When rum stopped play

He loved Barbados's great cricketers, but could the place live up to Stephen Fay's expectations?

My love affair with Barbados was unconsummated for 49 years, but when I was finally cast ashore at Long Bay on the island's south coast (all right, at the Grantley Adams International Airport) my passion was rewarded sooner than I had expected.

My taxi was taking route 2A, the main road to the west coast of the island, when we slowed down at a roundabout. It was named after Clyde Walcott. Further up the road, we reached the Everton Weekes roundabout. Hearing my faint cries of pleasure, the driver mentioned that we had bypassed the Frank Worrell roundabout on the outskirts of Bridgetown, the island's capital. They were all great cricketers in the Fifties when I was at an impressionable age; I still am, and I was impressed right away with Barbados's acute sense of recent history.

There are plenty of reasons for visiting Barbados. There is soft sand and calm blue sea on the west coast, and a desolate, wind-ravaged Atlantic coast, where Prospero would have made landfall had he been wrecked nearby. There are flamboyants and frangipani, bougainvillea, exotic ferns, hibiscus, palms and no shortage of orchids. I discovered a few more reasons after my arrival.

The cuisine can be deeply satisfying, as long as you stick to local dishes like flying fish, curried goat and "Pepperpot", a hot stew of beef and peppers. And the climate was - when I was there in late Spring - as hot and dry as the advertisements promise.

On top of all that, there is the cricket.

I had seen Clyde Walcott sweep the ball out of the Oval in 1950, and admired the way Everton Weekes accumulated runs irresistibly through those Tests, the first series West Indies had ever won in England. In 1963, I watched Frank Worrell guide his young batsmen to victory at Lord's. They were known as the "Three Ws", and all three received knighthoods. They were the formidable prelude to the golden age of another Barbadian, Sir Garfield Sobers, the most accomplished of them all.

Gary Sobers is one of 10 large portraits hung from a building on the main square by the old harbour in Bridgetown. For almost 200 years this was Trafalgar Square, and a small statue of Nelson stands in one corner. The square has been renamed National Heroes Square, and Nelson is to be removed, probably to the museum. Sobers is one of the 10 heroes. The Barbadian opposition has suggested that renaming the square and dethroning Nelson is to deny the island's history. But Nelson was no friend to black Barbadians, and the only detail that offended me was the absence of any one of the Three Ws from the list of heroes. For the time being, roundabouts will have to do.

The roundabouts were on the route to the coast road leading to Speightstown and Cobblers Cove, a hotel so far north that it is nearly off the beaten track. I approached it with strong preconceptions. Just as I expect Barbadian batsmen to be stylish and forceful, I expect the beaches to be lined with palms, the sand golden and the sea turquoise. Anything less would be a severe disappointment.

The entrance to Cobblers Cove is discreet. Reception gives way to a garden lush with tropical trees - mango, pawpaw, banana - flanked by two-storey cottages, each with a spacious sitting-room and bedroom on each floor, a balcony and a small garden at ground-level. At the end of the garden is the crenellated roof and immaculate pink walls of the old house (built 1943, but everything is relative). Inside is a sitting-room; cool terracotta tiles lead to the bar and on to the restaurant under its canvas awning.

I had changed into my trunks and walked tentatively across the grass which was dappled by the shade of the coconut trees. Beyond them I could see the beach curving north towards the headland. Here was a view that contained no surprises at all. After I had swum in the flat, warm sea, ironed out the aches in my body and the creases in my brain, I ordered a rum-punch, reclined on a chair under the palms and wiggled my toes. I had a book, but couldn't concentrate. Great expectations had been met, and it seemed churlish not to wallow.

You can learn plenty about Barbados just lying on the beach. Passing Barbadians will often reply to a greeting by calling you "brother". This is not linguistic Marxism. On the contrary; you are more likely to be a brother in Christ, for evangelical religion is mother's milk on the island. These brief conversations are possible because beaches in Barbados are truly communal - without ever being crowded or dirty. A neat trick to have pulled off.

Fishing boats are moored beyond the headland, and there is a fish market up the road, but Cobblers Cove's fish is landed on the hotel's beachfront straight from the boats. The chef comes to inspect the catch of the day - barracuda, dolphin (a sweet-tasting tropical fish rather than the variety of small whale that is too nice to eat), and flying fish, a local delicacy.

Some hotels along the west coast think flying fish is too common to serve to visitors from overseas. At Cobblers Cove you can have it in sandwiches at lunchtime, but I suspect the best place of all to eat it is at a beach bar. It was to be had in the raffish Fisherman's Bar in Speightstown, but I liked this firm, strong-tasting fish best at a restaurant named after an English bank. Barclays is big in Barbados and it sponsors a park on the east coast within hearing of the pounding Atlantic breakers - keeping it spick and span. The result is Barclays Rum Punch Bar and Restaurant; it is, to my knowledge, a unique advertisement for a bank, and a fine one too. (It is also a lot cheaper than the west coast: flying fish is pounds 5.50 and a rum-punch pounds 1.40.)

Barclays gets its flying fish from the Bridgetown fish market on Princess Alice Highway, where there are piles of them, already filleted, the size of four or five good mouthfuls. They lie next to the pointed snouts of the barracuda and the fading colours of the dolphins. I prefer the fish market next to National Heroes Square. But, for me, the best reason of all for visiting Bridgetown is called the Kensington Oval; not far from the market, as it happens.

The Oval is where the West Indies play when they are in Barbados. The pavilion is named after Sobers; the stands after Weekes, Walcott and Worrell. When the Oval is full, it is very, very full; on the perimeter wall outside are food-stalls (flying fish available); and grubby bars sell enough beer and rum to make sure that sections of the crowd are heaving by mid- afternoon. I saw two one-day internationals there, and one is already famous for a riot. The crowd was safe; in this intimate, emotional atmosphere, it was the players who had reason to feel threatened.

In the fierce cauldron of the Oval, I finally consummated my affair with Barbados. To confirm it, as it were, the next day I asked a taxi-driver to take me to the cradle of the island's cricket. The driver knew where to go. He drove to Bridgetown's suburbs, where rows of comfortable, single- storey wooden houses stand on leafy streets that are still named after obscure members of the Royal Family. In 1991, the prime minister unveiled a plaque at Sir Frank Worrell's birthplace and boyhood home. It stands just outside the boundary fence of the Empire Ground, where the great man - he was the first black captain of the West Indies - learned to play. The main entrance is the Worrell Gate, a little shabbier than the Grace Gate at Lord's, but no less expressive.

Brown sheep nibbled away at the outfield while three little urchins played quietly on the square. Maybe their names all begin with W.

BARBADOS

GETTING THERE

During June, Virgin Holidays (tel: 01293 617181) offer a seven-night stay at Cobblers Cove for pounds 899 per person (on a room only basis). This price is based on two people sharing and includes transfers and return flights on Virgin Atlantic.

FURTHER INFORMATION

For more on Barbados call the Barbados Tourism Authority (tel: 0171-636 9448).

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