A January 2004 trip
to Barbados by Idler
Quote: Moments after stepping off the plane in Barbados, my five senses were liberated. Aquamarine seas, caressing breezes, heady fragrances, lilting voices, and a delicious tropical cuisine welcomed this sensory-deprived winter refugee.
Cheers and whoops greet news from that faraway place, "Back Home." Those poor sods! Lounging poolside with an Air Canada crew, I lazily stir Doreen-the-bartender’s latest fruity concoction with my cherry-festooned swizzle stick, feeling pretty darn smug.
All that dreariness was happening back there. I was here, and that’s all that really mattered.
"I’m not going back!" "Me either!"
The vote was unanimous: We’d all rather be in Barbados.
Blinded by the Light? (Not!)While the temptation to spend the entire week lounging on the beach was strong, by the second day I was already AWOL from the resort, off exploring the island. It’s hard to remain poolside when there’s as much to see as there is on Barbados. I’d read and heard about places, especially on the rugged east coast of the island, that sounded intriguing. I was also planning to spend evenings attending the Barbados Jazz Festival, which I’ll cover in a separate journal.
The focus of this journal, however, is the island’s sites of historic interest and natural beauty. The thing I enjoy most, wherever I go, is getting off the beaten path to discover things on my own. This was easy to do on Barbados, one of the safest, friendliest islands I’ve visited.
Bajans take pride in their island. Everyone I talked to had recommendations of what to see and where to go. Although it’s a small island ("Twenty-one miles long and a smile wide," as they say), I didn’t feel I managed to scratch the surface in a week. It didn’t surprise me to meet sun-starved northerners of means who were wintering on Barbados. Frankly, I’m envious of those who can afford to do so!
Never a Hassle or a HustleOkay, you know what I’m talkin’ about, right? There are places in the Caribbean where I’ve felt like little more than someone else’s meal ticket. Given the poverty, I understand completely. Barbados is emphatically NOT one of those places. With a stable economy and healthy tourist industry, it’s not the sort of place where visitors are sullenly tolerated out of sheer economic necessity. Instead, I’m struck by the open heartedness – yet at the same time the dignity and self-respect – of Bajans (that’s BAY-gens). Well-educated, articulate, good-humored, and invariably courteous, Bajans have my vote as some of the nicest folk on the planet.
Money-wise tips:U.S. dollars are accepted, but using the local currency (~ B per US) yields a slightly better rate.
To get the VAT-free rate at the duty-free shops, you’ll need to show a passport or travel documents.
Check with the Barbados National Trust if you’re interested in seeing multiple historic homes or sights, as there are several money-saving "Heritage Passports" available.
Bear in mind
Bajans are fairly conservative. Sunday is a decorous day of rest. Topless or nude sunbathing is not permitted. Remember, this island was ruled by Britain for 300 years. Keep your top on and have a spot of afternoon tea instead.
Official BTA website
For an entirely different kind of experience, hop on one of the privately run ‘reggae buses,’ which are yellow with a blue stripe. Thronged with school kids and locals, they’re worth the B .50 just to experience the musical groove. The government-run buses, blue with a yellow stripe, are roomier, but not nearly as much fun, in my opinion.
Roads aren’t particularly well-marked, which makes navigating a bit difficult for outsiders. The locals know where they’re going, and luckily they’re happy to give directions. I decided to give the rental car experience a miss this time, although if I’d had someone along to help navigate, I’d have brushed up on my left-hand-side driving skills and given it a shot.
Attraction | "The Merry Pranksters of Island Safari"
Enid the photographer miraculously manages to hold on to her bulky camera during this procedure, but by now we’ve had some practice in this rough-and-tumble game of get-the-guys-in-the-other-4x4. We’re on an Island Safari, and we’re laughing just as hard as our driver, cheering him on.
Much of Barbados was cleared to make way for sugar plantations centuries ago, which means that there’s comparatively little in the way of true wilderness left. Still, our safari takes us to some of the remotest spots on the island, going off the beaten track through sugar cane fields, up boulder-strewn trails, and out to windswept points along the coast. It’s a day of exploration and adventure, bouncing along in the back of the Land Rover, making frequent stops for photos, and bantering with Andrew, our good-natured Bajan guide, who clearly relishes showing us his Barbados.
