 7.30 a.m. pickup had me cringing (but then, my Coke and cookies for breakfast made him cringe); however, all was forgiven once we mounted our bikes outside St Lucy’s Church and glided off down a long gentle incline.
Then came the interesting part: off the paved roads, and cross-country along dirt tracks and footpaths and cow pastures, emerging at the seeming end of the world, where the long Atlantic rollers dashed themselves on the rocks far below. We passed a small lighthouse; stopped at a spot called Duppies (a local word for evil spirits) where “strange things happen,” I was informed solemnly. We rested at the Animal Flower Cave, then continued south along the cliff tops, with a lone, soaring osprey as our guide.
The four-hour tour ended with a (health-conscious) picnic on a point overlooking Gay’s Cove, across from Pico Teneriffe with its white striated flanks of exposed clay. Sitting under the coconut trees in this sublimely uninhabited spot, it was difficult even to recall the Barbados that most tourists would recognise: the resorts of the wild west coast, the go-go nightlife of St Lawrence Gap, the bustle of Bridgetown. It seemed like a wholly different world.
Who, when and where
In a sense, a whole different world is exactly what Barbados has always been, at least since the start of recorded – which is to say, colonial – history. Some quip that Columbus missed the island altogether because it was so flat; others point out that because Barbados lies to the east of the Caribbean archipelago, in the teeth of the prevailing winds, it was a difficult island to attack, in that era of sailing ships.
Whatever the reason, the fact is that Barbados enjoyed an unusually stable history of colonisation. While most of the other Caribbean islands were changing hands like dice, Barbados remained staunchly British for almost three and a half centuries. Of course, the Amerindians had inhabited the island for the previous 1,000 years; however, by the time the first English settlers arrived in 1627 (some years behind a group of Portuguese, who had named the island Los Barbados after the bearded fig trees which at the time were plentiful, then left), these indigenous people were long gone – where and why is anyone’s guess.
The English found an island utterly deserted except for wild pigs left behind by the Portuguese: a tabula rasa perfect for the imprinting of British names, customs and values. Which was done very effectively – with the result that Barbados was often referred to as “Little England”. The name was often used disparagingly; yet it also carries a sense of something steady and level-headed, something honest and honourable, that is in fact quite appropriate to the island, even today.
If Barbados has proved fecund with regard to sugar cane, it seems to have been even more so in matters of population. Its 430 sq. kms of surface area currently house more than 260,000 “Bajans”, withadensity of about 600 people per square kilometer. But since almost half of the population clusters around Bridgetown, the rest of the island seems staggeringly uncrowded – a landscape of expansive plantations and intermittent little villages.
Bridgetown, by contrast, rather gives one the feeling of peering down into a microscope: there seems an awful lot of activity happening in a fairly small space. People, cars, vendors’ kiosks, even the odd dray cart complete with scrawny nag. Bridgetown bustles: there’s no other word for it. Loiterers seem virtually unknown here.
Visitors head for the grands magasins of Broad Street, with their sophisticated goods and duty-free shopping; locals converge on bazaar-like Swan Street, where hucksters’ booths have banished cars from the area, and everything from leatherwork to fresh pineapples can be bought or sold.
A deep inlet of sea called the Constitution River (its lower reaches are known as the Careenage) cuts the city in two (hence Bridgetown’s bridges); most of the action happens on me norm bank. It is here that you will find the nee-gothic Parliament Building, built in 1872 after the last of the many Great Fires that have ravaged the capital over the centuries (very few buildings in Bridgetown pre-date 1845). Across from me legislature is the city’s best-known landmark: Trafalgar Square, with its famous statue of Lord Nelson which pre-dates its London counterpart by 36 years (little wonder that Barbados was described as being “more English than England sheself”). The statue seems strangely stranded in the middle of the busiest intersection on the island.
