A CROW hopped onto the back of my chair at the Atlantis restaurant here as I watched a score of shirtless Barbadians carry wooden skiffs out of the waves during a gale. I sat alone, filling my cheeks with chewy plantain, hot peppers, and mustard while the men's cries and the crow's caws lingered over swelling waves, then dissolved in a pelting rain. The restaurant's rough, white-painted chairs seemed pilfered from a painting by Van Gogh, the hard linoleum floors and flowered tablecloths purloined from the pages of Hemingway.
Everything seemed lifted suddenly out of time as the clouds stole the light and the crow stole pickled breadfruit off my plate. The scene has become my personal metaphor for Barbados -- a Caribbean island that seems to be ``in'' but not ``of'' this world because of its peculiar knack for geography and an ability to stay out of the way of history.
Barbados is not part of the West Indies but rather stands off the island chain's western-curving elbow, an oceanic island and geological loner.
The island remained British from its settling in 1627 until independence in 1966, keeping a sense of singular identity and stability that escaped the other islands, which changed hands frequently during the colonial wars.
Although Barbados has been independent for two decades, it retains parliamentary government and many other British characteristics: ubiquitous cricket fields; names like St. Georges Parish, Tate Hill, and Codrington College; and smiling, unarmed policemen, looking strangely like transplanted bobbies in the same bell-shaped helmets (though white and more squat), gray shirts, and blue pants with two red stripes.
When you see the statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square here -- not London, but Bridgetown -- remember this bit of telling trivia: It was erected 27 years before the one in Britain.
Barbados is one of the few Caribbean islands that has both a solid foreign influence and its own, fiercely self-determined side. Of a quarter of a million people, 95 percent are black or of mixed African and European origin.
If we are enumerating selling points as a tourist destination, Barbados is one of the few with both highly developed and rawly undeveloped sections. Thus, it can keep the fun-in-the-sun, night-lifers fully occupied with water sports, restaurants, steel bands, and limbo dances (though duty-free shopping in Bridgetown is a major disappointment). And it can keep the countryside explorer happy with a bookful of rustic destinations.
Those include a totally undesecrated shoreline in the north and east -- with undulating terraces and rugged coast -- and hosts of plantations before you get there. It includes those plantations' ``great houses,'' with antique furniture, lush gardens, and hilltop vistas. The plantations recall the years when Barbados was a slave society characterized by unprecedented prosperity, followed by years of economic hard times.
Countryside destinations also include Andromeda Gardens -- the most extensive botanical gardens in the Caribbean of dozens I've seen -- and Harrison Caves, a recently developed underground system of caverns shown by electric-cart tours.
Of the two kinds of tourist stays, mine was the exploratory kind. That's why I avoided Highway 1, which runs along the entire west coast from Bridgetown to Holetown to Speightstown. This is one of the longest strips of hotels in the Caribbean, from Coconut Creek Hotel in the south to Cobblers Cove Hotel in the north, and includes the five-star Coral Reef Club. You'll need a guidebook that rates the hotels or an experienced travel agent to sort them out. (This stretch includes some of the most expensive resorts. For a more inexpensive and personalized stay, look at the dozens of owner-run establishments on the road into Bridgetown on Highway 7 from Grantley Adams airport, or others on or near the miles of public beaches that surround the island.)
I hired a cab for two days at about $30 a day. I ended up paying more voluntarily because I pushed the driver over his 7 p.m. limit. Armed with a couple of guidebooks with stars next to the most important sites, I set out to get the full flavor of the island.
Destination No. 1 (partly because I couldn't resist the name) was Welchman Hall Gully. A botanical ravine, this area of indigenous woodland was planted by a single owner decades before becoming property of the Barbados National Trust, which has preserved the land's character. With all manner of tropical vegetation, canopied by towering palms with light glittering through, this might fit your fantasy of the perfect rain forest. Not far away is Mt. Hillaby, the highest point in Barbados, and Turner's Hall Wood. In both locations are such trees as mastic, locust, red cedar, Spanish oak, and cabbage palm.
As we got moving, I realized that having a destination was immaterial. Cutting around corners of sugar cane twice as high as the car, zipping between mangroves and stopping at wonderful stone sugar mills and churches, I found names beginning to fade in memory. At 166 square miles, the island can be seen in a couple of days with a fast driver and lots of energy. Or you could go very slowly and take up to two weeks.
My driver took his role as a guide seriously, but as I compared his stories with the ones written in the guidebook, I found there were great disparities in dates, names, and other historical information. The local tourist authority has a laissez faire attitude toward tours, which I found quite refreshing. There are no top 10 tourist sites with recorded travelogues.
Cutting back down the east coast, you will visit Sam Lord's Castle. My guide took me over protestations, and so will yours. Besides hearing the legend of Sam Lord, now a local controversy, you'll tour the 19th-century country house standing on a rocky cliff looking out to coral beaches and shaded by sea grape trees.
Highway 7 will get you back to Bridgetown for a tour of cathedrals, calypso record stores, museums, and produce markets. But Bridgetown is better suited as a sequel, in my mind, to the countryside.