One of our first stops is Gun Hill Signal Station, where we file up a slope to an enormous white statue of a lion set on a high promontory. Andrew, an accomplished raconteur, tells of the day the islanders woke to find the lion, a symbol of British rule, painted red, yellow, and green: Rasta colors.
Then we’re off again, whisking along the narrow, twisting roads. I’m thankful Andrew’s the one doing the driving, especially as we round a sharp curve heading toward Monkey Leap and a prankster leaps out from the bushes with a bloodcurdling shriek. Yup, it’s the guide who was on the receiving end of the log prank, out for revenge.
We pass a group of day laborers toiling in the hot sun in a sugar cane field. They straighten up slowly, one hand on the small of their backs, as we drive by. The jeep makes an abrupt turn into the field and is lashed by long stalks of sugar cane. "Be careful!" Andrew shouts. "The cane is sharp!" He stops and cuts pieces of it, distributing them to us. They're a peculiarly unpleasant texture, but the sweetness is undeniably refreshing.
On the rugged northeast coast, waves crash against the cliffs, sending plumes of spray through blowholes. Chattel houses are set higgledy-piggledy by the road, some perched precariously on stilts, in the village of Bathsheba, where we make a pit-stop near the famed "Soup Bowl" frequented by daredevil surfers.
We pass a schoolyard full of children who race up to the jeep, mugging and up for the tourists. The frisky youngsters are full high spirits. One boy swings upside down from a tree in a virtuoso display of gymnastic prowess.
"Future Island Safari guide," I think to myself.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on February 6, 2004
St. Michael, Barbados
There’s only one thing you’ll have to worry about: deciding whether to kick back and relax on a sleek sailboat or get revved up on a party schooner. Personally, I’m all for lying on the deck of a catamaran, letting the coastline and day drift by with scarcely a backward glance. However, finding just the right boat, the right crew, and the right companions is the winning combination. I’ve been on my share of clunker day cruises and know that a glossy tourist brochure isn’t necessarily a good indicator of an enjoyable day.
However, when I lay eyes on the spotless catamaran docked at Shallow Draught Harbor north of Bridgetown, it’s clear that I’ve found the right boat. Then the welcome I receive from the attentive, friendly crew indicates the second crucial factor is in place. When 35 members of the Barbados Jazz Festival press group assemble and begin to schmooze merrily, I know I’ve hit the maritime jackpot.
"Don't worry ‘bout a thing... ’cause every little thing gonna be all right"
Bob Marley, "Three Little Birds"
When everybody’s on board, we cast off. The catamaran’s double pontoons slice through the warm, turquoise water as we pass sleek yachts and funky, colorful fishing boats moored in the harbor. The crew works with a relaxed, easygoing efficiency under the direction of the captain, a lanky young man supervising from the helm. The barman cranks up a Bob Marley CD, and soon passengers are jammin’ and settling in to do some serious sunbathing on deck. Wind ripples the sail as we slip past the palm-fringed coast.
We’re scheduled to make three swimming/snorkeling stops during the five-hour cruise, the first to view sea turtles. Here’s where I encounter my sole disappointment of the day: Wearing an inflatable life vest is mandatory, and I find the vest’s buoyancy keeps me from diving down to see eels and other creatures swimming along the bottom. Still, everyone gets to see the turtles; after about a half hour, we’re under way again, this time headed to a sunken barge lying in shallow water, where colorful fish abound.
Afterwards, everyone’s worked up an appetite, so we tear into the tasty buffet lunch of fried flying fish, macaroni pie, spicy coleslaw, and other Bajan delicacies. I’m not the only one who has seconds. There’s one more stop just offshore near a gorgeous beach before the catamaran heads back toward the harbor. Maybe it’s the sun; maybe it’s the sea; maybe it’s the Bob Marley tunes, but when the cruise ends, I just wish I didn’t have to leave.