Bridgetown offers some pleasant strolling, so long as you’re not worried about where you are. You may chance upon St Michael’s Cathedral, and wonder how something so massive could actually hide in the middle of such a crowded city. Through some trick of perspective, you don’t see the structure until you’re almost upon it. Also unexpected – in more ways than one – is the recently-restored Jewish synagogue, a pleasant pink building tucked away down a tiny street, with ancient broken gravestones lying in a periwinkle-bespattered courtyard. (Fleeing Brazil, the Jews arrived in Barbados in the late 1600s, drawn by Oliver Cromwell’s promise of freedom of worship. Their original synagogue was one of the first in the western hemisphere. )
My own favourite moment in Bridgetown was coming upon a sign in an alleyway that read “Don’t even think of parking here”; there was a car parked right beside it.
Across the Constitution River and slightly out of town lies the historic Garrison area: in colonial days this was the largest military garrison in the Caribbean. The former parade ground is now the racecourse, but the Defence Force still occupies St Anne’s Fort. The Guard House, bearing the coat of arms of King George III, houses the National Ordnance Collection, which boasts the largest collection of 17th-century English iron cannons in the world. The oldest gun in the collection – and the only one of its kind known to exist – is an Elizabethan cannon cast in 1597; the most famous is one bearing Cromwell’s coat of arms (the only other one in existence is in the Tower of London).
Also in the Garrison area is the Barbados Museum, formerly a military prison. Though small, the museum is well laid out and extremely informative. It offers exhibits of natural history, Amerindian and colonial artifacts, ancient maps and charts, 19th-century prints, a collection of horse- and hand-drawn wheeled vehicles, and a room dedicated to children. The print room is notable for its amazing antique shell bouquets: thousands of tiny seashells assembled to look like flowers. Another point of interest is the prison cell, which offers fascinating information on the diet of former military prisoners: meat only figured in the long term sentences.
And in all …
There’s no lack of ways to keep busy in Barbados (see below). Tourism is what the island has concentrated on for the last 25 years, and it shows; there is professionalism at every level, as well as the gentle courtesy that seems to come naturally to these particular islanders. A number of festivals liven up the year (Crop Over, the Bajan version of Carnival, is the best-known). The sporting calendar is also fairly crowded.
But when all is said and done – Aunt Hyacinth notwithstanding – what you’re really here for is the beaches: that indescribable sand, that breeze, that water nonpareil. West coast or east, the sea is what Barbados is really all about. Lie back and enjoy it to the fullest.
UP, DOWN, AND SIDEWAYS
Of course, surface routes are not the only way to see Barbados. This is an island that can be viewed from any number of angles. Visitors, after all, must be entertained, and Barbadians have developed this into a fine art. It is possible to see Barbados from above (by helicopter), from below (via subterranean caves), underwater (by submarine) or above water (on a “party cruise”). You can even get an animal’s-eye view (or a view of another part of the animal’s anatomy) … but why spoil the surprise?
My kingdom for a cushion
Ever wondered why all those cowboy movies were called Rawhide? It’s what you have after spending a couple of hours on the back of a horse. Also, extremely wobbly knees. Despite these drawbacks, the equine trek offered by Highland Outdoor Tours does qualify as fun. Accomplished riders will find it a fascinating way to enjoy the hills and gullies and expansive vistas of the lovely Scotland District; novices like myself will wonder how it is that a horse doubles in size the moment you get on its back.
My tour (the “short” one) took us across rolling pastures where Jamaican Red and African Black cows gazed at us placidly, then down into a deep wooded ravine that suddenly gave the impression of wildest jungle. Up again through the canefields, with a glimpse of ancient slave huts in the distance, and finally back past Mount Misery (an appropriate name, I thought, shifting gingerly in my saddle), to return to our starting point in the golden afternoon sunshine. I was deeply thankful for my guide, a young man named Cat, who held my horse’s lead rope in a firm grip, and distracted me with the names of every tree and shrub along the way, as well as their medicinal qualities.
Up and away
The things I do for Little England! Is this really me, tilting upward in a bubble of plexiglass, while Bridgetown falls away beneath?
The rotor thuds steadily overhead as my helicopter skims above the coast. My ears are popping, but here’s the biggest surprise – I’m not afraid (yet). Far below, the sugar cane fields spread out like green carpets, houses and cars become toys and out to sea the fishing boats resemble pea-pods. Suddenly we are swooping over Chalky Mount, its jagged edges reaching upward like hungry white teeth, then back over the water, where the immensity of the ocean merges into the sky.
