Barbados: Getting into the island spirit

By Jennifer Grimwade

Jennifer Grimwade investigates some rum goings-on in the Caribbean island of Barbados.

Barbados, the most easterly island in the West Indies, is the closest Caribbean island to Britain. Perhaps that's why it's called Little England. Photo / Peter Scott
Barbados, the most easterly island in the West Indies, is the closest Caribbean island to Britain. Perhaps that's why it's called Little England. Photo / Peter Scott

Little England. It's hard to understand why Barbados has such a nickname, for today the similarities seem few and far between. Perhaps it is because Barbados is the most easterly island in the West Indies, the closest Caribbean island to Britain.

Maybe it is called Little England as it is the only island to be colonised by just one nation, and what's more, when the English arrived in 1625, no one was living there.

There's no doubt the rugged East Atlantic coast looks a little like Scotland, especially because it is not inundated by big hotels and mass tourism. But nowhere in Britain looks like the west coast with its spectacular turquoise sea and snow-white beaches bordered by trees dripping with mangos.

As you travel just 22.5km across Barbados, the rolling green hills with spectacular coastal views feature massive sugar crops and Bajans (or Barbadians) toiling to harvest the crop by hand. The English introduced sugar to Barbados in 1637 and for centuries it was king. Today, tourism rules the roost and most Barbadians are descended from Africans enslaved to the sugar plantations.

At first, sugar cane was solely for producing rum. Drinking rum is quintessential to life in Barbados, where they say, "if you've got the time, I've got the rum".

No tourist should miss a visit to the Mount Gay Rum distillery in the heart of the capital, Bridgetown.

Mount Gay rum is blended and bottled here, so don't get overexcited when you realise you are surrounded by 700,000 litres of the pungent liquid.

Besides watching a quite entertaining video, visitors see the distillation, sniff the rum of various ages and learn to appreciate single and double blending. The tour culminates with a good-sized taste of Extra Old Mount Gay rum.

Nearby is the famous, sacred Kensington Oval. Coconut fronds peek over the top of the Sir Garfield Sobers pavilion shading fans from all over the West Indies attending a test cricket match. When Brian Lara hits a six, the fans leap to their feet, beat drums and blow whistles and trumpets. Polite hand-clapping just wouldn't do the game justice.

They're nearly as noisy at the annual gospelfest. Dressed to the nines in full evening gear, the Bajans (Barbadians) are on their feet for nearly the entire concert. They clap, they sing, they swing their hips, they even rock their babies in time to the music.

Although the English divided predominantly Christian Barbados into 11 parishes, today more than 100 religions are practised on the island.

The parish churches are another lovely legacy left by the English. St John's, originally built in 1645 and rebuilt several times, overlooks the Atlantic. Pink, yellow and orange knobbled old frangipanis smell delicious, doves coo and the sea breeze rattles the coconut fronds.

Another fine British legacy are the grand old plantation houses protected by the Barbados National Trust.

Built in 1660, with walls 63cm thick, every room in the Sunbury Plantation House is open to visitors. It is a fine example of how grand life was for the rich colonists.

The broad collection of colonial relics tells many stories, such as the trap to catch mongooses introduced to devour, successfully, all the snakes on Barbados.

The traditional Bajan house, the chattle house is truly enchanting. Like a gingerbread house, chattle houses are invariably painted in bright colours. Their design dates back to the days when slaves could only own their house and not their land.

Chattle houses, or "movable possession" can be dismounted and reassembled in another location, usually on a Sunday.

Equally traditional and enchanting are the island's 1600 rum shops. Beer may be on the agenda, but rum, rum and more rum is served by the fliptop bottle with a plastic bowl of ice and a water or softdrink chaser.

At the rum shop, if you're not discussing the cricket, you may be "slamming some doms", playing dominoes. Patrons may order a simple traditional meal, two or three flying fish and "cou cou", a stodgy mix of cornmeal and okra.

At the weekends, the locals enjoy an outdoor seaside feast of fish from one of the numerous temporary stalls at Oistins. Tourists tend to dine on international cuisine at restaurants such as Jambalayas in the hip strip at St Lawrence Gap.

Propelled by Planters Punch after dinner, Jambalayas' timber floor rocks as holidaymakers jive to loud salsa. Cowbells ring out through shutters open to the cool tropical evening air.

But who cares if they keep the neighbours awake?

For this entire neighbourhood is lined with restaurants, bars and clubs.

On the first night I'm offered marijuana, the second something far more personal and I feel like I could be in any nightclub in the world.

CHECKLIST

Getting around: Taxis are expensive - rates are displayed at the airport. For sightseeing try Emerson Clarke, taxi service (phone 228 6192 on arrival). Local buses are a cheap alternative.

Shopping: The heart and soul of shopping in Barbados is Broad St in the capital city, Bridgetown. There you will find several large department stores and duty free shops. In addition to the speciality stores (such as jewellery stores), there are several shopping malls offering a variety of products and services. Tax-free shopping is a bonus.

Things to see and do:

Harrison's Cave: a gallery of stalactites hanging from the roof of the cave, and stalagmites surrounded by streams of crystal-clear water that drop from spectacular waterfalls to form deep emerald pools.

Jacobean Mansions: Built in the 1650s, Barbados is the home of two of the three remaining "Jacobean Mansions" left in the Western Hemisphere.

Morgan Lewis Mill: This is one of the only two intact and restored sugar mills in the Caribbean. It includes equipment used to produce sugar at the time when the industry was run by windpower.

Where to stay: Sandy Beach Island Resort is close to the centre of town, fronts one of the best beaches on the island and is well run with a good variety of accommodation.

Further information: See barbados.org.

- NZ Herald

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