NATURALLY CHARMING BARBADOS
A drive around this Caribbean island proves to be quite the little adventure.
My earliest memories of Barbados are mainly of colours and sounds. The fuchsia ripple of bougainvillea cascading over a stone wall. The yellow-breasted bananaquits that fly into open-air restaurants and alight, brighteyed, on the edges of unattended sugar bowls. The urgent chirps of tree frogs at night and the soft cooing of mourning doves at dawn. The murmur of surf.
It was the first Caribbean island I ever visited, on a family trip in the mid-1970s, and it has shaped my lifelong image of the region.
Not surprisingly, Barbados has changed in the intervening decades. The laid-back west coast resort where my family once stayed is now the opulent Fairmont Royal Pavilion. I can’t quantify it, but the traffic seems heavier— perhaps because this was the first time I drove instead of hopping into a cab or bus.
When I picked up my rental car, the agent asked me if I wanted “tire insurance.” I’d never heard of such a thing, but I generally err on the side of caution when driving abroad. It turns out it was the best $5 I ever spent—but more on that shortly.
GETTING AROUND WITHOUT WHEELS
If you’re planning to spend most of your time in tourist areas, such as the restaurant-and-bars strip of St. Lawrence Gap, you probably won’t need a car. In fact, several companies offer private and small-group tours focusing on golf, caving, snorkelling and more.
I did take an enjoyable tour to the Earthworks pottery studio, where a workforce produces hand-decorated plates, bowls and other items. At the On The Wall Art Gallery in the same complex, owner Vanita Comissiong creates and sells vividly coloured paintings of island life. We capped the visit with jerk chicken paninis and Bajan lemonade in the on-site café.
SO WHY RENT A CAR?
Since I had a free day and wanted to visit several sites in the northern part of the island within a tight timeframe, I rented a car. A friend and I set off in my Kia for a day of navigating roundabouts while driving on the left. I found it strangely tricky to judge the width of the car and the width of the often twisting, bumpy roads. However, after a few close encounters with road edges, I was confident I had the hang of it.
Our first destination was St. Nicholas Abbey, one of the oldest surviving plantation houses in the Caribbean. Built in 1658, it passed through several families— including some forebears of actor Benedict Cumberbatch—before being sold to current owner Larry Warren and his family in 2006.
They are currently building a scenic railway, slated to begin offering short steam-train tours in early 2019. The other major attraction for visitors is the boutique rum distillery. It produces just 45 barrels a year and sells most of that on-site.
In visiting the plantation, I also hoped to improve my understanding of the island’s tragic past. During the trip, I was reading Canadian author Esi Edugyan’s latest novel, Washington Black, the gripping story of an enslaved child who escapes a Barbados plantation in the early 1830s. It made me wonder how visible the island’s history of slavery is to visitors. It’s not prominent, as it happens—but that, too, is changing.
A GLIMPSE INTO HISTORY
At St. Nicholas Abbey, a small display includes copies of an 1822 ledger where human beings were listed in handwritten columns. Even knowing about plantation life in an abstract sense, it’s shocking to see. Our tour guide, Judy Bovell, didn’t dwell on the past—“i want to live in the present,” she remarked—but neither did she shy away from questions. “We’ve got to embrace our history.”
Several other sites on the island, including the Barbados Museum and Historical Society in Bridgetown, also offer exhibitions, events or tours to serve the growing interest among both Bajans and visitors in understanding this sobering aspect of the nation’s heritage.
One other remnant of the past we saw near St. Nicholas Abbey was the Morgan Lewis Windmill, the only operational sugar mill left on the island. Once used to grind sugar cane, it is now open only for special events, however it does command a sweeping view of the island’s rugged east coast, where the Atlantic surf pummels a rocky shore quite unlike the sandy beaches of the south and west coasts.
THE HOME STRETCH
Our next destination was the Barbados Wildlife Reserve, a 1.6-hectare enclave where tortoises, peafowl, brocket deer and other small animals roam free. The stars are the small green monkeys, which are so accustomed to visitors that at least one tried to clamber up my leg when I knelt to take his photo. (I’d keep shiny objects hidden while visiting, if I were you.)
As we finished our visit, rain was threatening, so we pointed the car homeward. We were coming down a hill when I hit a high curb with a jarring thump—and blew a tire.
In a stroke of luck, we were within sight of a gas station, which I slowly coasted into on the now-flat wheel. While I know how to change a tire, doing so would have taken me much longer than the 10 minutes it took the kind station attendant. A bit shaken by our automotive adventures, we headed back to our Bridgetown hotel.
The next day, I nervously returned the car to the rental agency. It was then that I discovered another pleasant sound I will now always associate with Barbados: the voice of the smiling rental agent as he informed me that my $5 tire insurance covered the ruined tire. “Do many visitors blow tires here?” I asked. His grin grew wider. “Oh, yes.” That cheered me up. However, the next time I visit—and I do hope to return— I might leave the driving to others.
OPPOSITE TOP: Try paddleboard yoga on your Bajan holiday. LEFT: Open for special events, St. Nicholas Abbey creates rum of “exceptional quality and provenance.” ABOVE: The Morgan Lewis Windmill is the only operational sugar mill left on the island. Barbados Tourism Authority
BELOW: Small green monkeys at the Barbados Wildlife Reserve. Laura Byrne Paquet RIGHT: Historic Bridgetown. Anton Ivanov/shutterstock BOTTOM CENTRE: Beautiful secluded Rockley Beach, Barbados. Graham Tomlin/shutterstock BOTTOM RIGHT: Barbados is home to one of the oldest race tracks in the Americas. Mat/shutterstock