• Photo: Tom Hall

With a snap of the sail the Catamaran lists in the wind. Peering through the netting stretched between the twin hulls, I watch the wake bubbling below while the sun warms my shoulders. It was a delicious moment, ripe for savouring, and then I remembered I’d forgotten sunblock. I could feel my Anglo-Saxon ancestors cringing in anticipation of the burn that would come. Oh well, I thought as I made my way to the onboard open bar for a rum punch and seat in the shade, it’s snowing back home.

Sun, sand, food and rum served on a silver platter to the well-heeled traveller. That was the Barbados I had expected to find, and did, but another side to the tiny Caribbean island is beginning to emerge. Sure you won’t find any all-inclusive resorts here, but you will find what Bajans like to call an “island-inclusive” experience. An experience made exceptional by kind hosts and, of course, rum.

Maybe it’s due to the same genes that cause me to turn neon red instead of the healthy brown tan that others enjoy, but when it comes to alcohol I’ve always preferred whiskey to rum. At least, that was before I went on a tour of Mount Gay, which, with a deed from 1703, is the oldest brand of rum in the world. A tour takes about 45 minutes, and, like a scotch distillery tour but without the damp Barbour jackets, plenty of samples are provided.

A pre-noon distillery tour requires a hearty lunch; luckily Mount Gay is in Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, which is awash with shopping (check out Broad Street and its tributaries) and food choices. The Waterfront Café sits among a row of little shops that were once warehouses. The Café features live entertainment and amazing food in portions sizable enough to absorb any distillery visits. It’s also a quiet enough place to relax and reflect. And surprisingly for a sun-and-sand destination, Barbados offers a lot to think about.

In between snorkeling with sea turtles and searching for shipwrecks in Carlisle Bay, I learn from my salt-encrusted cruise captain that as the eastern most island in the Caribbean, Barbados was often the first stop for trans-Atlantic voyagers. Discovered by the Spanish in the late 15th-Century, the British claimed it in the mid-1600s and held on until 1966 when Barbados became an independent nation. Due to Barbados’ location (it’s technically not in the Caribbean, but about 19-kilometres into the Atlantic Ocean) the island is easy to defend. Only the west coast, the coast facing the Caribbean, has water calm enough for ships to attack from. The other coasts, constantly pounded wind and waves from the Atlantic, are too rough to safely land on. With only one side needing fortifications, it wasn’t long before the British had made Barbados a sugar cane producing impenetrable island fortress. After independence tourism became a crucial part of the island’s economy, (about 60,000 Canadians a year make the trip) and right from the beginning luxury was what Barbados offered.

And for a luxurious home base, cross the island from Bridgetown’s Waterfront Café and you’ll find The Crane Resort. The original 18 rooms of the Crane were built in 1887 making it the oldest hotel in Barbados. Paul Doyle, the Canadian behind Go RVing, bought the hotel about twenty years ago and has added another 234 rooms. The room I had was modeled off of the original eighteen and featured a bathroom bigger than my kitchen at home and an ocean view balcony. It didn’t take long until I simply slid the balcony doors open and turned off the air conditioning at night, letting the cool breeze from the Atlantic and the chirping tree frogs lull me to sleep. The food at the Crane is astoundingly good, and the beach, 15 metres below the hotel at the bottom of a coral cliff (don’t worry there are stairs and an elevator) is world famous, and was remarkably barren while I was there.

The Crane is just one of many luxury options Barbados is famous for, but, to appeal to the next generation of tourist, those interested in more than luxury and pink sand beaches, the Barbados experience is evolving. This year Barbados hosted its first Classical Pops festival featuring top musicians including Grammy winning trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, and his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. It also hosted, for the first time, the Race of Champions, a head-to-head elimination race, which featuring some of the best drivers from NASCAR, Formula One, sportscars, touring cars, IndyCar, and World Rally Championships.

Barbados’ is also becoming a surf destination. Before the cruise, rum and Bridgetown’s Waterfron Café, I had a chance to visit the home of some of the best surfing in the Caribbean. On the island’s rough East Coast, near the town of Bathsheba is Soup Bowl, the island’s biggest wave; a wave surf-legend Kelly Slater called top three in the world. Locals have tried to keep a lid on just how good the surfing is in Barbados, but, coupled with the awesome nightlife in places such as Oistins Fish Fry, where every Friday night is an amazing beachside party, and articles popping up in the New York Times about the quality of the surf, it seems it’s only a matter of time until it becomes a popular East Coast surfing destination.

But on the sedate catamaran mingling with about 20 tourists with an average age of around 50, I couldn’t help but wonder if Barbados is succeeding in their rebranding efforts. Would my friends who are interested in “authentic” experiences come here? According to the cool, 20-something dreadlocked bartender, who doubled as crew and snorkeling guide, Barbados offers something for everyone — as long as you know where to look.

Getting there:
Even getting to Barbados from Canada is a trip through history. Trans-Canada Air Lines, which eventually turned into Air Canada, first touched down in Barbados in 1949. On Dec. 2 flight number AC966 celebrated 65 years of continuous service, making it the longest unchanged flight number in Air Canada’s history. Now about 60,000 Canadians a year make the trip to the tiny Caribbean island. Air Canada offers daily service from Toronto and three flights a week from Montreal.

Where to stay:
The Crane is a must visit even if it’s beyond the means of the average traveler. Go for Sunday brunch and enjoy a truly superlative experience.

In Bathsheba, near Soup Bowl wave is The Atlantis Hotel. Go for lunch, stay for the waves.

Near The Silverpoint Boutique Hotel you’ll find a handful of surf shops offering lessons and equipment for kite-surfing, windsurfing, and of course, surfing.

Where to eat:
Cutters Bajan Deli: The rum-punch is an award winning must and the flying fish cutter is amazing.

The Waterfront Café: Delicious fresh seafood and excellent people watching.

Champers: The name refers to champagne. For a luxurious dinner, practically on the water, this is your spot.

Rum Tours:
Mount Gay: must visit.

For less travelled, more traditional rum experience, try St. Nicholas Abbey. Tour the original plantation house, and sample the high-end rum.

Catamaran Cruises:
There are a few catamaran cruise companies operating from Bridgetown, and they all seem to offer similar five-hour experiences. My trip with Tiami Catamaran Cruises was excellent.

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