"It's frightfully good," he smiled, examining his pink frosted drink as if it were the last British possession in the world, "but rum isn't everybody's cup of tea, is it?" This subtle piece of market research, delivered with positive languor, reveals that Barbados, that once-sparkling jewel in the Crown, is still veddy British indeed.
With one immediately recognizable exception -- the weather: an average of 75 to 85 degrees year-round with trade winds to keep you from frying. Barbados is delicious both in winter (you're layering tanning lotion while "they" are layering woolies) and in August, when it's 92 and humid all down the U.S. East Coast and spreading west. Manageable Barbados, just 21 miles long and 14 miles wide, is an island that actually looks like the post card when you get there: quiet, undulating sandscapes that are beautifully undercrowded, soft clear water with every known water sport and another culture to sample. Now that travelers fearful of the possibility of terrorism are looking for a closer Europe, this isle can deliver an exotic, civilized mini-British diversion.
Pear-shaped Barbados is the most easterly of all the Caribbean islands, lying southeast of St. Lucia and due east of St. Vincent. Its 166 square miles are built on layers of limestone covered with coral, a snorkler's paradise. On the west side of the island, the gentle Caribbean Sea rolls in over pinkish sand dotted with odd-shaped rock formations and the inevitable palm trees. Just eight miles across the hilly terrain to the east (about a half hour by car), the Atlantic furiously pounds the coast. Most visitors stay on the calmer west and southern shores, but it is in part this disparity in terrain that makes Barbados so atttractive. And the small size of the island helps you feel at home very quickly, just as it does in Britain.
Barbados gained its independence from Britain in 1966. A member of the British Commonwealth, it is a parliamentary democracy with an elected government and a governor general appointed by the queen.
Back in 1625, Capt. John Powell landed on the western (Caribbean) beach of the island at what is now called Holetown, and two years later his younger brother, Capt. Henry, landed a party of 80 British settlers. After just 15 years of British colonization, a parliament was well established and the land divided into 11 parishes according to the system in effect in England. But country churches and bewigged barristers aside, although both still flourish today, the most obvious legacy is the English language, a ready gift from the 17th-century plantocracy -- when a sugar daddy was a sugar daddy and there were 745 sugar plantations.
As was often the case in the American colonies, many early settlers were inmates of prisons, white indentured servants, dissenters and free thinkers. During Cromwell's regime Royalists were sold to English plantation owners for 1,500 pounds of sugar. But the largest population influx to Barbados was slaves shipped from West Africa to work the cane fields. By 1667 they numbered 40,000.
English was always the island's language, and because Barbados has had only the one governing power, English it has remained, though an African patois still exists. There is also a sense of English courtesy about the island, along with dignity and politeness. Barbados offers olde worlde service. It is courtly but not obsequious, and sometimes quaintly overdone, like "thank you please." And signs along the gaps (lanes) read, "Children possibly playing." There is a gentleness, and you are made to feel comfortable and secure just as you are in Britain. This has something to do with its Englishness.
Warren Alleyne, a Barbadian historian, served in the British armed forces for 22 years, 15 of them in England. But his feeling for the queen is no less fervent than the average Englishman's. They are all staunch Royalists. Alleyne feels that Barbadians are independent -- with a difference. "Rightly or wrongly," he says, "we associate a republic with revolutions and we don't like that method here. We'd much rather have the queen."
For almost 350 years, Barbados has operated with a parliamentary system, and the legal system is still based on common law. As a member of the British Commonwealth, Barbados sends final appeals to the highest court, the Privy Council in London. But there are differences: Unlike the mother country, the island has a constitution, and whereas capital punishment and caning (spanking naughty schoolchildren) have been outlawed in Britain, they are not against Barbadian law.
The queen awards honors here as she does at home, and in addition Barbados has set up its own system of local honors, announced on its Independence Day in November and issued by the governor general in the name of the queen. Anthea Connell, an English ophthalmic surgeon who has lived in Barbados for the past 18 years, received a Barbadian award last year. She thinks that even though Barbados is actually, unsentimentally, more tied now to Canada and the United States due to stronger job markets in those countries, "the Barbadians are more British than the Brits."
