by Katherine Hafner
There are more rum shops than churches in Barbados.
It’s a refrain you’ll often hear from locals in the southern Caribbean nation – and it holds true if you drive around the 167-square-mile island. There are about 1,800 small rum shops – don’t call them bars – and oddly, they tend to be located next to houses of worship.
“Where you see a rum shop, you see a church,” says Jamal, a tour guide showing our group around the island. There’s not a hard and fast reason, as far as he knows, except that back in the day on Sunday mornings, the “ladies would go to church” and their husbands to the rum joint next door.
I’d come to Barbados for the first leg of an “island-hopping” tour. Caribbean hospitality company Elegant Hotels was hosting a tour of its properties across the islands in a bid to capture the country-jumping, multiple-location experience of European travel.
Given Barbados’ proud history as the “birthplace of rum,” and the fact that we were there during National Rum Month, it came as no surprise that we were handed a rum punch upon entering the first hotel, called The House.
Elegant has a string of seven hotels on the western coast of Barbados, each intended to capture a different feel. The House, as the name suggests, offers a relaxing experience. The property is small and for adults only, with a calming koi pond at the entrance and a narrow strip of beach separating it from the dazzling blue Caribbean Sea.
Barbados was once one of the world’s largest providers of sugar. On our first full day, we toured a bit of that legacy – the Morgan Lewis Windmill. The landmark, featured
on a Bajan coin, is the last one standing on the island.
As a reef island, Barbados is relatively flat, though there are plenty of hills and beautiful green expanses between the colorful Bajan villages. Cows huddle in the shade underneath trees. We stopped briefly in Holetown, so named because from a distance it looks like a hole has been blown into the side of the island. (We passed the place where pop star Rihanna, a native, stays when she’s in town, which was just up the road from the hotel.)
Sunday night in Holetown is usually one big party, featuring street karaoke and a drag show at Ragamuffins, a local bar. During our visit, we stopped by the Chattel Village shops, a grouping of vendors in colorful, wooden, movable sheds that offered everything from tourist knickknacks and clothing to cigars and coffee.
Some monkeys scurried behind bushes as we jumped back in the van and headed toward the northern tip of the island. On the way, Jamal pointed out the prevalent Barbados Blackbelly sheep, an indigenous species you can see grazing all over.
Our destination was Animal Flower Cave. The area is atop cliffs with beautiful sweeping views of the ocean. For a small fee, you can trek into the ocean caves.
On the island’s west side, the beaches are calmer and the clear water laps gently at the shore. On the east side, though, there are no barriers to the fierce Atlantic, and the water is a deeper blue. There are few resorts there and swimming is discouraged, though some surfers brave the conditions in search of good waves.
Stopping for lunch at the Round House restaurant in Bathsheba, overlooking the eastern shore, I tried a flying fish sandwich, macaroni pie (which is pretty much like it sounds) and cou-cou, a dish native to the region made mainly of cornmeal and okra.
Down at the beach, pieces of the island have broken away and sit as huge boulders in the sand. The most amusing included a bathroom structure still attached, once part of a home but now sitting in the open like an odd art piece.
We returned to The House for an afternoon of lounging by the sparkly blue water before we took a water taxi to the Colony Club for dinner. The restaurant is in a gorgeous open space with vaulted ceilings framed by white columns. I dined on delicious swordfish while listening to both the lovely live music and a cacophony of crickets and tree frogs.
The meal was followed by a rum and chocolate pairing inside the restaurant’s rum vault, a temperature-controlled space with dozens of special and expensive rum bottles lining the wall. We followed the instructions of our enthusiastic and knowledgeable rum connoisseur, a Bajan native – three sips rum to two bites chocolate – and went to bed happy.
But it was an island-hopping tour, after all, and come morning it was time to move on. I said goodbye to the beautiful view and hopped on a tiny plane for a short ride to our next destination.
Saint Lucia is known as the Helen of the West Indies. The British and French fought for it so often it brought to mind the Greeks fighting over Helen of Troy. The island finally won independence in 1979 and like Barbados is now part of Britain’s Commonwealth of Nations.
Flying in from Barbados, it took my breath away. Both islands are beautiful, but while Barbados is a flatter island, Saint Lucia is mountainous and exceedingly green – and a bit bigger, at 238 square miles.
The Landings hotel is situated on Rodney Bay in Gros Islet at the very northwestern tip of the island. The opposite of The House, it’s a sprawling, resort property with condo-like rooms all grouped around a marina.
From the beach and the resort’s main restaurant, you look out on calm, turquoise water surrounded by rolling green mountains. That’s where we ate dinner our first night – right on the beach, toes in the sand as a talented chef plied us with a seemingly endless supply of food, from a seafood platter, ratatouille and sweet potato gnocchi to tuna pastrami, mushroom pasta and the best flourless chocolate cake I’ve ever had.
It was with that auspicious start that I awoke the next morning ready for an offsite adventure. The evidence of the long fight over Saint Lucia lies on Pigeon Island, just a five-minute drive from the resort. Now a national park, Fort Rodney is home to old ruins, including soldier barracks and cannons.
But what we were there to see was a little farther offshore. We pulled on snorkel masks and followed our guide, nicknamed Trumpet Fish, into the clear water to view the corals in muted orange, green, yellow and pink and fish in bright blue and yellow.
Lunch was at Barnacles, a small restaurant in an old 1780 captain’s cellar. As a soft rain fell outside, we dug into curried crab and laughed when the owner walked in and dangled fleshy, freshly caught octopus in our faces.
We returned to the Landings in the afternoon and enjoyed a few drinks at the Callaloo Beach Bar as the chef and bartender serenaded us with “Sweet Caroline.” We then took to the water, floating on a mesh inner tube anchored close to the shore before a Friday buffet dinner at the beachfront restaurant.
The next day we headed home, taking a route to the airport that led us through the lush mountains, passing colorful houses and more cows grazing beneath palm trees. There was plenty of both countries we didn’t get to experience in the short time – the famed Piton volcanic mountains and sulphur springs of Saint Lucia, for example.
But all I kept thinking on the way back to the airport, as the greenery whizzed by, was how my mind felt so much clearer than four days before. It’s satisfying to embrace the humidity, breathe in the tropical air and let the symphony of nature become your soundtrack for a while. I promise it wasn’t just the rum talking.
Be sure to
Try a flying fish sandwich at Round House restaurant in Bathsheba
Perched on a hill with a gorgeous view of the Barbados eastern shore, this is a great
spot to relax and have some lunch.
Explore Animal Flower Cave
Whether you pay a small fee to explore the ocean caves of Barbados or just check out the beautiful cliffside views from above, this is worth the slight trek to the island’s northern tip.
Take in the geological wonder of St. Lucia at Piton Falls and Sulphur Springs
After a hike to the falls, you can bathe in the warm water at the bottom. Then about a mile south are the springs, featuring a “drive-in volcano” and calming bathing pools.
Grab a drink in St. Lucia at Callaloo Beach Bar and dine at The Palms
The small bar shack is located right on the resort’s beach side and features an array of tropical cocktails. Then grab a luscious dinner at The Palms, featuring a shifting Mediterranean-inspired menu.