Barbados: Drink in the History -- and the Rum


The rainy season is coming to an end in Barbados, making this the perfect time to plan a vacation to loll on the island's many uncrowded beaches and to soak up a liquid that the island is famous for: rum.

Barbados is the easternmost of the Lesser Antilles islands, and its 166 square miles are filled with fields of waving stalks of sugar cane, which frame dramatic views of the Atlantic Ocean on the island's east side and the Caribbean Sea on the island's west side. Once harvested, this sugar cane yields molasses, which is fermented, distilled and aged into rum.

Rum has a long and colorful history on Barbados, and you can learn how it all began with a visit to the carefully restored Bridgetown Synagogue and the newly opened Nidhe Israel Museum, both on Synagogue Lane, in the island's capital Bridgetown. In the mid-17th century, Jews fleeing the Brazilian Inquisition settled on the island. These refugees brought sugar cane along with them -- as well as the know-how for its cultivation and harvest.

From that point on, sugar and its many products, including rum, became an economic force on the island, shaping Barbadian political and social life for centuries. This history is well-detailed at the Arlington House on Queen Street in Speightstown, to the island's north. The recently opened museum is housed in a restored 18th century building, and its multimedia exhibits are particularly eloquent on the subject of slavery.

Next, head to St. Nicholas Abbey, a mansion and plantation dating back to 1650. On house tours, film presentations are usually pretty boring, but the one shown here is an exception. Produced in 1935, this is a droll look at rum production prior to modernization. St. Nicholas Abbey still harvests 225 acres of sugar cane, and your visit will be much enhanced with a sample of the 10-year-old artisan rum that they produce and sell on the premises.

Barbados isn't just about small-batch producers, in fact, its home to the oldest rum distiller in the world, Mt. Gay, which exports worldwide. The Mount Gay's visitor center, on Spring Garden Parkway in St. Michael offers a tour that includes a museum visit, a film presentation and a peek at the bottling assembly line -- all of which culminates in a visit to the bar, where a variety of inspired rum cocktails are on offer. If you go, you might want to visit the bar first, since the overall effect of the tour is the same as sitting through a giant infomercial for Mt. Gay -- and a rather crowded one at that, as the facilities are often packed with tourists disgorged from the decks of cruise ships.

A better and more authentic choice would be to tour the island's rum shops, of which there are more than a thousand. A rum shop is sort of like a pub -- but rum, rather than beer, is the drink that bears the standard. Some rum shops are more about the nightlife -- particularly those on the island's South Coast, for instance, Braddie's Bar, on Dover Street in Christ Church has karaoke on Friday nights.

And others are more like neighborhood spots to knock back a rum and chat with locals relaxing after a day's work. Rum Shops are also reliable places to grab a quick bite. El Mona's Bar, for instance, on Barbados Street also in Christ Church offers a menu that includes the island's comfort food staples including "mac pie," which is a baked macaroni and cheese, and a variety of "cutters," or sandwiches. Grantley's Shop, on Bath Hill in St. John offers fresh fish; Chris' Place, on Rock Dundo, in St. Peter, is known for its ribs. To tour most effectively, you'll want a copy of Peter Laurie's The Barbadian Rum Shop: The Other Watering Hole -- and you might also want to hire a taxi.

Speaking of food, Zagat offers a guide for Barbados. In the just-released 2009 edition, you'll learn the best places to score a cocktail -- and oh yes, dinner, too, on the Caribbean island.

For romance, the torch-lit, turquoise-water beach view at The Cliff cannot be beat. Try the fresh-fruit daiquiris at the sophisticated Aqua, or soak up the ambience at trendy Scarlet in St. James, where locals say the bartenders really know how to make a proper rum cocktail -- just rum, sugar and bitters -- without any newfangled adulteration from additional ingredients.

Fast Facts

*The island offers several deluxe accommodations options, mostly clustered on the West Coast -- with more on the way as an enormous Four Seasons private residence resort is currently under construction. There are a number of beautiful villas to rent on this island, through Altman Villa Rentals, these can come equipped with a housekeeping, kitchen and security staff. The longtime home-away-from-home of British celebs and aristocrats, Sandy Lane is situated on a lovely stretch of calm Caribbean waters. The Crane offers accommodations available from affordable to mega-deluxe, as well as easy access to the resort's pink sand, beach on the Atlantic Ocean.

*There are a number of direct flights to Barbados from major U.S. cities: American Airlines flies direct from Miami and New York's JFK airport; Air Jamaica also flies direct from JFK. Delta flies from Atlanta; U.S. Airways flies from Charlotte, N.C. The island is also well served by charter and private air services, which is an easier option if you're in for a splurge, as all your customs and immigration formalities will be handled on board for you. If you're making a weeklong trip from New York, for instance, Chief Executive Air will fly a family of 4-6 from New York to Barbados for about $30,000.

*In recent years Barbados has been spared a direct hit from hurricanes. The rainy season stretches from June to October, in Barbados, high season is December through April.

*The official language in Barbados is English, and U.S. citizens do not need a visa. The local currency is the Barbados dollar -- currently just under $2 Barbados for $1 dollar U.S. -- but the U.S. dollar is widely accepted by merchants.

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