Attraction | "Bringing Up Baby: Barbados Wildlife Reserve"
The monkeys gave me the cold shoulder. I looked high and low for them, to no avail. Friends who also visited the reserve later gleefully reported their monkey encounters. I, however, seemed to be emitting some sort of peculiar monkey-repelling pheromone: "LOOK OUT, MONKEYS," it broadcast, "HERE SHE COMES!"
But the rodents? Ah, now that’s another story.
This Place Is Awfully RockyI’d just entered the reserve, clutching the park brochure. Let’s see, where are the monkeys? Shuffling along the pathway, I’m too preoccupied to notice the large rocks on the forest floor. Then one of the rocks moves.
Crikey, this place is full of tortoises!
Consulting my brochure, I’m disheartened to learn there are now more tortoises here than on the rest of Barbados.
I’m still marveling at the lumpishly beautiful tortoises when a motionless taupe shape nearby flicks a delicate ear: Brocket deer. Then, in quick succession, flamingoes, geese, and guinea fowl emerge. It’s clear that some species do awfully well when the likelihood of becoming someone else’s dinner (or road kill) is reduced.
I make my way through the aviary, where the internecine squabbles of geese vie with the antics of macaws, then on to the information center, where I read all about the monkeys, originally brought from Senegal some 300 years ago. The monkeys are a bit of a pest, though, and farmers hunt them. As the free-ranging monkeys know a good thing when they see it, many cluster at the reserve.
Bringing Up BabyWalking up the path to the iguana sanctuary, I stop dead in my tracks. What on earth is that? It looks like a cross between a rabbit and a whippet, and whatever it is, it’s defiantly blocking my path, all 15 pounds of it. "Don’t come any closer," it seems to be saying, "Or I’ll...um, I’ll...I’ll..."
Then I see the baby whatever-it-is, wobbling on long, spindly legs, nestled against mama whatever-it-is lying beneath a bush. The baby has just been born. Brave papa is standing guard.
I consult my brochure: Hutia conga, a large rodent from Cuba.
Lord, now I’ve seen everything.
After a few quick photos, I back away.
Shades of Dr. DoolittleIt’s that torpid hour in the late afternoon when all sensible people are taking naps. I’ve searched all over the reserve for monkeys, finally coming to rest on a bench near the feeding area. I stretch out, looking up at the trees. A soft breeze rustles the canopy, and I doze off.
I waken to sounds of chewing. Chomp crunch chomp. I open one eye, finding myself eyeball-to-eyeball with a peacock. He cocks his head impertinently, then resumes his attack on a piece of yam. I sit up slowly. Very slowly.
I’m in a peaceable kingdom, surrounded by animals. And, with his peculiar dog-rabbit gait, here comes papa hutia conga.
Who needs monkeys?
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on February 6, 2004
Attraction | "Unchained Melody: Andromeda Botanic Gardens"
Standing beneath a massive Talipot palm at Andromeda Botanic Gardens, I can hear not only the sound of waves breaking, I can inhale a dozen tropical scents, taste the tang of the sea, and feel the ‘aaaah!’ of shade on my skin after hiking along a hot, sun-drenched path. Above me, doves coo a gentle accompaniment to the surf, while colorful butterflies and hummingbirds flit through the Garden-of-Eden spectacle that lies below.
Andromeda Gardens: I’d liked the very sound of it before even setting foot in the place. Later, I learned that the fanciful name derives from the rocky formations the gardens are "chained" to, much as the Greek maiden Andromeda was chained to a rock by the sea to appease an angry Poseidon.
It’s a romantic notion, no? Well, it’s an unabashedly romantic place, the private creation of renowned horticulturalist Iris Bannochie, who gathered exotic plants from around the globe and brought them to this picturesque corner of Barbados. While Iris is gone, her garden, beautifully maintained by the Barbados National Trust, lives on. (And what better legacy could one ask for, really, than to leave behind a lovely garden, maintained in perpetuity?)
The Trust does everything it can to make Andromeda visitor friendly, and they succeed. The staff is congenial and well-informed, the on-site Hibiscus Café can provide a picnic to take into the garden, and there are many tranquil spots to sit and take it all in. Highlights of the garden include a striking collection of heliconias, rare palms, an orchid house, many fragrant flowering vines, and a large ornamental pond teeming with bullfrogs sunning themselves on lily pads.
