No one is more appreciative of the sunny Caribbean than a Canadian in winter. Some of the passengers on the flight from Montreal to Barbados were already in shorts. My wife, Rosette, who grew up in Uganda, our three little boys, Oliver, Zachary, and Edgar (ages five, four, and one, respectively), and I were equally ready to changer le mal de place, as Montrealers describe their quest to dispel hibernal cabin fever. After considering several islands, we'd finally settled on Barbados, which Rosette and I had visited five years earlier. I'd been lecturing on a cruise ship—it was during this cruise, in fact, that she became pregnant with Oliver—and we spent a few delightful days on the island with our friends the Fishes.
While we were taken by Barbados's beauty, we were even more impressed by the gentle, philosophical people. The quarter of a million Bajans have little anger about their slave past; as one woman put it, "Those of us who made it through are much better off than the ones who stayed in Africa." Nothing seems to faze them, which is probably a reason the island is said to have more centenarians per capita than anywhere else in the world, the medical explanation for which is still under investigation. (One 110-year-old woman offered, "I eats me ground provisions and I take me rum.") Dreadlocks are de rigueur among the young men—you'll see more dreads on Barbados than on Jamaica—but they're a fashion statement, not a political one. In fact, the politics are unusually stable, largely because the economy has been growing healthily each year since 1994.
Our family doesn't just stay on the compound; we like to get out and see things, and there's no safer or more fun piece of Caribbean real estate for exploring with curious kids, I wager, than Barbados. The island is only 166 square miles, but each of the 11 parishes has its own flavor. The northwest coast, from Speightstown to Sandy Lane, has kid-friendly surf and the most developed tourist infrastructure. The tone, set by upper-class Brits who have vacationed there for decades, is very posh. We spent the first few days at a place called Bluff Cottage, one part of a three-house compound on the beach, which is available through the nearby Royal Westmoreland resort.
The cottage came with two Bajan women who cooked and cleaned. One of them, Gwen, taught the boys how to stalk skinks in the vegetation. She stripped a length of fiber from a palm frond and made a little noose at the end, which they were supposed to slip very, very slowly around the lizard's neck. The boys didn't have the patience. "I caught one with my hands," Zachary reported, "but it hopped right out." Edgar was riveted by a bananaquit rustling in the bougainvillea.
Our first day on the beach—it's almost like a floating party—we met a white American diplomat and his lovely Trinidadian wife; their two boys taught ours how to play cricket. An aristocratic young English couple invited the boys to their son's birthday party, in a beautiful house above a polo field. We also hooked up with Simon Cannon of Sky Wave Water Sports, who took us up the coast on a speedboat (to a spot near Lone Star Restaurant), where the boys, in snorkels, flippers, and life jackets, could swim with green sea turtles. "It was scary," Zachary remarked, "because some of the shadows of turtles looked like shark shadows."
Our favorite beach was the Queen Street Beach, in Speightstown, where Claudette Colbert lived quietly for many years in a simple farmhouse. Here, bobbing in the surf, we met some simpatico Bajans, among them Gordon Webster, an artist whose work hangs in the town's Gang of 4 Art Studio.
While casing out the island in our rental car, we had to remember to keep to the left. Barbados is a maze of ill-marked, winding little roads, many more than are identified on the maps, so getting from point A to point B inevitably becomes a collaborative effort. Local motorists, finding us baffled at an intersection, would stop and lead us to the next leg, or we would occasionally pick up an old man on his way to work who'd tell us how to proceed.
In no time, Oliver spotted a monkey scurrying across an upcoming curve into a remnant patch of rain forest. It was an African green monkey, a species that came over with the slaves and now runs wild, wreaking havoc on crops and gardens. Almost every day one of the boys would catch a glimpse of a mongoose, brought from India to take care of the rats in the cane fields.
The classic architecture of Barbados, which you see everywhere, is found in "chattel houses." These small, metal-roofed wooden cabins, originally built for slaves, were among the first prefabricated houses. When a slave was sold, his house was disassembled, loaded onto a donkey cart, and taken with him to his new plantation.
At North Point, on the very top of the island, waves smash against the cliffs and eat out caves and surf-spewing blowholes. We went to the Animal Flower Cave, which is full of sea anemones whose wavering purple tentacles reminded Oliver of "baby snakes in their mommy's tummy." All along the east coast the surf is too strong for kids to swim, but there are numerous tidal pools teeming with mollusks and minnows, especially at Bathsheba Beach, a hangout of hippies and surfers, with spectacular Zen rocks.
