A January 2004 trip
to Barbados by Idler
Quote: Held in six different venues around the island, the Barbados Jazz Festival is seven sun-warmed days and starlit nights of intoxicating music.
It is very family-friendly, better-than-average all-inclusive resort with attractive grounds and beachfront. There is a wide variety of cuisine at five restaurants and a nightclub and entertainment nights. They have a good variety of activities, splendid pool facilities, and excellent Kid’s Club facilities.
Resort Experience:The Almond Beach Village, an all-inclusive resort on the northwest coast, caters to young couples who take a low-key approach to paradise, relaxing by the pool while their offspring play in the nanny-supervised daycare facility. A good hour’s drive from most of the Jazz Festival venues, the chief gripe of the press members housed here was the long commute by bus. Still, by the week’s end, most of us had grown fond of the place, particularly Enid’s Restaurant, which became a favorite dinner spot.
For one thing, the setting is lovely. Mornings I’d rise to walk along the beach to witness the glorious sunrise. Almond Beach wisely provides numerous beachside lounge areas, taking full advantage of the island’s natural beauty. Then, too, the resort is reasonably close to public transportation should you care to go AWOL from the resort as I did. The activities desk coordinates an array of reasonably priced day trips, and I spoke to several guests who had enjoyed these excursions. It was nice, too, to have such a wide variety of dining choices on site, though advance booking are required for the two most upscale restaurants, The Horizon and La Smaritta.
Still, I felt I wasn’t making the most of the resort experience. In truth, I may be unsuited to such a thing: I’m a do-it-yourselfer of the first stripe and restless to boot. An all-inclusive resort’s chief draw is that guests literally don’t have to do a thing. This resort, on the whole, succeeds in providing a carefree environment, though not of five-star caliber. It is, in short, a nice resort, but you’d want to be sure to get a discount or package and not pay rack rate. (That is precisely what many of the guests had done.)
My spacious room gave no cause for complaint. The decor had a standard-issue tropical theme; the air-conditioner was cold; and the shower was hot. There was a puzzling number of staff hanging listlessly about, though they were all quite pleasant. A slight aura of colonial days lingers, with the staff virtually all black and the majority of the visitors from the U.K.
If you were to ask me what this resort’s trump card is, I’d unhesitatingly say swimming pools. No fewer than five pool areas, each gorgeous, dot the property. I was amused to note that, though the resort wasn’t crowded, certain individuals would set out towels early at prime spots beneath pergolas or shade trees. They’d stake out their territory and lounged in the same spot each day.
While the appeal of sitting poolside day after day eludes me, there are clearly any number of people who regard this as the sine qua non of vacation experiences. If baking a deep brown in a lounge chair, a John Grisham novel in one hand and a piña colada in the other and the kids off being entertained elsewhere is your ideal vacation, then Almond Beach Village has your number.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on November 29, 2004
Almond Beach Village
Restaurant | "Alfresco delights at the Atlantis Hotel"
There aren’t many places to dine in Bathsheba, but the venerable Atlantic Hotel (est. 1884), which specializes in "ABC," or "All Bajan Cuisine," pulls out all the stops on Wednesdays and Sundays, when locals and visitors flock to the special buffet lunch. As I was visiting on a Tuesday, however, this did me little good. Happily, a set price menu for BD$35 offered a choice of tasty entrées.
When I entered the restaurant from the sun-drenched patio, it took a moment to adjust to the dim interior. At least on a Tuesday, the dining room of the Atlantis is a quiet place. A few waiters lounged by the entrance, while a sprinkling of couples and older patrons sat at tables, clearly relishing the peace and relative quiet.
I say relative quiet because the pounding surf was an ever-present accompaniment. At first, I requested a table on the outdoor terrace, but when the wind suddenly rose and sent napkins, menus, and other items sailing, I asked to be seated indoors. I still had a view of Tent Bay, with its anchored fishing boats bobbing up and down, but was protected from the stiffening breeze.
