Our driver, Kevin, is wringing his hands. We have stopped in Barbados’ historic Speightstown to take photographs but he is concerned about me wandering off alone.
“You could get lost,” he frets.
I look up and down at Speightstown’s sole two streets, their rainbow-coloured houses bathed in the afternoon sun.
“Kevin, I don’t think I could get lost if I tried,” I say, but Kevin cannot be comforted. “I’ve got lost in a two-street town before. I went round and round in circles.”
Barbados is teeny, only 22 by 33 kms but to Kevin, who has grown up here, size doesn’t matter. Every time we pass through one of the island’s 11 parishes he slows down, pointing out a barely perceptible change in landscape or even accent.
Not that he is unusual. Listening to Barbadians generally, you sense there is a kind of island dysmorphia here.
People buy beachside weekenders even though they live only 20 minutes from the beach. A hill is “a mountain” and people sigh about the enormity of having to cross the island as if it were the Nullabor.
Despite their tiny population, 280,000, national pride is also off the radar. They boast of their potable water, stable political system, investment in cultural activities, health care, economy, golf courses, how the whole island will have WiFi by the end of the year and how they speak better English than their old colonial masters.
Actually they have a point there. Even Kevin expressed his disapproval at someone saying: “reverse backwards”. In a country where kids are educated free, right through university, tautology is not to be tolerated.
Celebrities from Sting to Simon Callow
While Caribbean neighbours may battle with reputations for high crime rates, Barbados has no such problem just one of the reasons why celebrities from Sting to Simon Callow flock here every summer.
There was a time when this would have caused huge excitement. In 1966 Diana Ross had to abandon a concert to celebrate the nation’s independence such was the crowd’s enthusiasm. These days, however, Bajans take a more laissez faire approach. They have their own celebrities and perhaps herein lies the real key to their national pride and expectations of batting, literally, above their weight.
Over dinner that night at Champers, a restaurant with panoramic views over the south coast, one of those celebrities Sir Garfield Sobers attempts to explain it. “Barbados is the NSW of the West Indies cricket team. When Barbados is doing well, the West Indies does well,” he says. There were nine Bajans in the team that dominated the world during the 80s and 90s and didn’t lose a Test in 15 years. Beating England for the first time seems to have been particularly impactful on Bajan psychology. It perhaps explains why they aren’t bothered by the obvious legacies left by their old colonial masters from the street names to an old statue of Lord Nelson in Bridgewater city centre.
Nelson was a notable supporter of slavery and a race supremacist. Why don’t they pull it down? “We have a lot of British tourists. It’s a sideshow,” our guide chuckles.
Cricket in Barbados
The Bajans love their cricketing heroes. Sobers says you can always tell if one of them is hanging out at a rum shop by the crowds and runs off a list of cricketing who’s whos you might bump into. Even Wes Hall isn’t averse to a shot. “I asked him how he can drink now he is a reverend,” Sobers chuckles. “He replied: ‘Did Jesus turn the wine into fruit juice?'”
Cricket is an obsession in Barbados. Every conversation leads to cricket, every Saturday afternoon half the population is watching or playing cricket.
We took a tour of Kensington Park , the international-standard cricket ground that was built at great expense for the World Cup and will be in action again for the Test against Australia in March. Over the road is the Cricket Legends museum.
The women are as enthusiastic as the men. Our museum guide is a female cricketing journalist and she points out a display honouring a female commentator. Barbados is pushing cricket hard amongst schoolgirls and while the male team may be languishing in the world rankings, their female counterparts are number two. In fact Barbados’ Deandra Dottin scored the fastest ever century in T-20 – eclipsing the earlier records of Chris Gayle and Brendon McCullum.
Kevin tells me that Bajan women generally are quite daunting. Highly educated and independent, it’s actually surprising that they only rank number two. Apparently they don’t usually settle for second best in anything – including men, he adds darkly.
Speightstown friendly bars and restaurants
Anyway back to Speightstown which, after I escape from Kevin, makes for a pleasant stroll. Amongst the attractions is an interactive museum, Arlington House – one of many good museums on Barbados – which tells the story of the colonisation of this tiny island. The best thing about Speightstown, however, are the friendly bars and restaurants which overlook the azure sea.
Barbados is good for food, “the Epicurean capital of the Caribbean,” apparently. On the west coast, in particular, you can eat as well as you would in any of Australia’s top restaurants. At CinCin’s (my own favourite) for instance, a main course of spicy seared yellow fin tuna with grilled meditaeranean vegetables, lemon caper butter and polenta served with a side-dish of tempura zucchini is particularly remarkable bearing in mind that pretty much everything apart from fish and yams has to be imported.
Alternatively, you can pay around $10 and enjoy Bajan favourites including flying fish cutters, a kind of salt roll, or macaroni pie, a version of macaroni cheese.