All too soon, my tour with Bajan Helicopters is over: 20 spectacular minutes is all it takes for a bird’s eye view of most of the island – a 30-minute tour covers it completely. (Now, with any luck, I’ll never have to go up in anything smaller than a jumbo jet for the rest of my life! )
Full fathom five …
Jacques Cousteau, move over, we’re coming down. Here was another act of faith: allowing myself to be sealed into a submarine to descend 130 feet below the surface of the sea.
It did help a bit to learn that Atlantis 2 had already completed 21,500 dives – more than any other submersible in the world. The battery-powered 50-foot vessel also comes equipped with a reassuring range of safety equipment and procedures, to soothe the nervous.
A motor launch shuttled passengers to the rendezvous point, a mile or so off the west coast. A seething circle of foam boiled on the surface; then, out of the depths, Atlantis 2 rose up, shedding water from its back like a duck. We boarded, took our seats in the six- foot-wide cabin, then drifted down, gentle as a dream.
Outside the portholes, flecks of seaweed and tiny silver fish came into view, followed by the dark bulk of a sunken ship (“Originally this was a water-carrying barge,” quipped our co-pilot; “it still is.”) Feathery plume corals, basket sponges, schools of horseye jacks – everything bathed in blue, for the rays of the sun barely penetrate this deep. Only when the submarine switched on its exterior floodlights did the vivid colours of the waterworld become evident – reds and oranges, grey-greens and purple.
If you’re not up to scuba diving (my own preference), the Atlantis submarine offers a great way to experience a truly unimaginable world. If, on the other hand, you prefer not to think about 130 feet of water over your head, several companies operate semi-submersibles, where you sit in a cabin just below the surface of the water, while the rest of the boat stays above.
And, if your love of the marine environment stops at the waterline, you might want to consider one of the so-called “party cruises”, aboard the Jolly Roger (a pirate theme) or the Bajan Queen (no theme, just party). These offer pleasant views of the Barbadian coastline – including (from a distance) the fronts of the exclusive resorts and luxury villas along the St James coast. For a quiet sail along the coast with a few friends or a small group, Nick Parker of Tiami runs two 60-foot catamarans.
The Barbados Wildlife resort is a great place to go if you have kids. While not very large (four acres), this mahogany woodland offers a welcome sanctuary for a number of wild animals, some native to Barbados, some not.
The star attractions are the green monkeys, originally from Africa but now, it would seem, all too at home in Barbados. Locals consider them a nuisance, since they decimate precious fruit trees with simian enthusiasm; but, for most tourists, they’re quite a thrill. The reserve gives visitors the opportunity to observe these playful primates in “the wild”, so to speak, since the monkeys are not caged, and scamper freely up and down the trees.
Various other fauna inhabit the reserve. Timid brocket deer that follow you at a distance, reversing conventional roles; gloom-faced pelicans standing like statues as you approach; strutting peacocks and brilliant macaws; pink flamingoes posing like lawn ornaments in a shallow pool. My personal favourite was the chunky red-footed Barbadian tortoise which I met stumping determinedly down the reserve’s yellow brick road, clearly on its way to the Emerald City. While these reptiles were once plentiful in Barbados, there are now more of them in the reserve than on the rest of the island.
If plants are your passion, the Flower Forest at Richmond will seem a dream come true. Several acres of former plantation land (note the huge copper vats used for boiling sugar, in the reception lobby) have been transformed into a tropical Garden of Eden. A profusion of exotic trees, shrubs and flowers crowd a well-marked system of pathways. Most are fairly common to the Caribbean: hibiscus, allamands, heliconia, bougainvillea, ixora, ginger lilies, frangipani …
What impresses most is their luxuriance, and the sheer visual impact of so many brilliant flowers (not to mention their fragrances) in close proximity. Benches are scattered at reasonable intervals, and several vantage points offer enticing views of the surrounding countryside.
