In Depth

Barbados Sailing Week: life on the ocean wave

The Week Portfolio heads to the Caribbean island for the thrills and spills of Barbados Sailing Week

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From the balcony of room 365 at the Barbados Hilton, the view stretches uninterrupted, to the south west. Beyond the point at which the sun disappears behind the sea, promptly, at 6pm, lies Tobago.

Barbados might be known as a Caribbean island, but it sits in the Atlantic. From the so-called Platinum Coast, the sea stretches to St Vincent, while off the east coast lies - nothing. The ocean reaches out across a vast void towards Africa, until after some thousands of miles land is reintroduced at the Cape Verde archipelago.

Although nominally in the same ocean, the water here is a world away from the icy fury of Cornwall. As I sit on the balcony and gaze out I see more blues than I have names for, while waves break gently over sand the colour and texture of flour.

I’m here for Barbados Sailing Week, an annual, though recently re-branded, event, which seems set to become a staple on the Caribbean regatta calendar.

Three days of coastal racing build up to the thrilling main event: the Mount Gay Round Barbados Race, which sees competitors make full sail and tear it up around the island.

For some, Sailing Week will provide the perfect incentive for a visit, but over the course of the week I am to learn that little persuasion should be needed. With the sea as an ever-present and nigh-on irresistible backdrop, I find myself beguiled by the history and landscape of the island. With the UK in the keen grip of unforgiving winter, a week at the tail-end of January seems like the perfect time to explore.

Though it’s raining when i arrive, it’s very different to the precipitation that I left battering the London. Showers in Barbados are frequent and vigorous, but only ever brief.

Weather, I am to learn, happens quickly and locally; it is not uncommon to drive a short distance only to find evidence of recent rainfall, but the sun always returns and nothing stays soaking for long. The drive from the airport to the hotel gives me the chance to acquaint myself with my surroundings, and with Emerson, who is to drive me around for the next eight days.

Emerson has been a taxi driver on Barbados for over 40 years, and radiates the wisdom of a great guru. He is so softly spoken he is, at times, almost inaudible. What he has to say, though, is invariably insightful. He tells me that the island has a population of somewhere over 200,000, and describes the correct way to prepare salt fish.

His driving is as gentle as his character, although it isn’t atypical; arriving from London it is not only the warm climate that stands apart from normal experience, but also the friendliness of the islanders. This is typified by the Bajan motorist, who, almost without exception, gives way at every opportunity.

Emerson takes me to the Hilton, where I am to spend the first days of my stay. It’s a fairly typical affair that I’d recommend for business trips, if not for holiday-making. My ocean-view room comes with icy air conditioning which I keep on because it prolongs the novelty of the climate outside. It also comes with a songbird, who enters through the balcony door and whose audacity is so surprising I think someone must be disturbing things in the room, before I catch him at it, worrying a sachet of sugar beside the kettle.

Rooms start at around $400 Barbadian per night, which is around £155 and the breakfast buffet costs an extra £30.

That night, I enjoy the first in a series of world-class dinners. Bajan cuisine reveals itself to be simple but quite delicious. Although distinct from the Caribbean fare I’m more used to in London, it’s clear the Bajans also know their way around a scotch bonnet; pepper sauce is a ubiquitous condiment. Food is largely centred around the old meat-and-two-veg adage, with tropical fish forming a major source of protein.

Mahi mahi, disconcertingly called “dolphin” on menus, kingfish, swordfish, red snapper and flying fish are to be found most everywhere. They come served with rice, grilled or fried potatoes or, often, breadfruit - a starchy, filling stuff first imported as cheap food for slaves. In fact, it was a quest for breadfruit in the South Pacific that lead Captain Bligh on his ill-fated adventure aboard the Bounty.

Tonight I rather guiltily tuck into a plate of octopus, known on the island as “seacat,” followed by steamed flying fish, at a restaurant called Primo. Nestled in St Lawrence Gap, the island’s nightlife centre, Primo is a luxuriously stylish affair, popular with discerning locals and tourists both.

Bright and early the next day, the Island Safari adventure tour offers the perfect way to get properly acquainted with Barbados. At only 21 miles long, and “a smile wide,” the island is smaller than the Isle of Wight.

Around a million people make the trip here every year, to burn themselves bronze on the paradisiacal beaches that line the circumference, heading for the busy southern and western coasts, but, as the tour reveals, the island’s interior is no less enticing.

Criss-crossed with narrow roads that remind me of nothing so much as English country lanes, with briar and Hawthorne replaced by bougainvillea and palm, the heart of Barbados intoxicates the senses, while the Island Safari’s lashings of rum punch intoxicate everything else. At £76, the thrilling safari tour, hosted by a knowledgeable guide, is invaluable in offering a visual, historical and cultural understanding of the island.

In the early 17th century, Barbados was discovered and colonised by the British. Today, the atmosphere of the island and its people belies the brutality of its history; under colonial rule a barbarous plantocracy exploited slave and indentured labour to wring great wealth from the fecund island.

