Silky-soft sand, wide expanses of turquoise waters, putting some holes at the same hotel Tiger Woods got married in – sounds like a typical Caribbean getaway, right? But a holiday in Barbados isn’t just about the coral reefs, cricket, and beautiful surroundings. Because in fact, the savviest of jet setters go to Barbados to booze it up.
Booze?! In Barbados? “But what about the beaches?” I hear you holler, in an exclamation accented with sheer condemnation at my alcoholism.
Well actually I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just pretty damn enthusiastic about rum.
What few travellers know about this tiny sun-soaked island is that it is an absolute gold-mine when it comes to rum-loving revellers. Rum, previously known as “Rumbullion”, or the delicately named “Kill-Devill”, has been produced on Barbados for centuries, with most evidence pointing towards the island being the “Birthplace of Rum”. And, apparently, it is all thanks to Christopher Columbus.
A Potted History of Rum
Way, way back, before the time of Internet blogs, airplanes to America, and being able to spot your own bedroom on Google Earth, there was an upstart young seaman named Christopher. Now young Chrissy had an especially inquisitive mind, and after an evening of pondering life, he decided that the best way to get to the East Indies would be to sail westwards (because after all, the world is a sphere, right? And no, Chrissy’s companions did not believe it was flat). Eventually, after much bickering, bribing, and batting of his eyelids, Christopher managed to persuade Spanish “Catholic Monarchs” Ferdinand and Isabella to fund his voyage in the hope that they would gain the upper hand in the spice trade with Asia.
But…instead of arriving happily in Indonesia (I mean, trying to navigate a ship straight through the United States would make for some pretty hard sailing), or even teetering on a knife-edge between the end of the earth and the rest of the universe, Mr Columbus found himself washed up on a series of deserted islands full of weird animals, tropical plants and sugar cane. He had, in fact, landed a jackpot and ended up bam smack in the middle of a Caribbean holiday.
Now I’d like to say that what our Chrissy did after that was to pitch up a tent on the beach and work on inventing rum, but in fact he spent most of his time from then on draining the royal coffers and being arrested. But what he did do before all this was to discover the joys of sugar, in all its’ teeth-rotting glory.
Nearly 150 years down the line, after the French had become lemonade-drinking addicts, and the English had developed a penchant for particularly sweet tea, the first ever sugar refinery in the “New World” was set up in Barbados, where some lucky bugger sat fermenting molasses and surreptitiously sipping the profits.
A Culture of Rum
Nowadays in Barbados rum has become very much a part of the culture, with an estimated 1,500 rum shops scattering the tiny island. So that’s over five rum shops per square mile of Bajan land. And these rum shops aren’t just your normal English offy where the checkout guy will insist upon checking you out before scanning your items. No, Bajan rum shops are a social hub. They’ve become a sort of youth club for all ages; people gather at the shops – open-air wooden huts adorned with colourful painted advertisements – and sit for hours sharing stories. You will find mothers gossiping, old folk reclining with a cigar and a game of dominoes, and young people set on solving the world’s problems over a BBQ.
The feeling is one of warmth and welcome – upon stepping inside one of these homely little shacks you will not fail to feel at home. This is an element of the Caribbean that has retained its original, “non-touristified” culture, yet everywhere you look you will see locals mixing with and welcoming visitors to the shops. Dance with the oldies to some classic 50s and 60s tracks, belt out a tune with your new found Bajan buddy with a spot of karaoke, or simply chillax with a glass of rum and watch the windsurfers showing off.
With as many rum shops as there are churches, and with a history dating back over 300 years, this is the perfect way to encounter Barbados’ true culture.
Do it Like a Local
It’s all very well swimming up to your all-inclusive Barbados hotel bar and ordering “the strongest rum cocktail you’ve got, please,” but if you’re adventurous enough to make it into one of the infamous rum bars then you’ve got to do it right. Here are a few tips you ought to know before you go:
1. Don’t order a vodka martini. There is a hell of a lot of rum to choose from, so make the most of it (also there isn’t much else on offer) – Old Brigand or ESAF are popular local choices. If you don’t like rum (weirdo) then go for a Banks beer.
2. Get down with the lingo – when asking your mate if they want to go for a drink, say; “shall we go and ‘fire one’?” Don’t make the faux-pas of calling the game Dominoes, get involved and say; “Hey, wanna play some ‘slam uh dom’?” And if you really want to impress, order a “Black and Coke,” which is the native slang for Extra Old rum served with Coca Cola.
3. Do order food. Don’t ask what’s in it. To truly tantalise your taste buds ask for flying fish, and macaroni pie, and a side of rice and peas. Don’t knock it – its cheap and tasty.
4. Don’t rock up in your bikini – beach attire is considered inappropriate anywhere but the beach. Oh and don’t come in your birthday suit; nudism is illegal on the island.
So if you are planning a Caribbean getaway, don’t waste your boss’ time surreptitiously searching holiday websites with your “I’m working really hard” frown in place, let us book you a luxury Barbados holiday where you can do so much more than scuba dive, snorkel and sunbathe. Discover the rum originators with a trip to Mount Gay Visitor’s Centre and learn about the history of the world’s oldest rum (of course it is Bajan), play a raucous game of ‘slam uh dom’ with the locals, or simply sit back and relax with a glass of Malibu.