An award the Accra Beach should share with its Barbadian neighbours

I and at least two others within a bun’s toss were pleased to see the Accra Beach Hotel honoured at the closing banquet of a recent Caribbean Tourism Organization conference in Guyana.

The official wording of the press release said “the Sustainable Accommodation Award went to the Accra Beach Hotel and Spa in Barbados for positively impacting the local supply chain and community whilst minimizing negative environmental impact, and contributing to conservation of local culture.”

I’m trying to learn more about what this all means and I have emails out to CTO staff. But as a travel journalist who also writes about urbanism, it’s great to see the CTO’s 13th annual Sustainable Tourism Conference recognize that walkable, vibrant communities are just as important to vacation spots as they are in our home cities.

On a basic level, my wife and I had a great stay at Accra Beach a few months back. The price was reasonable, our room and the beach were excellent, staff were friendly and, as a bonus for active people who like to swim lengths, the pool was among the best I’ve found in the Caribbean.

But Accra and the Rockley Beach area proved to be special because the resort is so well integrated within a thriving stretch of shops, services and restaurants patronized by both locals and tourists. This is a case where tourists are really strengthening the local economy and where the local businesses are really contributing to the tourism experience.

The virtuous cycle has benefits beyond the bottom lines of business. All day and into the evening there are eyes on the street and feet on the sidewalks, as urbanist Jane Jacobs would have pointed out. This is probably not a place where a mugger would want to ply his trade and the pedestrian instinctively senses that.

This mingling of locals and tourists adds much to a vacation experience on a human level. And when vacationers feel safe out walking beyond their hotels, they don’t need to rent cars or take cabs anywhere near as often.

Contrast that with the experience of an all-inclusive compound or a resort on a lovely but isolated stretch of beach.

When we talk of sustainable travel, we often hear about initiatives to protect rainforests or minimize waste from cruise ships. We talk of finding ways to offset the carbon emissions of jets or make solar and wind power viable for resorts and their small island countries. These are all good and important subjects. But on the south coast of Barbados, something as simple as a comfortable environment for pedestrian interaction illustrates sustainability and environmentalism at its organic best.

Cheers, to the Accra Beach, but please share this honour with your many neighbours.

Six Things To Do in Barbados

The water is warm and the beaches are great, but there's much more to a vacation in Barbados.

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on March 16, 2012

By STEPHEN WICKENS

BARBADOS — Most of the Caribbean will suffice if all you want are beaches and sunshine, warm weather and cold drinks. But Barbados — despite the longer flight and the higher-than-average costs for winter sun vacations — is particularly popular with Canadians again, and not just because of our dollar’s strength. This is an island where it’s safe and enjoyable to walk, explore and do things. Here are six suggestions:

If you thrive on crowds, Friday and Saturdays at Oistins are for you. But the fish is just as fresh and tasty Monday to Thursday.

GO FISH: It’s not a question of whether you should hit the Oistins Fish Fry, but when. If you thrive on crowds and bustle, and you’re willing to endure traffic, lineups and some noise, Friday and Saturday nights are for you. If an excellent and inexpensive dinner is your priority, go to this south-shore fishing village Monday to Thursday evenings. Either time, you’ll find locals and tourists of all ages mingling. There’s a marketplace, dancing and exuberant games of dominoes.

Bajans were long aware they had a wondrous world of stalactites, stalagmites and crystal clear underwater streams below the hills in the heart of the country, but it wasn't until the 1970s, led by a Danish speleologist, that Harrison's Cave was seriously explored and mapped.

GO UNDERGROUND: Okay, you will be dripped upon and you might hear cave aficionados argue that better can be found in New Zealand, Vietnam, Iran or Croatia. But Harrison’s Cave makes several world top-10 lists for good reason. If you’ve never seen stalactites and stalagmites up close, this is a great opportunity. The 2.3-kilometre stretch of caverns deep below the heart of Barbados wasn’t fully mapped till the 1970s. These days, the caverns are accessible by a small train. It’s a deal at $30 (U.S.) for a 90-minute tour, and it could be a great way to cool off if you’ve had too much sun.

The blend of nature, art and whimsy at Anthony Hunte's gardens will soothe your soul.

