The real Barbados – away from the resorts
Pig tails, food shacks, coconut punch, waterfalls and monkeys – there is much more to the Caribbean island than just luxury accommodation
I’m in a frog green Bajan vintage open bus, spouge and soca beats blast from the speakers as the driver tears along the streets of Barbados, hooting his horn at every bend, and at every car in greeting. Sugar cane and coco palms wave in the breeze. Our guide Dawn Lisa who has just been jiggling her hips around and demonstrating how to dance Wuk-Up style, is now handing out lunch from her wicker basket – freshly made jam puffs, meat cutters and cups of rum punch (or liquid sunshine to the locals). I feel like I’m on a raucous school trip.
A taste of local living
As we drive along the west coast past its luxury hotels and multi-million pound houses towards tiny villages, some prosperous, others dilapidated, I see a more paired-back flavour of local life courtesy of beach community rum shops (John Moore’s Bar, Bo’s Plaice), old churches (they say there are as many rum shops as churches in Barbados) and street food vendors. Their car boots are open displaying homemade Caribbean specialities for sale of macaroni pie, jug jug (pork and beef casserole), fried flying fish, pig tails, roast corn, rice and peas and sticky caramelised banana.
For every flamboyant fine-dining hotspot (Cocktail Kitchen, Cin Cin, Lone Star, Daphne’s, Hugo’s, The Fish Pot and The Cliff being some of the best), there’s a ramshackle (Cuz’s Fish Shack at Needham’s Point) or understated and homely establishment to be found (Waterfront Café, The Village Bar). Barbados blends indulgence with a simpler way of life and is a place of endless summer days.
A blend of indulgence and the simpler things
We pass seaside villages, colourful shacks swarming with thirsty locals, a bar named ‘One Love’, ‘Lunch with a crunch’ food shack, locals playing dominos outside a convenience store advertising condoms and Viagra on a chalk board and the vivid palette of pastel and bright coloured chattel houses in peppermint, lemon, lilac and hot pink. Battered signs promoting homespun coconut punch, banana cake and fresh coconut water aim to tempt in passing trade.
“Here you’re likely to find a little old granny in her ancient family home right next to a house worth millions. The most educated conversations happen in tin shacks or at bus stops – don’t underestimate any Bajan,” says Dawn Lisa.
What a time it is for me to visit Barbados. Recently voted as the Luxury Destination of the Year at the 2017 Caribbean Travel Awards, 2018 has been designated Barbados’s Year of Culinary Experiences. It remains the only island to be Zagat rated and is widely considered to be the culinary capital of the Caribbean.
Michelin-Starred British Chef Tom Aikens is an official ambassador of The Barbados Food & Rum Festival 2018 (18-21 Oct). “I love getting into the culture, the atmosphere, the different flavours and textures. The festival is an intoxicating event that you want to be part of,” says Tom.
Now in its ninth year, visitors can opt to enjoy a full week of foodie fun or languidly dip in and out of the joyous array of events at your leisure. The celebrations elevate the abundance of local talent in Barbados and kicks off with the lively Oistins Bay Gardens Cook Off, followed by the ‘Taste the Exotic’ Signature rum event.
The rum and food pairing dinner at Lonestar Restaurant is one hell of a feast – servings of spiced scallop and prawn rum flambé are paired with tarragon apple juice and Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum cocktails and then followed with herb crusted lamb rack washed down with iced cinnamon, passionfruit and Mount Gay Mauby Rum. It’s an intoxicating affair – nicely rounded off with the booziest rum crème brûlée imaginable.
Put your glad rags on for the glamourous ‘Taste the Spirits of Polo’ do at Apes Polo Club. It’s sure to appeal to voracious eaters and will have you mingling with friendly locals, suppliers, socialites, models and being wined and dined by local mixologists like Jamaal Bowen and Shane McClean and chefs Damian Leach and Rhea Gilkes; all are jubilant when showcasing their recipe creations and will ensure your glass and plate are never empty.
