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Relaxation, rum on offer at this tropical island

Barbados stands out due to careful maintenance of its heritage, a superb tourist infrastructure and best of all, Barbados hasn’t, like many Caribbean islands, priced out the budget traveler.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

A glass of dark rum served neat. Toes in the sand. Rihanna singing from a scratchy little radio balanced on a crate of plantains. And, English high tea, raised pinky and all, at a seaside hotel.

Barbados is the quintessential Caribbean island, and one with a strong British heritage as it was a colony for more than 300 years; Bajans are as enthusiastic about calypso as they are about cricket.

Barbados is geographically charmed, but then so is much of the Caribbean. What makes the island stand apart is its careful maintenance of its heritage; a superb tourist infrastructure; and best of all: Barbados hasn’t, like many Caribbean islands, priced out the budget traveler.

“There’s something for everyone,” says Campbell Rudder, vice president of U.S. marketing for the Barbados Tourism Authority. The island offers a wide range of hotels, from affordable guesthouses to celebrity-saturated resorts. (Exhibit A: Sandy Lane, where Tiger Woods was married in 2004.)

Then there are the people: Barbadian hospitality is celebrated throughout the region. Of course, the “warm and friendly people” is part of practically every marketing brochure in the Caribbean, but in Barbados, it’s particularly evident.

It’s the kind of place where if you ask for directions, a Bajan won’t just tell you — they’ll probably lead you all the way to your destination.

Exploring the Island
The history of Barbados is that of much of the Caribbean: First there were early inhabitants, then European colonization, and finally independence. The seafaring Portuguese pulled up in 1536, which is when the country was named, supposedly after the island’s “bearded” fig trees.

In 1625, the British landed, with Captain John Powell claiming the island for his motherland. Sugar cane was cultivated in the 1640s, and it soon became a mainstay of the economy. The plantations were lucrative but labor-intensive, and landowners imported large numbers of African slaves until slavery was abolished in 1834. Barbados became an independent nation in 1966, and has maintained a steady democracy since then.

Barbados may be small — 166 square miles — but its landscapes are remarkably varied. The west coast features calm Caribbean waters and glitzy resorts, while the eastern, wind-battered Atlantic side entices surfers with its powerful waves. The capital, Bridgetown, is perched on the lively southern coast, which is the “main drag” of Barbados, lined with hotels, boutique resorts, outdoor restaurants, dance clubs and beach bars.

The lush interior of the island reveals limestone cliffs, sloping hills and fertile tropical gardens. Plantation houses rise over the countryside, including the restored 17th-century plantation house of St. Nicholas Abbey, in the parish of St. Peter. It is one of only three Jacobean mansions in the Western Hemisphere.

Barbados also once welcomed the future first president of the U.S. In 1751, a young George Washington visited Barbados, the only trip that he ever took outside of the U.S. Washington stayed in a handsome plantation house — now called the George Washington House — on Bush Hill, which has been refurbished as a museum.

Bridgetown and Beaches
Bridgetown is home to over a third of the island’s population, and has the noisy energy to prove it. It’s a modern, spirited Caribbean capital with elegant vestiges of its British past. For an excellent overview of the island’s history, stop at the Barbados Museum & Historical Society, which traces the country’s evolution from the prehistoric era to its current status as a tourist darling.

“Historical records have been very well kept in Barbados,” says Rudder, who was recently able to track down documents at the museum that mark his own family’s arrival from Scotland in 1867.

Bridgetown also has one of the oldest synagogues in the Western hemisphere. The well-preserved coral-stone synagogue was established in the 1650s by Jews who arrived from Recife, Brazil.

In the end, though, most of the half million yearly visitors are here for one thing: the beaches. And Barbados is ringed with them, from long sandy strips lined with oiled bodies in thongs to shady wedges of coast that look like a desert island cartoon — a cluster of palm trees, white sand and a squawking seagull circling lazily above.

As for outdoor sports, Barbados offers everything under the sun (literally). Snorkel the reefs; strap on a diving tank and come nose to nose with seahorses; or windsurf the frothy blue waters.

Rum and Flying Fish
The salty tang of the sea is never far away on the island, especially on Friday nights at the Oistins Fish Market in the historical fishing town of Oistins on the south coast. Dinner is at picnic tables and dress is island-casual, so throw on the sandals.  With a bottle of Banks beer in hand, listen to everything from old doo-wop classics to steel drums to dance tunes from native girl Rihanna.

There are plenty of seafood restaurants elsewhere on the island. Cin Cin by the Sea, which opened this year on the west coast, serves Mediterranean-Caribbean cuisine like crisp calamari and bouillabaisse with lobster, mussels, and okra. Or, feast on Barbadian specialties, including cornmeal cou-cou and flying fish, at the perennially popular Brown Sugar.

While fish is the centerpiece of many menus, it’s rum that fuels the island. There are over 1500 rum shops — the local equivalent of a pub — in Barbados. “The rum shops are one of the highlights of Barbados,” says Rudder. “It’s the chance to relax, mix with the locals, and have the experience of being a Barbadian.”

Most rum shops are colorfully painted wooden shacks, with a bar and well-worn seats, where sipping the amber liquid is as important as socializing over it. It’s said there’s a rum shop for every church, though attendance at the rum shops probably beats that of Sunday sermons.

Rum can also be sampled at the source by visiting Mount Gay Rum. The liquor company’s slogan is “rum that invented rum” which, though it has a surreal Escher-like ring to it, is true: Rum originated in Barbados, and Mount Gay, which dates back to 1703, is the oldest existing brand of rum in the world.

Steel Drums and Sequins
Rum is made from sugar cane, which is also at the root of the island’s most famous event, the summertime Crop Over Festival, once a celebration of the end of the harvest season. “Crop Over has become our hallmark,” says Rudder. “It’s a way for people to celebrate their heritage and culture.”

There are parades of shimmying masses in giant feather headdresses and sequins, showing off plenty of bare flesh; a calypso competition, climaxing in the Pic-O-De-Crop Finals; and, most of all, the infectious spirit of the Bajans. Of course, with the island’s free-flowing rum, fresh seafood and sun-warmed beaches, the good times of Crop Over are never really over.

If You Go...

What to See & Where to Go

St. Nicholas Abbey, 246-422-5357

George Washington House, 246-228-5461

Barbados Museum, 246-427-0201

Mount Gay Rum, Brandons, 246-425-8757

Crop Over Festival: The 2012 celebration is scheduled to start May 12 and continue with 11 weeks of activities.

Where to Eat

Cin Cin by the Sea, Prospect, St. James, 246-424-4557

Brown Sugar, Barbados Aquatic Centre, St. Michael, 246-426-7684

Where to Stay
Peach & Quiet: Perched on the southern tip of the island, with breezy rooms and a fragrant garden with flitting hummingbirds, from $119; Inch Marlow, Christ Church, Barbados, 246-428-5682.

Coral Reef Club: Dip your toes into the mosaic-tiled swimming pools at this boutique resort on the west coast, from $425; Porters, St. James, 246-422-2372.

Ocean Two: A new beachfront resort that opened in May 2011 on Dover Beach, with stylish, self-catering condos and a swim-up pool bar, from $270; 246-428-9441.

Writer, reporter, and editor AnneLise Sorensen has penned her way across four continents, contributing to guidebooks, magazines, websites, and radio/TV. For more information, visit her