Barbados Shows Its Wild Side on the East Coast
Barbados Shows Its Wild Side on the East Coast
Paul Wilson was explaining why the Soup Bowl is such a great place to surf when he suddenly interrupted himself.
"Waaaah -- nice!"
He'd just caught sight of a massive wave barrelling in about 75 metres offshore. Another one, equally impressive, followed a half-minute later. Then another.
"You get all the Atlantic swells here, and the reef is the perfect setup for the waves," said the 41-year-old Barbadian, clearly psyched to get his board into the water after arriving at the beach with some friends.
The Soup Bowl, a world-class surfing destination, epitomizes the east coast of Barbados, a windswept, sparsely populated region of wild seas and rugged shoreline vistas.
It's a part of the Caribbean island with few hotels or swimmable beaches -- and, as a result, relatively few tourists. On the west and south coasts, where the vast majority of visitors stay, the atmosphere is livelier, services are more plentiful and the sea more sedate.
But Bathsheba, the sleepy fishing village and surfing haven at the heart of the east coast, has charms of its own that are distinctly low key.
"We still leave our houses open, no locks and keys. We're a cohesive community," said Bathsheba resident Tyrone Thompson, 60, on the porch of the Sea Side Bar, one of a handful of relaxed watering holes on the ocean-side main street.
At a nearby table, a group of men engaged in a boisterous game of dominos, slamming their tiles down, while a few others inside were cheering on a televised cricket match. A lunchtime server was bringing out plates of fried fish and the stomach-filling Bajan staple, macaroni pie. The Banks beer and rum drinks flowed.
Down the street at another rum shack, an outdoor blackboard menu listed rice and peas, flying fish, breadfruit and souse, and fish cutters. Souse, it turns out, is a traditional island pork dish (heads, feet and assorted other pig parts may be used), and cutters are essentially sandwiches.
"My daughter looks after the kitchen. I look after the bar," said the owner, Ken Agard, 64, noting that surfers are among his best customers. "They drink a lot, man."
Just north of town, a designated green zone stretches for kilometres along the coast. Signs warn against swimming because of strong currents and ask people not to disturb nesting turtles. During a visit in early May, with the winter tourists gone, the beach was empty as far as the eye could see, save for the sand crabs that scuttled into their holes as we approached. The rocky ledges on which waves broke just off the beach made for dramatic photo ops.
South of Bathsheba, a hiking trail follows the route of a former rail line, traces of which are hard to find. It's an exhilarating walk along a hilly coastline where enormous black boulders, sculpted by eons of waves into a variety of weird shapes, are strewn picturesquely offshore.
The best part of the trail lies beyond the village of Glenburnie as the path meanders under arching canopies of low trees. A group of mountain bikers passed us, struggling with the steep gullies and other technical challenges of the route.
And just about everywhere there's the sound of the sea -- a continuous roar, comparable to a not-too-distant freight train. There is no off switch for this, which might be nice to have in your hotel at bedtime.
Inland, some historic sites dating to colonial times offer interesting diversions.
St. Nicholas Abbey, built in 1658 and one of the island's oldest surviving plantations, continues to make and sell rum, offering samples aged up to 15 years for tasting. Guided tours of the distillery, nicknamed Annabelle, explain the rum-making process.
There's also Sunbury Plantation House, which highlights life on a sugar estate in the 18th and 19th centuries. It's a fascinating place, with exhibits ranging from Victorian women's underwear and a 150-year-old doll-filled playpen to the portrait of a notorious 18th-century brothel keeper, one Rachel Pringle of Bridgetown, the capital.
A winding road from Sunbury passes through fields of sugar cane in the rural interior to Hunte's Gardens, a sinkhole that has been transformed into a remarkable tropical oasis.
The Barbadian-born Anthony Hunte, 72, receives visitors on the veranda of his elegant home, the former stables of a sugar plantation, serving rum punch and chatting amiably about the exotic plants he has imported from around the world. When we showed up in the late afternoon, the perfume of red Rangoon creepers, as intoxicating as the rum, hung heavy in the air.
"This is a nice time of day. The birds are really going for it. They make a lot of noise," said Hunte, gazing out at the lush vegetation all around us. "And when they're finished, then come the whistling frogs."
Sure enough, when we left the gardens just before dusk, we were piped out by a congregation of frogs producing a spirited chorus of toots.
Back at Bathsheba, David Coombes, the owner of a Bajan real-estate company, was watching the surfers and reflecting on the island's split personality.
"It's a bit hotter over on the west coast -- you need the A/C," he said. "Here you get the breeze and the natural beauty. The sea is more active. The east coast is less spoilt, and that's the charm."
If You Go ...
- Getting there: Bathsheba, a good base for exploring the east coast of Barbados, is a half-hour drive from the international airport.
- Where to stay: Accommodation options are limited on this side of island. The Atlantis Hotel, close to the sea, and the Sea-U Guest House, an informal hillside spot with a fine ocean view, are among the few choices in town.
- Driving: A rental car is useful for getting to out-of-the way places. Driving is U.K.-style, on the left. The roads can be confusing, so consider using a GPS.
- Warning: Ottawa advises Canadians to avoid isolated areas in Barbados, including beaches, because of crime risks. The travel advisory is at travel.gc.ca/destinations/barbados.
- Offers of help: In the north, members of a "toll gang" are known to approach drivers of rental cars, offer help with directions and then ask for money. They can be aggressive, flagging down cars and shouting out false warnings of closed roads. Police have tried, with mixed success, to clamp down on the gang in recent years.