Contemporary vibe on Barbados’ quiet east coast
by Shari Kulha
“People come to the east coast because they know they can disappear. They have such busy lives at home — many of them are celebrities there — they simply want to do nothing but read books for a few weeks” — Paul Doyle, Beach Houses developer
Were a visitor to arrive in Barbados with an unplanned itinerary, their first decision would be whether to turn left or right out of Grantley Adams airport. Had they arrived without having done their research, and followed natural instincts to turn right, it would have been the perfect decision — were they a certain type of traveller.
Were they to have turned left, they would have found themselves on the seaside road to the west coast. They’d pass the restaurant-and-club stretch of St. Lawrence Gap, and then the white sand and blue waters of busy Accra Beach. Then they’d stop-and-start their way through historic but traffic-jammed Bridgetown, and thence past condos and hotels so chockablock that the sea is only glimpsed between buildings when there’s a public walkway to the beach.
Those who chose to turn right, however, would have met a different Barbados. Small roads, local businesses and traditional family homes and landholdings would pop up on their way to the east coast. The difference is vivid.
Ninety-nine per cent of the rugged east coast is designated national park. The chain of craggy bays and beaches from Conset Bay to the northernmost point is authentic Barbados. It’s along here that locals congregate on Sundays for a beloved post-church beachside picnic (they’d likely call it a “lime,” a wonderful and ubiquitous multi-purpose noun and verb referring to the act of hanging out). Here in rural areas — “behind God’s back” in the local parlance of a deeply religious people — only a few restaurants cater to the tourists doing a day’s drive of the island. That drive is a truly delightful but slow process, given the twisting, potholed roads. (Perhaps they are purposely left so.)
Dotting this coast are unmistakable signs of true island culture: colourful rum shops, vernacular architecture in the way of raised chattel houses, and highly coveted seaside houses long held and passed down the generations by local families. Tourists might venture here to learn about some of the island’s rich history, but the most activity they may see might be the spray of ocean against giant limestone outcroppings, or watching someone tumble off a surfboard at a north point beach.
It is patently evident that the east side is not a package-vacation destination.
One such quiet spot is the Crane Residential Resort. As hotelier Paul Doyle, a Canadian, tells me over excellent sushi at his Zen restaurant, “they come to this hotel, and the east coast, for the quiet, the privacy and the lack of tourist amenities.” Not that he can’t fulfill any request a guest may have, but he contends they have few. “They come here because they know they can disappear. They have such busy lives at home — many of them are celebrities there — they simply want to do nothing but read books for a few weeks.” Thus, no banana boats pound the waves.
Long before the advent of personal watercraft, or even before the Caribbean tourism industry existed, Barbados was a hospitality destination. Colonized in 1627, word got out (slowly, given it was the 17th century) about the sea-laden oxygen that travelled unimpeded along the North Equatorial Current from West Africa. By the 18th century, British doctors were prescribing this clean salt air and open spaces to their patients.
The Crane has been a hotel since 1887. The first structure was built in 1790 as a villa for the local plantation’s overseer, but it grew to become an 18-room hotel, and has since expanded to 252 rooms in various low-rise buildings, with 20 more rooms in the works. It even boasts a 128-year-old Honeymoon Suite. And there will be a total of 96 Crane Private Residences.
But it’s what’s taking place offsite that’s really news. Farther along the coast, and just round the easternmost point of the Caribbean’s easternmost island, on a gently sloping oceanfront site, Doyle is developing a limited number of single-storey contemporary houses that will cascade down the hill, each overlooking the other’s landscaped roof toward surf and sunrise. If their design and the topography aren’t noteworthy enough, add in the seemingly impossible luck of finding such a project tucked in to the one per cent of the east coast that is not designated national park.
At Skeete’s Bay just by Culpepper Island, the Beach Houses will consist of fractional, quarter-share or full-ownership deeds, complete with such resort-style amenities as daily cleaning service and the choice to place the home in the Crane’s rental pool. A lockoff design provides the option of sectioning away a 750-square-foot one-bedroom kitchenette studio to rent (or you can put Uncle Mel there if you don’t want to see his uncombed comb-over first thing in the morning). Or rent both sides out at the same time. Each of the 63 houses will be on 1/5 of an acre, and a highlight of each will be its seaside terrace with two pools with hot tubs, meaning that in lock-off mode each side gets a private pool and spa (because if a comb-over is a bad thing, think of Mel in a mankini).
The two- to four-bedroom houses, which will be built upon purchase to allow for customization, will be eco-friendly. Large expanses of glass wall can be opened to the cooling breezes off the terrace, but if air conditioning is needed, it won’t be wasted on unused rooms — sensors at bedroom doors, for example, determine which rooms are occupied and blast the chill only there. Possibly bettering the pool terrace is a spectacular feature you may not be able to resist bragging to your half-frozen friends in Canada about: Post-shower, you can open the entire glass wall of your ensuite to a lush hideaway garden to dry yourself off as nature intended. All Crane bathrooms are large, but this feature doubles the ensuite to the size of the average Toronto backyard.
Home prices range from US$503,000 for a quarter ownership of a two-bedroom semi for specified weeks, to US$2,695,000 for full ownership of a four-bedroom beach house (open plan; i.e. no lock-off ) in the first row. Some of the historic hotel’s features have been brought forward here, such as the tray ceilings (here whitewashed rather than dark mahogany) and four-poster beds (here with a sleek profile). The decor is a neutral mix for a soothing vibe.
The 50-acre site will also eventually accommodate a boutique hotel and a fish market with restaurant, and will offer a shuttle down to the Crane 15 minutes away, with its six restaurants, tennis courts, gym and yoga classes.
Canadians enjoy unrestricted freedom to purchase Bajan property. The two countries have exceedingly close diplomatic and commercial ties, and Canadian banks have a strong presence on Barbados, which claims the thirdoldest parliament in the Commonwealth. The locals are highly educated and have well-paying jobs, which makes it one of the more expensive islands for visitors, but the flipside of that, says island historian Keith Miller, is a very low crime rate and wonderfully warm people with “old-fashioned manners and courtesies.”
In fact, Miller, a UK ex-pat like many here, is a fount of knowledge about the island, having published dozens of coffee-table books and tourist brochures about it. Barbados, he says, is “an easy place to immerse yourself with like-minded, interesting people.” Interesting, certainly, but normally “like-minded” is a euphemism for something less than upstanding. But this is not what he means. “There is no us and them. No economic segregation. Everyone mingles,” Miller says, “whether it’s at the Oistins Fish Fry or at polo games in the Garrison.”
Barbados, the only colony to vote against slavery, has the oldest synagogue in the Americas, built in 1654 after Dutch Jews were forced to leave Brazil. They introduced sugar cane (and windmills for irrigation) to the landowners, whose tobacco crops had lost vast amounts of money after Virginia cornered the market. Sugar quickly proved the elixir the locals and landowners needed.
The island’s “political, financial and social security didn’t begin 50 or 60 years ago [with independence],” Miller says, our conversation careering from the sugar and rum trade to the United Nation’s Barbados Model for Health Education to the macro principles of local society, where the Bajan village raises the child. “It began in the 1600s and has never altered.”