Barbados, Bajan Civility in the Caribbean Sun
By Lee Foster
Travelers, primarily from the United States, Britain, and Canada, choose the island of Barbados in growing numbers. Visitors savor the warm and sunny weather, plus the white coral sand beaches. Fine dining on seafood occurs at landmark restaurants, such as The Cliff, and at upscale resorts, epitomized by The Crane. The island of Barbados ranks as an outpost of the British legacy in the Caribbean sun. It is the easternmost land mass in the Caribbean.
The name Barbados came from early Portuguese navigators. They noted the strands of vegetation, or “beards,” hanging from the fig trees that dotted the shoreline of the island. The island became the “bearded” place.
Attractions of Barbados: What to Do and See
When venturing out from resorts, a tour of the island shows the solid British management of the place without interruption from 1624. Finally, Barbados finally declared independence in 1966.
Barbados played a critical role in the American Revolution. An impressionable 19-year-old surveyor named George Washington visited here for six weeks in 1751. What he learned, mainly, was that England’s overriding interest was its wealth from sugar and slave trading in the West Indies. For this reason, he later evaluated that England would not strenuously oppose the breakaway of the mainland colonies.
A visitor today can see the Changing of the Sentry, where British troops were housed. The ceremony takes place in front of the 1804 Main Guard House. Another appealing tour is a candlelight repast, called “Dinner with George Washington,” at the house the Washington family rented during George’s visit.
At the time of Washington’s visit, Barbados’s Bridgetown was fabulously wealthy. Barbados was the first island that traders from Europe and Africa found when sailing to the New World. As a result, London, Boston, and Bridgetown became the three main ports in the British Empire at the time.
Experience the beauty of this green island of manageable size (14 by 21 miles) on a one-day-drive around the perimeter. Engage a knowledgeable guide driving a car or small tour van. The rugged east coast boasts some of the freshest and cleanest air on earth, as winds blowing west from Africa hit the island. Due to the wind, few people inhabit the east coast. Dramatic rock formations dot the shore. A nature attraction known as Harrison’s Cave and a horticultural treasure called Hunte’s Gardens rank high on a must-see list in a circle-the-island outing.
Flying to Barbados
I flew to Barbados from San Francisco on American Airlines, going through Miami. As a result, I could check my bag in San Francisco and pick it up in Bridgetown.
Prepare for a long flight. Beyond the hours of flight from your home city to Miami (5 hours for me from San Francisco), it takes another four hours by air from Miami to Barbados. Barbados is south of Miami, but not too far to the east. Due to this, there are no further time zone changes.
Resorts in Barbados
The island has competent resorts at the upper end of each price category, meaning budget, moderate, and expensive. Furthermore, Airbnb is also catching on.
This was not my first trip to Barbados. On an earlier trip I had stayed at a cozy small lodging known as Cobbler’s Cove (www.cobblerscove.com) in the northwest corner of the island. I was happy to hear that Cobbler’s Cove was still flourishing.
On this trip I spent half my time at The Crane (www.thecrane.com), an example of a luxury time-share lodging. In contrast, I also stayed at the Hilton Barbados Resort (www.hiltonbarbadosresort.com), an expression of what a known brand can deliver.
The Crane is the epitome of one-of-a-kind high-end luxury. Each unit in my complex boasted a full kitchen, ample bedroom, and spacious living room. All units also had their own patio and their own small pool, beyond the large pool serving all. The complex included a small village of shops and a lovely elevated restaurant, L’Azure. From the dining area, poised on a cliff, you look down on a pristine white beach, which beckons for a swim. Well-spiced dishes of local fish, such as grilled marlin and dolphin fish, await a visitor. At night, the whistling tree frogs sing in symphonic performances amidst the quiet and remote setting of The Crane, south side of the island.
Most of the major resorts are on the calm and protected west side of the island. In contrast, the east side gets the high waves and major wind.
The Hilton Barbados Resort exemplifies the brand resorts, providing a large number of rooms, with elaborate pools and ocean swimming. Groups favor The Hilton because of its resources. The Hilton has two large white sand beaches. Rare hawksbill turtles sometimes come ashore to lay their eggs.
Barbados is warm, so you will likely enjoy your air con, especially at night.
Dining in Barbados
The island is a Caribbean leader in terms of both resorts and culinary offerings. For dining, the seafood bounty is primary. Another specialty is the hairless blackbelly sheep that you will see on an island tour. These sheep look like goats, but in fact they are sheep. This special breed yields tasty meat but no wool. Lamb/sheep meat commands an honored place on many Barbados menus.
Aside from several meals at the Crane’s L’Azure, I was fortunate to dine for two nights at The Cliff, one of the island’s top gourmet establishments. The setting is romantic at night, with candlelight in the open air, on a hillside cliff overlooking the sea.
