Saturday 16 February 2019

Barbados... Yo-ho-ho and plenty of rum

Life is only as stressful as you allow it to be, says Eleanor Goggin on a break in Barbados

Eat, drink and be merry .... Barbados is the culinary capital of the Caribbean and the food and rum festival is a real highlight
Eat, drink and be merry .... Barbados is the culinary capital of the Caribbean and the food and rum festival is a real highlight
Rum shack
Fluid rhythm

Eleanor Goggin

'Relax - you're on island time," the locals said, over and over again.

And after a week I was finally settling in to the fact that life is as stressful as you allow it to be. And the Barbadian people do not stress or get ratty. Horns toot but only in greeting or warning. Rarely in anger. And it's primarily they - the people - who make a trip to Barbados so memorable.

Of course, there's lots more besides. Like the weather, the food, the rum and the five-star Fairmont Royal Pavilion Hotel. My home for the week provided me with a room virtually on the beach, personalised toiletries and the most charming staff imaginable.

Like most hotels on the island it's a resort hotel, which means you don't have to leave unless you want to explore. A swimming pool, tennis courts, table tennis table, fitness centre, two restaurants and a bar make for a great refuge.

Kayaks and paddleboards are provided free of charge and there's a team member to take you snorkelling with the turtles. I was tempted to join the complimentary yoga classes but never quite made the 8am start. Too much of the hedonistic lifestyle in the evenings. Instead of a 'Do not disturb' sign to hang on your door, the sign read 'I'm enjoying a moment of privacy'. A much softer approach.

Afternoon tea was free, and Peter, a staff member, arrived every evening with a tasty titbit on a slate and a wonderful smile.

Food and drink rate quite highly on my agenda, so to be in Barbados for its Food and Rum festival was certainly an added bonus.

The island has been famous for rum for 350 years. The world's oldest rum - Mount Gay - is made here. Foursquare and Cockspur rums are also made here and run tours, but we ended up taking a trip to St Nicholas Abbey - which was once home to Benedict Cumberbatch's ancestors, an Edward and Laurence Cumberbatch.

St Nicholas Abbey is a Jacobean mansion, built in 1660, but it's now home to the Warren family and has been restored as a sugar plantation and distillery of single cask rum.

Son Simon hosted a very entertaining tasting experience and when he heard I was from Ireland, he proudly showed me a photo of himself with his Irish passport. His maternal granddad was Jack Adams from Glandore in West Cork. We turn up everywhere.

There's quite a link between the Irish and the Barbadians. In the time of our friend Cromwell, thousands of Irish convicts and military prisoners were deported to Barbados. Irish indentured servants and merchants arrived here as well. Barbadians sound very Irish and one girl told me that when she went to university in England people regularly asked her what part of Ireland she was from. Names like Lynch and Griffith are run of the mill.

We think of Barbados as continuous sun, turquoise sea and white sandy beaches - and this is true for the most part - but they do get their rainy season as well.

Of course these cheerful people don't refer to it as anything as crass as rain. No, it's 'liquid sunshine'. And when liquid sunshine is forecast there's plenty to do.

Harrison's Cave is one such attraction to visit. A guide takes you into the limestone cave on an electric tram. One of the main underground areas is 'The Great Hall'. Another is 'The Village', so called because of the many stalagmites and stalactites forming columns. There's also a tour where you can get kitted out with knee pads and crawl through tunnels. Not one for the claustrophobic but great for kids.

The island is littered with gullies, and Welchman Hall Gully, very near to the caves, is a lovely way to spend a few hours. It was formed by the collapsed roofs of caves and boasts amazing rainforest trees, huge bamboos, palms and ferns and green monkeys. Nutmegs abound. I had never seen a fresh nutmeg before and so I brought one home.

George Washington House is another great treat. So called because George visited for six weeks, when he was 19, with his half-brother Edward who had tuberculosis. It was thought that the climate would improve his health.

Our brilliant guide, Margaret, took us on a tour of the house. It's fully furnished down to the 'topsy' under the bed. A book of etiquette called Rules of Civility lies on the bedside table. Margaret gave it to some of us to read a section each. It appears you should only touch the areas of your body that are on view.

