|The Ballards - Barbados|
Over Christmas and New Year
1991 we visited Barbados and stayed in our friends' house Villa Nova in
the East of the island.
A long conversation with a Hammersmith Bucket shop (this
was pre-Internet) resulted in a pretty good price for the flights, but
they were a somewhat indirect route.
Then a long flight down the American Eastern seaboard until America disappeared and we banked out to avoid Cuba, then back in for the run in to Barbados. By the time we arrived, the light was fading and we were exhausted (it's surprising how tiring sitting down, watching movies and being fed every 4 hours can be...).
I love the moment when the aircraft doors open at these
out-of-the-way airports, because the outside air rushes in and displaces
the anodyne aircraft disinfectant-and-airconditioned recycled-farts smell.
Suddenly, you get a flavour of the country you are about to visit.
The flights out worked well: Simon's arrived a day before
ours, so he had the Mini Moke rented and knew where to go from the airport,
but the Moke was so cramped we had to have our suitcases on our laps.
The house used to belong to Sir Anthony Eden and was
furnished in simple 1950s style. The corridors and rooms were high-ceilinged
and simply decorated. An air of faded grandeur permeated the whole.
The house needed attention: many of the basic amenities were damaged by inattention. A gutter on the roof that we unblocked in 5 minutes with a screwdriver could have been fixed by the gardener instead of being left to cause damp in one of the upstairs bedrooms and the downstairs loo. Rose King's estimate to fix this was £1,000. I nearly billed her for use of my screwdriver.....
The water was heated by a solar collection system which worked very wel,l once set in to operation. One half had been disabled but once a pipe had been unblocked this worked as well, giving plenty of steaming hot water for a leisurely evening bath with a Gin and Tonic...
The markets in Bridgetown were great: full of locally caught fish and produce. The shopping in Barbados is not as supermarket-centered as the UK, which makes for a lot more variety, and lower costs, due to the lower mark-up.
Being an ex-British colony, many traditions remain, especially cricket, which is taken very seriously...
So much of our traditional Christmas is based around
it being cold and snowy; which says a lot about how authentic the current
ritual is. It turns out that even the reindeer-and-sleigh thing was invented
by the Coca Cola company in 1938 because they looked good next to a snowy
But there seems to be a basic Northern Hemisphere need
to celebrate something at the bottom of winter, when the days are short
and the weather miserable.
We decided we had to go to church. Christmas is a big celebration in Barbados, and being an ex-British colony there is plenty of muscular Victorian CofE Christianity around, as well as several stunning Victorian red-brick churches, lifted straight out of some Northern English town circa 1875. We went to a service at the church on Hackleton's Cliff, overlooking the East coast with it's roaring Atlantic breakers far below us. Quite the most perfect location for a church I could ever imagine. It looked like one of the many East End churches falling in to rack and ruin or taken over by bizarre Eastern cults. There is one in Golders Green that was in very poor condition until taken over by the Shree Shwaminaryan sect (don't ask, they could worship alien beings for all I know......), but they have spent huge amounts of money on it and it is beautifully maintained by an army of staff.
The high Victorian windows were all open and starlings swooped and twittered through the church throughout the service. We were the only white people amongst 500 immaculately dressed blacks celebrating a Christian feast more appropriate to snow and hunting horns. The enthusiastic singing must have been heard for miles around, and during the service we were introduced and had to stand up and be welcomed. Never, before or since, have I seen so many smiling black faces and, Zadie Smith style, so many white teeth.
We drove home and had a celebratory traditional Christmas lunch in the main dining room. That was when it really hit home: no cold, wet, or even snowy conditions outside, instead warmth, humidity and deafening birdsong.
We were in Barbados over New Year, so celebrated in real
style at the Sandy Lane Hotel.
The Sandy Lane was a genuinely luxurious hotel: everything was extremely pleasantly laid out, and I would be happy to stay there any time! I know people who have stayed there: one in particular (Ros, you know who you are) never left the hotel for their entire fortnight, which I thought was a bit of a shame.
That was the one night we splashed out on a Taxi, as I refused to drive when I couldn't stand up. Following a dawn return to the house, we slept most of the next day before an evening swim and early night refreshed us.
We visited everywhere in Barbados: there is much that the tourists don't get the time to see. There is a lot of history, and a lot of remnants of colonial rule, not just in the infrastructure but in the social attitudes too. It's a lot less ethnic than, say, Trinidad, and a lot friendlier, at least outside the normal tourist areas.
Barbados has two sides: the West coast is developed, aimed at Americans, hot, cynical, full of hotels, expensive, swamped when cruise ships appear, not indicative of the true Barbados.
The East side, and the centre of the island, is unspoiled, quiet, agricultural, full of sugar cane fields rustling in the sea breezes, very friendly, not aimed at tourists at all.
Our days consisted of a late rise at about 10am, a leisurely breakfast then a drive down to our favourite beach on the West coast, where we would start the day with a rum punch from our favourite beach bar. Sunbathing occupied the majority of the day, interspersed with water-skiing, snorkelling and swimming. We even tried being towed behind a speedboat on rubber rings. Never again. They hurt....
Barbados countryside is littered with the remants of old sugar plantation machinery, without exception from old, long-disappeared English plants. Getting them out on old ships and bringing them in must have been hell.
We saw an American cruise ship arrive in the harbour, dwarfing all the buildings. A huge efflux of overweight Americans in immaculate trainers and white socks appeared in Bridgetown. Few of them puffed further than the main street unless they were booked on coach tours and whisked away.
Barbados politics is, like much of the West Indies, a
mixture of self-assertive black independence, traditional reverence to
the British ex-Governors and nods towards the power of the US Tourist
The rented Mini Moke, an ancient open-platform buggy built on a Mini chassis, was a character. The steering geometry had been deranged by a previous driver and as a result the car cornered like a demon on right-hand bends but dragged around left hand bends, squealing its' tyres. It was good for 75mph downhill with 4 people up and no seatbelts, which, with hindsight, may count as the most stupid and dangerous thing I have ever done.
They all made me drive it, because being the tallest
I looked the silliest. Like Andy Pandy my head was entirely above the
windscreen. I realised how Americans feel in Europe: everything appears
made for Lilliputians.
The helicopter ride was the worst example (of many) of
this. In order to anaesthatise nervous passengers, the bar at the Heliport
in Bridgetown served very powerful Rum Punches. We arrived early, so got
in the bar, the helicopter was delayed, so by the time we finally departed
focussing on the aircraft was hard. Following the flight further celebration
was necessary and by the time we finally made it back to the Moke everything
was very fuzzy indeed.
But there were other dangers. Three weeks after we left the helicopter we flew in failed to pull up off the beach and flew straight in to the hillside, killing all aboard. Nasty.
The flights back were a complete nightmare. Our tickets were booked on Pan Am. Pan Am had gone bust between us booking the tickets and actually flying and, being a scheduled airline, were not ATOL-protected. The travel agents were very slopey-shouldered about it. We eventually became unsecured creditors to the Southern District of New York Bankruptcy court but, like most criminal procedings, the lawyers swallowed the majority of the funds and we never got a penny. Typical.
Since our visit, the house has been vastly extended and turned in to a luxury hotel. I'm sure all of the nice, homely features have been brushed away in favour of commercial extravagance. What a shame.