The lily pond, Andromeda Botanical Gardens
Start by getting copies of the walking tours at the entrance, then step across a quaint bridge into the garden. Two self-guided walks diverge here. Both are delightful, though "Iris’s Walk" is perhaps better suited to those with limited time or mobility. The second route, "John’s Path," rambles over more of the intensely cultivated eight-acre plot, ranging up through a series of terraced gardens and back down again.
Never one to stint when it comes to a garden, I attempt both walks, frequently consulting the informative handout. I learn, for example, that the native bearded fig tree, whose hair-like aerial roots cascade almost to the ground, prompted Portuguese sailors to call the island "Los Barbados," meaning "the bearded ones."
It’s hard to follow the walks’ numbered routes, however, as paths head in multiple directions, each seeming more enticing than the next. Soon I’m simply wandering through the horticultural maze, not particularly caring if I’m taking the proscribed route. I pass a happy-looking couple enjoying a picnic in the gazebo on the hilltop, then pass by them twice more during the course of my perambulations. They haven’t stirred an inch.
Come to think of it, they may have had the right idea all along.
Andromeda Botanic Gardens
Geologically, Barbados differs from neighboring islands, which were formed by volcanic action. Barbados was born when the Caribbean tectonic plate was pushed up and over the Atlantic plate. During this process, the resulting volcanic eruptions gave birth to the surrounding islands, yet Barbados’ genesis lay in the ancient seabed and more recent coral beds being gradually lifted from the sea. Having visited St. Lucia several years back, it was immediately obvious to me that the gently rolling hills of Barbados were formed differently than the rugged terrain of St. Lucia, with its jagged pitons.
Six-sevenths of Barbados is covered by what was once coral reef – a porous coralline limestone easily penetrated by water. This is why there are few streams or rivers on the island -- water seeps straight through the limestone, creating Barbados’ famously pure, clean well water in the process. There’s little sedimentary run-off, too, which contributes to healthy coral reefs offshore.
As the tram wended its way through the cave, I noted that Harrison’s Cave was by far the drippiest I’d ever been in, with water percolating continuously from the surface. I was tempted to ask how the rate of stalactite and stalagmite formation compared with less watery caverns, but the opportunity never arose.
Those who have seen spectacular caverns such as Mammoth Cave in Kentucky would probably judge the more recent formations at Harrison’s Cave less impressive. But what Harrison’s Cave lacks in monstrous stalactites, stalagmites, and columns, it makes up for in hauntingly lit underground pools and silky displays of smooth, white flowstone. One memorable view was of a cascading waterfall plunging into a beautiful aqua lake with a roof of icy-white stalactites above – an enchanted spot. There’s little mineral coloring to the formations – no cuprous green or dusky ferrous tinges – since few mineral impurities exist in the limestone.
It’s best to visit the cave early, as the tram only accommodates a set number of passengers, causing something of a backup later in the day. A modern complex above ground features an excellent introductory film as well as the inevitable gift and snack shops, while the parking lot teems with vendors eager to benefit from the influx of tourists.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on February 6, 2004
Welchman Hall, Barbados
Attraction | "Grenade Hall Signal Station & Forest"
In the 1790s, the mass deployment of British troops to protect and stabilize its colonies in the West Indies reflected how seriously Britain took not only the threat of external enemies but also the growing problem of internal unrest. Jamaica, in particular, was wracked by bloody uprisings. However, on Barbados, planters had been lulled into complacency by over a hundred years of peaceful, revolt-free prosperity. They mistakenly believed their slave population to be too ‘creolized’ to engage in such rebellions.
All that changed on April 14, 1816, when a widespread, well-organized uprising led by a slave named Bussa took place. This remarkable event was triggered by abolitionist debates that had filtered down to the slave population. Although the plantation owners were completely caught off guard, the revolt was nonetheless ruthlessly quashed. One hundred and seventy-six slaves were killed in the uprising, and another 214 were later executed.
As it turned out, the growing momentum of the abolitionist movement, which had prompted Britain to abolish the slave trade in 1807, led to the emancipation of all slaves throughout the British colonies in 1834. However, on Barbados freedom came only after a period of "apprenticeship," and the planters retained control of the land for a good time thereafter.
