Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Back in Barbados
I've seen it all, so doing nothing this time was heavenly
Let me start by saying, in my defence, that I have been to Barbados seven times. I have visited every parish on the gorgeous, craggy, 430-suare kilometre Caribbean island.
I have been to the stunning north coast, watched the awe-inspiring Atlantic crash and foam on the steep cliffs and been through the animal flower caves.
I have frequented the wild and beautiful east coast -- walked on the white sand of the chichi Crane beach where Hugh Grant's been known to frolic, had my bathing suit filled with sand as the powerful waves of Bottom Bay dashed me to the ocean floor, wandered around the huge, eerie coral formations of Bathsheba, which look as if a giant deposited them randomly around the shore.
I have visited the west coast, where the turquoise water is so blue that the word "turquoise" seems inadequate and where every beach is a postcard waiting to happen.
I have been to the legendary Friday-night fish fry in Oistins on the south coast, where it seems as if the whole island gathers to eat fresh flying fish or dolphin (mahi-mahi) and macaroni pie, drink Banks beer from sweating bottles that are warm before you finish them and dance the night away to reggae music.
I've been to the Barbados Jazz Festival on Farley Hill, a natural amphitheatre complete with crumbling ruins at the bottom and a panoramic view of the island at the top.
I've seen sharks and barracudas and fed a stingray at Ocean Park aquarium; I've seen green monkeys and haita congas and been attacked by a goose-like creature with a pink horrible beak at the Barbados Animal Reserve.
I've taken the awesome Adventureland 4x4 tour and bumped and banged around the backroads and byways of the island; I've visited the Mount Gay refinery, home of the oldest rum in the world.
In short, I have explored Barbados from top to bottom, so perhaps I can be forgiven, on this latest trip, for doing almost nothing at all.
My friends and I decided that our only desire this time around was to sit and watch the waves at Rockley Beach, our favourite of Barbados' many lovely strips of sand. On calm days, it's perfect for snorkelling, with a well-marked coral reef within easy swimming distance (and lifeguards on duty). On windy days, the surf kicks up enough to allow for some decent boogie boarding or body surfing.
The one concession we made to our plan of lying motionless on deck chairs and frying ourselves to a melanoma-be-damned crisp was to go on a three-hour hike at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, which turned out to be a significant concession.
These free weekly National Trust hikes set off from a different starting point each week; the goal is to cover most of the island in the course of a year. There are morning and evening hikes, but the 6 a.m. start time allows for at least an hour of cooler weather before the sun begins to beat down.
When we arrived at the marshalling area, we were surprised at the number and variety of people -- it's clearly a regular gathering for local hikers.
There were four levels to choose from: The Stop and Stare, which covers eight to 9.5 kilometres in the three hours; the Slow Medium, which covers 13 to 16 km; the slightly more ambitious Fast Medium and the clearly suicidal Grin and Bear, which leads you on a 19-km trot.
We chose the Slow Medium and set off, getting farther away from main roads and into areas we'd never seen before, from open fields to gated mansions. I'd suggest, however, that "Slow Medium" might be a misnomer. This is not a walk for dawdlers, soodlers or lollygaggers; it is not a ramble. It is for serious walkers. It is, in a word, brisk.
Luckily, Christ Church is not the hilliest parish, but the walk did take us through sugar cane fields where a machete might not have been out of place and where you had to keep an eye on the ground or risk a turned ankle.
It was fantastic, giving a whole new view to the island that we never could have seen, even touring around in a car. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the scenic vistas because if you so much as stopped to tie a shoelace, the rest of the group would be a dot in the distance by the time you stood up.
After the hike was over and we'd bandaged our blisters, as one of my travelling companions put it, "Now the only thing we have to worry about is where and when we're going to eat."
But for three dedicated food lovers, that's a considerable worry. Luckily, one of our dinners was already arranged, as I'd made the reservations months prior.
Tell anyone who's familiar with either Barbados or fine dining that you're going to The Cliff and his eyes will widen gratifyingly. The restaurant -- thanks to chef Paul Owens -- has the highest Zagat rating on the island, with prices to match: BDS$245 (US$122) for a two-course prix fixe menu (not including cocktails, wine or dessert, all of which we indulged in).
In these tough times, it seems ridiculously indulgent to spend such a princely sum on dinner, but what we got was fit for a king (or at least a prince -- Prince Andrew has been known to dine at The Cliff) and how often do you get to visit a restaurant with the reputation as one of the best in the world?
Lit by flickering torches, the restaurant sits perched on a cliff, with wide stone steps that lead down to intimate tables overlooking the surf that rolls into the scenic bay below.
And the food is truly incredible: beef carpaccio that melts in the mouth; gnocchi as fluffy as pillows; perfectly cooked tender duck breast; ravishing lobster ravioli; a lemon tart that might be the best dessert I've ever had.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we'll remember forever. And be paying off for several months.
On the other end of the spectrum -- but no less enjoyable -- is It's All Good, a modest shack on Rockley Beach manned by the ever-smiling Jasmine Brown, who whips up healthful smoothies with juice and vitamin supplements. What keeps us coming back, though, is what might be the best daquiri on the island, made with fresh bananas and a generous helping of dark island rum. For BDS$12, you get an overflowing plastic cup, which Brown will often top up with whatever's left in her blender.
She also slaves over a hot barbecue to grill up flying fish, marlin, swordfish, garlic shrimp and other seafood, which she serves on a plate heaped with seasoned grilled potatoes, plantain and a crunchy-sweet coleslaw-like salad topped with walnuts and raisins. It's not elegant, but it's delicious.
Another high-end highlight was Pisces in the St. Lawrence Gap, where the rum sour was perfectly mixed, the Asian-style scallops with crispy lentils perfectly seared and the atmosphere -- terra cotta lanterns, a sea breeze and a view of fishing boats bobbing in the ocean -- perfectly lovely.
Our other splurge, one we've never gone without, is a day trip on a catamaran. A five-hour cruise on a Tiami ship is BDS$175, and more relaxing than a day of being pampered at a spa. They pick you up at your hotel and you're greeted at the harbour with a mimosa, after which you set out along the island's west coast, skimming over unreal waters that shift from indigo to azure and sipping the beverages that are brought to you from the open bar by the attentive staff, who strike the perfect balance between funny flirtiness and serious sailoring.
Along the way, you stop to snorkel and swim with sea turtles, which, no matter how many times you do it, is a wondrous experience. The turtles, with their wise-looking faces and mottled shells, are not shy and will brush up against you in the water.
After a lavish buffet lunch, the boat anchors off the luxurious Sandy Lane resort, where you're free to swim ashore to the beach or just lie back and bob effortlessly in the buoyant blue.
God forbid we should exert ourselves.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2009 E1
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