September 1, 2014

An Island Apart

A favorite story from my most recent trip to Barbados? It would have to be my visit to the 8 & 10 rum shop, a tiny place on the north side of the capital of Bridgetown. It's not hard to find a rum shop on this very civilized Caribbean outpost-at last count there were more than a thousand of them, bearing names like Dream Hill, Tookie's Mansion and Sip-a-While-which is only fitting since Barbados is the birthplace of rum. The first British settlers arrived here in 1627 to plant sugar plantations, and by 1642 Barbados was exporting a spirit distilled from molasses called "rumbullion." Gazillions of umbrella drinks have since followed.

I'd spent a pleasant hour or so sitting at the 8 & 10, chatting with the owner, a friendly guy name Ernest Battle, and his wife, Irene. I'd bought a bottle of Mt. Gay Extra Old and offered it around, so I'd made a lot of friends, and lost at least a half-dozen games of dominoes. As it came time to go, I was left wondering how the 8 & 10 rum shop got its name.

"Stick out your hands, Irene," Ernest Battle told his wife, then asked me: "How many fingers you see?"

I counted five on each hand. Then Battle held up his hands, each of which was minus a digit, thanks to wayward machetes when he used to work in the cane fields.

"I'm eight, she's 10," grinned Battle. "That's how folks know us."

I could've easily spent most of my time in Barbados sitting in rum shops, not so much for the rum-although it is exceptionally good-as for the easy camaraderie and stories like that one. But that would've meant missing out on the island's other charms: the fine beaches, the excellent food, the many relics of Barbados' colonial past. Barbados considers itself an island apart from the rest of the Caribbean, and that's not just because its geographic location pokes it way eastward into the Atlantic.

"It's a more civilized island," said John Mahoney, a Barbadan sculptor I met as he worked on the beach in front of the Sandy Lane Hotel & Golf Club, one of the most acclaimed resorts in the Caribbean, on the island's west coast. "Has a lot to do with the lingering British influence, but just as much to do with the fact that we're more educated, more cosmopolitan. The rest of the Caribbean people, they think we're a little uppity, but we have a right to be."

Civilization has its price. Sandy Lane, which re-opened last year after a three-year renovation, is surely one of the most expensive hotels on the planet. The cheapest room is $800 a night, and that's in the summer off-season. During the peak Christmas season, the Villa at Sandy Lane, a 7,300-square-foot enclave with five bedrooms, goes for $20,000 a night.

Compared to the quiet elegance of its west coast and the businesslike hum of Bridgetown, Barbados' south coast can be a rollicking and kinetic place where there's almost always something hopping. Especially come nighttime.

The main source of all the action-St. Lawrence Gap, or just the Gap as it's best known. This mile-long stretch of bars, nightclubs and restaurants offers a little something for everyone, from raucous beer 'n' rum joints and numerous live music venues, to elegant seaside enclaves where the haute cuisine rivals anything you'll find in the Caribbean. For a blow-out-all-the-stops dinner with romance galore, try the Restaurant at Southsea, where the candlelit terrace is just a coconut toss from the surf. Chef/owner Barry Taylor creates such dishes as macadamia-crusted barracuda filets and pan-seared snapper on basil linguine. The bar also stocks one of the most extensive selections of aged and premium rums in the tropics.

Street vendors along the Gap offer all kinds of temptations-rotis, barbecued chicken, skewered pork-at prices that are cheap, at least by Barbados standards. Things get cranking after about 10 p.m., when bands at popular hangouts like the Ship Inn and After Dark turn up the volume and send the pulsing beats of soca, salsa and reggae into the street.

If you're fortunate enough to be in Barbados on a Friday night, then you owe yourself a visit to Oistins. That's when the island's main fishing port sheds its six-day-a-week sleepy demeanor and transforms into Party Central. The drill: Gnosh your way through the dozens of food stands, making sure to try fried flying fish, the national dish of Barbados, along with the ubiquitous Bajan comfort food of macaroni and cheese. Open-air pavilions serve cold bottles of Banks beer, and the hottest island DJs are usually on hand to keep the tunes coming. Unlike the Gap, which tends to be touristy, Oistins is where locals gather, and it's not unusual to find big families pulling together picnic tables and holding homecomings by the sea.