Connell's intuition matches that of her compatriot Anthony Trollope, who, writing in his novel "Phineas Finn" over a hundred years ago, called Barbados "Little England," no casual analogy for an Englishman to make. The island is dotted with towns called Worthing and Hastings, Yorkshire and Bath. In the capital, Bridgetown, one of the markets where fruits and vegetables are sold is called Cheapside, and Prince William Henry Street (for William IV) is around the corner.
Like Bath in England, Barbados was a health spa, and for this reason, in the fall of 1751, George Washington left the American continent for the only time. He accompanied his tubercular half brother Lawrence to Bridgetown where, according to his diary, his brother was "obliged to give f15. per month . . . exclusive of Liquors and washing." Although Washington was "perfectly enraptured with the beautiful prospects," he caught smallpox during the visit. Maybe that's why there's no George-Washington-slept-here sign beckoning every American tourist on the island.
Driving is on the left, of course. The cars are mostly Japanese, though renting a moke, an island jeep, is slightly cheaper and more fun. It's not hard to get lost -- the road signs and maps are poor. But it's worth the effort. Even if you get lost -- and most tracks look beaten -- the vistas are beautiful and the unexpected is delightful. On one of our numerous wrong turns, we asked directions of two young boys who in addition to pointing the way shared their freshly cut juicy sugar cane with us. (It reminded us of bumbling through the hedgerows of Devon in England, where the picturesque also is well worth an unplanned detour.) There is no better way to see Barbados.
Start out by following the road south from the capital and poke into Sam Lord's Castle, now part of the Marriott chain, built in 1820 by the rogue of the same name. Whether or not Sam Lord lured ships to a reefy doom by hanging lanterns in palm trees, as the legend goes, it is part of the mythology built into the splendid Georgian moldings, mahogany paneling and beautiful antiques. Portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip greet you at the entrance (they dined there on last year's visit). You too can banquet there, sit on the same chairs and drink from the same goblets.
Up the rugged Atlantic east coast is Bathsheba -- Cornwall in miniature. There, set on a natural cliff, you will find the Andromeda Gardens, filled with exotic tropical plants: jade vine, Swiss cheese plant, traveler's tree, spectacular orchids -- 100 are listed and numbered through the paths. The owner, Iris Bannochie, wins prizes easily each year at the Chelsea Flower Show in London.
Continue north to a highland district called Scotland where "redlegs," an insular, clannish group, still live. Their kilt-wearing ancestors got their legs sunburned, earning them the name.
Col. Stephen Cave, an Englishman who retired to Barbados three years ago, has restored his splendid ancestral home, St. Nicholas Abbey, circa 1650. It is situated in St. Peter on an avenue lined with mahogany trees called Cherry Tree Hill, just off Highway 1 inland from the east coast. The island's "Official Guide" says it is one of the oldest houses in the English-speaking Western Hemisphere. Villa Nova is a preserved 19th-century sugar plantation once owned by the late Earl of Avon, Sir Anthony Eden.
BAT10 Of course there are any number of interesting places around the island that don't qualify as "so English": potteries at Chalky Mount in St. Andrew north of Bathsheba; tropical birds at Ashford Bird Park in St. John just off Highway 4; stalagtites and waterfalls at Harrison's Cave mid-island in St. Thomas; sugar mills, and of course the miles of sugar cane fields throughout the island.are minor compared to the preponderant reminders of "Little England."
Cricket is a national obsession and the players are among the best in the world. In season, cricket enthusiasts seem to be everywhere -- walking about with a tiny transistor pressed to the ear. In St. James's parish, on the west coast, there's a pub called Cricketers (a sign there suggests patrons adopt "tasteful informality"). As for the impact of American sports that have invaded television in Barbados, a Barbadian complained to his local newspaper, "They are incompatible with what we know and are accustomed to and telecasting these will lead to a cultural shock . . . I urge you to seek out the BBC." He also might have added horse racing, snooker, wrestling, polo and grass court tennis, all of which are available in Barbados. I didn't see any darts being thrown at the Cricketers Pub as I would have in London. But learning there were 1,600 rum shops in just 166 square miles, I was curious. Well, you "lick back" your rum and then chase it down with a soft drink followed by a piece of coconut bread called a "lead pipe." Then you get on with the on-going domino game.
