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BRITISH CIVILITY IN THE CARIBBEAN SUN
THE PRIM AND PROPER LOCALS WELCOME THE LEGIONS OF BEACH DWELLARS

A cartoon in a Barbados newspaper shows local shoppers frowning as a swimsuit-clad couple stocks up on groceries.

This lighthearted plea for modesty illustrates the idiosyncratic nature of this enchanting Caribbean paradise. Scantily attired sun worshipers from around the world crowd the beaches of Barbados, but proper British reserve concerning attire off the beach is the local protocol.

This easternmost land mass of the Caribbean is full of contrasts. On the west coast are calm, placid waters; on the opposite side, facing the Atlantic, waves crash against the craggy shore.

Few ponds, rivers or other bodies of water dot the terrain, but fresh water underground is wondrously abundant and praised for its purity.

The island culture is predominantly West African with a refined British overlay. Barbados is relaxed yet refined, playful yet proper.

The British rulers who controlled this West Indies island for centuries are no longer in power, but their legacy lingers in everything from speech to driving.

Cars are designed to drive on the left side of the road. Happy hours feature fruity rum drinks festooned with bright flowers, but afternoon tea and sandwiches are also served at upscale resorts.

Cricket is wildly popular. The game is held in such esteem that the local $5 bill is emblazoned with the portrait of a popular cricket player rather than a political leader.

The Brits no longer wield political power over Barbados, but they vacation here in abundance, enjoying extended holidays at one of the finest, unspoiled island paradises around. No fools, these English.

Our stay at Cobblers Cove resort seemed appropriate because Barbados was a British Island and the design of this cozy complex approximates the civility of an English country home. In typical Barbados fashion, visitors may dine in casual attire, but General Manager Hamish Watson wears a suit and tie evenings when he graciously greets guests.

Tables are covered with linen cloths, but the open-air dining room is inviting to tiny birds who help themselves to wayward breadcrumbs. And the lack of television sets or sound systems in rooms contributes to the generally peaceful scene. At sunset, two musicians serenade diners. The only late night sounds are the waves slapping the shore to the accompanying chorus of chirping frogs.

Cobblers' cluster of 40 suites, its uncrowded crescent-shaped beach, and range of watersports make this small, personable resort an ideal base for a Barbados vacation.

Named after a black sea urchin found in nearby reefs, Cobblers boasts both a magnificent stretch of white sand and a coral reef, perfect for snorkeling, water skiing, or simply bobbing in the water and breathing deeply of the balmy air.

Barbados benefits from some of the cleanest air on earth. The island receives the first landfall of air blowing west with the trade winds over 3,000 miles from Africa. The cottages at Cobblers are designed with this delicious breeze in mind. Shutter-like doors fold open to let in the wind, light, sun, and an occasional bird.

Abundant marine life adds sparkle to island menus, supplying such specialties as flying fish and barracuda. Cobblers' kitchen emphasizes island fish and shellfish, adding French-cuisine flair. Chef Leslie Alexander has managed the scene for the past 13 years. He nurtures the local produce suppliers and trains a new generation of chefs ready to reachfor world-class culinary standards.

As tempting as it might be to spend every minute of every day at Cobblers Cove, General Manager Watson goes out of his way to encourage guests to explore the compact island and interact with its residents.

"It truly is an island with everything," Watson notes, listing scuba diving, horse races, historic sugar cane plantations, public gardens and surfing among the island's pleasures. "We have great diversity within a small space."

Two days of exploration throughout the 14-by-21-mile island is about right for taking in many of the sights. One of the island's main attractions is the courteous, pleasant nature of the native Bajans (pronounced baygens, the word that Barbados people use to describethemselves). The friendliness of Bajans sets Barbados apart from other Caribbean islands we've explored.

The Caribbean is not always a friendly place. Hostility of certain islanders to outsiders, the appalling wealthy/poverty chasm in some areas, and the sanitation lapses in others seriously detract from the natural beauty of some islands. Barbados is remarkably positive on all these points. Throughout our visit, we were met with smiles, warm greetings, andthe courtesy that comes from mutual respect.

For a relaxing, revealing tour, we opted to hire a local guide and driver, Anthony Weeks. He freed us from trying to drive on the left side of the road while freely discussing local politics as well as favorite music clubs. Taxis are available, but it is more economical, timeefficient, and enlightening to hire a car and driver for a day.

Weeks, a well-educated and well-spoken young man (the language is English, another aspect of the ease of travel here), was proud of his home and eager to show it off. Barbados prides itself on the quality of its education system, which is free for all citizens through high school. Bajans exude confidence partly because they can meet the foreigner at a comparable level of literacy and education. In fact, expatriate Bajans are sending their children back to Barbados today, we were told, because the educational system is superior even to that in England.

