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Barbados has a reputation as an ultra-glamorous holiday spot, where the international jet set bask on palm-fringed beaches and superyachts anchor on azure seas. And, on the ritzy west of the island (dubbed the Platinum Coast), it’s certainly fun to hang out with the fashionable crowd and spot a celebrity or two. However, Barbados offers travellers so much more than sun, sand and glitzy resorts. What draws me back to the island is its fascinating history and rich cultural diversity, evident wherever you go..
As the most easterly Caribbean island, Barbados was the beating heart of the colonial Atlantic trade route (having been colonised by English settlers in 1627). With British rule came shared English laws, political systems, architectural styles, customs and place names – all of which shaped the island’s past and resonate in its present. Take the capital, Bridgetown. This trove of architectural and cultural treasures was deemed to be of such historical significance that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011. Highlights include the Georgian St Mary’s Church near Cheapside Market, the elegantly neo-Gothic Barbados Parliament and the Garrison (once home to up to 15,000 British troops). Largely intact, the barracks, canteens, hospitals, stables and forts still survive and are even still in use. The parade ground is a scenic horse-racing track, with football and rugby pitches in the middle.
The Barbados Parliament houses a thought-provoking museum that traces the island’s road to independence in 1966. When not in session, the Senate and the elegant House of Assembly are also open for tours. Look up at the stained-glass windows: an array of British monarchs watch over proceedings. Outside, look out for the bronze statue of Lord Nelson – it was erected nearly three decades before the one in London’s Trafalgar Square. Next to an ancient graveyard, in a tranquil corner of the capital, is another surprise: one of the oldest synagogues in the western hemisphere, dating back to the 1650s. The museum alongside tells the tale of Sephardic Jews who travelled from Brazil and introduced windmills to drive the sugar industry on the island. This humble addition boosted production to the extent that by the late 17th century, Barbados was hailed as the richest spot on Earth.
Beyond Bridgetown, fascinating insights into the past dot the island, among them old plantation houses and signal stations. My favourite, the oddly named St Nicholas Abbey, is located in the hilly north of the island and is a rare example of a Jacobean plantation house. Explore rooms full of antique furniture, visit an artisan rum distillery and watch a riveting home movie of life on Barbados in the 1930s. New and lovely is the St Nicholas Abbey Heritage Railway – a steam train ride through the plantation fields and mahogany woods, with vistas over the island’s east coast.
At Speightstown’s excellent Arlington House Museum, the lives of slaves working on the plantations are brought to the fore – an aspect of the island’s history that must be acknowledged. On the outskirts of Bridgetown, pay respect to a monumental statue of national hero Bussa breaking his chains. He led a valiant but doomed slave uprising in 1816, prompting the authorities to build signal stations across the island to improve communication in times of unrest. Gun Hill Signal Station in the parish of St George has been restored by the Barbados National Trust and is well worth a visit, not least for its views over the southern half of the island.
For all its tumultuous history, modern Barbados is a joyous place where culture thrives. Music lilts all over the island, from calypso, soca and spouge to tuk, reggae and jazz. Festivals are held throughout the year: February’s annual Holetown Festival celebrates the arrival of English settlers and showcases the culture and tradition of the island through music, parades, food and revelry. Nights out in Bridgetown offer endless opportunities to swing your hips. Jazz lovers should try the Waterfront Café or Scoopie’s Jazz by Dover Beach. For a good time in the open air, Harbour Lights mixes rum cocktails, dining and in the sand to live calypso and soca.
Last year, home-grown pop megastar Robyn ‘Rihanna’ Fenty was appointed by the government of Barbados to be an ambassador for the island. Seek out the small house where she was born on the recently renamed Rihanna Drive. Spot more stars of the future as you travel the island. Cricket is a Barbadian obsession: look to the fields, pastures and beaches to see youngsters at play with dreams of being the next Jason Holder – national hero, captain of West Indies Test and One Day International teams and the world’s best all-rounder, according to the official ICC Test rankings. You’ll likely see road tennis, too. Played with wooden racquets on a marked-out patch of concrete not much bigger than a table-tennis table, it’s hugely popular. The traditional Barbadian sport is engrossing to watch as highly athletic players battle it out.
The island’s reputation as a contemporary foodie haven is well deserved, and fine dining possibilities abound if you’ve deep pockets. However, it’s most fun to go local. You’ll not escape the national dish, flying fish served with cou cou (a mix of cornmeal and okra), and a stop at one of the island’s famous rum shops is a must. These friendly cornerstones of Barbados society – part bar, part corner shop, part gossip and socialising hub – serve rum by the bottle, from little to large. Some offer traditional food such as rice and peas, macaroni pie and cutters (sandwiches). Others may offer local specialities pudding and souse (a pickled pork and sweet potato combo traditionally eaten on Saturdays) or jug jug (a pea-based descendent of haggis). It’s said there are thousands of these colourful rum shops dotted all over the island. My favourite has to be John Moore’s, a rickety old clapboard building next to the fish market at Weston, and a holdout of authentic Barbados in the heart of the Platinum Coast.
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