Since independence, in 1966, the sugar cane-driven economy has given way to tourism, but traces of the island’s past are still to be seen. Anyone intrigued about the history of the chattel houses and derelict windmills that litter the landscape can learn more at the fantastically informative Arlington Museum, in historic Speightstown.

There, a small but beautifully considered display thoughtfully unpacks the Barbados’ problematic past. Elsewhere, the fantastically insightful autodidact Morris Greenidge is on-hand to provide an illuminating walking tour of Barbados’ capital, Bridgetown.

Morris is not just an astute historian - he’s also well connected. As we take in the country’s parliament buildings, he exchanges a wave with a lady he tells me could very well be the Barbados’ next prime minister; none other than the leader of the opposition herself.

History is on the menu for tonight’s supper, as well. Barbados is the only place outside the continental United States George Washington ever visited, and the house in which he stayed has been lovingly restored to its original period grandeur. For about £100, visitors can join the great man (or at least an actor lost so deep in the method as to be indistinguishable) for an authentic 18th century dining experience. Lit entirely by candlelight, and attentively hosted by a bevy of costumed staff, the dinner literally brings history to life with a tantalising glimpse into the past.

A few days later Emerson moves me to Sugar Bay, a two-minute drive east. Less corporate, the hotel offers a more boutique experience, with attentive staff, pools, sun loungers and a what seems like a nightly cabaret.

Rooms are thoughtfully furnished, with private balconies opening onto a well-staffed stretch of beach. On arrival I am welcomed with three towels, creatively folded to resemble a robotic swan, a platter of fruit and a bottle of rose. Oceanfront rooms here start at £310/night, but unlike the Hilton, Sugar Bay is all-inclusive.

The hotel’s atmosphere of conviviality is kept well-lubricated by three bars, while a generous buffet meets every guest’s gustatory needs three times every day. “I borrowed my friend’s fishing gear before I came out here,” I overhear one guest tell his new holiday pal at the bar one evening. “But I’ve been here 10 days and I haven’t left the hotel; beach, bar, bedroom. What more do you need?” Well, quite.

For those who aren’t satisfied with quite such unapologetic relaxation, the allure of the ocean is sure to prove impossible to withstand. Barbados Sailing Week is a thrilling and immaculately-organised regatta, drawing experienced skippers from around the world to compete.

Anyone who doesn’t have an extensive nautical pedigree, but still feels the call of the sea, should look instead to Cool Runnings Catamarans. A day on one of the company’s cruises is enough to satisfy all my aquatic fantasies; from snorkelling with turtles to taking a dip just off the most exclusive beach on the island, Cool Runnings offers a taste of the ocean - without scrimping on cheer or luxury.

At £74 per person, with its inexhaustible supply of (what else?) rum punch, outstanding lunch and relentlessly upbeat crew, it offers an unmissable view of the island from the ocean, and a fantastically memorable day out.

Though the island boasts innumerable tourist attractions, from submarine trips to cave tours and Babylonian gardens to rum distilleries, the days I value most are spent in the company of Emerson, exploring the less-touristy northern edge.

From North Point the view is spectacular. The undulating, relentless Atlantic punishes the rock, formed over eons from coral. Here, the Animal Flower Cave Restaurant provides delicious food with which to enjoy the startling restlessness of the land- and seascape.

Over pickled seacat Emerson tells me how North Point serves the islanders as a cheap night out. In stormy weather, people flock to the place, with its viewing platforms, to behold the majesty of the weather and sea. From here the ocean’s traffic is far less busy than to the west, and so the diversity of marine life is much greater. Emerson has seen whales, breaking the water with joyful abandon as they proceed along their migration routes. He’s seen shark fins, and it’s easy to imagine, beneath the roiling surface, a menacing ecosystem populated with predators.

The sounds are profoundly soothing, they seem to have a calming effect on all, with tourists stuck in a strange state of suspended animation; waiting for the perfect moment to snap a picture, when the wave explodes off the rock and its spray diffuses light into its full colour spectrum.

It’s also the perfect place to come to watch the sailors compete. As they race around the island, they must pass this point and, with a cool rum punch and a little shade, North Point surely offers the best seat in the house from which to cheer them along.

Here, again, the sky and sea are alight with too many blues to count. Emerson and I finish our seacat, and head back south. These blues are too enticing, and so I return to the beach; to swim and stare at the sun, as yachts tack, jibe and worry each other just before the horizon.

Barbados Sailing Week: January 16-24 2019

The Caribbean race season’s opening regatta should be renamed the Race for Rum, as talented sailors from all over the globe compete to win their weight in the island’s golden elixir if any of the 20 records are broken.

This all-comers sprint around the island of Barbados traditionally takes place on Errol Barrow Day – a public holiday to celebrate the birthday of the first Prime Minister of Barbados and ‘father of independence’.

Given the day’s significance, crowds of locals and visitors flock to the best vantage points to watch the race as it unfolds down the rugged Atlantic coast.

The festival includes three days of coastal racing, including the Mount Gay Round Barbados Race and the Ocean Passage Race to Antigua. In addition, Sailing Week also features themed parties and other entertainment.

For more information visit barbadossailingweek.com

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