Signal StationsShortly after Bussa’s revolt, six signal stations were built on strategically located hilltops to alert guardsmen if further trouble arose. Grenade Hall Signal Station at Farley Hill was one of them. Today a visitor can enter station, which has been beautifully restored by the National Trust, view artifacts from colonial times, and listen to a short, engaging audio segment that tells of the rebellion and subsequent creation of the signal station network.
The trust also oversees the adjacent Grenade Hall Forest, which contains a network of educational nature trails snaking through a dense mahogany-forested hillside. Monkeys from the nearby wildlife reserve often frequent this forest during the daytime, and there are numerous benches among the attractive groves where a visitor can do a bit of monkey watching. In addition, set into the hillside is an Amerindian cave, which provided a somewhat spooky interlude for this solo hiker. What I most enjoyed, though, was the panoramic view from the top of the signal station.
The view from Grenade Hall Signal Station
After the uprising of 1816, there were no subsequent slave revolts on Barbados. The signal stations assumed various functions, including vantage points to spot approaching trade ships. They became obsolete and later fell into disrepair after the first telephone was introduced on the island in 1883. Restored signal stations such as the ones at Grenade Hall and Gun Hill are now important reminders of Barbardian history.
Grenade Hall Forest & Signal Station
Attraction | "The Lost World? Welchman Hall Gully"
Billed as being a slice of ancient Barbados, the gully is a romantic place, a three-quarter-mile densely wooded passageway through what was originally an underground cavern. In fact, it was once part of the same cave network as nearby Harrison’s Cave until the roof collapsed, creating the gully. It’s said that walking through Welchman Hall Gully is like stepping back into the primeval forest predating the island’s colonization by Europeans.
But I don’t see this at all. A forest, yes. Wild and primitive looking, yes. But primeval? Hardly.
There are citrus trees and bamboo, both originally from Asia. There are guavas, hog plums, and avocados, haling from Central and South America. The rubber trees are native to Malaysia, while the nutmeg and clove come from the Moluccas. The breadfruit trees, almost infamously, come from Tahiti, descendents of those brought by Captain Bligh (of Bounty fame) on his second attempt to transport breadfruit to the Caribbean colonies.
In short, a list of the gully’s flora reads like a roll-call of imported exotic species.
There are native species as well, but the thing that strikes me – as on every other island I’ve visited – is the dispersal of certain key plants, such as coconuts and mahogany, which man finds serviceable. Gullies such as these were often planted with such useful trees. This gully was once belonged to an early settler, a Welshman that "Welchman" refers to.
As there are two entrances to the gully, I found it easiest to have a taxi drop me off at one entrance and meet me on the other side. Steps lead down into the gully, continuing as a rather mossy, slippery concrete path through the long, narrow ravine. It’s eerily quiet as I wend my though the jungly growth, with the columns of stalactites and stalagmites of the original cave looming alongside. The hanging "beards" of fig trees and enormous leaves of giant elephant ears create an otherworldly Lost World atmosphere. There are monkeys here, glimpsed fleetingly in the canopy, and a host of birds. Carib grackles perch saucily on branches, emitting their long whistling calls ending in kew kew kew!
Welchman Hall Gully
I enter an airy grove of tall palms after emerging from a stygian section of forest with trees draped in twisting aerial roots resembling mandrakes. Soon I’ve reached the other side of the gully, where my taxi is waiting, but first I climb up to a gazebo perched on a dramatic overlook that offers sweeping views of the coast and Atlantic Ocean.
On my way out, I stop to chat with two active, fit retirees who have pedaled to the gully on their bicycles. She sounds Swedish; he sounds Canadian. They spend each winter on sunny, hospitable Barbados and appear to be flourishing.
I’m still thinking about imported species, plant and animal alike, as I get into my waiting taxi.
Welchman Hall Gully
The Barbados National Trust maintains Tyrol Cot much as it was at the time of Tom’s death, with the memorabilia of two distinguished political careers displayed alongside such everyday items as the computer that Tom used, Sir Grantley’s old radio, and Lady Adams’s porcelain collection. Entering the house, I’m struck by its comparative modesty, with the antique chairs and sofas covered in faded but good quality upholstery, and a small bedroom containing a simple bed, desk, mirror and cane-backed rocker. It reminded me of homes I’ve visited of well-off but restrained people who accumulate possessions discretely, expecting them to last a lifetime.