I suppose you could find roast beef, yorkshire pudding and trifle. I didn't, but then I didn't look for it either. From past visitors, I learned that the food used to be considered "indifferent." But now, chefs have been imported. Curiously, a number are English. The youngest, Paul Owen, still in his 20s, has been chef at the Treasure Beach Hotel for about three months.
That small excellent family establishment is run by Charles and Mary Ward (he is from Barbados and she is a Californian). Forty years in the business have given the Wards an unassailable "first" in the running of this all-suites hotel with a large English percentage of guests. It may be the tropical gardens or the smallness (27 accommodations only), or the one-to-one service. It's nicely familial. "We know that good food attracts people, so a fine chef can only do us good. Our Barbadian chefs know that Paul isn't coming here to replace them. There just aren't enough good Barbadian chefs to go around and most have never been off the island." For his part, Owen has found that although Dover sole is cheaper there than in England, other supplies are generally difficult and expensive. One imported iceberg lettuce, for instance, costs more than $3 U.S., so he's switched to the island variety, which costs $1. His recipes, however, are French. "It's too hot for steak and kidney pie," he explains.
Across the street from the Treasure Beach, Nick Hudson, another English chef, serves U.S. filet and passion fruit pie with some not inexpensive style at his La Cage aux Folles. And inland, there is a once splendid mansion, Bagatelle, believed to have been the home of Lord Willoughby, an early governor. Now owned by a charming young couple from Shropshire, it serves a cultural mix of such possibilities as fresh Caribbean fish with lime butter or fillet in mustard caramelized with brown sugar. Not English, no. French with a Caribbean accent.
There's also a Rose and Crown, that typical English pub name; but this one is owned and operated by Barbadians serving simple, well-prepared Barbadian food: flying fish, salt fish cakes and dolphin (not the flipper variety); cristopine, a vegetable that looks like an avocado and tastes like cucumber; yambeans, another vegetable that's crisp and apple-ish; pepperpot stew that is allowed to marinate for days (some say months); roast suckling pig; a wonderful spicey drink called sorrel made from sorrel flowers; a creamy dessert made from a tree fruit called soursop. All these dishes and more are to be had at the Atlantis Hotel on the ocean side, which offers a Sunday buffet, decidedly non-tourist. Queuing begins 30 minutes before the bell is rung.
Almost all the hotels have Barbadian chefs. Menus are printed in French and English, and while some of them tend to zest it up with a Caribbean hot sauce or other intimation of West Indian cuisine, the flavor is European. None of them serves cou-cou, the island cornmeal and okra concoction, reminiscent of south Alabama or Georgia. For that matter, that delicious confection so enjoyed by the queen called guava cheese is found only in special shops. It isn't cheese at all but a sort of jelly candy, similar to Turkish Delight, only made of cooked guavas.
Food is expensive, whether in restaurants or in the markets. Poultry is raised on the island, but feed is imported. Vegetables are locally grown but fertilizer is brought in. If you're keeping house while there, you will no doubt find your way to Tiffany's, an outdoor stand on the west coast manned at all hours by three stalwart ladies who have every fruit you want and cannot find anywhere else.
It is hard to believe that the tourist business has been operating in Barbados only for 25 years. Its beginnings were largely due to a combination of Ronald Tree's creation of a spectacular resort (now the lush Sandy Lane Hotel) and a contracting sugar economy.
But not everyone welcomes the change. Sal and Eric Estorick, living in a spectacular villa next door to Claudette Colbert -- who has had a place here for 20 years -- regret the emphasis on mass tourism and remember the early days. "It was a sterling area," said Sal. "It wasn't too difficult for the British to buy here quite easily. You'd have to ask the Bank of England for permission in those days, and you could maintain it out of sterling."
Now the economy is tied to the American dollar (approximately $2 Barbadian for $1 U.S.), which has brought about a dramatic change in the nationality of tourists. The island started with mainly British visitors, but today Americans make up 41 percent of the visitors, Canadian 19 percent and British only 11 percent.
On a two-for-one basis, Americans don't need a computer to know that Barbados could be your cup of tea, rum or even sorrel.