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Measured by the foot

Pure air, pristine beaches, and miles of byways make hiking eye-opening

By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / October 19, 2008
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The young British fencing coach had left her friends on the beach to go hiking. It was her first time in the Caribbean.

"Hot weather doesn't normally agree with me," she said, nor, she admitted, had hiking. "At home it's an older person's sport."

We met in the East Coast village of Bathsheba, where some 50 outdoors lovers had materialized like a scene from "Field of Dreams." We hiked for four hours, fumbling through light woods and lianas (woody tropical vines); crowding reverently into a former slave chapel smothered in bush; laboring up Melvin Hill to a fisheye-lens view of the green Chimborazo valley below; and over coral promontories where Atlantic waves exploded in furies of spray.

Our guides, George Medford and Carl Fenty, reminded us that the wind washing over us travels some 2,600 miles across the ocean to this coast from The Gambia in West Africa and is some of the purest air in the world.

"This track was part of the Barbados Railway built to transport sugar cane and tourists," said Fenty. "It went bust five times before ceasing operation under its last owner, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. A first-class seat with champagne cost 48 cents; when the train stalled, the third class got out and pushed."

As we spilled down a heathered slope to the seascape of Cattlewash, raw and romantic in the Byronic sense, the fencer turned to me with shining eyes. "I'm definitely coming back here," she said.

While Barbados can be enjoyed without ever leaving West Coast Highway 1, which is fringed with beaches and hotels, a local passion for walking has created opportunities to explore more than 800 miles of roads at little or no cost. Our trek was one of 45 rambles offered free by Hike Barbados, a program of the Barbados National Trust. No reservations are necessary: Simply meet Sunday morning or afternoon at the designated location, break into groups according to pace, and experience a 6-to-14-mile slice of the island that you might not otherwise see.

"Everything we encounter has a reason in history. Our early settlers planted those palms around their plantations so insect-eating birds could nest in safety," said Victor Cooke, a professional guide and National Trust volunteer, on a hike in rural St. Lucy Parish. "Those mahogany trees were planted near the driveway to shade workers waiting to begin the day. You always see these peas planted at the edges of fields. They were used to make jug-jug, a Christmas stew."

It seemed to my fiance, Ron, and me, that at least half of our company were Bajans (or Barbadians), not visitors like us. Richard Goddard, a program founder, explained, "Hike Barbados started not as a tourist attraction but as a way to connect our own people with their environment and heritage."

We noticed several hikers wearing T-shirts inscribed "the Colin Hudson Hike," commemorating a Hike Barbados leader who died a national hero for his advocacy of sustainable development.

If the turnout for the St. Lucy hike was a good indicator, more Bajans than ever are hitting the trails. When we passed through villages (and increasingly, subdivisions), children and grandparents greeted us with a "Good morning" or "All right," as if the sight of 60 backpackers strung out in twos and threes was an everyday occurrence.

Hiking changed our vacation from the lazy idyll we had planned. We began buying rock cakes of dense Bajan coconut bread for carb fuel and saving empty water bottles to fill at the ubiquitous roadside stand pipes, the island's first water supply fed by underground springs. Our pockets bulged with chips of 18th-century blue and white porcelain, clay pipe stems, and wisps of Sea Island cotton. The best prize, an Amerindian adze made of conch shell, was found and given to us by a local insurance agent who placed its age at 500 to 1,000 years.

Members of smaller groups invited us to join their hikes. One, a Wednesday trek in St. John Parish, climbed to soaring views of Consett Bay and Ragged Point; crossed the gold-grained sand of Bath beach; slogged up Society Hill; and lingered beside the lily pond at Codrington College, where young West Indians study theology in the hush of majestic coral stone buildings.

An ambassador's wife told us about BH3, the Barbados Hash House Harriers, part of an international network whose free outings are modeled on the English schoolboy game Hares and Hounds. The group meets at locations across the island every Saturday at 4 p.m. and welcomes walkers as well as runners.

We tried them all.

Who would have guessed that a 21-by-14-mile island could seem so large and varied? The meandering quality of the roads contributes to a perennial sense of discovery - and to the frequent experience of getting lost.

"Every road in Barbados leads to your destination - eventually," Thomas Loftfield, an assistant director at the Barbados Museum, said reassuringly. The museum's collection of early maps clarifies why this is so. By 1645, English settlers had almost completely deforested Barbados and replanted it with sugarcane, which would drive the economy for the next 350 years. Today's roads and public rights of way are a web of those 17th-century cart paths and cane field intervals.

If there is a successor to Colin Hudson as the articulator of Barbadian byways, Adrian Loveridge might be it. "It's almost painful to reveal the spectacular beaches encountered on this hike," said Loveridge as we picked our way along five miles of the East Coast from Bottom Bay to Crane Beach in St. Philip Parish. Together with his wife, Margaret, Loveridge has packaged six hikes with a stay at the couple's hotel Peach and Quiet, in Christ Church Parish, located near one of Barbados's best unpublicized beaches.

We were seeing the others now: Ginger Bay, Harry Smith Beach, Sam Lord's Beach, and Belair. From a tourist map, you might never know they existed or were accessible by car or bus.

"Barbados was born when the original [tectonic] plate fragmented and the Caribbean portion slid beneath the Atlantic one," Loveridge said as we wound among fossilized crags. "Corals thrived in the shallow water this created, and with a final tectonic push, up came our coral-capped island - you're walking on the ancient, submerged plate now."

A staircased ruin appeared weirdly at the shore's edge. "Three guesses as to what this is," Loveridge challenged us.

"The remains of a health spa," he said. "Picture ladies in Victorian bathing costumes being carried to the beach in litters hoisted by Bajan men."

Invariably the hikes ended with some of us removing to a restaurant or rum shop, where we didn't hesitate to try a full-sugar-strength Plus or caloric staple like macaroni and cheese pie. Moving slowly and poetically through beautiful scenery is one of the pleasures of a walking vacation, but guiltless enjoyment of food shouldn't be overlooked.

We ate our hearts out and returned home tanned and toned, having lost a total of six pounds.

Patricia Borns can be reached at patriciaborns@comcast.net.

Belair is where Barbados's tourist industry got its start. Codrington College in St. John Parish opened in 1745 and is the oldest Anglican theological school in the hemisphere.
Belair is where Barbados's tourist industry got its start. Codrington College in St. John Parish opened in 1745 and is the oldest Anglican theological school in the hemisphere. (Patricia Born for The Boston Globe)

If You Go

What to do

Hike Barbados

barbados.org/hike1.htm

Listings, locations, and descriptions of treks. Stephen Mendes, who leads the faster-paced hikers, maintains a photo gallery at hikebarbados.com.

Barbados Hash House Harriers

barbadoshash.com

Locations and schedules.

Where to stay

Peach and Quiet

246-428-5682

peachandquiet.com

From $99 a night. Seven-day hiking package for a $199 supplement. Opens for the season Nov. 30.

Little Good Harbour

732-542 9112, 246-439-3000

littlegoodharbourbarbados.com

From $279 a night. Cottages and villas blend in with the surrounding fishing village. The house restaurant, The Fish Pot, is among the island's best.

Where to eat

Lobster Alive

246-435-0305

lobsteralive.net

Dining on the sand beside Carlisle Bay. Grilled spiny lobsters flown fresh from the Grenadines from $60. Sunday jazz lunch.

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