Weeks is a well off young man, as are Bajans generally. Barbados may have the largest middle-class proportion of population of any Caribbean island. Weeks played Bob Marley reggae tapes and sang along as we drove, but he said he would not change places with a young black man in Jamaica, Marley's birth place and source of song inspiration about the oppressed. Weeks likes living on Barbados and it showed.

The natural beauty of the island was apparent during our May visit despite a recent drought. Under sugar cane cultivation, the island resembled a rolling English countryside. A visit to the Flower Forest attraction, for example, revealed the large variety of blooms that a Caribbean horticulturist can cultivate, with hibiscus of many hues particularly lovely.

Winter months are appealing travel times because the weather is warm, but humidity is low. August through October are muggy, and Cobblers closes, partly for that reason, in September.

The name Barbados comes from a Portuguese word for "bearded," the appearance of the strangler fig trees that were plentiful when Europeans first discovered the island.

The island's east side boasts miles of scarcely inhabited beaches with white to beige sand, dramatic rock formations, and pounding surf. Barclays Park beach was one of our favorites.

The sand is white because Barbados is a coral island, made up entirely of limestone, rather than a volcanic island, whose rock disintegrates to produce dark granules. Huge Atlantic waves surge into the east coast of the island and are duly appreciated by surfers. The east side is punctuated by large rock formations that are bathed in cooling breezes and bordered by long unbroken stretches of beach. The sedate waters of the west and south sides, where the lodgings are located, are better options for sunning and swimming.

One of the loveliest east-side views was from a church, named St. John's, built on a hill. From this vantage point, it is possible to see a timeless pastoral scene of sugar cane and other crops, plus the east side beaches. Another superlative view was from Crane Beach Hotel, where a high perch on a cliff overlooks a vast expanse of beach. We enjoyed lunch at the hotel's restaurant, where we sampled flying fish, a Bajan specialty, washed down with the local beer, Bank's.

Limestone caves are a specialty of Barbados. We weren't able to visit the largest cave attraction, Harrison's Cave, which was temporarily closed. At the north end of the island we stopped at the Animal Flower Cave and descended to view the sea anemones so appreciated here.

One other aspect of this limestone basis of Barbados is that it acts as a huge freshwater reservoir. Residents and visitors enjoy some of the world's most delicious and drinkable fresh water because the water has percolated through this natural filter. These "lenses," as the hydrologists describe fresh water pools under islands, have a higher specific gravity than sea water, so they force the saltwater to the edges and remain fresh.

Driving around the island acquaints a visitor with the historic story of sugar cane agriculture, which produced the original wealth of Barbados and caused slaves to be brought here to work the fields. Sugar cane still covers much of the island, but the industry is at risk, due to international competition and alternative sources of sugar.

Rural Barbados is dotted with the great houses of former sugar barons. We stopped at Farley Hill to see one such stone mansion, now a burnt-out shell. Houses were often built with sweeping views, and Farley is one of the best, facing a stunning landscape of the rugged east coast miles off in the distance.

More modest houses of ex-slaves were built to be disassembled and moved by ox cart, so that the owner could seek work where it was available. Some of these movable or "chattel" houses are painted in vibrant colors.

One of the special aspects of Barbados is that the English ruled the country continuously. While other Caribbean islands changed hands between various European countries, Barbados remained British and became so rich and powerful that no other European country dared try to conquer it.

The longevity of British rule and relatively good governance has had an effect on the Bajan character of today. Bajans are not all rich, but we didn't see grinding poverty either. The Bajan sensibility is to be civilized, easy-going, a compromiser. Economically, the rising tide now lifts all the boats. The major political parties in this non-contentious democracy, we were told, are not that different from each other.

Absent is an underlying revolutionary crisis sensibility, noteworthy in other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America. A United Nations report on "quality of life" around the planet in 1993 ranked Barbados as 25th in the world, higher than any other Caribbean or Latin American nation.

The new prosperity of Barbados in the modern period has been, of course, tourism. The south end of the island caters to budget and midprice travel. It is here, in St. Lawrence Gap, that there are good restaurants, such as Pisces, at which to mix with the locals. St. Lawrence Gap also has nightclubs featuring reggae, calypso and other island music. The northwest side of the island, around Speightstown, is where the higher-end resorts, such as Cobblers Cove, were built.

Overall, Barbados has positioned itself at the upper edge of each of the travel price categories -- budget, middle and luxury. Fortunately, there are no great walls of condos or high-rise mega-resorts blocking its beaches. The low-rise look and small-scale dimension make Barbados comfortable and accessible.

The sense of British propriety on Barbados has its amusing expressions, beyond the cartoon cautioning against bikinis in the market. Watson confided to us that he never goes to any social gatherings on the island without a tie concealed in his pocket.

"The invitation may say casual," said Watson. "But on Barbados you can never be sure. If I see that the other gentlemen are wearing ties, I slip into the washroom and put mine on."

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