Tourists to Barbados bask in its rich culture, soaking up the sun and history

December 08, 1991|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,Knight-Ridder News Service

BARBADOS -- You know it's Christmas in Barbados when you see snow on the mountain.

Snow? In Barbados, the easternmost of the Caribbean islands?

Not really. The "snow" that appears on some hills is really a blanket of white flowers that bloom at the same time as the Christmas poinsettias.

It's a good thing they're only flowers and not real snow. Visitors come to Barbados at Christmas -- or any other time -- to enjoy the sun and a way of life that has a special twist.

Barbados, which celebrates the 25th anniversary of its independence from Great Britain next month, is not simply a tropical island. It is the most English of all the West Indies, but with a strong admixture of African and American influence.

The combination is intriguing.

Cricket is a major sport here, as is soccer. Lawyers and legislators wear white wigs, as they do in England, and afternoon tea is still a tradition, though admittedly declining.

American television and music have made heavy inroads, however, particularly on younger Bajans, as the Barbadians call themselves. And the exuberance of Africa -- exemplified by calypso music and bright clothing -- also is a happy aspect of Bajan life.

No wonder, then, that the hallmark of the Bajan is his friendliness. In hotels, in restaurants, in shops and on the streets, visitors usually are struck by the polite but gregarious people.

That's one reason why so many Americans come back year after year. Some, like actress Claudette Colbert and Pamela Harriman, widow of statesman Averell Harriman, have maintained homes here for decades.

What brought them to Barbados is what attracts most visitors: an agreeable climate, lovely beaches, friendly and literate people and a sophisticated lifestyle.

Unlike most other islands of the West Indies, Barbados is a coral island, not volcanic. It sits by itself 100 miles east of the other Caribbean islands, and Columbus is said to have missed the island on his voyages of discovery because it presents such a low profile.

Still, it is not totally flat. Its highest point is a respectable 1,100 feet, and some parts of the island are as rugged as any in the Caribbean.

Waves that travel unblocked all the way from Africa crash against the cliffs and boulder-strewn beaches of northern and eastern shores, creating spectacular vistas.

In the rugged far northern reaches of the island, the sea has carved caves from the coral. Inside the caves grow colorful "animal flowers" -- really sea anemones -- that are a tourist attraction of sorts.

At Bathsheba on the eastern shore, giant rocks dot the beaches. Few bathers test these rough waters, but the panorama is breathtaking.

Most tourists stick to the placid Caribbean side of the island, whose sandy coves shelter some of the toniest hotels and restaurants in the Caribbean. The waters here are calm, the sands silky and the beachfront lush with palms and other greenery.

Bridgetown, the capital, has a decidedly British ambience, complete with a Trafalgar Square graced by a statue of Adm. Horatio Nelson. It's hard to imagine that the British fleet under Nelson's command once sailed into Bridgetown's tiny Careenage.

In Bridgetown, tourists can case the shops for bargains, made easier by Barbados' unusual duty-free system. Simply show your passport and outgoing air or cruise ticket and the stores will sell you the goods at the duty-free price, cash and carry. You're supposed to turn in your receipt at customs on the way out of the country, but a lot of people forget. Among the good buys are crystal, china and linens.

Town is fine, but country is also worth visiting here. Visitors should take at least one long turn around the island to get acquainted with Bajan history and life.

Sugar cane used to be the cash crop, but it is no longer as important as it once was. Fields of cane, however, still cover much of the island, and motorists with a sweet tooth can buy a stalk or two from Bajans at roadside on the Cherry Hill road.

A tour of the island comes full circle in the south, where lovely hotels like the cliff-hugging Crane Beach and Sam Lord's Castle, with its restored great house, are situated. Here, too, are found less expensive kitchen-equipped accommodations, some on the beach.

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