Back to Barbados

Sunup at Cherry Tree Hill, in the parish of St. Andrew

While others chase the next it island, those who stayed – some of whom have been coming back their whole lives – most prize the laid-back civility that still prevails. “It’s so easy and friendly, and now that my kids are grown, everyone always wants to go out and meet people,” says Kit Kemp, the London-based interior designer and co-owner of Firmdale Hotels (includ­ing the new Whitby Hotel in N.Y.C. and the Ham Yard in London), who has spent several weeks a year on the island since 1986 and owns a house on the historic Sandy Lane estate. Regulars are always running into friends at the Sunday market on the polo field at Holders Hill, or over drinks at Scarlet, a trendy west coast bistro bar in a former chattel house on Highway 1. And if you haven’t come with friends, you make them: like the local who, hav­ing seen me stranded with a flat tire, didn’t think twice about driving me home in the opposite direction from where he was headed (and who knew my name the next time I saw him). As my friend Emma Snowdon-Jones, a philanthropist who for years divided her life between Manhattan and a Messel-designed house in St. James, likes to say, “If you want to understand Barbados, sit down with an old-timer outside a rum shop.” At these color­ful local watering holes, it’s not uncommon to find visitors talking cricket and politics with the locals while playing dominoes and downing rum and Cokes with ham cutters. (In a divinely Bajan cultural contradiction, these shops are usually located a mere stumble from one of the island’s many coral Caribbean Gothic churches.)

St. Joseph Parish Church

That’s the main thing about Barbados: It isn’t some cartoonishly beauti­ful fly-and-flop destination but a living island whose history is as present and defining as the white clapboard house-lined streets of, say, Charleston, or the riverside cotton warehouses of Montgomery. Ever since the British settled in 1627 and subjugated the inhabitants and the land in the service of sugarcane, the island’s architecture reflected the ambitions of the Crown; it was the headquarters for the fight against French invaders in the late 1700s, and for more than a century served as the Royal African Company’s slave-trading hub for the entire Americas. This explains why Barbados can sometimes resemble a historical theme park, while also giving a visitor a lot to think about, particularly at a time when issues of racial legacy are dominating conversations at home.

“What sets Barbados apart is its remarkable heritage,” my pal Henry Fraser, a senator in the Barbados Parliament and the island’s unofficial oracle, tells me in the “yawny-drawly” delivery that Coleridge once ascribed to the locals. We’re hav­ing lunch at the Waterfront Cafe, a no-frills joint by the marina in Bridgetown, on the island’s southwest coast, one of the best spots for authentic Bajan food like pepper pot (a potpourri of stewed meat), flying fish, and cou-cou (cornmeal and okra). In Bridgetown alone, he says, you’ll find a pair of neo-Gothic parliament buildings, a 363-year-old synagogue (built by Brazilian Jews fleeing the Portuguese), and Wildey House, a Georgian manse that’s now the headquarters of the Barbados National Trust. The group organizes tours of the sagging former homes of castaway lords and ladies and a former prime minister, the rooms stuffed with musty antiques and curios as well as elegant silverware and china straight out of a Christie’s catalog. In recent years, the stories of these houses have been fleshed out to include the narrative of the slave population, on whose backs the island’s economy was built. “For a while I think we ran the risk of becoming the Caribbean version of Downton Abbey,” quips Miguel Pena, the affable head of the Trust. “You often only heard the story of the white owners. The full story has to be included in all its complexity.”

This story is something that the island had to reckon with in the lead-up to last November’s fiftieth anniversary of independent statehood, which marked cultural and historic milestones back to Barbados’s 1652 treaty with the British {which supposedly inspired a few lines in America’s own Declaration of Independence) and culminated in a guns-blaz- ing concert by Rihanna. The island’s economy, based predominantly on tourism but buffered by trade as well as foreign investment, is relatively robust in spite of the Caribbean’s recent Zika-related woes.

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