One night was at The Cliff Beach Club, which is more casual. The other night was at The Cliff proper, adjacent, which is more formal and was the original. An interesting experience was that huge tarpon fish that swim in the shallows by the restaurants. You can see these fish in the floodlit sea within a few feet of shore. The dishes I enjoyed most at the Cliff were the jumbo prawns, scallops, seared tuna, and baked sheep. Both Cliff restaurants are like half-amphitheaters set into the cliffside above the water, extending from the cliff top down to the water’s edge.
Rum Drinking in Barbados
Of special interest on the culinary front is Barbados’s most important export beverage—rum, made from sugar cane molasses. The place to enjoy this rum is at the Mount Gay Visitor Center in Bridgetown. There you can do a rum tasting, perhaps with a cocktail mixing class or dining. Full details are at www.mountgayrum.com.
The Mount Gay rum growing lands are in the St. Lucy Parish on the north end of the island, but the visitor center in Bridgetown is the main place for an instructive tour and tasting. The name Mount Gay honors a skilled early manager of the operation, John Gay. Mount Gay was founded in 1703.
Some Barbadians claim that rum was invented here. One story is that a local character, Rumbullion, made the discovery. He found that molasses, a byproduct of the sugarcane refining process, could be fermented. The fermented beverage was rough tasting, but seemed to smooth out if a barrel was aged while traveling by ship to England. As a result, the beverage became named, in a shorthand manner, after the inventor, Rum for Rumbullion.
Among the many attractions of Barbados here are my recommendations:
The Garrison Changing of the Sentry
A colorful Changing of the Sentry ceremony occurs weekly at the primary British fort on the island, in Bridgetown, at the 1804 Main Guard House. Check the main Barbados tourism website (https://www.visitbarbados.org/) for current day and time. The show includes a narration, music, and precise military drills, all a reminder of Britain’s steady control of the island. Music is courtesy of the Royal Barbados Police Band. The Barbados Historic Garrison area, largest British fort in the Caribbean, is a UNESCO World Heritage site (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1376).
England fortified the island heavily against possible French attack because there were huge profits in the trade of slaves, sugar, and other goods. England’s comparative profit in the United States and Canada was minimal compared to its interests in the West Indies, a reality apparent to George Washington, as mentioned earlier.
Dinner with George Washington
Nineteen-year-old George Washington accompanied his older brother Lawrence to Barbados in 1751. Lawrence was ill with tuberculosis, and the family felt that the cool damp temperature of Virginia was not conducive to his health. The family wanted Lawrence to experience the warm climate of Barbados. The Washingtons rented a house and stayed six weeks.
An elaborate, candlelight, five-course Dinner with George Washington, complete with a re-enactor impersonating George, is a popular tourist attraction on Barbados.
Downtown Bridgetown Walking Tour
A walking tour of downtown Bridgetown comes alive on an outing called the Characters of Town. It’s helpful to have a guide/re-enactor explain the significance of the port and the extent of the slave trade. Buildings and statues requiring interpretation include the parliament and Admiral Nelson statue. A visitor learns about Independence Square and historic Victorian architecture, such as the Mutual Building, originally an insurance exchange.
Coming to terms with slavery is on the minds of modern Bajans, as Barbadians call themselves. On one hand, the island benefited greatly from slavery. Major planter families on the island grew wealthy because of the brutal work of slaves in sugarcane agriculture. Families left all land to the eldest son. This meant that younger sons tended to migrate, many to the Carolinas area of the United States, setting up new plantations with slave labor. Slavery ended in Barbados in 1838.
Today in America the South wrestles with its Civil War monuments. California re-examines the role of Junipero Serra and the Franciscan missions as a destroyer of the indigenous people. Modern Bajans now examine their own complex feelings about the past exploitation of slaves.
Restored Jewish Synagogue in Bridgetown
One major stop in a downtown walking tour is the restored Jewish synagogue, the Nidhe Israel Synagogue. This temple is the oldest in the Caribbean, from 1650, but the building has not always been used as a house of worship. The island of Curacao has a synagogue that is the oldest in continuous use.
One interesting detail is that Sephardic Jews founded this synagogue after they were expelled from Brazil. These Jewish newcomers brought with them from Brazil the agricultural skills and technology for growing sugarcane. As a result, Barbados gained an early head start in sugarcane agriculture.
Music Superstar Rihanna’s Childhood Home in Bridgetown
Another popular aspect of any Bridgetown tour is a look at the humble childhood home of Rihanna, the music superstar. Her home, on a rechristened street now called Rihanna Drive, is a popular pilgrimage site for fans. Rihanna is now the most recognizable Bajan on the world stage and serves politically as an official Ambassador at Large. Rihanna ranks as one of the best-selling music artists in the digital era, when all her song and touring sales are added up.