The middle of the island rises to more than a thousand feet. There is very little water on the surface because it all runs into the limestone caverns that honeycomb the interior. We visited Harrison's Cave, donning blue hard hats and taking a little train that descends into a magical world of stalagmites and stalactites, with waterfalls spurting from the ceilings into green lagoons. The whole experience is geared to kids—the boys learned that the "mites" poke up and the "tites" drip down.
The Welchman Hall Gully, near Harrison's Cave, has an unmarked path that we stumbled upon in a thick, jungly forest of clove, nutmeg, and coconut trees. Zachary found a little cave whose floor was "full of bat poop."
The Barbados Wildlife Reserve was also a big hit. We walked through wooded enclosures full of free-roaming green monkeys, iguanas, brocket deer, tortoises, flamingos, macaws, and brown pelicans. (The adjacent primate research center produces 70 percent of the world's polio vaccine. One green monkey can provide up to 2.5 million doses.) Across the street is the Grenade Hall Forest & Signal Station, with nature trails through a beautiful hillside of undisturbed forest. On top of the hill is a signal tower, one of six on the island manned by British redcoats who kept each other posted about slave revolts.
Out in the middle of nowhere, on the southeastern tip of the island, is Sam Lord's Castle, which Marriott bought in the seventies and built a resort around. Sam Hall Lord was a pirate—according to Rex Wason, the castle's resident historian, "a man of very shady character." Lord would hang lanterns in coconut palms to misdirect ships onto the outlying reefs; their captains thought they were coming into Bridgetown, farther down the coast. He made such a fortune from salvage that he commissioned the architect of Windsor Castle to design a castle for him.
During the second half of our vacation we stayed in an old sugar mill in the north, converted to a residence and owned by our friends the Fishes. Mill House is in one of the wildest parts of the island, above a cement factory and off the tourist grid. The main plantation house lies in vine-smothered ruins (it was torched by its previous owner for the insurance, or so the story goes, and now belongs to Oprah Winfrey, who has no immediate plans to restore it).
A path led through a gully to the rocky coast below and a mile of wild beach. Our nearest neighbor was 90-year-old Roy Ward (who had just married his fourth wife). Roy showed the boys his enormous pigs, and one of his many great-grandchildren took them to a fallow potato field and taught them how to fly a kite. Roy is one of 49 mulatto children fathered by a flinty Scotsman with various women on his 18 plantations. Roy himself was once a major landowner on the island, and he is a cousin of Gordon Webster, our new Queen Street Beach friend. Gordon had told me that his family wasn't talking to the white side of Roy's family because of a long-standing contretemps having to do with the fact that the Wards had made out a lot better than the Websters over the years.
That would be a challenge: to trace the first Webster or the first Ward to arrive on the island in the 17th century, and as many of their descendants as you could find, hidden and acknowledged—the white Bajans who sip gin and tonics in blue blazers in Sandy Lane, and the dark-skinned ones who frequent the churches and rum shops of St. Lucy parish—until you got to Roy and Gordon. Then you'd have a picture of the true diversity and interrelatedness of the Bajan population. It would also be a good excuse for coming back for a more extended stay, which we had already decided to do at the earliest opportunity. Just as we were getting into the civilized, sane pace of this particularly mellow island in the sun, we had to leave. That's the way it always is with a perfect vacation.
Where to Stay
Bluff Cottage Royal Westmoreland, Sandy Lane, St. James; 246/422-4653, fax 246/422-7633; rental for this two-bedroom cottage is $350 per day. Alambay Cottage, also a two-bedroom, is $275 per day, while the four-bedroom Bluff House is $900. All properties include breakfast, cook, maid, and laundry service; Bluff House also has a butler and a swimming pool.
Animal Flower Cave North Point, St. Lucy; 246/439-8797.
Harrison's Cave Welchman Hall, St. Thomas; 246/438-6640.
Barbados Wildlife Reserve Farley, St. Peter; 246/422-8826.
Sam Lord's Castle Long Bay, St. Philip; 246/423-7350.
Sky Wave Water Sports Apt.1, Sunrise Apts., Mayhoe Ave., Sunset Quest, St. James; 246/232-8521.
Gang of 4 Art Studio Queen's St., Speightstown; 246/419-0051.
David Kirton 's CD, Stranger, is available from Bird's Eye Music (246/433-9088).