The Call of Barbados

The Call of Barbados

I'm staring at the white of a small wave slowly approaching the shore as I walk along the beach behind Daphne’s Italian restaurant on Barbados' West Coast.

— By Amie Watson     — Photography: Kenneth Theysen

It’s about 30 feet away and I say 'small', but in truth the wave is larger than the others that have tickled my ankles this evening – and growing by the second. It's one of those moments when you see disaster looming, but for some reason – hubris or denial – you don't believe it will strike. I could move out of the way, I think, as the white crest looms closer. But as the rogue wave finally arrives, washing up my legs, drenching my skirt and tossing wet sand up past my shirt to my neck, all I can do is stare down at my soaked clothes (at least the bathing suit was underneath) and laugh.

If a car had splashed me on the side of the road at home on another continent, I doubt I’d be laughing, whether I’d seen it coming or not. But my smile reminds me of where I am, on an island where there’s no reason to stress, no reason to get upset. People come here to get wet, after all. The wave was only helping. Really, I should tip it for good service.

In fact, at my lesson with Zed’s Surfing Adventures on the South Coast the next morning,
I have no problem getting into the ocean. (Neither do the giant sea turtles that frequently bob their heads out of the warm water.) “Look there”, says Junior, my instructor, pointing out to the horizon. “See that wave coming?” I do. And once again, I’ve no desire to get out of the way.

Junior tells me to start paddling, slowly at first, then harder as it gets closer. But this time, the wave won’t win. I’m up out of the water, feet sideways on the board and weighting my back toe to steer the board along the front of the cresting water before the wave can catch me.

When I swim back to Junior, he gives me a fist pump and starts looking for another wave for me to ride. Even when I fall the next time, there’s still no reason to get upset. “Let’s get you another good one”, says Junior. “There’s always another wave.”

The water here has been drawing visitors for years. But there’s something else intrinsically captivating about Barbados. The longer I stay on the island, the more I’m taken aback at how beautiful it is.

My practical side credits the Atlantic and Caribbean tectonic plates that crashed into each other over eons and pushed up a layer of clay, fertile soil – the perfect mix to grow the eye-popping flowers, draping vines and lush foliage that decorates the island. But the romantic in me believes Barbados is actually an Isabel Allende-style land of magical realism, where ginger lily buds burst forth in flames after the rain, aromatic ylang-ylang flowers lull you to sleep in surreal garden forests and when you bite into a green-skinned Pawi mango, freshly fallen from a tree above you, you can taste the country’s bittersweet history.

Before people came for the beaches, Amerindians came to Barbados for the fish – the same exceptional mahi-mahi, snapper and tuna that you can enjoy at many of the island’s top restaurants, including Cocktail Kitchen in the up-and-coming St. Lawrence Gap and L’Azure in The Crane Resort on the East Coast. In the 16th and 17th centuries, much of the original population was killed or captured by European sailors, slave traders and explorers.

Though the island was named by the Portuguese explorer Pedro a Campos in 1536 – Los Barbados, ‘the bearded ones’ – it was the British who colonised the island, founding the first settlement in 1627. They held onto control until 1966 when Barbados became an independent state and joined the Commonwealth of Nations. Driving through the rolling hills and valleys of the island, you’ll still see fields of sugar cane, which were planted after colonisation and became the island’s biggest industry for centuries. The crop is still exported and used locally to make rum, molasses and sugar.

At the self-guided tour of the operational Foursquare Rum Distillery, you can watch the rum-making process in action. You can also sample the line of products that Foursquare distributes under its own brand and distills for other companies, including Doorly’s XO, which is Debra’s – the bartender – favourite. Scotch drinkers can also enjoy Foursquare’s 2004 Single Blended Rum, aged 11 years in ex-bourbon casks; it has a long-lasting caramel finish but no added artificial caramel colour or flavour.

Though I wouldn’t drive after tasting my way through the fifteen or so rums that Debra had on hand, there's a section of the Sea View 1A Highway that I look forward to every time I cut back to my suite at The Sandpiper Hotel in Holetown, off the ABC Highway (the experience is for some reason less striking heading the opposite direction). The road was cut shear through a rocky hill. Trees up top bend over the road, kissing in the middle and creating a four-second-long tunnel by blocking out much of the light.

Without fail, it makes my heart beat a little faster and, knowing that it’s up ahead, I look forward to the roundabout exit. Passing through, I feel as though I’m in a secret passage, a private garden entranceway. I know the tunnel will end soon – like the rogue wave, I see it coming – but there’s a moment of suspended disbelief when I wish I could just keep driving, hidden under the elegantly draping vines, crimson-red Pride of Barbados flowers and dangling beards of branches trying to escape from the arch above (‘the bearded ones’, it turns out, refers to these trees rather than the beards of Portuguese sailors). And though I know thousands of other people have driven through this exact spot today alone, there’s a feeling that everyone else has somehow missed it. Because how is there no sign or indication that others have acknowledged its beauty?

How can anything be this beautiful? The thought comes back to me daily in Barbados as I drive past palm groves, beside lush foliage dotted with blossoming rainbows of flowers and past endless waves crashing on beaches ranging from calm to dramatically rugged. It’s at moments like these, when I pass through the tunnel or stare out into crystal blue water that I remember that my visit to the island too will end and I should make the most of it. Another grilled seafood dinner, another glass of rum, another heart-melting sunset.

And plenty more waves.

Amie Watson
is a Montreal-based food and travel writer.

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