Barbados: island relaxation

Take life as it comes on the eastern Caribbean’s rummest island

Barbados: island relaxation Relax on a stunning Barbadian beach - © Kuoni
By Nina Caplan

You’ve heard of slow travel, but how about a static holiday? Nina Caplan learns the art of shootin’ de breeze.

The Barbadian experience

People keep fleeing Barbados, which seems odd. Warm air and rumpled palms welcome the tired traveller. A tepid turquoise ocean suggests idealised luxury; even the Atlantic, on the western seaboard of this most easterly of Caribbean islands, has nothing in common with the grey mass of turbulence at Land’s End.

But the list of departees is long. The Amerindians were chased out by Venezuelan Caribs, who in turn were conquered by the Spanish. In 1627, the British appeared and stayed 300 years. Now they’ve gone – give or take a few thousand tourists a year – and the Bajans are the landlords.

The Caribs gave their name to the world’s loveliest sea but they had questionable eating habits. One choice dish was barbecued captive, doused in cassava beer. These days, the biggest shock on a Bajan menu will likely be the reference to dolphin – eco-Brits would probably prefer sautéed Homo sapiens – but Barker, the burly fisherman who brings in daily delicacies for the guests of Cobblers Cove Hotel, reassured me: dolphin is just a local name for dorado.

Barbadian cuisine

Opposite a rum shack called St Elmo’s, I watched a man filleting a gargantuan creature. Beside him, a woman calmly slit and gutted flying fish, which resemble herrings, and with cou-cou (couscous with okra) constitute Barbados’s national dish. Yes, the man said, his fish was dolphin. I peered worriedly but could detect no evidence of a beak. He gently shooed me away, then brought his knife down with a thwack that took the tail straight off. I beat a hasty retreat to St Elmo’s.

This insalubrious joint, with iron chairs and palm pots full of beercaps and fag-ends, is a tippling house – a basic boozer for beach folk .There are still around 1,000 of them, some, like Nigel Benn Auntie Bar – a hut the size of a luxury coffin adorned with ads for Old Brigand rum – are curiosities well worth visiting. The octogenarian owner, whose devoted nephew bought her the bar out of his boxing winnings, doesn’t say much, and I never saw her drink, which – given that she barely looks 60 – makes her the kind of advert for abstemiousness that her customers are clearly adept at ignoring. 

Rum: a history

Sugar cane was initially turned into rum for local consumption, until someone realised that all you needed for a cash crop was a vast amount of indentured labour. The first wave was made up of dispossessed Scots or Irishmen, sent to the ‘richest spote of ground in the worlde’ as punishment for wanting to call a poorer ‘spote’ their own. Perhaps this is why there has been less racial antagonism than elsewhere in the Caribbean: the first blacks here were white.

At St Nicholas Abbey, a gracious, gabled seventeenth-century plantation house where you’ll find the Caribbean’s only working sugar mill, our guide put a benign gloss on the matter. ‘Why should we be bitter about slavery?’ she exclaimed. ‘I’d rather be here than Africa – wouldn’t you?’ And she zapped any lingering doubts with tots of excellent rum.

In Barbados, plan your day as you might, you will wind up with a glass of rum in hand, wondering whether the shimmer above the palm trees is heat haze or blurred vision. Rum is the legacy of those early settlers, a mongrel mixture of planters, servants and slaves, working at making drink and then drinking to forget work.

All-day rum consumption gets easier with practice, but it’s wise to consume a few solids between training sessions. The beautiful beachfront restaurant at Cobblers Cove serves homemade bread and ice cream as well as Barker’s fresh catch, and has a weekly ‘seafood and caviar’ evening and a lobster lunch. The crustaceans and caviar, like the Chablis and vodka that accompany them, are flown in, but fish markets dot the island.

Leisurely nights...

I walked down the beach to little Speightstown to visit the new Folk Museum. Popping in to Cassareep Café opposite for a bit of pre-culture sustenance, I wound up with a vast grilled fish roti – the unleavened Indian bread that has travelled further than the hardiest adventurer – for BBD$17 (about £5), and by the time I had eaten, chatted to the owner and gazed my fill on the ocean alongside, the museum was shut and it was nearly dinner time. I adjourned to the Waterfront Café in Bridgetown, which has tables on the Marina and a perky jazz band and serves Bajan fish cakes, bul jol (salted cod salad with lime), the ubiquitous cou-cou and flying fish, and dolphin.

I did actually dance that night but in general I was becoming the ultimate rummed-up beach bum: idle, sun-soaked, slow moving. Even getting from poolside to restaurant started to feel like an effort.

