Back from my Barbados Magical Mystery Tour, detailed in my previous post, and we packed so much into our familiarisation trip that I feel as if I've been away from London for weeks. Charting Carlisle Bay in a submarine, discovering secret underground tunnels, fine dining at renowned restaurant Daphne's, and exploring the oldest rum distillery in the world were just the tip of the iceberg on a trip so jam-packed that I have split this report into two instalments. Read on to find out what else we got up to, and follow my blog for future tips on the best beaches, hotels, sights and activities on this laid-back and fun-loving island.
Flying out to the Caribbean's eastern fringe and I look out below to the last furls of land before crossing the mighty Atlantic. As the UK tapers off into the Lizard Peninsula, I see the Scilly Isles materialise in the distance, indented with sandy beaches and enveloped with a turquoise aura – on a sunny day, they could easily be mistaken for tropical islands. But, alas, I have a long journey to reach the 'Little England' of the Caribbean – eight-and-a-half hours of unrelenting boredom that can only be combated with reading, music and sleep. Still, I console myself with the fact it would have taken early explorers weeks to reach far-flung Barbados.
Not-so-fresh off the plane and we receive are greeted by sequined and feathered carnival ladies swaying their hips to the harmonic vibrations of a steel pan band. On the other side of arrivals, a beaming, dimpled girl – Sheree – from our host hotel, Sea Breeze Beach, hands out spiced rum punch and minty cool towels as we tramp out into the humid Caribbean heat. As I am to find out, rum punch is the traditional welcome in Barbados, no matter what time of day. This was just the first of many offered up during our adventures around this uplifting isle.
As we board the bus bound for our hotel, Sea Breeze Beach, I take a moment to chat with Sheree. Warm, vivacious and laughing, she is the perfect poster-girl for Barbados and filled with pride for her island. She tells me it's one of the safest and friendliest places in the Caribbean and, after spending time on the island, I can quite believe it. Our cameraman, Will, says he has left his equipment lying around on repeated visits and nothing has ever been stolen, but I'm later warned not to wander off alone as, despite relatively low crime rates, tourists can still be a target.
The minute we arrive at our beach-side hotel, flanked by two curves of white sand, and my new roomie Maria and I head down to the shore for a dip in the Caribbean's inviting waters. For me, swimming in the sea, especially warm tropical waters, is a great way to feel closer to nature and, sure enough, a curious turtle pops his head up above the curling waves as scuttling crabs disappear into crevices in the rocks.
A friend who recently travelled to Barbados advised me that if I do one thing on the island, I should go to Oistin's Fish Fry on a Friday night to meet the locals and soak up the atmosphere. So it's a happy coincidence that the Tourist Board have decided to bring a taste of Oistins to our hotel on our very first evening on the island. As with most events in Barbados, it's no half-hearted affair. They pull out all the stops, decorating a beach-side square with lanterns, bringing in some local entertainment and serving up a street-food feast of battered flying fish, fish cakes, local stew, fresh coconuts and the ubiquitous rum.
The fish cakes and flying fish are delicious and I quickly discover the 50-year-old Mount Gay rum aged in whiskey barrels, which tastes suspiciously like Famous Grouse but is apparently rather costly back in the UK. Jet-lagged but clearly rum-fuelled, a huge group of travel agents joins the dance as local pop star, Mikey, treats us to the laid-back Soca rhythms of his latest single – Enjoy Meh Life. This song, played throughout the trip, is all part of our Bajan hypnosis and embodies the island spirit perfectly.
Acrobats dressed as monkeys and elegant young ballroom dancers join the party. And where there's entertainment to be had in Barbados, Amazonian-like Bajan showgirls in carnival costumes are trotted out for eye candy and photo opportunities. They seem happy with this role, very comfortable in their own skin, and I can only assume that they are bred this way, learning to dance as soon as they can walk.
An inspector calls
The next morning, a little bleary from jetlag and rum, our group of around 30 agents is split in two and we head off for our first round of hotel inspections in the south of the island.
We see hotels to suit every type of traveller, which I will cover in more detail in a future post. The selection included the sprawling heritage Crane Resort perched above beautiful Crane Bay in the remote south-east; the smart, family-orientated Turtle Beach hotel; tiny boutique retreat Little Arches; and the rustic Blue Orchids, a budget self-catering hideaway with an amazing location on the beach. On our very first stop at Crane Resort I have my first encounter with Barbados' mischievous green monkeys. Having been attacked by a macaque in the past, I give them a wide berth, and they carry on nonchalantly nibbling at their breakfast.
Touring the hotels is also a great way to get a fleeting sense of island life. As we plough the southern coastal road network, I glimpse road-side coconut sellers and ladies with brightly coloured parasols. At one point the traffic slows to let a chicken cross the road (no joke!) with three little fluffy chicks in tow. A local guide points out the countless Catholic churches and their accompanying rum shacks, commenting with characteristic Bajan humour that the islanders like to 'keep the spirits together'. I also notice several branches of Chefette, a local fastfood chain that started as a street food stall selling rotis (spicy wraps). There's a notable absence of globalised brands such as McDonalds and Burger King, which is refreshing to see.
