Its high-society heyday may be over, but the Caribbean island once dubbed “little England” has become a much more interesting place to visit
It’s barely 6 p.m. on a Friday night, and already there’s a line forming at Oistins. To the uninitiated, the cheerful outdoor fish fry in this sleepy south coast village might resemble an overflowing beer garden. But since the mid-’90s, the knockabout local institution first popularized by fishermen and windsurfers has functioned as a tropical Studio 54 of sorts, a riotously diverse melting pot of deep-pocketed voluptuaries and flip-flop-wearing locals and action-seekers. The ruddy man in cargo shorts next to you, waiting for his mahimahi and macaroni pie, is just as likely to be a German tourist from the all-inclusive down the beach as he is the British billionaire Lord Bamford (he of the 204-foot yacht, Sikorsky helicopter, and $25 million Heron Bay estate), who is evidently not above queuing like everybody else to eat dinner out of a plastic container.
“My grandmother’s house is literally up the street, so I’ve been coming here all my life,” says André Parris, a chatty 25-year-old radio personality, his voice barely audible above the din of steel drums. Parris, it transpires over a Mount Gay or two, is one of the most in-demand DJs in the Caribbean, used to island-hopping with the likes of British Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton and Barbados’s most notorious international export after rum, Rihanna. But not on Friday nights. “If you are out early and wondering why everywhere [else] is empty, it’s because they’re all here,” Parris tells me. “It’s a little scrappy, but you always have fun.”
He might as well be referring to Barbados. I started coming to this former British colony in the Lesser Antilles a dozen years (two passports and many rum punches) ago, lured by a vague idea of a gently fading elegance that conjured louche aristocrats and even more disreputable Hollywood celebrities with grand Palladian homes. Of course, by the time I arrived, the island’s heyday had long since passed: when screen legend Claudette Colbert entertained neighbors like Sir Ronald and Marietta Tree (Heron Bay’s original owners) and their friends Bill and Babe Paley at Bellerive, the eighteenth-century plantation house Colbert bought in the early 1960s; and when interior designers Oliver Messel and Happy Ward were the last word in refined tropical glamour. Even the Concorde – which, along with the emergence of the bikini and the closing off of Cuba, arguably put Barbados on the map – was no longer flying in paparazzi bait like Mick Jagger and Princess Margaret. Although its classic hotels such as the lace-latticed Colony Club had seen better days and an influx of nouveau riche Russians and rowdy booze-cruisers had sent discerning jet-setters scrambling to the chic enclaves of St. Barts and genteel seclusion of Mustique, I kept coming back. Something about this plucky coral island, which emerged from a seismic dustup on the seafloor nearly one million years ago and went on to survive colonization, slavery, at least one decimating hurricane, and even McDonald’s (which the locals run out of town in 1996 to protect their beloved homegrown chain Chefette), remained defiantly appealing.