Enjoy food, fizz, fun and eclectic canapés and rehydrate on Old Fashioned Bajan Jem and Watermelon Festival Swizzle cocktails, teamed with colourful dancers (wear comfortable shoes) and hip-jiggling beats courtesy of local bands and DJs, alongside a game of polo. Try dishes of breadfruit parmesan soup served with rum braised lamb and bacon jam, Drunken Mojito Chicken and puddings of passion fruit and mango filled drunken chocolate cupcakes and lemon and black pepper macaroons. Word to the wise – wear elasticated, forgiving clothing.
As well as culinary events, Barbados is also home to significant cultural ones too. The 2019 Barbados Independent Film Festival will offer ten days of cinematic indulgence from 11 to 20 January next year with thought-provoking films from around the world, many of them many of them making their Caribbean premiere.
Immersion in island charm
The entertainment showcases the true story of the island’s rich heritage, rum and cuisine through a series of tours, dining experiences and other enriching culinary and cultural activities – touring the island by bus is one of them. It’s a great reason to step away from the luxuries of your hotel, meet charismatic locals and immerse yourself in island charm.
Music blaring we arrive at the carefully restored George Washington House for a guided tour of this 18th-century plantation, where America’s first president spent seven weeks in 1751 at the age of 19 (Barbados was the only country he visited outside colonial America). His trip to the island is acknowledged with helping form the philosophy that inspired him to fight in the War of Independence and his affection for the country remained evident years later, courtesy of him requesting a barrel of Barbados rum at his inauguration in 1789.
Every Monday evening throughout the winter season until March you can make reservations for ‘Dinner with George’. This theatrical dining experience combines a five-course candlelit dinner and live music with historical re-enactment; a renowned local historian dressed in Georgian attire performs. I’d also recommend a visit to Harrison’s Cave. Pull on a hard hat with headlamp and climb aboard a tram with the adventure tour host and view the magnificent limestone cavern up close. It’s a tribute to nature’s mastery and is brimming with streams, clear pools, waterfalls and soaring columns filled with crystalised flowstone, stalagmites and stalactites.
Soaking up the views
Then yomp through one of Barbados’ true tropical treasures at Welchman Hall Gully, geologically linked to Harrison’s Cave. There’s an abundance of exotic plants and towering trees and free guided tours. It’s a blissful spot to get back to nature, cool off in the shade, laugh at the troops of wild Green Monkeys and drink in the views of the east coast. Monkey feedings take place between 10.30am and noon.
From January 2019, visitors will be able to soak up the views from the historical St Nicholas Abbey Heritage Railway on its line from the Abbey up to the picturesque lookout point of Cherry Tree Hill, following a million-dollar restoration of the German locomotive. The Abbey is one of the oldest surviving plantations and encompasses 400 acres of rolling sugar cane fields, tropical gullies, forests and gardens.
The Warren Family bought the Abbey in 2006 and rebuilt the plantation’s distillery as part of their ongoing restoration process and creates award winning rum of exceptional quality and provenance reflective of its 350-year heritage. They grow their own cane, grind it and use the cane syrup to create their speciality broths. You’ll enjoy generous tastings and there are custom engraved decanters available to purchase.
“We don’t sell large quantities. We make less than 50 barrels of rum a year,” says owner Simon Warren. “It’s shipped in limited amounts to select high-end retailers in the UK. Our main export markets are Germany, Hong Kong, Canada and the UK.”
The Caribbean produces an estimated 80% of the world’s rum and sales of it in Britain have reached £1 billion for the first time, an increase of more than 7% in the past 12 months.
All this rum has got me in the mood to get my groove on and thankfully Friday night at the little fishing town of Oistins is party night. Close to the open-air fish market the atmosphere pulsates with a happy blend of local families and friends, ‘returnee’ visitors from Britain, honeymooning couples, young kiddies and inquisitive tourists enjoying the live music out on the dancefloor.
