Time to Get Away

BarbadosIn these stressful times of economic recession, an inexpensive trip to Barbados might be just the thing to renew your spirit and remind you just how wonderful life can be.

I recently made a Barbados getaway and loved it. I ate so much good food that I had to jog almost every evening to burn off some of the calories. There were belly laughs, too — like the time a tourist reacted as though her head had been blown off after a taste of the island?s famous Mount Gay Rum? and breathtaking, panoramic views of beaches and sweeping landscapes. The politics and history of the island are as hypnotic as the sound of waves in the blue-green sea crashing on the white-sand beaches.

To get to Barbados, I jumped on US Airways? newly inaugurated direct flight from Philadelphia. I last visited the island 23 years ago. So much as changed since then on the 20-mile long, 14-mile-wide piece of heaven in the Eastern Caribbean! Tourism has now surpassed sugar as the main industry. As a consequence, wide roads have replaced the narrow streets where sugar cane grew so close to the asphalt you could hear the rustling of the plants as cars whisked by.

In this nation of 250,000 people, the temperature is summer-like all year round, at about 85 degrees Fahrenheit; the U.S. dollar weighs in at two Barbados dollars; and the literacy rate is 98 percent. Although it is an English-speaking nation, a careful ear can pick up the African influence in the ?Bajan? dialect.

For the sake of tourists, mainly British and Americans, bits of history have been distorted, with some of the most painful experiences ignored altogether. Barbados is among the most developed nations of the Anglophone Caribbean. Life, at least to the outsider, has an easy flow. ?Soca,? a blend of soul and calypso, is the music that animates life, but a new brand of hip-hop-influenced sounds is making its presence felt. The music of Rihanna, the Barbadian-born hip-hop singer, is one example of this new sound.

Many of the homes on Barbados are built with cinder blocks painted in vivid colors. The small wooden homes are called ?chattel houses,? a term that goes back to the plantation days, when the home owners would buy houses that could be moved from one property to another. Some families have occupied the same chattel house since slavery, adding to the original structure to accommodate the expanding family. Amerindians, mainly Arawaks, originally settled the island. British colonizers later introduced sugar cane to make rum. Irish Catholics were used as cheap labor, but as the plantations grew, an estimated 387,000 Africans were forced into service as slaves.?

I arrived on the island at about 3:00 p.m., four hours after leaving Philadelphia. I took a taxi to Sweetfield Manor, a bed and breakfast, where I stayed for four nights. A short ride from the airport, Sweetfield Manor is rather expensive. Cheaper lodging can easily be found. Chris, the taxi driver, turned into what at first appeared to be an alley with huge concrete walls. He stopped at a tall iron gate, waited for it to open, then continued for a short distance to a huge white house surrounded by colorful flowers and palm trees.

Sweetfield owners George and Ann Clarke bought the property in 2002, renovated it and reopened it in 2005. It is an inviting place with eclectic furnishings that reflect the creativity of Ann, who is a painter and author of a children?s book. Guests stay in one of seven private, air-conditioned rooms. A former tennis lawn now shows off a landscaped lagoon with a spa set into the upper rocks.

After an excellent dinner at Brown Sugar Restaurant, I retired to bed. I awoke to a hearty breakfast and a fast-moving day. Ann is a wonderful chef. She was trained at a culinary school in Florida, but most of her skill came from her mother?s family while growing up in Michigan. Most of her breakfasts are based on fruits and seasonings gathered no more than a step or two from her kitchen door. My first breakfast comprised orange-pineapple juice, brochette-wrapped eggs, mushrooms with tarragon sauce on a slice of roasted pineapple, and orange-flavored French toast. I was so stuffed that I had to wrestle myself out of the chair to visit some of the historic sites. Though fascinated by these sites, I was riveted by the general coming and going, watching and listening to people, and brief stops at tiny stores.

My first stop was Lancaster Great House, a magnificent example of 18th century architecture. On the way there we drove through a traffic circle in which stood the statue of a Black man with arms outstretched and broken chains dangling from his waist. It was a statue of Bussa, a slave who led an island-wide rebellion in the 18th century that helped speed the demise of slavery in Barbados. Although Bussa was killed in battle, his troops continued the fight until they were defeated by the superior firepower of the British. Bussa was honored with the Emancipation Statue 169 years after that rebellion.

Everything about Barbados, from its architecture to its music and food, somehow goes back to the slave era. Lancaster House was built in early 1799 almost certainly with the skill of African master African craftsmen. Once owned by two acting governors, the house is now an art gallery. With its large, sweeping rooms, it is situated to make the most of easterly winds. Like so many of the other sites in Barbados, the grounds are filled with tropical flowers and birds that leave you speechless.

From there it was on to St. Nicholas Abby, one of only three Jacobean mansions in the Western Hemisphere; lunch at a small seaside restaurant in Speightstown; Arlington House Museum, an 18th century building featuring three floors of exhibitions, including an interactive audio-visual display; and a simply wonderful dinner at 39 Steps Restaurant.?

One of my favorite meals in Barbados was fried flying fish. I had eaten it before, but I had forgotten how good it is. Flying fish is so intensely flavorful that it would be a capital crime to put hot sauce on it.?

One of my last visits was a tour of the Mount Gay Rum bottling company in Bridgetown, the island?s capital. After our group left the factory floor, where the rum was poured into the bottles, we were taken to a bar area for a sniff and taste.

None of my site visits cost more than $10 to $15 Barbados dollars. I left the island with memories that will last the rest of my life. I think I need another vacation in Barbados to get over being in Barbados.