While the south coast boasts its share of luxury lodgings, the typical hotels and resorts here are more modest than elsewhere on the island. Beaches along the south coast tend to be a bit rockier than on the west coast, and the water a little choppier. Still, there are plenty of broad white-sand stretches, good windsurfing and, when the wind is right, surfing.

The area around Six Cross Roads was once home to a number of great houses; the 300-year-old Sunbury Plantation, with its elegant Georgian furnishings, affords a stately glimpse of the island's colonial past. Just down the road, Sam Lord's Castle is high on the list of tourist attractions. Not so much a castle as it is an imposing 19th-century Georgian mansion, it was built by the buccaneer Samuel Hall Lord. According to popular legend, Lord used to lure unsuspecting ships into nearby Cobbler's Cove and then set about plundering them.

So widespread are the sugar-cane fields on Barbados that it's difficult to imagine what the island might have looked like before the advent of rum distilleries and big-time agriculture. But there are pockets, mostly in the north and east, that still offer glimpses of Barbados' wild nature. At Turners Hall Woods, a 50-acre patch of forest that has never been clear-cut, visitors can hike the steep paths and take in 100-foot locust trees. And just off Highway 2, Welchman Hall Gully offers a fascinating walk through one of the deep ravines that characterize much of the Barbados interior. At nearby Harrison's Cave, visitors ride a small train into the caverns, which are well-lit to highlight the eerie formations, waterfalls and underground lakes.

One of the island's more interesting historical sites is the restored signal tower at Gun Hill. A chain of six signal towers was built across Barbados by the British during the slave rebellion of 1816 to help troops communicate with each. Later they were used to monitor ship activity along the coasts. At the northern tip of the island, the Animal Flower Cave is a series of sea-level caverns eroded over the years by the sea. The "animal flowers" are really sea anemones that thrive in the craggy limestone pools. Just a short walk from the caverns is the Spout, which has lots of blowholes that draw ooohs and ahhs as the sea roars in with a fury.

From North Point south through the Atlantic Parishes, the coast provides one awe-inspiring vista after another, although access to the rocky shore often demands a fairly rigorous trek. Paul's Point is a good place to stop for a picnic. It looks out on Gay's Cove and, beyond it, the 240-foot-high Pico Teneriffe, a massive rock named by sailors from the Canary Islands, who thought it looked like a mountain on the island of Teneriffe.

One of the prime tourist activities on Barbados is church-hopping, and there's no shortage of charming old parishes to visit. Lovely little St. John's Church, with its sweeping views of the interior, was built in 1660 and then rebuilt after the hurricane of 1835. It still boasts its orginal pulpit, which was carved from six different kinds of wood.

And then there's St. James Church, the island's oldest, established in 1628. I took a pew in it one morning and studied the inscriptions on the wall, all monuments to the long-departed. One of them was erected by a wealthy twice-married Barbadan planter in the early 18th century. It so moved me (maybe because I was missing my wife, who didn't accompany on this particular trip) that I wrote the words in my notebook:

Sacred to the Memory of DAMES CHRISTIAN and JANE ABEL

Successively the CONSORTS of SIR JOHN-GAY ALLEYNE, Baronet; Women in whose Praise One must borrow no false Colouring from Flattery and, of whom, no Language can describe the Lofts! With the former he lived six and thirty years of unspeakable Felicity, and, but little more than fourteen with the latter; They, too ripe for Immortality, for longer continuance upon Earth; Such the mournful Erector of this Monument to the Instability of all human Enjoyments,

In silent Resignation to the Wisdom that ordains it must labour to endure.

It was so sad, so touching, that I had to leave St. James Church right away. I found solace at the nearest rum shop.

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