Visit: 19th & 23rd August 2014
Ross, Louise and I travelled to Barbados in August as part of a group of 21, to attend a friend’s wedding and take a week’s holiday in the Caribbean at the same time. The trip had been planned for over a year, so it almost came as a surprise when it finally rolled around and we headed to Gatwick airport for our flight to Bridgetown.
Barbados is a small island nation with a population of only 280,000. It is the easternmost island in the Lesser Antilles – about 100 miles east of the main Caribbean island chain. We had rented two villas on the west coast in an area called Fitts Village, right on Barbados’s Highway 1 (which is actually just a single carriageway road). It was a convenient location because the yellow (reggae-blasting) and blue (sensible) buses were available to us all day as they hurtled from Bridgetown to Speightstown and vice versa. Although taxis are cheap on the island, buses are the real bargain at only US$1 a ride.
On one of the evenings we caught a bus down to Oistins, which is in the south of the island near the airport, for the famous night market. The bus was pretty busy when we boarded, but people just kept getting on as the bus progressed until there was literally no room for any more. We spent about 45 minutes packed into this sardine can before spilling out at the market, where we ate some typical Bajan food from one of the many stalls.
The food in Barbados consists mostly of chicken, ribs and fish served with rice and beans, cassava or macaroni. The quality was great wherever we went, particularly the chef we had in our house but also the various local food stalls we took the opportunity to eat at. Our first Caribbean meal outside of the house was at a restaurant in Bridgetown. We had to wait a long time because the kitchen forgot our order, but we were compensated with free drinks and when the food came it was well worth waiting for. Below are three of the dishes we tried: jerk fish (top), cow heel soup and fried chicken in an orange sauce. The cow heel soup is what it says it is – the meat and gelatin of a cow’s heel, served with potatoes in a broth.
This was the day of our first visit to the garrison. The WHS is made of the centre of Bridgetown and the garrison area. They are not quite next to each other, but it is an easy 30 minute walk from one to the other. Bridgetown is not a particularly attractive city, but we found it an interesting place to walk around nonetheless. Louise commented that it was the first time she had been in a place where she was an ethnic minority, since this was her first time outside of Europe. The buildings are low-rise and often very colourful. As you can see, it rained during our visit, which was not unusual since August is the rainy season in the Caribbean. We had rain on about half of the days we were there, but luckily didn’t get a tropical storm.
The most impressive building we saw in downtown Bridgetown was the Cathedral Church of Saint Michael and All Angels, built in 1789. We walked along the beach in Carlisle Bay looking for the garrison, taking care to avoid the evil Stonefish that we had been warned occasionally sting people on the beach. This innocuous-looking fish, which blends in with the stones on the seafloor, delivers the most painful sting of any fish, and is up there in the top 10 of worst stings in the world!
After passing through a boatyard, a petrol station and the Barbados Yacht Club we eventually found the garrison, which is a collection of old colonial buildings arranged around a large central square that now contains a racecourse. The building on the left, below, is the main guardhouse, and you can see the some of the colonial-era cannons arrayed on the right. Buildings in the area are still used as the headquarters of the Barbados Defence Force.
It wasn’t until our second visit to Bridgetown several days later that we managed to get inside one of the museums – they close early in Barbados, it seems. For B$12 (£3.60) we went into the Barbados Museum, which houses exhibits on the history of the island through its various phases of rule.
We went into it wondering if there was any history of human habitation prior to the Europeans discovering it. The answer to that is yes, there is plenty of evidence of indigenous Amerindians, ranging from tools to burial sites – although curiously there were no people there at the point the Europeans arrived. Several theories exist for this:
- The overuse and contamination of the island’s limited surfacewater.
- Soil erosion caused by overplanting of crops.
- Disease introduced by another Amerindian group or possibly the early Spanish raiders who landed on the island before the British.
The history of British rule and the use of slavery in the sugar industry are better documented, and the museum has a number of interesting exhibits on this. It also provides information on the history of the island in the 20th century, leading up to and beyond Barbados’s independence from Britain in 1966.
The previous day we had visited the building above (St Nicholas Abbey) in the north of the island. One of the best examples of a Jacobean mansion in the world, it stands at the centre of the St Nicholas sugar plantation. For B$25 (£7.50) we were given a brief guided tour and a rum tasting, because the plantation still makes its own highly-regarded rum (they produce just 42 barrels a year). There was also a wonderful video in which footage of Bridgetown and the plantation taken in 1935 was narrated by Lt Col Stephen Cave, the redoubtable late owner of the plantation whose father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather before him had also owned the property. The footage showed a simpler time when there were no flights from Britain, visitors arrived by steamship and “it was considered impolite to be seen in public without a hat”.
The day after St Nicholas Abbey we returned to almost the exact same part of the island to visit the nearby wildlife reserve. It is like a cross between a safari park and a zoo, in that you walk around it on foot but most of the animals are free to roam where they like within its boundaries. This was Louise’s favourite part of the holiday, and I understand why. As soon as we walked through the entrance we were met by tortoises plodding around and came face to face with monkeys, a spectacled caiman and a new-born deer.
It was at this point that Ross’s famed lack of physical exercise caught up with him when he was photographed losing to a tortoise in a race:
After taking a bus the length of the island back down to Bridgetown we stopped off for one our final meals of the trip, in a local buffet-style restaurant in the centre. Again, the Bajan cooking was excellent, and Louise described this as the best meal she had on the whole holiday. Here you can see chicken, ribs, rice and beans, ‘macaroni pie’ and cassava again. The cassava was a new food for me, and I enjoyed its texture and flavour. I would describe it as somewhere between roast parsnip and carrot. The macaroni that we found so often is also interesting – it is pasta served in a cheese sauce, but it is sweeter than something you might find in Italy, which could be because ketchup or sugar is added.
In conclusion, although the WHS itself is not the most exciting one in the world, Barbados as a whole is a thoroughly interesting place to visit for a week and offers an excellent mix of things to do and beautiful sandy beaches to relax on afterwards with a local Banks beer.