If you’ve ever clapped politely at a fundraising event as someone else wins the raffle prize of a fabulous trip for two to a Caribbean destination — and wondered later how that worked out — I’m here to tell you.
One evening last October, while my table mates hooted with laughter, and my daughter furiously texted her father who was in St John’s on business, I walked on stage to collect a trip for two via WestJet to the longest continuously operating resort in Barbados, the venerable old Crane Residential Resort.
I also learned a few things along the way to Barbados, the most easterly island in the Caribbean: you don’t know if you don’t ask, people always want to help, and sometimes, even major airlines rock.
Canadians seeking southern vacations are, from birth, conditioned to think of them as all-inclusives. But the Crane, with its world famous beach, upscale restaurants and lavishly appointed apartments, was not. It did, however, include a full kitchen, and a washer and dryer.
Step one: find the nearest grocery store. In this case, the Emerald City supermarket at Six Cross Roads came to the rescue, and we stocked up on supplies. A lot of insider information came from John Cavill, the Atlantic Canada representative of the Barbados Tourism Authority, who enthusiastically helped us plan our trip.
Then there’s the travel blackout period: resorts that graciously offer up prize packages like this one — donated for a fundraiser in support of the YMCA in Halifax — may be generous, but they’re not going to give away a free week in their high season.
We went as early as we could — May 5. That timing coincided with a change in WestJet’s schedule from winter to summer. So, although we booked our flights months in advance, it now meant an overnight stay at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel in Toronto. I resignedly reserved a room.
Weeks later, it was still bugging me, so I called WestJet. They said they don’t normally cover expenses passengers incur due to a change in their flight schedule, which, to me, means they will if you ask politely. And they did. They went one better: they offered to either cover the cost of the hotel room, or double its value and apply it to a future WestJet flight.
What’s with all the courteous service, planes that leave on time, and friendly flight attendants? It’s so crazy it just may catch on.
The overwhelming humidity that comes with a May arrival in Barbados wrapped itself around us like a smothering wet blanket. I watched my husband dissolve into a puddle. I dubbed him Raj Binder, after Newfoundland comic Shaun Majumder’s perpetually perspiring character in CBC-TV’s “This Hour Has 22 Minutes.”
Our first stop was just off the resort, down the road to the right, to Sunday afternoon jazz at Cutter’s Bajan Deli. What a way to unwind. And who should be sitting with his wife on one side of the little porch, taking it all in, but another Newfoundlander: singer-songwriter Terry Kelly. It didn’t take long before the irrepressible Kelly had seized a microphone and, with newly made friends Simon on tenor sax and Gerry (who has a day job at the Crane) on jazz guitar, ripped through some standards.
Deck dancing inevitably broke out.
Rental cars are the way to go in Barbados, which is only 34 kilometres long and 22 kilometres wide. There’s a lot to see. Raj and I booked a rental that was one step up from a go-cart, and headed to Harrison’s Cave for a magical mystery tour on an electric train ride through the crystallized limestone caverns, past the underground eight-metre waterfall and beautifully lit stalactites and stalagmites.
A day later, we were off to St. Nicholas Abbey in the northern part of the island. It has a rip-roaring 354-year history that makes Downton Abbey look positively prim, first as a sugar plantation and now as an artisan rum distillery. The main house, one of only three Jacobean homes still surviving on this side of the Atlantic, has been beautifully restored, and is well worth a visit.
We also couldn’t resist tracking down a polo match at the Lion Castle field, tickets courtesy of The Crane. The Bajan side was playing a touring team from India, and ladies in saris and others in floppy sun hats sipped G and Ts along with their husbands as they watched the game from the ornate wooden lattice-framed viewing deck.
Polo ponies thundered up and down the pitch as their riders whacked at the white ball and jostled for position, occasionally tumbling off. Raj and I didn’t have a clue what was going on, and it didn’t matter. We could only imagine the cost of maintaining a stable of polo ponies.
With about 300,000 people, Barbados is the most densely populated island in the Caribbean, and Canadians make up the third largest visitor market. Many of them head to the south coast and St. Lawrence Gap, where there’s a variety of accommodation options. Others book into places up the west coast of the island, near Holetown or Speightstown.
Barbados gets its share of the wealthy, money-is-no-object sort of tourist — like Tiger Woods, who booked the entire Sandy Lane Resort for his ill-fated wedding in 2004. A one-bedroom suite at Sandy lane will run you $3,000 a night.
Although the calm Caribbean Sea beaches beckon, and they’re all public if you can find a route down to them, the over-developed west coast left me cold. Instead, Raj and I explored the rugged east coast with its sweeping views of the thunderous Atlantic surf, playing bumper cars with the ditches and losing a hubcap in the process.
The pretty coastal town of Bathsheba was a highlight, and is a surfer’s paradise. Some of the well-worn characters nodding off in the afternoon heat on the deck of the Sea Side Bar looked like they came 30 years ago and forgot to leave.
Another blissfully peaceful stop was the tiny gothic St. John’s Church, built high on a cliff overlooking the water. There, and bear with me here, we discovered the 17th century tomb of the last known descendent of the brother of Constantine XI, the last of the Byzantine emperors who died during the fall of Constantinople in 1453. How on Earth did his relative end up here?
Leaving the church, we wandered down a lane lined with towering cabbage palms to the solitude of Codrington College, the oldest Anglican theological college in the western hemisphere. A large sign outside the main hall read “Quiet Please. Examinations in Progress.” If it weren’t for the raucous green monkeys hanging out by the lily pond, you could have sworn you were in Oxford.
Safe and secure
Bajans are easygoing and irreverent people who are proud of their island home, and love to show it off. Even at the Friday night Oisten’s Fish Fry in St. Lawrence Gap, where sizzling kitchens along the waterfront serve up the best of the day’s catch, souvenir stalls line the beach, the music throbs and spicy rum punch flows like water, it all feels terribly safe and friendly.
Bajan kids skip along with their families, and old men ferociously slap down domino tiles on well worn wooden tables under bare light bulbs suspended from overhead wires.
If you should ever find yourself at a fund-raising event, my advice is to buy that $20 raffle ticket. It’s undoubtedly for a good cause, and besides, someone has to win.
Deborah Woolway is a freelance journalist
who lives in Dartmouth, N.S.