The second stop on our cruise aboard the Viking Sea was Barbados and we were embarking on the ‘Panoramic Barbados’ tour, organised by the good people of Viking, with the warm and gregarious Alison as our guide. Here’s what we did in five hours!
Barbados is probably the most British island in the Caribbean; afternoon tea is a daily ritual and cricket is the national sport. The island is home to the commonwealth’s second oldest parliament, having been beaten to the top place by Isle of Man. It has 300,000 inhabitants and a 99 per cent literacy rate.
Guest lectures onboard
As part of the cruise on board the Viking Sea, the boat hosted a number of guest lecturers, who gave seminars about the destinations we visited. I loved these – it was just like being at university again, but with better food, better accommodation, better weather and no exams!
By far the best lecturer was Dr. Sherry Hutt, a former judge, she trained archaeologists, law enforcement and attorneys on heritage protection cases and holds a postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution. Now she is the author behind the ‘Cruising through history’ series. Her lecture on Barbados was top notch.
Her lecture looked at Barbados’ history, which is inextricably linked with that of the slave trade in 16th and 17th centuries. African slaves were brought to the island as part of the three-way triangle with sugar and rum. Before the Brits came along, the island was virtually uninhabited. Early settlers in 1627 attempted to grow tobacco with little success. They also tried cotton, but that went much the same way. Then when Portugal took hold of Brazil, Dutch settlers with their sugar production knowledge moved from Latin America and settled in Barbados. And so the three-way slavery triangle found its origins.
Bridgetown was the first town to be founded in 1628 and unlike the American colonies, where Englishman needed a royal grant for land, Barbados was open to all commoners with enough funds to establish themselves. So here you could live like royalty, without the royal connection.
St James Parish Church, Holetown
Our first stop was St James Parish Church in Holetown, which was founded by the first settlers who originally built a wooden structure to accommodate their growing congregation. The church was rebuilt in stone following a hurricane on 1780. The church includes the original 16th-century baptismal font and bell, the oldest in Barbados, which was manufactured by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry that also produced Big Ben.
Richard Ligon, an intelligent royal courtier escaping the English civil war, became a plantation manager on Barbados and wrote a comprehensive guide to making rum. He couldn’t stand slavery and remained baffled by his fellow plantation owners who spent most their time at banquets and getting rat-arsed on a punch made with crude rum (lethal levels of alcohol), tempered with sugar, lemon, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, water and maybe pineapple juice.
Meanwhile, as Ligon noted, the knowledge of sugar and rum production was cultivated and refined by the slave workforce. Slavery ended in the 1830s and descendants of Africans and new free African immigrants continued with the sugar production and the distillation of rum – still a mainstay of the economy.
Mount Gay is the island’s oldest rum distillery, established in 1703, and at Highland Adventure Centre on Harrison’s Plantation, we enjoyed our first rum punch whilst enjoying the view of the east coast 1,000 feet above sea level. As Alison, our guide said, ‘us Bajans, we’re all social drinkers – ain’t no one drivin’ today.’
Christmas in Bridgetown
Bridgetown’s centre is a Unesco World Heritage site and includes many colonial buildings including the parliament. From the port, it is an easy twenty-minute walk by foot.
You could brave the queues in the popular ‘Chefette’ chain for a burger, Bajan’s answer to McDonald’s – Alison was very proud that there wasn’t a single golden arch on the island. They attempted to open a branch and it lasted six months, as it wanted to charge over $20 for a burger – a good example of the high cost of living on the island. It’s now used as a car showroom.
The Barbadian’s are fond of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Harry’s recent visit went down a storm and they are proud to belong to the commonwealth which was being wildly celebrated as part of their Christmas festivities. Organised by the Royal Commonwealth Society Barbados Branch, Independence Square hosted Christmas trees decorated by different school children from across the 53 countries.
Viking Sea’s destination menus
The main restaurant on the Viking Sea would often feature a destination menu, a sample of local fare. In Barbados, we tried Bajan fish cakes, breaded flying fish and ‘conkies’ – a pumpkin-coconut cake steamed in a banana leaf.