There is something magic about a sailboat at anchor. The mast sweeps the sky in a gesture of impatience; the rigging waits expectant, anxious for the soar of the ship’s bow to leeward as the wind balloons her sails.
She is a 62-foot racing schooner called the Privateer, built 30 years ago by Scottish craftsmen on the Clyde. Somebody’s dream. Now she’s moored a mile off the Barbados Hilton, reduced to a tourist cruise boat, complete with Bajan lunches and a “live calypso singer.” A decade of these daily excursions have left their imprint. But her lines still commemorate the grace of her designer’s intentions and our four-hour passage aboard the Privateer turns into a highlight of 10 days in Barbados.
I stretch out under the Privateer’s silver shrouds as we run at five knots before the prevailing easterly trade winds. The Privateer’s skipper, an introspective
Welshman baked rare by the Barbados sun, reflects on how vital that current of air has been in the history and character of his adopted island. Until steam supplanted sail in the middle of the 19th century, it was the direction of the wind that determined which West Indian islands would be colonized by what European powers, he explains. Unlike its neighbors, Barbados never flew the tricolor of France because the French galleons in Martinique and Guadeloupe could not attack against the northeast trades. The island remained untouched by the violent echoes of European wars and never changed hands after a band of Englishmen landed on Barbados’ west coast in 1627 to plant tobacco.
Even in our brief visit, I could see how that long, tranquil colonization (broken only in 1966 when Barbados claimed its independence) has formed the Bajan character. Instead of the swashbuckling
tendencies that might have been inherited from marauding Frenchmen and Spaniards, they share stolid pride and an ironic sense of humor. Barbados has always been the most British of the Caribbean islands. (It refused to acknowledge the ascendancy of parliament and declared Charles II king.) Barbados harbor policemen dress like Nelson’s sailors and the island keeps on producing some of the world’s best cricketers. Bridgetown, the capital, a passable imitation of a London suburb with its own Trafalgar Square and a statue of Lord Nelson, gives way to Torquay villas and a flat countryside of parish churches, reminiscent of the Cotswolds during the 18th century. (Another, less pleasant link with the mother country is commemorated on Barbados’ northeast coast, known as the Scotland District. There is some vague resemblance to the Hebrides, with wind-scarred cliff's dropping into the azure sea, but the district’s name comes from its association with the supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Made prisoners at the battles of Falkirk and Culloden, they were exiled as indentured servants to the British plantation owners in Barbados and gradually escaped to live and intermarry with the natives on the east coast. You still see the occasional redheaded Negro with a Scottish surname.)
Barbados is small — only 21 miles long and 14 miles wide — and incredibly pleasant. The same trade winds that protected the island from invaders bless it with a moderate climate. Only 700 miles north of the equator, the trades keep Barbados so cool that on its windward side air conditioning is seldom necessary, even when summer temperatures climb to their 86-degree maximum. Rainfall averages only 61 inches a year, usually coming down in brief, brisk early morning showers. The mean daily temperature varies only 3.9 degrees between February and June which are the coldest and warmest months.
Unlike most West Indian Islands, whose main industry seems to be not so much entertaining tourists as depriving them of their dollars, Barbados remains relatively unspoiled. The Bajans will happily take your money, but only in fair exchange for goods or services. I’ll always remember the waiter who took me aside on my first day and explained the local currency (one dollar BWI equals 53 cents Canadian) in case I had over-tipped him. Nor can I forget the kindness of the Bajan pharmacist at the Sunset Crest Village drug store earnestly advising me about the best-known remedy for removing the spikes of a sea urchin out of my heel.
One reason why Barbados has been only slightly touched by the racial tensions sweeping the Caribbean is that, unlike nearly all of the other islands, its
beaches are open to everyone. There is literally no segregation. Few Bajans have much money to spare, but you seldom feel the tourist resentment sweeping most of the West Indies. The Bajans have grave natural dignity. Things get done with fascinating speed, even though no one on the island seems to be hurrying.
Barbados’ national pastimes are cricket and soccer. Only North Americans play golf in the midday sun. The Brighton riding stables at St. Michael offer good rented mounts and there’s an unlimited range of boats for hire by the hour, day or week. It’s not the kind of island that has a lot of artificial tourist displays, but Sam Lord’s Castle on Long Bay is worth a brief visit. Built in Georgian style by a part-time pirate who furnished it with money earned from the sale of articles taken from wrecked ships, it eventually passed to Britain’s Trollope family. The castle has been converted into a hotel, but you don’t have to be a guest to tour its small Regency furniture museum or to enjoy a lemon squash and tuna sandwich with watercress by the side of its glistening pool.
It’s a Bajan custom for visitors to spend evenings at hotels other than their own. Most of the luxury establishments (notably the Sandy Lane, Coral Reef, Paradise Beach and the Miramar) host weekly buffet dinners that equal, in both quantity and quality, the very best of European cooking. Bajan specialties are flying fish (good once you pick your way past the bones) kingfish, crane chub, breadfruit, yams, and papaws. The larger hotels have weekly floor shows but there are no gambling casinos, and Barbados is definitely not the place to go if an active night life is your kind of thing.
Our favorite hotel was the Barbados Beach Village, a Trust House inn at St. James. It has two suites per hut, nearly all of them with a sea view. It is run with unpretentious efficiency by a Barbadian gentleman named Ronald Jones. A delicious breakfast is served on room balconies. There’s a small pool, a large bar, a well-run restaurant, but best of all, there’s that atmosphere of benign neglect you need on a good tropical holiday. (The highlight of our day was listening, on the local radio station, to a serial called Clayton Place, “The Continuing Saga of Jason Clay and a Legacy of Hate, presented with the compliments of Typhoo Tea.” I keep wondering what dire deeds old Jason is up to these days. And whatever happened to that nice young girl he lured from the country as a nanny, with scarcely veiled intentions.)
The most beautiful spot in Barbados (though looking back on it now, perhaps it really is, as we thought then, the most
beautiful spot on earth) is Crane Beach, on the island’s southeast coast. The Crane Beach Hotel dining room overlooks the most romantic beach in the Caribbean.
Most of the hotels have tuck-shops which supply everyday necessities. The Bridgetown specialty shops have impressive assortments. Try Harrison’s for English bone china, Bayley’s for jewelry and watches, Cave Shepherd for clothes and the Pelican Village for handicrafts. Shopping here is “in bond” which means duty-free purchases are delivered to the airport, where you pick them up just before departure. Savings can run up to 50% of Canadian prices. But unless you’re obsessed by bargains you’ll probably spend nearly all of your time on or in the water.
Barbados is a great place to go and an even greater place to keep coming back to. ■
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