October 21, 2020

Beach to the converted: Barbados is ready for its Canadian comeback


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barbados-copyBy Jessica Leigh Johnston From National Post

Driving across the middle of Barbados, wrapping up a day-long tour of the easternmost Caribbean nation, I look out the window at the small, neat homes and query Randy, the driver: “Everything here is so well-maintained. Are there any bad parts of the island?” He gives me an “are you crazy?” look and laughs, “This is it!”

I should have known. This is my first trip to Barbados, a country for which I’ve long harboured a soft spot, thanks to a gift from my aunt — circa 1980 — of a dress brought back from her regular vacation here. It was predominantly orange with an elasticized top and string-tie straps; I called it my Barbados dress, and loved it with an intensity only a four-year-old can muster for a textile.

It occurred to me that maybe one day I would be able to visit this far-off land, but it took a few decades before that scenario played out. Last month I joined an Air Canada Vacations press trip to the island, designed to promote the tour operator’s travel planning services, which can include a huge range of excursions in addition to flights and hotels — a flexible alternative to the standard all-inclusive offerings that those of us in the northern latitudes sign up for in droves at this time of year.

Arriving at Grantley Adams airport, my husband and I are met by the local ACV rep, who takes us to the iconic Crane, the oldest resort on the island, which sits on its most famous beach. En route we learn that when Air Canada Vacations launched in the early ’80s, Barbados was one of its first two destinations, along with Jamaica — though Trans-Canada Airlines (now Air Canada) just passed its 65th anniversary of serving the region.

An early adopter to tourism compared with its neighbours, Barbados has been a bona fide hotspot for Canadian travellers since the 1970s, back when it still had the only international airport in the area. This was the only Caribbean nation to have been serviced by the Concorde, and one of the decommissioned supersonic jets resides in a hangar at the airport, a museum to transportation past.

With increased competition from cheaper destinations, the number of Canadian visitors has dropped off somewhat lately, enough so that the Barbadian prime minister recently pledged to try to recapture the Canadian market, but Air Canada Vacations is bucking that trend, increasing overall capacity with the introduction late last year of daily Boeing 777 service from Toronto.
It’s an appealing destination — a former British colony, English is spoken everywhere, and it shows little of the obvious poverty or racial tension that can be found elsewhere in the Caribbean. Even traffic jams are friendly, horns being used primarily to greet other drivers and warn potential oncomers when turning tight corners. I see what has kept my aunt returning for close to 40 years.

Checking in on a Friday night, we set down our bags and head to the fishing village of Oistins, famous for its massive fish fry, where dozens of vendors set up shop next to the fish market to sell countless varieties of seafood along with famous Bajan sides, including peas and rice, coleslaw and macaroni pie. (This is a nation that loves its macaroni and cheese, and for that alone, I love this nation.) Running six nights a week, the party is at its hoppingest on Fridays, when tourists and locals alike flock for the long lines and live music.

It’s a 20-minute drive back to The Crane, which is on the southeastern part of the island, secluded away from the action. (Commendably, all of Barbados beaches are public, but this one is off the beaten path enough to feel private.) Opened as a small cliffside inn in 1887, The Crane has evolved into a complex with 248 rooms across multiple buildings, most of which are kitted out with kitchen and laundry facilities, as well as whirlpools, and for the lucky ones, private pools — a real extravagance considering the abundance of common pools on the grounds.

It’s luxury accommodation, but with a patina that lends a homey feel to the glamour. Indeed, the place is relaxed and unpretentious, and makes me feel like a golden age Hollywood star on retreat. A visitor could be happy never leaving the resort, which surrounds a Disneyland-scale town square complete with restaurants, bar, coffee shop and fitness centre.

To drive all the way around Barbados, which is just 21 by 14 miles, doesn’t take more than a few hours, and because seeing the whole island is achievable, I am excited for our private tour. On Sunday morning, Randy collects us and drives a path along the west, Caribbean, side of the island, through trendy St. Lawrence Gap, Rockley beach, downtown Bridgetown, historic Speightown, and tony Sandy Lane — where Rihanna has one of her homes.

On the north end, we get a taste of history at Saint Nicholas Abbey, a former plantation that offers a glimpse into colonial life of centuries past, while panoramic views from nearby Cherry Tree Hill foreshadow the trip down Barbados’ rugged eastern coast. The Atlantic side is sparsely populated and starkly beautiful. Window-side for lunch at the two-century-old Round House in Bathsheba we gaze over the sea, munching local bread fruit chips (similar to potato ones) and contemplating the vast expanse of sea between here and Africa.

As it happens, my aunt, who is now retired, is staying in Barbados for three months this winter, living behind Limegrove, a relatively new luxury shopping complex, which is a stop on our itinerary. We meet up and poke around the shops, which include the likes of Gucci and MAC. Five years ago this was a pasture with cows, and now a single psychedelically painted cow statue stands tribute in the courtyard. I consider trying to find a new Barbados dress while here but fashions have changed a little, and besides, who needs a souvenir when you have the real thing?

Support provided by Air Canada Vacations, Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc. and The Crane

For more on this story go to: http://news.nationalpost.com/2015/02/28/beach-to-the-converted-barbados-is-ready-for-its-canadian-comeback/

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