BRIDGETOWN, Barbados - In itsy-bitsy bikinis, a bevy of Bajan babes bounce to the beat on this Caribbean isle. One beauty's crown of crimson feathers flutters in the summer heat as she shrieks a primordial cry while her hips gyrate to the rhythm of the drums. A thousand limbs akimbo seem to defy the body, driven by the passions of a tropical night. The stadium goes wild.
Twelve thousand voices roar in unison, "Jump. It's festival fever."
Welcome to Crop Over!
The "Crop Over Festival" is Barbados' celebration of the harvest's end that concludes in August. A centerpiece to Barbados culture, the festival's roots stem from the old days when sugarcane workers celebrated their last crop.
Today, Crop Over celebrates modern culture yet it is packed with the symbols of the island's history. A Mardi Gras of sorts, this Caribbean festival with its own cast of characters and events includes music, dance, costumes, folk art, spicy cuisine and more than a sip or two of Mount Gay Rum. There is the crowning of the King and Queen during Cohobblopot along with several parades, the largest one occurring when revelers many with colorful masks, are masquerading on Kadooment Day.
Earlier in the afternoon, when I arrived at Grantley Adams International Airport via US Airways newest service from Toronto to Barbados (a quick five hour flight), I sensed more than the usual excitement travelers get when arriving to their vacation-spot. Like a giddy schoolgirl, my flight attendant Julie belts out, "Uuuhh, I can hardly wait to get to my hotel for a swim."
Who could blame her?
Barbados is everything the travel brochures boast: soft sandy white beaches, warm turquoise water and gentle Bajan hospitality. With an annual tropical climate and umbrellas of palm trees fanning bouquets of magenta bougainvillea, who could deny a tired Canadian some fun in the sun?
Since we were here for Crop Over, I was going to find out what fun really was. At the Southern Palms Beach Club, situated in the hub of the St. Lawrence Gap, I inhaled the salty sea breeze that swept me toward the azure sea. With the wispy cirrus clouds above, I floated and felt sheer intoxicating bliss.
As the most easterly Caribbean isle, Barbados is a treasure chest of awe-inspiring beauty that has captured the hearts of ancient civilizations and swashbuckling explorers. When the Amerindians traversed from South America in dugout canoes, they realized the pear-shaped island was a fishermen's dream. In 1536, Portuguese explorers spotted long clusters of the Banyan tree resembling Los Barbados, "the bearded one." Hence the name: Barbados.
Later, the Brits discovered this pearl that is half the size of New York City (21 miles by 14 miles), and started to grow sugarcane for the rum industry. They stayed until 1966 when Barbados emancipated. It's no wonder the island country is often dubbed "Little England."
At Southern Palms, for instance, there is a daily complimentary tradition of "High Tea" by the poolside where else. Cricket is the national sport and drivers obey British traffic laws.
Bridgetown, the capital, is flanked by a harbor that encloses to a maze of streets laden with automobiles and loads of foot traffic. Plenty of lively vendors display handicrafts throughout the street markets. Beyond the Duty Free District, we spot the Mount Gay Distillery, the oldest rum making operation in the world that now offers daily tours.
Since Barbados is a coral reef island, its magnificent tapestry of ribbons and lobes attracts schools of tropical fish such as angelfish and french grunts, creating a desirable hub for scuba divers. In the marina, the sails of Tiami flutter in great anticipation for its fleet of tourists who will swim with sea turtles, snorkel in a marine reserve and munch lunch on board a four-hour cruise. Perfect. Adding the catamaran to our to-do list, we hightail it back to our hotel for another dip under the late afternoon sun.
The next morning, it was off to see Harrison's Cave. Situated in the heart of the island, this cavern of prehistoric outcroppings of stalagmite is on view via a one-hour guided tour. Sporting hard hats, we descend by electric tram into the bowels of Barbados' secret world of ancient underground streams and gigantic stalactites.
Afterwards, we drive ascending to the island's rugged eastern side. Perched on a cliff side, Naniki restaurant offers a panoramic vista of the ancient plantation grounds and dramatic shoreline, a perfect backdrop to a lovely lunch. Owner Tom Hinds accentuates Caribbean cuisine with exotic spices, fresh seafood and organic vegetables. I indulge in the rib-sticking lunch buffet of sweet potato pie and the island specialty, cou-cou and steamed flying fish. Delightful!!
Beneath the shade of a coconut palm, a warm breeze drifts across the green sea of palms gently fanning them. Funny, I think how this place can grow on you. As the aromatic blend of the afternoon respite mellows, I hear the soft timber of Bajan voices. The Zen of Barbados has struck.