The luncheon menu at the Atlantis is not elaborate. Among the choices were a lamb, chicken, and fish entrée–the fish being the ubiquitous flying fish done so well in Barbados. (In fact, I’m not entirely sure that it isn’t the national dish. It certainly deserves to be.) Having already had flying fish several times that week, I was nevertheless happy to order it again. The fish fillets were tender and flavorful, and for a change, they were not fried as I’d had them before. Flying fish stops just short of being fishy, yet has character that milder fish, such as flounder, lacks.
The entrée was preceded by a choice of an appetizer. I chose vegetable soup, which turned out to be a creamy pumpkin (or perhaps squash) concoction, pureed and very gently seasoned. The fish was accompanied with island-style seasoned rice and lentils (or "peas" as they are called locally), squash and carrots, breadfruit, fish cakes (small spicy fritters), and a salad of greens and chilled cooked plantains served with a piquant lime/onion sauce. I particularly relished the nutty, dense breadfruit slices. I concluded this "just enough" meal with Bajan fruitcake (more like a spice cake than American fruitcake) and coffee. Everything was well prepared, and the service was unobtrusively attentive.
I lingered over the meal, finding myself mesmerized by the view of the crashing surf, intensely blue sea, and swaying palm trees. While I had better meals in Barbados, I can honestly say that none were in such a striking setting.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 29, 2004
Attraction | "Weekend Jazz at Farley Hill"
Bajans, with typical flair, make this weekend one of the highlights of the social season. Groups of friends and families set up lawn chairs and sun umbrellas, spread blankets, and cart groaning picnic baskets and beer-laden coolers. The mood is that of a large (very large) family reunion: hugging, air-kissing, and back-slapping abound as friends greet one another and the "see and be seen" set makes the rounds.
One large area near the entrance features vendors of all types: fruit stands, balloon and trinket sellers, CD booths, and local craft displays. On my way to find jazz festival T-shirts, I’m sidetracked by a table of lovely jewelry made from sea-polished glass the color of the warm Caribbean Sea. Another detour, prompted by the tantalizing smell of barbecued chicken, leads me to apron-clad cooks serving up mouthwatering Bajan cuisine.
Did I mention that there was music at this shindig? Oh, yeah, bay-bee. Make no mistake about it.
I played the truant from the jazz festival on Saturday morning, and by the time I arrived at Farley Park, musicians such as Kem and Richard Bona had already gotten the crowd into the groove. Hiroshima, a Japanese jazz-fusion group featuring unorthodox instruments, such as the delicate Japanese koto and dramatic taiko drums, were well into a set displaying both rhythmic virtuosity and an imaginative blend of R&B, jazz, and Japanese musical traditions.
Saturday’s final performance was a crowd-pleasing set by Poncho Sanchez and his crack nine-piece group featuring lots of brass and percussion. Sanchez’ playful renditions of tunes such as One Mint Julep and Out of Sight were crisp and on the mark. The heady mix of Afro-Latin rhythms soon had everybody up, arms waving in the air, with impromptu groups of friends and complete strangers demonstrating their best salsa moves.
While it was hard to imagine that Saturday’s concert could be better, on Sunday the festival closed with a line-up of smooth jazz favorites. Steve Oliver revved the crowd with guitar licks and smooth jazz vocals while the gospel-inspired music of a local singer, Dana, seemed an apt choice for this church-on-Sunday Bajan audience. Soulful blues guitarist Kal David had the folks at the front of the stage totally in the palm of his hand, dedicating one song to Barbados Jazz Festival producer Gilbert Rowe, a man who looms large on the Barbados music scene. Finally, the veteran group FourPlay brought the festival to the finish line with a set of polished smooth jazz, a fitting conclusion to a festival where smooth jazz and popular music had predominated.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 29, 2004
Farley Hill House
Monday night’s concert was held on the grounds of the Sunbury Plantation House, an atmospheric site steeped in history. The great house was floodlit by dramatic blue spotlights, which cast a romantic glow onto the surrounding palm trees and lush tropical foliage, while behind the mansion, vast reception tents and seating in folding chairs accommodated the throngs of festival guests. As the jazz festival is a highlight of the Bajan social season, the crowd on opening night seemed as intent on schmoozing in the catering tents and meeting and greeting as they were on listening to a trio headed by jazz pianist Joe Sample and the Erroll Bradshaw Jazz Project. Still, Sample’s humorous reminiscences of a promised collaboration with jazz megastar George Benson drew appreciative laughter. Even the snarl of BMW’s and Benzes making an exodus after the concert didn’t dampen the spirits of islanders and visitors clearly intent on having a good time.