UNEXPECTED EDEN: Even if you’re not the botanical gardens type, your soul deserves a trip to Hunte’s Gardens. Two couples at my hotel enthusiastically thanked me for the recommendation. For $10 you’ll get an engaging conversation with the eccentric Anthony Hunte, who serves up flora, artistic landscaping, classical music, sculpture and Zen-like calm seven days a week. You can also grab a rum punch at Hunte’s whimsical house, formerly a horse stable on part of the old sugar plantation. But before you book your Barbados trip, visit huntesgardensbarbados.com to ensure he’ll be around. He plans to travel this year and will close up when he’s away.

 

Bert's Bar is a gathering place for Canadians, especially hockey fans. The pizza, burgers and daiquiris are excellent. That's Bert in the red shirt, with a group of students from the Ottawa area

HOCKEY NIGHT IN BARBADOS: The Accra/Rockley Beach area is popular in part because you can easily walk to lots of stores and restaurants. A local favourite with Canadians is Bert’s Bar, where every night is hockey night. There are 26 flat-screen TVs, cold Banks beer on tap and excellent pizza, burgers and daiquiris. Even if you’re not a hockey nut, you’re bound to end up in a conversation about some person or place back home in Canada. The Ottawa Senators now own Bert’s, but Bert, the original owner going back to 1976, runs the joint. You’ll find him on the end bar stool, eyes on the game.

Ryan Adamson pours a Bajan Green Monkey for visitors who've just taken the Mount Gay tour.

YO HO HO  … : Barbados prides itself on being the birthplace of rum, and Mount Gay, the world’s oldest brand, runs interesting tours of its facilities around the island, complete with samples (barbados.org/mountgay.htm). St. Nicholas Abbey also produces outstanding rum and provides an interesting tour. But to really experience Barbados, you have to hit the rum shops. There are 1,500 of these little pubs on the island (more than one for every 200 residents). Though not everyone  will be drinking rum — or even alcoholic bevvies — the rum shops are great places for gabbing with the friendly locals and most places offer good, inexpensive meals.

Many residents consider green monkeys to be pests. Tourists love to snap pictures of them.

HIT THE ROAD: You need to see the rugged east coast to appreciate the island. You can do that and snorkel with greenback turtles, shoot pictures of the green monkeys and have lunch and drinks on a Tiami catamaran in just one day with Island Safari. You might want to check out one of the other tour services if your back can’t handle bouncing around in the back of a Land Rover. Or you could just do the sea part of the trip, with additional reef snorkeling through Tiami Catamaran cruises.

Rock formations near the town of Bathsheba: No trip to Barbados is complete without at least a day trip to the island's rugged and picturesque east coast.

Increasingly self-confident Barbados takes time to mourn

While preparing to bury a much-loved prime minister, Caribbean island also gives thanks to Thompson’s mentor for emphasizing a quality education system
This story first appeared in the Toronto Star foreign news section on October 29, 2010
By STEPHEN WICKENS

Olive Estwick was one of the pilgrims who came for a piece of the rock that came from the grave where David Thompson would be buried.

ST. JOHN’S PARISH, BARBADOS—Olive Estwick isn’t asked for an explanation but offers one anyway.

“It’s for my great-grandson,” the tearful 73-year-old says, holding up a softball-sized piece of coral rock from the pile beside a grave where the late prime minister David Thompson will be buried Wednesday. “This will always be in our family.”

Estwick is one of several pilgrims to the St. John’s parish church cemetery on a sweltering afternoon. In what would otherwise be a sleepy, idyllic setting near the edge of a cliff facing the Atlantic, gravediggers kick up a jackhammer racket and rocks they chuck to the pile become souvenirs.

A period of national mourning was declared in Barbados after Thompson died from pancreatic cancer Oct. 23, seven months after being diagnosed. Flags are half-staff, some people wear black ribbons and it seems nearly every Barbadian you speak with gets moist around the eyes when talking of him. But pursue the conversation a bit longer and you’ll often hear expressions of a rising national self-confidence.

One moment it’s a tragic tale of three young girls who don’t have a dad anymore, or a lament for a country that has lost a great leader just as he was getting started. Thompson, who became PM in 2008, was only 48.