Another type of botanical experience can be had at the Grenade Hall Forest, which is adjacent to (and managed by) the Barbados Wildlife Reserve. The forest features many of the medicinal trees and plants traditionally used by local village healers. Winding pathways lead into its depths. On a nearby rise a 19th-century signal station has been restored to its original condition and offers a panoramic prospect from its upper windows.
. . . And a journey to the centre of the earth (almost)
Were it not for the fact that the ancient Greeks were hardly likely to take a tram into Hades, one could easily describe the descent into Harrison’s Cave as a mythical experience. Jules Verne would have loved this place. In reality, you are no more than 160 feet below the ground; but it takes very little to imagine that you are almost at the centre of the earth.
More than 500,000 years old, Harrison’s Cave was only opened to the public about 15 years ago. These interconnecting limestone caverns feature spectacular formations of stalactites, stalagmites and “flow-stone” (a dazzling white rock formation resembling liquefied marble). Subterranean streams flow everywhere, sometimes gathering into small lakes. There is even an underground waterfall.
And when, for a few seconds, the lights go off, you understand the true meaning of darkness.
Even the ancient Greeks would have been impressed.
RESTAURANTS AND NIGHTSPOTS
The moon rises over the cliff – or should that be The Cliff? Both, actually. Moon or no moon, The Cliffs star is rising as well. This stylish new west-coast restaurant is the place to dine in Barbados right now – and for good reason. The chef is accomplished, the decor pleasing, and the atmosphere unbeatable.
Designed as a series of terraces overlooking the sea, The Cliff’s accoutrements are deceptively simple in their elegance. Cut-out copper flambeaux flare against the night sky: candelabras resemble the gnarled branches of trees.
Of course, The Cliff is not the only haute cuisine eating-place in Barbados. Other restaurants in the same class include La Cage aux Folies, a long established favourite; Pisces, renowned for its fine seafood; La Maison, serving classical French cuisine; and Orchids, new on the scene but fast building a reputation for superb food.
Easing up a little on the (growing) budget, Brown Sugar- just outside Bridgetown – offers an excellent lunchtime buffet. The St Lawrence Gap (“gap” is the Barbadian name for a short street), in Christ Church, offers numerous dining choices: the Italian fare of the Trattoria Bellini; the laid-back atmosphere of Tapps; and the cheerful Mexican ambience of the Cafe Sol, where a giant burrito stuffed with tasty shrimp is as good a casual meal as you’ll find anywhere.
The St Lawrence Gap is the main nerve-centre of Barbados night-life. Jazz can sometimes be found at Masquerade; “roots” music at the Reggae Lounge; and a variety of live local bands at After Dark (with its 75-foot bar) and the Ship Inn. Closer to Bridgetown, the young and the restless can head to the very popular Boatyard, an indoor-outdoor beach bar that’s always lively; or to nearby Harbour Lights, where casuarina trees grow out of the open-air dance-floor, and a live band on Friday nights keeps things hopping.
THE MOTHER OF INVENTION
Native ingenuity seems to be a staple ingredient of the Barbadian make-up: a hybrid of necessity and inventiveness. Consider dripstones, for example, a system of stacked pots carved out of coral limestone and used, in colonial days, to filter water. They worked so well that for a while they were even exported to neighbouring islands. Many can still be seen at various old plantation houses around the island.
And where else are you likely to encounter the game of road tennis? This is a uniquely Barbadian sport. Essentially, it is table tennis, but it is played (no doubt because a proper table was an unattainable luxury for many) on a 24″ x 10″ court marked out on the roadway. The bats are large wooden paddles, the balls are “skinned” tennis balls, the players are youthful and strong-kneed. What no doubt began as a makeshift children’s game has evolved into a national sport: there are road tennis clubs and official championship matches.