Flaming red Flamboyant trees arch over the neat, painted clapboard shacks (or chattel houses) – pink, orange, turquoise and yellow – while tumble-down wooden colonial homesteads are ringed by picket fences draped in bougainvillea. Parched from a particularly dry hot season, empty tracts of scrubland are scoured by skinny cows. The south of the island, at least, is far less green than I had imagined, its tropical forests cut down long ago to make way for the booming sugar cane trade that once saw more than 25 mills operating across Barbados.
Despite the proliferation of hotels that now line the coastline thanks to the blossoming tourist industry, which has replaced sugar as the island's main money-maker, its idyllic beaches remain mercifully intact. It's not crowded either, possibly because there are more than enough beaches to go around. Almost every hotel we visit seems to have its own stretch of perfect white sand. Fortunately, Bajans appear to have no taste for tall buildings and most hotels are neat, unobtrusive and low-rise. The only exception is the monolithic Hilton: a blight on Carlisle Bay's horizon resembling a multi-storey car park.
Later that day, as the air gets closer and a rain storm threatens, we are whisked off to one of the island's chicest restaurants – Daphne's – on the glamorous west coast. This fine dining Italian is right on Payne's Bay beach, with decking and seating for after-dinner drinks and tiki torches adding to the ambience. The service is elegant yet relaxed and the food is delicious – I tuck into a plate of perfectly cooked roasted pumpkin and amaretti ravioli with brown butter and sage.
Though clearly tasty, I instantly regret trying the shrimp piri piri, which sends my temperature soaring on an already sweltering evening. After dinner, we are treated to some calypso and the dulcet tones of a local singer, whose voice reminds me of Lionel Richie. The sound of the waves lapping the shore makes a nice accompaniment. As I sway in the soft sand, light rain watering down my rum cocktail, the only thing that's missing is a rendition of 'All Night Long'. Like Homer's ancient epic, the Odyssey, where the wandering Odysseus is held captive on a beautiful island for seven years by a sea nymph called Calypso, so I'm captivated by the syncopated beats and storytelling of Calypso music. Lulled into a sense of bliss, I would happily stay on the island for a few more months, if not years.
An easy-going evening is followed by a frantic morning as we head off for a packed day of sightseeing. A restored 1960s Bajan bus with a lively local host takes us on a bumpy ride to our first stop at the Barbados Garrison Historic Area. It's a gentle sojourn through some of the island's history, though it seems to gloss over the issue of slavery quite neatly. It's a brutal truth, but this island's wealth was founded on the back of stealing Africans and shipping them here to become slaves working in the sugar plantations. It's a shameful history that brought huge riches to the British Empire, but I'm at least pleased to see that the Afro-Caribbean's triumphed in the end and this site is where Barbados officially gained independence.
The garrison's proprietors – James and Peter – are brimming with enthusiasm for this UNESCO world heritage site that includes the island's military fortifications and the house where the original US President, George Washington, resided during a six-week formative stay on the island. I'm surprised to learn that this was the only place Washington ever visited outside the US.
I'm even more surprised to discover 10,000 feet of secret underground tunnels that run from beneath the fort all the way down to Carlisle Bay. Due to open to the public this September, I'm the first visitor to be given a sneak preview, crouching into a hole to enter the eerie 200-year-old passages carved from coral rock. In the dim light, I trace my fingers along the fossilized coral formations visible in the walls, and walk until I reach the pitch black.
Sun, sea and rum
Just as I thought we couldn't go any deeper, our big yellow bus drops us off at the dockside en route to the Atlantis submarine – an actual submersible that has been refitted for civilian passengers. A boat takes us out into the bay, where we board the submarine for our 40-minute sub-aquatic voyage that takes us more than 100 feet below the surface to explore deep reefs and ghostly shipwrecks. We see parrotfish, barracudas and sergeant major fish patrolling a scene that looks like a garden growing in ruins. Brain corals, tree-like gorgonias, tubes and barrel sponges sway in the current as schools of grouper and snapper encircle reef-encrusted wrecks. It's a fantastic way to see the underwater world without getting wet and costs around £65 per passenger.
The following stop on our trip – at a rum distillery – is well timed to provide Dutch courage for the next leg of our adventure, which involves journeying down into the bowels of the earth, traversing the jungle canopy, and a thrilling off-road tour. It also explains something important about Barbados and its obsession with rum, as this is the place where the spirit was originally invented. Specifically, the historic Mount Gay Rum distillery started brewing the drink back in 1703 after it was discovered that molasses left over from the sugar refining process could be used to make alcohol. The resulting rum became so coveted that mariners used to prove they had reached Barbados by bringing back a barrel or two.
As with all good things, the best rum comes to those who wait – fifty-or-so years in this case to achieve the cream of the crop. Matured in old whiskey barrels and mixed with water filtered down through the island's coral heart, the resulting vintage rum is the distilled essence of Barbados.
Intrigued by tales from my familiarisation trip to Barbados? To hear about the rest of our tour, read my next instalment.