Turtles, rum and glistening white-sand beaches.
A toast to sun-splashed Barbados and three of its biggest attractions.
Turtle snorkels in Barbados are very popular. Tourists on a boat don snorkels and masks and quickly enter the blue-green water off the southern shore of this very British Caribbean island, which typically gets 3,000 hours of sunshine annually.
On this trip, a crew member carried some fish for turtle food.
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And they quickly appeared out of nowhere at the bottom, cruising along in 20 feet of water. The shells are very colorful, with leather-like patches and markings.
They were much bigger than I had expected: bodies up to three feet across. Think of a large boulder or a spare tire with flippers, a head and a tail. The biggest ones we saw weighed in excess of 200 pounds. They can get bigger.
They were powerful and graceful, agile enough to twist and snap at small fish that dared come close to the powerful jaws. They were impressive and very cool. They approached the swimmers as if to see what was up.
The turtles are charismatic, even though they all but ignore swimmers. “Get out of my way, there’s food here somewhere” seems to be their main message in the water. That meant there were frequent near-collisions and close encounters, but the turtles were unfazed.
We had hawksbill and green turtles (named for the color of their fat, not their shells), a few small ones and several large guys. They must surface regularly to get air.
The swimmers had been issued a few simple warnings: Keep your toes and fingers away from the turtles’ jaws. That sounds easy, but actually is a bit trickier as the turtles weave in and out of the mosh pit of swimmers jostling for views.
Also we were told to give the turtles their space, not to chase, grab, harass or ride them.
We were told that we could touch the turtles if they swam by very close. Touch the shell, but not the head, flippers or the tail, especially on the males. The male turtles, it seems, store their penises in their tails. No one wanted to touch that.
The boat operator did not give us fins for our feet because they could injure the turtles.
Barbados is home to four species of sea turtles: the hawksbill and green turtles we saw, plus loggerheads and leatherbacks.
The hawksbill turtles are the most common in Barbados and the most colorful. The name comes from its narrow head and a large beak like that of a parrot. The turtles may be seen on the beaches or in the water.
Barbados has the second-largest hawksbill breeding population in the Caribbean with an estimated 500 nesting females annually. The hawksbill turtles thrive off the island’s coral reefs. Sponges are a favorite food.
Green turtles are common in Barbados’ waters and they nested on the island for the first time in 2005. They are the species most frequently found on turtle-feeding trips on the island’s west coast. They dine largely on sea grass as adults.
The turtles’ numbers have dropped because of overfishing, but they have been protected in Barbados since 1998. There is a $25,000 fine and two-year prison sentence for killing sea turtles.
The turtles are closely monitored by the Barbados Sea Turtle Project. It was started in 1987 by the government and the University of the West Indies. Turtles have been tagged to better study their movements. For information, check out www.barbadosseaturtles.org.
The project also monitors turtle nesting on beaches from mid-May through October. The female hawksbills typically lay four clutches, each with 150 eggs. The hatchlings are on their own and must move from the sand to the water to survive. It is estimated that one in 1,000 hatchlings will become an adult.
Sea turtles may live for 60 years and may not begin breeding until they are 20 to 30 years old. Females will return to the same beach to lay eggs.
A heritage of rum
If turtles aren’t the No. 1 Barbados attraction, rum may be. The island features more than 1,500 colorful neighborhood rum shops.
Barbados is the birthplace of the drink of pirates and the British Navy. There are more than 80 distilleries in the Caribbean, but Barbados, with eight distilleries, is the spiritual home of rum. Barbados exports $60 million worth of rum annually.
Some of the world’s best-loved rums hail from Barbados: Cockspur, Doorly’s XO and Mount Gay, which began production in 1703 and is the world’s oldest commercial distillery (based on written evidence).
The natives have a word for it: Liming. That is, chilling out or doing nothing, usually with friends. It generally involves food and drink, often at one of the island’s 1,500 rum shops or tiny bars that are everywhere.
On Barbados, the preferred method of drinking rum with its subtle flavors is over ice, with a splash of water, in a punch or with ginger ale. Mixing it with cola is acceptable, although it’s looked down on.
The distinctive red-and-yellow Mount Gay signs are everywhere and the company’s visitor center is one of the most popular tourist attractions. You can learn about Mount Gay’s history and enjoy a tasting lesson.
Mount Gay Distilleries Ltd. proudly calls itself “the rum that invented rum.” It remains one of the most famous in the Caribbean, along with Jamaica’s Appleton.
In the 2006 movie “Casino Royale,” the first drink ordered by James Bond was a Mount Gay rum with soda. (Author Ian Fleming preferred Appleton dark rum.) It is also a key ingredient in Stirling punch, named for famed yachtsman Harold Stirling Vanderbilt.
Mount Gay is owned today by French-based Remy Cointreau. Production is based at the company’s refinery in St. Lucy Parish in northern Barbados, surrounded by fields of sugar cane that can be 9 feet tall. It is not open to the public.
But you can tour nearby St. Nicholas Abbey, which was built in 1658. The Jacobean mansion is situated on one of the oldest surviving plantations on the island and includes 400 acres of woodland, sugar cane fields and well-tended gardens.
It was once the home of Sir John Gay Alleyne, who became a manager of the Mount Gilboa plantation that was renamed Mount Gay in his honor after his death in 1801.
Sugar cane was introduced to Barbados in 1637 by the Dutch, and rum production began as early as 1667.
It takes 10 to 12 tons of sugar cane to produce a half bottle of rum. It is a simple mixture of sugar, water and yeast. Juice is extracted from the sugar cane and boiled to produce thick molasses. This is diluted with water and yeast is added for fermentation in huge, bubbling industrial vats. The liquid is heated, the alcohol is separated off from the water and collected in tanks.
Visitors can tour the Mount Gay Rum Visitors Centre on Spring Garden Highway outside Bridgetown in the town of Brandons. On the 45-minute tour, you get a short film that tells you of the company’s history and a tour of the facility where the rum is bottled. Admission is $8. Details: http://mountgayrum.com.