But the locals also seem eager to tell Canadians this Caribbean island is on the verge of becoming a first-world nation. Even before your flight lands at Grantley Adams airport, you might have heard Barbados has public health care like Canada and a public education system that has placed literacy rates among the world’s best — 99.7 per cent. Stable governments and relatively low crime rates are also a source of pride.

Frank Anderson, returning to Barbados after doing temporary work in Canada, says his country’s rising living standards are “in many ways the legacy of Errol Barrow, our first prime minister after independence in 1966.”

Anderson explains that part of the sadness about Thompson’s death is his link with Barrow (who was a close and longtime friend of Pierre Trudeau). “Not only are (Barrow and Thompson) the only two people to have represented St. John’s parish in Parliament since independence in 1966, Thompson was Barrow’s protegé in the Democratic Labour Party (DLP).”

Barrow, who also died in office, in 1987, had a dream — that quality public education, free to all, would make the former British colony a first-world nation providing opportunity for all, no matter how poor. The seemingly widespread belief is Thompson lived nearly long enough to see it happen; that a real middle class has quietly emerged.

“It’s not just high schools; university is free for Bajans,” Anderson says. “These kids aren’t just students at university, they were raised in educated homes.”

Rosa Alleyne, who works for an ad agency in the United States but returned to Barbados last week to visit relatives, speaks of “a new optimism despite the mourning and the recession” in the lineup at a south coast convenience store. “I live in San Francisco, but kids I went to school with are getting good jobs without leaving the country,” she said. “Go take a look at the new suburbs north of Bridgetown. It’s not foreigners buying those houses and they’re as nice as newer subdivisions in the States.”

Though tributes to Thompson dominate media coverage, the release this week of Transparency International’s 2010 report is also big news. Barbados is now ranked second to Canada for the lowest levels of corruption in the western hemisphere.

“It’s a small country that always punches above its weight,” says Ezra Catwell, of Invest Barbados, a government agency that promotes both direct foreign investment and Barbadian companies to the world.

A longstanding emphasis on transparency and rule of law, the educated workforce and the country’s tax treaties with many countries are popular with businesses. Royal Bank of Canada, Scotiabank and CIBC have long had big presences here. A tour of a plant owned by Florida-based Lenstec is impressive. The company began in Barbados in 1995 as a straight manufacturer of precision synthetic lenses used in cataract surgery. It has expanded several times and is now developing product lines that are being shipped around the world.

Cardiology and in vitro fertilization clinics are seen as evidence of a nascent medical tourism industry. There’s also a software cluster in Bridgetown.

The crime rate is almost certainly low by Caribbean standards, though independent, verifiable comparisons are hard to find. The 2009 United Nations Human Development Index ranks Barbados third in the Western Hemisphere behind Canada and the U.S., but evidence of poverty is still not difficult to find.

Governments in recent years have pushed diversification. Sugar was king for most of the island’s history, but exports are down 70 per cent since the 1960s. Tourism will continue to be relied upon heavily, but it’s seasonal and vulnerable to economic cycles.

“We’re past the point where we can compete as a low-cost jurisdiction,” says Darcy Boyce, minister of immigration, energy and communications under new Prime Minister Freundel Stuart. “Our wages are not low by Caribbean standards. We have to go for high value,” he says in an interview, promising the government will spend heavily on new health care and biotech labs in the near future and that green energy technology will be a priority.

“I hope the world will view us as a first-world country by 2020; in some ways we’re already there,” said Boyce.

In the meantime, confident as they may be, Barbadians clearly are in mourning as they gear up for the state funeral. Thompson touched citizens with a radio address shortly before his death; he didn’t want to be on TV because he didn’t want his appearance to detract from his parting message.

Kenmore Lynch, wearing a black ribbon while working on the front desk at the Hilton becomes choked up while trying to speak of Thompson’s commitment to “transparency and accountability. He prepared the government and he left us a road map.”

And back at the gravesite, Olive Estwick talks of Thompson as “a great young man.

“He loved people. He came to my retirement; he came to my great-grandson’s christening.”

“Please take a piece of rock back to Canada. Save it for your great-grandson.”