The hometown crowd turned out en masse for Tuesday night’s concert at The Rum Factory in Heritage Park. Again, the outdoor setting was festive, with the facade of the converted four-square Rum Refinery cast in a dramatic green floodlights. Having learned my lesson the previous evening, I sat closer to the stage and further away from the party-hardy set, and this made all the difference in my enjoyment of what turned out to be a rousing concert featuring Adrian ‘Boo’ Husbands and Michael Cheeseman.
Husbands and his friends, clearly delighted to be playing before an international audience, gave it their all in a rollicking performance that showcased Husbands’ proficiency in such varied instruments as the flute, recorder, trombone, and (I kid you not) a conch shell. Yes, this was definitely a concert with an infectious Caribbean twist, as Husbands, along with keyboardist Miles Robertson, talented vocalists Colleen Brewster and Tamara Washington, assorted congo players, guitarists, and a drummer nick-named "The Cookie Monster," delivered kick-ass renditions of such standards as Summertime, Ain’t No Sunshine (When She’s Gone), and A Few of My Favorite Things, the latter a scat-inspired litany of Bajan delights.
Cheeseman’s smooth set seemed almost dour in comparison; I have to say, though, to his credit, he delivered a more jazz-oriented set. But both Cheeseman and Husbands were born and raised on Barbados, and the supportiveness of the clearly partisan audience was as much an indicator of the future of jazz on the island as the depth of talent on display.
Wednesday night brought out the big guns of the festival, Herbie Hancock, along with bassist Scott College, saxophonist Ron Thomas, and drummer Teri Lyne Carrington. Hancock was perhaps the only artist delivering what hardcore jazz fans were grousing was missing from the line-up-straight-up, undiluted jazz. Unfortunately, the venue for this concert, set on a hillside behind the Sherborne Conference Center, was less than ideal. For one thing, the audience sat downhill from the stage, making the sight lines from the rear problematic. Another member of the press group and I, after waiting fruitlessly to find out if the designated press seating was available, ended up perched uncomfortably on stone steps far from the stage. When our backsides grew numb, we roamed along the side of the crowd, where the antics of the champagne-fueled social set nearly drowned out the music. Needless to say, we weren’t able to concentrate on-or even see-Hancock’s performance.
Liz Wright, who opened for Hancock, also suffered from the venue; her soaring but intimate vocals were more suited to a small club, and in fact, I resolved to hear her again if ever she comes to a local venue. Still, this concert got the thumbs-up vote from the jazz journalists who squeezed their way down to the jam-packed area in front of the stage. "Herbie was in fine form tonight!" was the general consensus.
Speaking of the press group, we were treated to a wonderful cocktail reception hosted by the Barbados Tourism Authority on Thursday night. Many of the Bajan musicians who had performed with Adrian ‘Boo’ Husbands on Tuesday were on hand, with the addition of multi-talented jazz artist Nicholas Brancker, vocalist T.C. Coward (the self-proclaimed Party Girl of Barbados), and several local steel-pan players. This showcase of local talent was not wasted on the appreciative audience-nor was the delicious Bajan cuisine. The Party Girl shimmied and flashed mega-watt smiles, Brancker and his band delivered feel-good Caribbean-infused jazz, and the island itself provided caressing breezes. What a night!
The sole indoor concert, in Sir Garfield Sobers Gymnasium, was Friday night’s performance featuring tenor sax player Kirk Whalum and pop-artist India Arie. I have to say, again, that this was not the best of venues; the cavernous gymnasium suffered in comparison to the charming outdoor venues, and the acoustics were problematic.