Circle Tour of the Island of Barbados
Allow a day during a Barbados visit for a circle tour of the island, either with a tour operator or a knowledgeable driver/guide in a private car. The education level and literacy on Barbados is high, so local guides encounter the traveler on an equal footing. Guides tend to be articulate and well informed. Driving yourself is not recommended. Traffic is considerable. Driving on the left side of the road (British-style) requires attentive skills.
In one day it is possible to make a satisfying circular tour, which will take you to the rustic and wild eastern side of the island. This is where the winds and waves from a 3,000-mile ocean crossing hit the island. There are lovely beaches, such as Barclays. There are also remote churches, grand houses, and legacy sugar mills to visit. Only a knowledgeable local will lead you efficiently to them, unless you devote a lot of time to prep before your visit.
Expect some unusual sights. One sight you will likely see is men playing cricket, the major national sport. Many leagues of varying skill levels have been organized. Though there are only 280,000 people on Barbados, and 48 percent are men, but there are countless organized cricket teams. A portrait of a famous cricket player graces the country’s $5 bill.
Remote Churches of Barbados
The people of Barbados tend to be respectfully religious and tolerant. Consequently, almost all religions can be found on the island. The Anglican church, certainly, is dominant. Numerous small churches dot the terrain.
On an island circle tour, one of the loveliest views and most charming churches is an Anglican gem on the east side, called St. John. There you can peruse the church, the extensive graveyard, and the wild east-side ocean landscape from a promontory.
In the northern St. Lucy Parish, the All Saints church boasts the most elaborate stained glass windows on the island. Barbados was divided by the British into 11 parishes for purposes of governance.
A Grand House on the Barbados Island Tour
Also on a circle-the-island tour, you can visit one of the great Barbadian planter mansions. This architectural masterpiece occupies a remote place on the island’s north end. The house is known as St. Nicholas Abbey. A railroad once joined this house to Bridgetown. The railroad has been restored and now circles around the property.
Near St. Nicholas Abbey, stop to visit an authentic preserved sugarcane windmill, known as the Morgan Lewis Windmill. Wind power was a main energy source for sugar refinement, crushing the cane with stone rollers to extract the juice. The juice was then boiled to a point when the sugar crystallized. The windmill caught the ample ocean breeze coming off the Atlantic. Barbados greatly advanced windmill design, making its sugar growing more profitable.
Though Barbados has few lakes, an abundance of rain water has seeped down into the limestone soil and created a large “lens” of fresh water. Because fresh water has a slightly higher specific gravity than salt water, it forces the salt water down and outward. As a result, agricultural and human needs can draw upon this large supply of clean and fresh water.
Today the sugar industry, which started in the 1640s, has declined sharply. Most noteworthy, there is now only one working mill, down from a peak number of around 500. The challenge for Barbados is that other areas in the world can produce sugar more economically. Moreover, plants other than cane, such as sugar beets and corn, can produce sugar and sweeteners.
The most prominent single nature attraction of Barbados is a large limestone cave, called Harrison’s Cave (www.harrisonscave.com). You can tour the cave in a tram or take a wet and muddy ecotour, as desired.
The cave is due to Barbados’s limestone geological basis. While other islands in the Caribbean are volcanic in origin, Barbados is limestone, built from coral. Rainwater falling at the surface is slightly acidic and percolates through the limestone. Rainwater sometimes dissolves the limestone.
Harrison’s Cave is an example of a massive dissolved underground space. Tours operate every day. You will see illuminated stalactite and stalagmite settings in ornamental tableaus. The perpetual dripping waters alter the size of the formations very slowly, about one inch every 120 years.
The British passion for horticulture, taking full advantage of tropical heat and moisture, reaches a lovely expression at Alexander Hunte’s remarkable Hunte’s Gardens (www.huntesgardensbarbados.com). Allow an hour or two to examine this floriferous and leafy place, which undergoes constant improvement. Hunte brings in all manner of tropical plants. Most noteworthy, the gardens exist in a sinkhole at a former sugar plantation, allowing for dramatic placement of plants. Hunte opened the gardens in 2007 and presents visitors with a numbered list of the most interesting plants. Furthermore, he encourages all guests to make a mobile phone photo record of his large Plant ID Board, which has color photos of his numbered list of plants.
Conclusion: The Bajan Sensibility
The Bajan sensibility is a pleasing matter to report. Bajans are proud, well educated, respectful, and accommodating people. As a result, they welcome the visitor, whom they meet as an equal, with a smile. They are approachable and kind. Moreover, most realize that tourism is also the most important industry on the island, now accounting for about 12 percent of the island’s GDP.
Barbados: If You Go
The main information source is the Barbados Tourism Authority at www.visitbarbados.org.