...and days

A catamaran daytrip was welcome, not just for the breeze – but because the lack of space on board absolved me of the need to move at all. I bestirred myself enough to swim with hawksbill and greenback turtles and then hit the deck for some more lying around. Reclining by the pool one day, I heard voices: it was not rum-induced psychosis but gospel singing from the nearest church, which told me (no movement necessary) that it was Sunday. At that point, I started to wonder whether all those people who’d left Barbados did so because they knew if they didn’t go fast they never would.

The cemetery of St John’s church, founded in 1645, is a breathtakingly beautiful spot, high on a hill facing Africa – a poignant viewpoint, surely, for black churchgoers, although as it was initially forbidden to convert slaves (since one Christian may not enslave another) it would have been a while before there were any. Wandering through the churchyard, I was brought up short first by a sundial (surely in a cemetery time is irrelevant?), then by a rare Barbadian ebony tree, known as shack-shack – or woman’s tongue, because of its incessantly rattling pods. Even in a graveyard, there’s no escaping prejudice.

The living Bajans I met weren’t exactly gadabouts. While picking my way through Animal Flower Cave, a hollow section of the northern cliff christened in honour of the touch-sensitive sea anemones that inhabit its pools, I met a couple from west Barbados on their first trip north. Our driver, Timothy, had never visited several of the places he took us, and he’s a lifelong inhabitant of an island with a landmass about a quarter of the size of London and where the main leisure activities are sport, drink, prayer, shootin’ de breeze and, er, leisure activity (‘no television’, shrugged Timothy when I expressed surprise at his 13 siblings). In this place where the wind tastes of Sahara sand and visitors nearly outnumber residents, locals cling firmly to their ‘spote’. And really, the sun gets everywhere, the sea is never far – and the rum is omnipresent. So why move?

Fast facts

Getting there

BA (www.ba.com) and Vitgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com) fly to Barbados from several UK airports. Fares start from around £650 return.

Package deals

Kuoni (01306 747008, www.kuoni.co.uk) offers seven nights B&B at Cobblers Cove in a superior suite, including flights with British Airways, plus transfers, from £1,950 per person based on two sharing.

Where to eat & drink

Eat chicken roti at Cassareep Café, Speightstown (www.cassareep.net). Drink rum, aka ‘Barbados water’, all day, everywhere, in tippling houses such as Nigel Benn Auntie Bar (near Bellaplaine) or the elegant curved bar of Cobblers Cove.

Things to do

Visit the fishmarket in Bridgetown. It's the island’s biggest and has women filleting flying fish so quickly you can’t see their hands move.

Cultural baggage

Read

George Lamming, ‘In the Castle of My Skin’, fiction set against the Bajan Independence riots of the 1930s.

Watch

‘Island in the Sun’: a daring (for 1957) James Mason and Joan Collins film exploring mixed-race romances. It was filmed partly in Barbados but set on the fictional island of Santa Marta.

Listen

To ska, reggae or calypso – Rough Guide does several good primers – or get tangential with Elvis Costello’s ‘Secret, Profane and Sugarcane’.

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Comments

By André Viveiros - Feb 21 2013

Cou cou is not cous cous!! Cous cous is Moroccan and a grain. Cou cou is green boiled plantains pounded to a paste in a mortar.

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By Bill Gardiner - Jul 4 2012

Nina Caplan writes: ..."even the Atlantic, on the western seaboard of this most easterly of Caribbean islands". I think you will find the Atlantic is on the EASTERN seaboard; the Caribbean is on the western side. And the two coastlines are quite different.

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By online reise - Dec 31 2011

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By Rodolfo - Jan 31 2011

Liked your article, thanks for sharing.
I am an avid traveler and author of world destinations.
Visit this website for travel information and great vacations ideas.
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By Denis Kellman - Sep 28 2010

With reference to your article.... "Barbados Cuisine"... I would like to inform you that St. Elmo's Moon Town is situated in the north of Barbados and is the smallest town that can be found anywhere in the world. It is by square footage the most dynamic town with the most customers worldwide. It is not a "Shack" by no stretch of your imagination. (As stated in your article)
At St. Elmo's Moon Town, you can find a supermarket, a bakery, a night club, a restaurant, hardware store and a deli. It is a convenience that customers do not have to pay for.

It is evident that Moon Town is a place to work, live and shop because of the competitive prices, spacious surroundings and warm hospitality.
You can feel free to google Moontown Barbados to see what we have to offer... in terms of building and services... All for your information and guidance...

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By st. elmo's enterprises inc. - Sep 28 2010

Thanks for your piece on St. elmo's. It happens to be known also as "moontown". It has the best prices on banks beer anywhere in the world 6/$10 and the best seacat. It is also the vacationers dream, where you get everything in one place. check us at moontownbarbados.com 4391927 2300483

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By Steve Henfrey - Sep 24 2010

Cou-cou is made from corn flour (polenta) and okra
cf http://www.totallybarbados.com/barbados/About_Barbados/Local_Information/Barbados_Food/Barbados_Recipes/7072.htm

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