Early into Whalum’s opening set, the sound went out for nearly 10 minutes. The ever-obliging Whalum didn’t let this damp his style; in fact, the outage provided one of the evening’s highlights as Whalum took his sax, and considerable sex appeal, down into the audience, serenading swooning ladies and leading a call-and-response gospel-style jazz revival. Later, a long religious soliloquy left me cold; it was patently easy to rev this church-going crowd by invoking "Jesus."
India Arie continued to mine that vein of local religious sentiment in her set, which featured a memorable duet with her mother. The crowd had clearly come to hear her chart-topping hits such as Interested and Brown Skin, and Arie obliged, with her performance lasting nearly 100 minutes. While there were a few awkward moments on stage involving wardrobe mishaps (though not the X-rated kind), forgotten song lyrics, and equipment adjustment, the crowd remained in adulatory mode, clapping and singing along with their favorite songs.
The one experience I missed out on, regrettably, was the post-show jazz scene in lively St. Lawrence Gap. Since I was staying, along with many other press group members, at Almond Beach Resort in the northwestern part of Barbados, getting to the southern tip of the island after the concerts was problematic. The press-group bus, chauffeured by a preternaturally patient driver we dubbed "St. Rick," took us back to the hotel, which was usually about an hour’s drive from most of the concert sites. Usually it was well after 11pm by the time we returned. Ain’t it hell when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak? A nightcap at the bar and the beckoning soft bed won out every time.
There are two types of buses on Barbados: the blue ones with a yellow stripe, or government buses, and smaller yellow ones with blue stripes, which are privately run. While both offer inexpensive, efficient transport to most major destinations on the island, the privately-run buses seem to run more frequently, plus they offer something the government buses don’t-a stereophonic ride.
Boarding a private bus headed toward Bridgetown, I’m lucky to find a seat, or a portion of a seat at any rate, perched next to an elderly man and his capacious shopping bags. The bus is filled with rambunctious kids who were just let out of school. Wearing prim school uniforms and starched white shirts, the kids are bouncing in their seats, singing along to a reggae tune blasting from the boom box positioned next to the driver. Noticing that I’m noticing them, they ham it up, waving arms in the air and mugging for the camera.
As we wind our way through the street of Bridgetown, it becomes clear that being a bus driver in Barbados is as much about socializing as earning money. Drivers fraternally toot and wave at each passing bus driver, not to mention numerous acquaintances on the street and in cars. There’s none of the boxed-in "this is my private space in my vehicle" feeling among motorists here; instead, they view passing through town as an opportunity to check out the local scene and catch up on the latest news.
After I get off the bus near the central market, I’m still feeling the pulsating beat of the bus. It’s late afternoon and not much is happening at the market. With no cruise ship yet in port, the vendors at the trinket stands are casually attending their wares. It seems to me (though I’m admittedly partial) that the Bajans display a particular flair, I’d even go so far as to say a sense of humor, in the way they market their wares. I’m on a quest to find a sew-on patch featuring the striking blue-and-yellow Bajan flag. For years I’ve decorated backpacks and carry-on bags with souvenir patches, and though at this point there’s scarcely a square inch that remains undecorated, finding these patches has become something of a ritual.
Alas, there’s not a single sew-on patch among all the souvenir trinkets, so after a half-hour’s search, I venture to the Bridge Hotel, where the second-floor veranda overlooks the Careenage. The beverage of choice on the island is Banks beer, a better-than-average Caribbean brew with a fierce marketing campaign. There’s even a Banks beer trail (collect stamps from participating pubs and restaurants on a beer trail card to earn prizes such as T-shirts; hats; and, naturally, beer mugs).
As I nurse my beer and watch the activity below, I ponder the mix of contradictions that is Barbados. Here’s an island where, or so I’m informed, there are no fewer than 365 churches-"One for every day of the week!"-and over 1,200 rum shops, those picturesque hangouts favored by the local men. (Bajan women, I take it, are more inclined to hang out at church.)
