Despite their poise and politeness, Barbadians can throw a party — and a big one is coming. On Nov. 30, Barbados celebrates 50 years of independence from Great Britain.
Barbados Independence Day is always a big deal, with parades and a food-wine-and-rum festival, but “they’re really ramping it up this year,” says Khadija Deshong of Elegant Hotels. Already, the capital, Bridgetown, is decked out in the national colors of ultramarine blue and gold, and Barbados heritage events are filling the calendar.
Barbadians sharpen their party skills annually during Crop Over, a major event that marks the traditional end of the planting season in late summer. Even a certain locally-bred superstar is likely to show up for Grand Kadooment Day Parade (held on the first Monday in August), joining celebrants in barely-there fantasy costumes festooned with sequins and feathers.
Another reason to come: JetBlue launched nonstop flights from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to Barbados in April (American has flown nonstop out of Miami for years). That makes it easy and relatively quick — 3 1/2 hours — to get to this distant Caribbean island, the easternmost of the Lesser Antilles.
To be a Barbadian, you must drink lots of rum and eat lots of pork.
Nicola Griffith, tour guide
Even if you don’t do a single heritage-related event during your visit, show some love to Barbados by exploring beyond your hotel. Made of limestone, the humpy green island is pocked with gullies, formed by collapsing cave systems. Its west side is ringed with golden beaches and lined with hotels and restaurants, but the east side is wild and rugged, pounded by the Atlantic — definitely worth touring, especially Bathsheba (you might recognize it as the background of five Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues.) Oh, and there’s a rum shop right there.
“To be a Barbadian, you must drink lots of rum and eat lots of pork,” said Nicola Griffith, as she led us on the Tamarind Rum Shop Crawl in a wildly painted, music-playing party bus. Kids in school uniforms swayed to the music as we passed.
At the Mount Gay Rum distillery, the first stop on our tour, we learned that rum was invented on Barbados in the 17th century. Mount Gay, founded in 1703, is the oldest existing brand of rum in the world. All of the company’s rum is still produced on the island.
We’d say a rum crawl qualifies as a cultural activity in Barbados, even if there’s drinking — um, rum tasting — involved.
After Mount Gay, the tour bus rolls on to local rum shops. The scene: a couple of guys playing dominos and a football game on the telly. You don’t have to go far to find a rum shop: there are more than 1,500 of them on this 14-by-21-mile island. “And there’s always a church right next door!” Griffith says. There are four rum distilleries operating on the island now, including St. Nicholas Abbey, set in a mid-17th century Jacobean great house, also open for tours.
1,500 Approximate number of rum shops on Bardados
Along the way, you’re likely to learn some Bajan (Barbadian) slang, like dah-fuh-lick-yuh (meaning, serves you right) and obzocky (weird.)
You might also sample bar food, like fried chicken necks. As for pork, “we eat everything but the oink,” Griffith explains. You’ll find that out if you eat the traditional Barbadian Saturday dinner, pudding and sous. It’s a sweet potato mixture stuffed into cleaned pig’s intestines, served with pickled pig parts.
If that sounds a bit too authentic for your taste, go for flying fish and cou-cou (a corn meal mixture similar to the African dish foo-foo.) For a tasty snack, try fish cakes and fish cutters (fried fish stuffed into salt bread.) Best place for these is Mr. Delicious, a bus-turned-snack bar.
The go-to zone for flying fish — and another Barbadian mainstay, macaroni pie — is at Oistins Fish Fry in Oistins. A series of fishing sheds becomes a rollicking scene on weekend nights, especially Friday, when flaming coal pots and fiery grills are piled high with fish and chicken, served with macaroni pie and salads.
There’s also music, dancing (some actual acts, some random throwdowns) and an area devoted to — surprise — country music, where couples dance.
The traditional Barbadian Saturday dinner is pudding and sous, a sweet potato mixture stuffed into cleaned pig’s intestines, served with pickled pig parts.
Most hotels will send you to Oistins by bus, with a charge, but in fact you can get pretty much everywhere on the island via public bus, for about $1.
Barbados has 70 miles of sandy shore, open to the public, and even beaching is a cultural activity: Bajans often start the day with a beach walk or a “sea bath,” a fine tradition for sure. If you’re into more adrenalin-stoked water sports, head to the southeast coast. There’s excellent kite surfing off Silver Sands Beach, along with the perfect guy to set you up: champion Brian Talma (aka Irie Man) at de Action Shop.
But we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the most entertaining Bajan we encountered, the Barbadian green monkey. They sometimes pop up on golf courses and roadsides, but the sure-thing locale for monkey viewing is the Barbados Wildlife Reserve. It’s not a typical zoo (only snakes and iguanas live in cages), but a jungle-y compound set within a mahogany forest. Try to arrive at 2 p.m. so you can watch the monkeys congregate for fruit and vegetables.
It’s an animal free-for-all when the food comes out, so you’ll see a menagerie of creatures, including red-footed turtles (the last to the party), brocket deer, and maras (a guinea pig relative that looks like a giant rabbit). The monkeys seem quite accustomed to the flurry of cellphone-wielding tourists as they scamper about, and the turtles don’t seem to mind being used as stepping stones by the monkeys.
While you’re out and about, don’t be shy about conversing with locals. They’re English speaking, and most won’t mind, especially if you ask them about cricket, or how to make the perfect rum punch. If you bring up Rhianna, know that you may well be chatting with an old schoolmate of hers. It’s a small island, after all. But don’t expect anyone to tell you if the singing sensation will be home for Independence Day. You’ll have to find that out the old-fashioned way, by following her on Twitter.
Going to Barbados
Getting there: JetBlue (www.jetblue.com) flies nonstop from Fort Lauderdale and American (www.aa.com) flies nonstop from Miami to Bridgetown, Barbados in 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Other airlines make the trip with a stop, including Delta and Caribbean Airlines.
Where to stay: Good hotels with cultural activities include the Tamarind (it offers a rum crawl, among other things); www.tamarindbarbados.com, from $459; and the all-inclusive Turtle Beach Resort (www.turtlebeachresortbarbados.com; from $641), featuring the Pepperpot Culinary Tour, Bajan pastry classes, and beach cricket.
Where to eat: So many good choices! Cuz’s Fish Shack, in Bridgetown (www.facebook.com/Cuzs-Fish-Shack-Barbados-116977991701317/) is a local institution. Daphne’s www.daphnesbarbados.com) is a wonderful spot for modern Italian. If you’re looking for the next big thing, hit the new 13/59 degrees (www.1359barbados.com) at Port Ferdinand, helmed by Michelin-starred chef Andrew Turner.