Bizarrely for this all-year round tropical climate, Bajans love macaroni pie so much they will eat it every day and everyone has their own favourite recipe. The other thing they like is rum and they like to go to one of their 1200 rum shops to drink it. These are small, brightly coloured bars, mostly situated in old chattel houses – self-assembly dwellings which could be taken apart, transported and put back together by slaves when they were moved from one plantation to another.
You buy a flask and share it with your mates, diluting it with anything from cola to coconut water. Rum shops also serve food to soak up the rum but even so on an afternoon visit, I found the locals to be pretty… well animated.
Island safari of Barbados
A good way to see Barbados is to take an island safari. Perhaps that’s a bit of a misnomer, but all things are relative here, remember. We visited the wild east coast where surfers hang out waiting for waves and then my favourite tourist attraction of all, St Nicholas Abbey – a beautifully preserved former plantation house which provides a real insight into how sugar shaped this tiny island.
In 19th century Barbados, sugar was the equivalent of oil today – to show someone how wealthy you were you invited them for tea, got out your biggest sugar bowl and filled it to the brim. To stay that rich though you needed labour – hence the need for slaves and the abbey still has the ledger, listing the price each slave was thought to be worth when the British government finally got around to abolishing slavery in 1834. A strong man or child bearing woman was valued at $150 an older person as little as $10.
Other references to the slave trade in Barbados are even more gut-churning. The Bridgetown museum has maps of the slave ships detailing the way they were packed in, shoulder to shoulder, head to foot, even on top of one another. There are exhibits of shackles and branding irons and stories of how they were not allowed to marry but mated to produce the strongest workers. The plantation owners themselves weren’t averse to spreading some of their own genes around, the only good thing about that being that they tended to be slightly kinder to the resultant offspring.
I ask Kevin how Bajans now regard slavery. “Oh some people try to get us worked up about it but we’re educated now, I can’t see the point in looking back. We can’t do anything about it,” he says. It’s a frequent comment.
I must admit that halfway through my stay in Barbados I am beginning to feel it is a little sanitised. It’s good to feel safe and to eat in lovely restaurants but it’s not until a visit to Oistins on a Friday night that I finally get some Caribbean partying.
Oistins is a giant fish market on the southern end of the island but on Friday night locals and tourists alike gather here to sit at long shared tables, swallow the local Banks beer and order fish, not long out of the sea, cooked by one of the 30 or so stall holders and served with salad, potatoes and the ubiquitous macaroni pie.
Around us, youngsters break dance while their older peers hold out their arms for a more sedate country dance. On the outskirts, stalls sell locally made craft and teams play dominoes, slamming the cards down with such force they dent the tables.
It is crowded, noisy and lots of fun.
On my last night in Barbados, I walk up the beach on the west coast, passing artists, fishermen and young boys who should be playing cricket but instead ask me to be their Facebook friends and swim out through the startlingly clear, blue water. Small shoals of brightly coloured fish flutter beneath me and before long a turtle appears. They’re apparently used to being fed sardines by the locals and he swims alongside me .
Although this is a relatively busy beach, turtles regularly wander on to the sand to lay their eggs and our hotel chef tells me he even had six baby turtles wander into his kitchen one day.
Anywhere else in the world, I would think that this sounds like kamikaze madness. But not in Barbados. Whatever Kevin might say, the only creature that needs to feel fear here is the one standing opposite their fast bowlers.
Beverley Hadgraft travelled courtesy of Qantas and American Airlines and was a guest of Contours, Barbados Tourism, Fort Worth and Dallas tourism.
Getting to Speightstown, Barbados
Most people fly to Barbados via Miami. However we made the five-hour flight from Dallas/Fort Worth Texas. Qantas now has daily flights to Dallas and a visit to the two makes for a great contrast. Fort Worth has one of the best opera houses in the world, enough top class museums and art galleries to keep you occupied for a week, plenty of cowboy and outlaw culture, the biggest honky tonk in the world and a long horn cattle drive through town every morning. Dallas is a 35-minute drive away and also blessed with great galleries and glitzy shopping malls.
Staying in Speightstown, Barbados
We stayed in the Fairmont Royal Pavillion in St James one of only three chain hotels on the island. The rest are boutique establishments. The hotel is on the beach and has an excellent restaurant and offers free water sports activities including kayaking and stand-up paddle-boarding.
If you’re visiting Barbados, it makes sense to explore a couple of other islands. Melbourne-based Contours Travel, which specialises in Caribbean itineraries, recommends St Lucia, very French and mountainous and Grenada, also known as the Spice Island as it is famous for growing cinnamon, allspice, cocoa and nutmeg. They also have a Calypso Dreams tour which includes Jamaica.