Marlin, flying fish, mahi-mahi (dolphinfish), swordfish, shrimp, tuna and snapper are expertly grilled over leaping flames from wood-fired coal pots outside the many wooden huts. This is fun, basic dining – I eat from a paper plate seated at a communal table.
A taste of the nightlife
The night scene here is a stark contrast to when I visited during the day and explored the local markets with the restaurant owner of The Top Deck, Chef Jason Howard; a local who trained in Canada before returning to start up his own restaurant. Many Bajan chefs gain their stripes overseas before coming back home.
Around me, fishmongers dance to radio beats while cleaving fish heads and filleting flying fish at Bridgetown Fish Market. Brought by boat to the market just a few hours ago, the fish are so fresh they’re practically singing. Some of the fish are humungous. Jason’s eye is caught by a dark and meaty looking Yellowfin tuna. Having to use both his hands due to the size and weight, he picks it off its bed of ice, examining it carefully before nodding to the 14-year-old boy wielding a cleaver, “This will be the ‘special’ on tonight’s menu.”
I hear laughter and clapping behind me and turn to follow the jovial sounds. On a boardwalk facing the sea sit four greying, sea-wearing fishermen: one of them toothless, one with an eye patch, one wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt and the others in a uniform of dreadlocks and flip-flops. They are gathered around an old table playing the card game Tonk, while sipping Sweet & Dandy Mauby Syrup. They exchange lazy greetings. Their names are Vicory, Theodore, Howard, Buster and Dalton aka ‘Mr Cool and Deadly’ apparently to the ladies, “Do you want to get married? I like lovin’ – I’ve got 17 children.” I quickly scarper back to Jason.
We move onto Cheapside Market, where the air is filled with the aromas of thyme and oregano. Characterful elderly ladies in trilby sunhats, retro sunnies and floral aprons man stalls of local produce: breadfruits and bananas sit with garlic shipped from Asia. At the Cock-a-Doodle Meat Market I come face to face with a large cow’s head, it’s almost comical. “What do you cook with that?” I ask the stall owner. “Cow head soup,” he replies. Ask a stupid question.
“Barbados has a $5 billion dollar import bill for food: mangoes come from Asia, pineapples and corn are from the Americas,” says Jason. “Caribbean style is stuck in the 70s due to what the country can organically grow. You’ll find certain things consistently on menus which I find frustrating.”
I spend my last day back at my beachfront hotel Fairmont Royal Pavilion (voted Barbados’ Leading Resort 2018 at this year’s World Travel Awards) lolling on a sun lounger, lizard-like, chatting to other guests while putting away copious amounts of rum and ice-cold Banks Beer (brewed on the island). The oodles of water sports, swimming with turtles, beachfront yoga, babysitting, fine dining and the sounds of rolling waves and tiny whistling frogs lulling you to sleep every night make it a prime destination for romantic getaways and family vacations.
Their newly renovated accommodations with wide open views of the gin-clear sea are très chic. I opt for a private cooking experience with executive chef Kirk Kirton and watch him whip me up an innovative national plate of mahi-mahi dusted with coconut shavings, before taking just a few lazy steps down to the blindingly white butter-soft sand beach for toes-in-the-sand private dining at sunset.
The languid pace of life means that time is but a suggestion in Barbados. There is a saying: ‘drinking rum before 10am doesn’t make you an alcoholic, it makes you a pirate.’ Well then, in Barbados, I am definitely a pirate. Shiver me timbers!
How to get there
Virgin Atlantic fly direct to Barbados (BGI) from London Gatwick (LGW) and Manchester (MAN), with a Heathrow (LHR) winter service. Their flights to Barbados run daily from Gatwick and weekly from Manchester throughout the year – visit virginatlantic.com.
British Airways have direct flights to Grantley Adams International Airport with 12 departures per week – visit britishairways.com
Where to stay
Nightly rates at Fairmont Royal Pavilion start from $371/£290 per room in an Oceanfront Deluxe Room category on a bed and breakfast board basis. To book visit fairmont.com.