On the grounds of Tyrol Cot an entire "Heritage Village" representing a Barbadian village from the 1920’s has been constructed. It consists of a variety of chattel houses, including a rum shop, artisans' cottages, and a blacksmith’s forge. There is also a reconstruction of a wattle-and-daub slave hut, a somewhat grim reminder of the island’s past, compete with cooking utensils fashioned from calabash gourds and piles of rags that would have served as beds strewn on the floor.
I’m fascinated by chattel houses, that distinctively Bajan type of architecture that arose from necessity yet blossomed into a form displaying character and pride. A chattel house can be taken down and moved easily, relics of the time when plantation owners hired indentured laborers or ex-slaves to work their land, providing them with a tiny piece of land on which to build a house. However, since the plantation owners could and did evict workers under almost any pretense, tenants found it easier to move their houses than rebuild them, and thus the ‘chattel’ or ‘moveable’ house was invented.
A chattel house at Tyrol Cot
Chattel houses are usually set on concrete blocks and are often of dimensions dictated by the size of common building materials. They are practical dwellings, with steeply pitched hurricane-resistant roofs and jalousied windows that promote airflow yet allow a measure of protection again storms. Usually a chattel house consists of two rooms and a verandah, though it was a relatively easy matter to add rooms to the house as families grew. Often painted in bright colors with decorative gingerbread fretwork and bell awnings, chattel houses can be seen all around the island. To my mind they are one of Barbados’ most endearing features.
Tyrol Cot Heritage Village
St. Michael, Barbados
"We win prizes every year at the Chelsea Flower Show," my taxi driver informed me as we drove to the Flower Forest. "Everybody in Britain knows about the gardens of Barbados."
Indeed, I’m prepared to believe this after taking the self-guided tour of the fifty-acre property. Set on a derelict sugar plantation offering stunning views of the northwestern section of the island, Flower Forest is laid out in a series of paths taking visitors through carefully planted areas. Each section has a rather precious-sounding alliterative name: Richard’s Rise, Fritz’s Fruits, Helen’s Heleconias, Will’s Walk, and so on. There’s an aura of upper-middle-class British gardening mania to the place, yet the twee-sounding names can’t diminish the stunning views of Mt. Hillaby and Chalky Mount from Liv’s Lookout or the vista over Mary’s Meadow to the hills beyond.
The view from Mary’s Meadow
I’d expected the Flower Forest to be all about, well, flowers, but in fact landscaping is the big draw. While there are lovely stands of red ginger, heliconia, bougainvillea, hibiscus, giant begonias, and other flowering plants spread throughout the garden, landscaping is the real star, with attention-grabbing palms swaying in the breeze at the edge of overlooks, and artfully assembled groups comprised of contrasting shapes and textures. Tropical stalwarts such as breadfruit trees, African Tulip trees, yuccas, powder puff trees, screw pines, and cassia trees play off one another nicely in an organized riot of every shade of green imaginable. One of the nicest effects, I thought, was in the Palm Walk, where the sturdy palms make a strong visual statement:
Along the Palm Walk
Flower Forest has been such a success that its owners have opened a second garden, Orchid World, in another part of the island. My knowledgeable taxi driver, Mr. Hinds, was of the opinion that Orchid World is the finer of the two gardens, but I can only offer his opinion, having never seen it myself.
Getting to Flower Farm is not really an easy matter, as it’s in an area that, by Barbadian standards, is somewhat remote. However, the good news is that several interesting places, most notably Harrison’s Cave and Welchman Hall Gully, are nearby. Then, too, part of the charm of visiting Flower Forest is driving through the Scotland District, which was so named because early settlers said it reminded them of Scotland. (Not, I must say, any part of Scotland that I’ve ever seen.) Regardless of whether it resembles Scotland or not, the ruggedly hilly district has a different feel than the rest of the island, and I highly recommend visiting it.