'Dinner with George', a dining experience with the first president takes place on Mondays. A five-course feast, accompanied with wines and entertaining titbits about George's life is a fun way to spend an evening. Dressing in 18th Century costume is optional.

All the guides I met were born for the job, firing off hilarious wisecracks. Two stand out in my mind. First up was Wilbert, who took us on a tour of the nearby tunnels and started the tour with "I'll answer questions but don't overwhelm me", and then went off into peals of laughter.

And then there was Dawn Lisa (so called because one of her parents wanted to call her Dawn and the other wanted to call her Lisa) took us on a bus tour pointing out the monument in Holetown and the great deal of misinformation on the plaque. But they left it there for the craic.

She told us that when pop superstar Rihanna comes home she is back to being 'Robyn'. They don't pay much attention to celebrities here. "It's just their job," she said.

But if there's one thing islanders do pay great attention to, it's their food. Barbados is known as the 'Culinary Capital of the Caribbean' and deservedly so. Damien Leach, a local chef, runs Cocktail Kitchen, a quirky cocktail bar and restaurant in St Laurence Gap. Smoked black belly lamb risotto, followed by lobster and shrimp linguine and accompanied by rum-based cocktails (personal favourites would have to include the Mango Chow and the Melonade Punch) all made for a very enjoyable experience.

Located right on the beach on the Platinum coast, Lone Star Restaurant is idyllic. A meal of spiced rubbed scallop and prawn rum flambe, creamed leek, papaya and mango rum infused relish, followed by grilled line-caught mahi mahi fish with coconut-infused curry sauce and sweet potato gnocchi, all paired with rum-based cocktails was sublime.

The town of Oistins (named after plantation owner Edward Oistin) is an experience not to be missed. Every weekend tourists and locals come together to enjoy the Friday night fish fry, drink some rum punch and wander around the craft stalls. There's live music - calypso, reggae - and some dancing too. In short, the atmosphere is electric.

The island is famous for its flying fish. They don't really fly - but they do glide through the air for up to 40m and a speed of 55kmph. It's served fried, tastes delicious, and is the national dish of Barbados - along with cou cou.

What's cou cou? Well, I'm glad you asked. Cou cou is a cornmeal and okra-based dish and is not easy to get right. David, a chef in the Fairmont Royal Pavilion, showed us how to make it and to say the wrist action needed is quite intense would be an understatement.

Given that Barbados is only 21 miles long and 14 miles wide and manages to facilitate seven golf courses and 24 cricket grounds, it's a sports lover's paradise. We took in a game of polo at Apes Hill Polo Club and consumed more rum and tasty titbits.

The island is full of colour. Older ladies in straw hats and brightly coloured dresses, vibrantly painted wooden chattel houses, and an abundance of multi-coloured flowers all make for a feast for the senses. There's a general air of bonhomie and fun. Fishermen outside the fish market play tonk (a fast-paced card game) and are only too willing to teach us.

One of them who introduced himself as 'Mr Cool and Deadly' claims to have 17 children. Taxi drivers set up a small table on Broad Street in Bridgetown and they too play tonk. It's all so chilled. I'm taking a leaf out of their copybook.

Take Two: Top attractions

Sip a rum punch

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Rum shack
 

There are more than 1,500 rum shacks on the island and this is where the locals love to 'lime', or chill. Many are next to the beach, and it's a must to sip a rum punch while watching the sun set.

Move to the rhythm

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Fluid rhythm
 

Barbadians love their music and walk with a certain fluid rhythm.  Calypso and reggae boom from most establishments. Locals like to vary their reggae so a faster version called ragga-soca is popular.

Getting there

For more information about Barbados see visitbarbados.org

Nightly rates at the Fairmont Royal Pavilion hotel start from $371 (€325) per room in an Oceanfront Deluxe Room category on a bed and breakfast board basis. To book visit fairmont.com/barbados.

Discover the best of Barbados with direct flights with British Airways to Grantley Adams International Airport. With 12 departures per week, it's easy to leave the daily stresses behind you and jet away to the turquoise seas and laid-back life of the Caribbean. britishairways.com

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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