History is alive on Barbados

Cooled by trade winds blowing across the Atlantic, the island is known for near-perfect weather, lovely beaches and, due to its British founders, an enchanting mix of English sensibility and Caribbean ebullience.

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BRIDGETOWN, BARBADOS — George Washington, it seems, slept here, too.

Sent to accompany his ailing brother Lawrence to Barbados, Washington, then a land surveyor for Lord Fairfax, spent two months on the island in 1751. Today, after a three-year restoration, the Georgian-style plantation residence where the brothers stayed has been transformed into a museum that offers a glimpse into 18th-century Barbadian life.

George Washington House & Museum is one of many options – some just a year old – on Barbados for travelers looking for a dose of history, culture and architecture to go with their sun seeking.

The easternmost of the Caribbean islands, Barbados is one of the few to have been governed by only one country  – England  – before becoming an independent nation. Cooled by trade winds blowing across the Atlantic, the island is known for near-perfect weather, lovely beaches and, due to its British founders, an enchanting mix of English sensibility and Caribbean ebullience.

The island’s location – it’s the first island traders reached as they made their way across the Atlantic from Africa – also made it a key player in the early trade of slaves, sugar and other products. That history can be experienced at the many cultural attractions within the island.

Initial settlement

The first British ships touched Barbados in 1625, at the site of what is now Holetown, a bustling village now filled with shops, cafes and galleries. The early English settlers immediately began clearing land for vast fields of cotton, tobacco and sugar and building majestic plantation houses.

One of the first, St. Nicholas Abbey, was erected in 1650 and is one of only three houses of Jacobean architecture in the Western Hemisphere still standing. John Yeamans, the second owner of the house and surrounding 400 acres of land, was knighted by King Charles II and granted the first governorship of the land that would become North and South Carolina. The house, with its original Chippendale banisters, period antiques and blooming cottage gardens is open to the public, as are the expansive grounds and the plantation’s sugar mill, which recently began to produce and sell rum and other products made from sugarcane grown on site.

Open since January, the Nidhe Israel Museum tells the story of Barbadian Jews, who arrived on the island in the early 17th century from Brazil to escape the Inquisition. Built on the site of what is believed to have been a school for Jewish children, the museum shows, through interactive displays, how the Brazilian Jews used their expertise in growing sugarcane to transform Barbados into major sugar-producing island. Sand-filled dioramas embedded into the museum’s floor and covered with Plexiglas showcase pottery shards, broken prayer scrolls, pipes and old bottles found on the site, while dioramas illustrate the Jewish Diaspora with fascinating facts, such as the statistic that 8 million Americans can trace their ancestry to Barbados.

The Arlington House Museum, which also opened in January, is a three-level museum housed in one of Speightstown’s 18th-century single houses. Using innovative displays, sound effects, video and robotics, the museum tells the story of Barbados’ history from three perspectives.

The ground floor, named "Speightstown Memories" after Barbados' second largest town, gives a glimpse into the lives of early citizens and, using video interviews, introduces visitors to some of the town’s current residents. "Plantation Memories" on the second level explains the story of colonization and sugar cane on the island. The exhibit, which utilizes stylized sugar-cane fronds to hold displays of old photographs of Barbadian workers, maps and interesting facts – who knew that in 1700 Barbados had more residents than New York City – is sleek, modern and easy to navigate. With its wooden plank floor, theatrical lighting and sound effects, the museum’s third floor, titled "Wharf Memories," showcases Speightstown's former glory as a leading port and hub across three continents.

Other sites

Visitors to the island can tour private homes as well. Through the Barbados National Trust’s innovative Open House Program, owners of some of the island’s most elegant residences, many of which are historic, open their doors to guests for rum punch and informal, but highly informative, tours on Wednesday afternoons from mid-January through mid-April.

For a taste of Barbados culinary culture, head to the fishing village of Oistens, where the Friday night fish fry is an island tradition. Part food festival, part concert, part dance hall, the boisterous event is a meeting place for extended families, friends and seniors, many of whom gravitate to the back of the grounds for ballroom dancing under the stars.

Not all of Barbados’s attractions are man-made. On the island’s west and south coasts, the gentle waves of the turquoise Caribbean lap powdery sand beaches that stretch for miles. Within the hilly interior, acres of sugar-cane fields wave in the breeze. The east coast, with its wild, windswept cliffs and boulder-strewn beaches is rugged and untamed. Come fall, the area draws surfers from all over the world. In Bathsheba, an east coast village, the foamy water, rich with minerals, is said to resemble the milk baths taken by King David’s wife, Bathsheba.

Closed for over a year, Harrison’s Cave, an underground wonderland of gigantic stalactites and stalagmites, cool streams, bottomless pools and sparkling crystals, reopened in early 2008 after extensive renovations. Above ground, Barbados National Trust leads guided hikes several days a week. Lasting anywhere from two to six hours, the hikes explore ancient gullies, or valleys, many of which hold remnants of early cultures; tropical forests; sugar-cane fields dotted with plantation ruins; and other sites, many of which aren’t accessible to the general public.