Barbados: Flying Fish and Chips, and Other Britishisms
Sunday, February 23, 2003
It started, as many of the best things in life do, with a chance comment. A Canadian woman at my Barbados hotel mentioned that she'd had the best dinner of her life at the Friday night fish fry in the seaside town of Oistins. A hotel staffer, overhearing this, nodded approvingly. "Every local knows about that. It's the best place in the world to eat fresh fish right off the grill -- and have a Banks beer to go with it."
And that's how I ended up having the best dinner of my life last month in a lively little fishing village on the south coast of Barbados. Out went the plans for the fancy cliffside restaurant on the island's rugged Atlantic coast. Instead, I headed that night to Oistins and its open-air street party-cum-fish fest, with a choice of about 97 different rum shacks for after-dinner drinks.
When I got there, a local radio personality was blasting Caribbean-flavored hip-hop, and locals and tourists alike were lined up at dozens of barbecue joints: Crystal's Grilled Fish, Margaret's Fish Fry and BarBQ, Jazzie's Fish Corner, Crazy Eddie's. Following my tipster's advice, I headed for the Fish Net Grill, where a chalkboard listed the day's catch: dolphin, tuna, kingfish, marlin and the island specialty, flying fish, cooked up on the spot and served with grilled potatoes and salad. Twenty minutes later, I took my plastic plate over to the chain-link fence and settled back to enjoy the scene: gaggles of teenagers, families with toddlers, gyrating pre-teens and a couple of well-dressed matrons who looked as if they'd come straight from church. Cost of my feast: $7.50.
It was my second day on Barbados and I had yet to log any beach time -- which was fine by me. The island has so much character and history, such proud and amiable residents and so many natural and man-made distractions that you can spend a week there quite happily without setting foot in the ocean. During my four-day visit, I took a tram ride through an eerie underground cavern, went eyeball-to-eyeball with alligators and red-footed turtles at a nature preserve, wandered around a 300-year-old plantation house, tiptoed through a centuries-old Anglican church and drove past a hilly green landscape that could have doubled for the Scottish Highlands.
Barbados, you've probably figured out by now, is the perfect Caribbean island for those who get bored sitting on a beach all day.
As I planned my trip, the big question was not would I be bored, but could I afford it. Hotels on the island's much-touted western (Caribbean) side are famously luxurious, and priced accordingly. Because of Barbados's location as the easternmost Caribbean island, its east coast faces the Atlantic -- great for dramatic scenery and surfing, not so great for swimming. Those who can't afford the $350-plus nightly tariffs on the west are relegated to the "lively" (oh dreaded euphemism) south coast, where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic. The digs are more affordable, but the ocean is rougher and the ambience a little less luxe.
I needn't have worried. St. Lawrence Gap, an area of clubs, restaurants and small shops, is low-key and appealing, and I settled happily into the Casuarina Beach Club, one of many affordable hotels along the south coast. Brightly painted rocking chairs in hot Caribbean colors are paired with mahogany antiques and faded chintz armchairs, capturing perfectly the England-on-the-Caribbean flavor of Barbados -- you want to kick off your flip-flops and order a proper cup of tea.
Exploring the neighborhood on my first day, I poked into the shops around St. Lawrence Gap and had lunch on the breezy second-story terrace of a local café, where a slow-motion waitress served up flying fish and chips, and local blackbirds awaited handouts. On the street below, skinny cats prowled and taxi drivers sat outside their cabs on upturned milk cartons, reading newspapers and waiting for fares.
Business seemed slow, a fact confirmed later that afternoon by the guide who drove me to Harrison's Cave, the island's most popular tourist attraction. "This is supposed to be our high season," said Math Whitney, "but the last two seasons have been bad. After September 11 there was a serious drop-off in tourism. If the U.S. goes to war, our country is dead."
Whitney, 39, a formidable figure with his shaved head, thick moustache, ruby ear stud and pale blue eyes, said he tried moving to Switzerland a few years ago but returned to Barbados because "I needed the heat." Driving through the countryside, past brightly painted frame and concrete cottages and fields of unharvested sugar cane, he shook his head in disgust. "The sugar cane industry is dying. We import sugar from Guyana now, we import molasses to make rum."
Driving past a rural scene of tethered goats, pecking chickens and all manner of fruit trees -- orange, banana, grapefruit, mango, avocado, apple, breadfruit -- we reached the Scotland District, an achingly beautiful scene of green mountains dotted with cottages. At Gun Hill, we stopped to admire the view of the south coast and noted one of the many reminders of the island's British legacy, a larger-than-life white lion sculpture that was carved out of coral stone by English soldiers in 1868. Barbados is unusual among Caribbean islands in that its ownership didn't go back and forth among the British, French, Dutch and other empire builders; it was all British, all the time, from colonization in 1625 to independence in 1966.
There was nothing very British about my lunch the following day in the ultra-scenic town of Bathsheba on the east coast, scene of international surfing competitions. At a seaside restaurant overlooking the boulder-strewn beach, I tucked into a Caribbean buffet of breadfruit pie, fried plantains, whitefish and sweet potatoes. "That usually goes there," the waiter said helpfully, putting a dollop of lamb stew next to my rice and beans. Dessert was rum cake, of course. Was I turning into a rummie? Probably. Did I care? Not a whit.