Mooching round the office with not much to do I casually asked the editor “anything interesting going gov?” “not at the moment he growled, we haven’t got the budget for your usual level of extravagance, but if you can get out of my hair for less than £500…”. I didn’t need any more encouragement and didn’t dare tell him I could get to Barbados with Virgin Atlantic for less than that. I was about to have the week of my life.
It seemed too good to be true, but I was really off to a Food and Rum Festival on the idyllic Island of Barbados for a whole week. In a little over eight hours I was in Bridgetown, the warm capital of Barbados and not much later ensconced in the beach front luxury of the all-inclusive Sugar Bay Hotel. It’s a small hotel with an intimate feel, 138 rooms and suites and a 4-star rating. It has four bars and five restaurants, but I think my favourite meal was always breakfast outdoors next to the beach looking out to sea.
I was there for the rum and food of course but I wanted to enjoy the island too. There’s lots to do, I went subterranean and discovered Harrison’s Cave, a 2.3km complex of stalactites and stalagmites, the dramatically lit tallest room is 15m high. Barbados is built on coral and forms a natural filter for the drinking water which plays a part in the distillation of rum.
Mount Gay is the oldest rum distillery in the world and was started in 1703. Until then molasses, a by-product of the sugar industry was just dumped at sea. Production was not as sophisticated as today and the first effort was called appropriately enough ‘Kill Devil’ it was 92% proof and did indeed regularly kill people. Sir John Gay initiated the handcraft techniques that produced the best distillates. Today this pioneering spirit is exported to 180 countries with the USA, UK and Canada taking the lion’s share. I love a recycling story, so it pleased me to learn that the white oak barrels the rum matures in are from Kentucky Bourbon distilleries who only use them up to three times.
Most of the action on the island is on the west or Platinum coast. It’s more sheltered there from the Atlantic and less windy, but for my money the east coast has the drama and the waves. Not so many people live on that side, so it feels quite remote and secluded. Whilst not advisable for swimming, it is a surfer’s paradise. There are some lovely towns along the beach, I had lunch at a dreamy restaurant called The Roundhouse, the island’s oldest in Bathsheba. Stunning views, a cool breeze and excellent food are guaranteed.
Catamaran boat tours are a sure-fire way to connect with nature and pick up a tan at the same time. The Cool Runnings boat I went out on stopped for a couple of snorkelling sessions (don’t worry if you can’t swim, they have life jackets and instructors on board to help you). Turtles, shipwrecks and brightly coloured fish through a prism of clear blue water are the order of the day. Oh, and did I mention there was a bar on board (included in the price) that can knock up a rum punch in about 10 seconds flat. Just in case you’ve never had one we’re talking rum, fresh lime, Angostura bitters and a touch of soda. A great fun trip that’s as relaxing as it is stimulating.
The nightlife on the island is legendary, the great and the good have all partied there in their day (and Rihanna is a local, Simon Cowell owns a chunky pad here too) and this was where the food festival came into its own. With street events across the week including celebrity chefs (UK’s Tom Aitken was there adding a touch of class), and with fish fry offs and gala evenings there was something for everyone.
A great way to explore the island is through a land safari. I jumped into a 4×4 and headed off with driver Glyne who filled me in on the history of this tiny island. Measuring 14 by 21 miles and with a population of 280,000 it still packs a punch. We drove through sugar plantations and crisscrossed the island. One of the most impressive historic houses is St. Nicholas Abbey, once owned by the Cumberbatch family (of Benedict fame) is was a plantation house and still produces its own rum. You can tour part of the house which was built in the Jacobean style. Lovely gardens and their own steam train complete the picture.
Nothing beats watching the sun go down with a cool drink in your hand with the aroma of good food coming your way. I discovered a hidden gem in La Cabane on Batts Rock Beach just outside Bridgetown. Set on the beach with palm trees swaying, swings to sit on at the bar (yes really!) so you can sway too, and superb food, think quality beef with chimichurri, ceviche and lobster in a paradise location. A carefree vibe permeates all that happens here, they have a house band that mixes live and a DJ’s music with a tropical and South American feel to it. Owners Clement Meniaud and Jules Gualdoni shared a vision to create the ‘perfect mix of rustic and luxurious lifestyle, the ultimate costal chic getaway’. I could have moved in and stayed a month these guys know how to party.
Inevitably I needed to take it easy at some point. And lunch at the Coral Reef Club, a hotel run by two charming and affable brothers who make the whole process look effortless and serve up sunshine on a plate with every lunch. The food was top notch and service considered and discrete. This is the sort of place you can successfully take a maiden aunt to lunch and she’ll still keep sending you handsome postal orders for Christmas and in the evening swing in with your beau on your arm and dance the night away to the live music.
And that’s the thing I found with Barbados. it can be all things to all people. A multigenerational sojourn success is guaranteed with so much on offer. There’s a young vibe with lively bars and restaurants if you want it or just wile away the hours under a parasol and catch a waiter’s eye when you fancy a top up. What are you waiting for, book that family get together and start dreaming of rum punch. Oh, and don’t forget there’s a time difference, it’s rum o’clock all the time in Barbados.
Virgin Atlantic flies daily from London Gatwick to Barbados with return Economy fares starting from £453 per person return. For further information and to book please visit www.virginatlantic.com
Neil Hennessy-Vass is Contributing Editor for Our Man On The Ground as well as a widely-published globetrotting food and award-winning travel writer and photographer.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass