I don’t why I should be remembering a visit to Barbados in the middle of an English heatwave – who needs the Caribbean when the weather’s balmy at home? But I loved the place – and this is part of a travel article I wrote after a visit a few years ago.
Barbados is arguably the most beautiful host to any democracy on Earth – a place where local fishermen sit shoulder to shoulder with international celebrities in rum bars built on stilts overlooking palm-fringed bays, an isle where the great outdoor happy-go-lucky Caribbean culture is celebrated communally by rich and poor alike.
Travel by powerboat down the “Platinum Coast”, as the western shoreline is sometimes known, and the local skipper will point out villas and mansions in a litany that sounds like a contents-listing for Hello magazine.
Yet tucked between the multi-million-dollar homes belonging to the mega-rich and famous you will see the fish markets, shacks and rum bars that add the vital and wholly enjoyable touch of local colour, without which any location soon becomes bland and wearisome.
From a visitor perspective at least, Barbados does local colour better than any other island in the Caribbean. Why? Because Barbados is friendly. I know of staggeringly beautiful islands in those warm seas where that is not the case – where, no matter how fine the views, there is an edge that has you watching your back. Indeed, some don’t bother offering visitors local colour at all – you find yourself spending a week trapped in some lovely but boring gated resort sealed from reality.
Barbados is the opposite. It is very real, very exciting and very lovely to look at. You can step from the cocooned air-conditioned luxury of your hotel into a shack that passes for a bar and feel as snug as you would in an Exmoor pub.
Which actually isn’t stretching an analogy too far because you will, surprisingly, hear Somerset accents in some of the more remote parishes of Barbados. An historian told me this is because a whole bunch of Westcountry hot-heads were deported to the island after the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 – and they obviously passed on their slow burr to the slaves on the sugar plantations…
getting out of the haven and into the heated, pleasant, always jolly, maelstrom of Bajan life somehow highlights the charm of the hotel. Leaving the luxury-zone is a very easy and altogether joyful thing to do – all the happy resident need do is stroll half a lovely mile along the white sand beach under the palms to turn a coastal corner into Speightstown.
After a few rum punches and a fried flying fish or two in the Fisherman’s Pub perched on stilts above the lapping Caribbean you’ll find yourself gently falling into the laid back mañana attitude for which this island is so renowned.
If you wanted the shake of the idyllic torpor you could visit the town’s new museum and learn all about the sugar plantations and the slave trade on which the island’s economy was originally built.
At Speightstown we’re in the parish of St Peter, which is one of the most northerly parts of the island, but of course a trip around the entire 166 squares miles is a must – so too is a visit to one of the old plantations where you can learn more history and buy single estate rum.
Barbados, like a football match, is a game of two halves. This odd statement is actually highly relevant to sightseers going around the island because you can basically divide the place east and west.
The West Coast has fabulous beaches and safe calm seas, and as a result is fairly built up. One of the best ways of seeing it and learning all about those famous celebrities is to cruise up the coast in one of the many charter boats. We enjoyed a day out in a sleek catamaran called Silvermoon – the crew were a joy and kept us wined and dined for hours, stopping here and there so we could dive over reefs and meet gentle giant sea turtles.
The East, or Atlantic, Coast is breezy and beautifully wild. Its rugged terrain sweeps down to miles of untouched, windswept beaches bordered by rough seas.
Swimming here is not recommended, but walking most definitely is. There’s even a disused railway line that takes you along the scenic cliff-tops safely away from traffic. It was opened in 1881, closed in 1937, and makes for an ideal hiking route.
I was delighted – and amazed – to discover just how empty the east coast is. It is no exaggeration to say that the 20-mile long littoral is one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world – but you can walk for an hour or two without seeing a soul.
Tucked just behind the booming beach in a particularly green, hilly and scenic bit of the island is tiny remote Shorey Village where we visited Aunty Benn’s Bar – the aunty involved being the female relation of the boxer Nigel Benn.
What you get is a concrete shack boasting a counter and two homemade stools, but this belies the great charm of the place which seems fossilised in the steamy sugary syrup of the Bajan rural idyll. This is where I heard local men talking in a pure Somerset dialect – albeit one with a touch of Africa about its vowels.
Further down the coast we called in at beautiful peaceful Bathsheba where a stately church on a hill looks down upon a windswept tropical beach-fringed paradise – and where I was tempted to make permanent retirement plans.
From here we headed due west across the widest part of the island to descend the low hills to the capital. Apart from its famous cricket stadium where I was lucky enough to watch two of the 20-20 World Cup matches earlier this summer (and what an altogether heady experience that was) Bridgetown boasts an amazing array of shops as well as some fine restaurants.
The most pleasant of these are located down in the Waterfront area where jazz musicians mingle with waiters to bring you an entire musical and culinary experience in the heat under the stars.