Finishing my beer, I take another desultory turn around the market. I’m one of those unfortunate souls who can’t drink alcohol in temperatures over 80°F without turning bright red and perspiring copiously. A large covered market nearby , nearly deserted in the late afternoon, provides welcome shade. Back outside, a woman at a fruit stand gestures hopefully toward her piles of grapefruit (the fruit is said to have originated on Barbados), while nearby a less-enterprising yam vendor catches 40 winks.
I make the mistake of boarding a private bus that is not blasting music. Instead, the driver is obviously a cricket fan, as are many of the passengers. They lean forward eagerly in their seats as they listen to a broadcast of a cricket match. Now, I just have to say that I managed to live right next to the Sidney Sussex college’s cricket field in Cambridge, England for over a year and never did manage to grasp the basic principles of the game. So it should come as no surprise to you to learn that I find the cricket bus, unlike the reggae bus, to be a soporific rather than an invigorating experience. When I get off the bus near the lovely fishing pier at Speightstown (pronounced "Spikestown"), I vow to never, ever get on a Bajan bus that doesn’t feature music.
A day or so later, I’m back in Speightstown to catch a bus south to Holetown. The buses ply the coast between Bridgetown in the south and Speightstown in the north, a stretch of road that passes posh resorts and gorgeous beaches. It’s an easy matter to hop off the bus whenever something catches my eye. Spotting a promising-looking beach, I disembark, toting my snorkeling gear, but it turns out that the water is uncharacteristically murky, so I opt instead to take a walk along the road to see what I can see.
Mostly what I see are the walls of sequestered resorts, but just when I’m beginning to despair, I spot a group of men just up ahead on the sidewalk. One hefts a massive machete, picks a green coconut up from a pile beside him, and neatly lops the top off the coconut with one practised swipe. As I approach, he holds out the coconut and offers it to me. Gratefully, I drink the clear, cool liquid as the man introduces himself. His name, he tells me, is Waynee, and he has a favor to ask: "Can you find me a sweet woman?"
This isn’t a come-on line I realize. My newfound friend is genuinely troubled, "These women here, they don’t give me a chance." I’ve seen the local woman (some, indeed, are formidable specimens), and I empathize with his plight. "I don’t know anyone here your age," I gently counsel, "but I tell you what: I’m going to write an article on Barbados, and maybe someone who reads it will be interested."
So, ladies, here’s your chance. If you happen to travel to Barbados and are in need of a little company, just ask for Waynee at any of the shops or local hangouts in Holetown. He assures me he's well known and has many friends. While I can’t vouch for his solvency, particularly since he’s apt to giving things away, I can at least vouch that he’s a congenial character, certainly good for a chat over a coconut or two.
Refreshed by my draught, I wave goodbye to Waynee & Co. and set out down the road. Within moments, I hear the strains of island music. Under an awning beside the beach, a band of steel-pan drummers entertain guests at a waterfront café. I perch on a pylon, enjoying the complimentary concert, the musical rhythms offset by the gentle sound of the surf.
Soon it’s time to flag down another bus and head back to the resort for dinner. Declining a ride in a cricket bus, I'm rewarded with the next bus–a day-glow fantasy of detail work, music blasting from the open windows. I find a seat to the strains of:
"A’hm get-tin MAHR-ried in de MOR-nin . . .
Ding dong dem church bells a-gonna chime . . ."
It’s a reggae version of the tune from My Fair Lady done Caribbean style. I’m listening intently to the improvised lyrics, which rhapsodize over the prospective bride and her (ahem) physical attributes.
I lean forward and shout to the driver, "What’s the name of the guy doing this song?" He shoots me a quizzical look in the rearview mirror (crazy tourist lady asking crazy questions), but hands back a CD. The young boy next to me solicitously points to the track I’m asking about: The singer is Yellow Man. "Thank you!" I shout, passing the CD back to the driver, who flashes a grin in response.
Moments later, I begin laughing, for the next tune blasting from the boom-box is a hilarious reprisal of the first:
"A’hm get-tin’ DEE-vorced in de EVE-nin’…"
Only in the Caribbean, I tell myself, and only on a reggae bus.