But for a truly outstanding example of Bajan ingenuity, a demonstration of that sturdy, stoic determination to overcome adversity that characterises the nation, nothing beats the chattel house. “Take up thy bed and walk,” Christ is reputed to have told the the man he healed at Bethesda; in Barbados, he might well have said, “Take up thy house and walk.” Based on a philosophy that falls somewhere between that of a snail and that of a desert nomad, the Barbados labouring class has over the ages developed a dwelling to suit its lifestyle: a moveable house or, literally, a chattel. (The sweet Bajan lilt somehow manages to sneak the hint of an “r” into “chattel” – coming up, charmingly, with a “charttel house”.)
A chattel house is a small, gable-roofed, wooden structure built upon loose bricks or higgledv-piggledy chunks of limestone. Its walls (a pre-determined length, thanks to the pre-cut imported pine that facilitated its development) come apart as units. When a plantation labourer needed to move in search of a new job, he would simply knock the corner joints loose, pile his wall flats onto a cart (or nowadays a truck), and head off to his new homestead.
Most chattel houses are painted in jaunty colours, many boast charming little grace notes of fretwork and fanlights, bell-shaped window hoods and fanciful pedimented porches. Chattel houses are everywhere in Barbados. Even the newer houses – those with permanent foundations – are adopting their architectural style, in homage to a truly distinctive aspect of the nation’s heritage.
BEST- KEPT SECRETS
On an island visited by almost a million tourists a year (roughly half of these are stayovers, while the rest are cruise ship transients), one would hardly expect that there could be any secrets left. However, the vast majority of visitors disport themselves in a few well-defined areas (the west and southwest coasts, basically), leaving much of the island surprisingly unspoiled. If you’re looking for something different, here, in my humble estimate, are Barbados’s best-kept secrets.
Heard of it? Not the Florida version, with all those art deco hot-spots, but its stunningly beautiful Barbadian namesake, just outside the south-shore fishing port of Oistins.
You won’t find Miami Beach on any map – it’s a local nickname. Officially, it is known as Enterprise Coast Road. Nor will you, miraculously, find any hotels there whatsoever, just a handful of cottages fronting the seashore, with a row of feathery casuarina trees in the foreground. The beach itself rivals anything the west coast has to offer: dazzling white sand, silken seas – the casuarinas even offer shade! Accommodation prices are eminently affordable. It’s possible to find a two-bedroom apartment for as little as US$60 per day- and that’s in the high season. Undiscovered by most tourists, Miami Beach is a favourite with the local population.
Ah, blissful Bathsheba. In this east-coast fishing village, time seems almost to have stopped in its tracks. It is hard to believe that this sleepy little town was once served by train. Carriage-loads of merrymakers would descend on Bathsheba on Bank Holidays, picnic baskets crammed for the day’s excursion. Today, hardly a cat seems to drift down its dusty main street. This is a place where the only choice of activities seems to be surfing (international championships are held here) or lazing (I’m happy with the latter).
The Bathsheba coastline encourages contemplation. It is breathtakingly beautiful. Huge rock formations hover just offshore, undercut by the thundering waves that make the area a surfer’s mecca. It is easy to picture oneself renting one of the inexpensive little beach houses that line the coast road, and spending the entire day leaning back in an easy chair, feet propped high on the balcony railings. And who needs to cook, with the pleasant Bonito Restaurant right next door, its wooden shutters rattling in the breeze?
There are two small hotels in the area, both very reasonably priced (US$55-75 for a standard double room, high season). One of them, the Atlantis, has the distinction of being the oldest hotel in Barbados. It also has a reputation for some of the best local food to be found on the island.
Crane Beach Hotel
A very personal note. If ever I won the lottery, this hotel would be my first choice in Barbados. Blending old-world elegance with a true sense of style, this 18th-century mansion (and even its newer additions) offers genuine class. Where else will you find brilliant white Doric columns rising out of an azure pool, or a scattering of wonderful bronze statues gracing the grounds? And where else in Barbados will you find a hotel with such a dramatic view? Far from the madding west-coast crowd, the Crane is perched high on the cliffs of the south-east. A path leads down the gentler side to a stunning Atlantic beach, while around the headland huge coral boulders lie in a tumbled mass. Barbados’s first resort, the Crane was established in an age when a vacation was something that would last for months. Spending a few months here wouldn’t be hard.