Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Chelsea Flower Show

Very early on Tuesday morning, as soon as the gates of the Chelsea Flower Show were opened, the intrepid members of the Barbados Horticultural Society’s team hurried inside to catch a first glimpse of whatever certificate the judges had awarded them and placed on their exhibit during the night. And there it was, in all its glory … a Gold Medal! That very precious, highly sought after, most prestigious, extremely elusive, and for most exhibitors, never achieved, ultimate accolade in the horticultural world – a Gold Medal at the Chelsea Flower Show. Barbados had won one! And, quite incredibly this was Gold Medal number 16 for Barbados in 27 consecutive and highly commendable appearances at the show. When added to all the other medals won, 10 Silver-Gilt and 1 Silver, this all equates to a truly incredible achievement and a phenomenonal record of continued success.

The chosen theme for this year’s exhibit is the Sailor’s Valentine, an extraordinary art form that represents a truly unique link between Barbados and Britain. During the 1800’s, when Britannia ruled the waves and Barbados was a major maritime hub in world trade, floods of British sailors poured into Bridgetown in search of ‘fun and frolic’. While there they also looked for special souvenirs to take home for their sweethearts, with the Sailor’s Valentine being the most special of all. Many of the finest examples still in existence today were originally purchased at the New Curiosity Shop in Bridgetown, owned by the Belgrave brothers. The classic Sailor’s Valentine is housed in an octagonal mahogany box with a glass cover to protect an intricate, delicate and painstakingly assembled collage of tiny, naturally coloured seashells, often incorporating a floral motif, a heart shape and a verse or message.

To make one of these beautiful pieces requires the talent and skill of a fine artist, the precision of a surgeon and the patience of a saint. That being the case therefore, there was never any doubt that recreating Sailor’s Valentines in a floral design would provide the Barbados team with possibly its greatest ever challenge. And they rose splendidly to the occasion!

To portray the exquisite magnificence of the Sailor’s Valentine, the team members created four enlarged floral replicas, with each one symmetrically positioned within a 20ft x 20ft formal landscaped area that is itself nestled in an octagonal perimeter to reflect the shape of the boxes. Each quarter of the garden is separated by four walkways, created with seed-pods from the Mahogany tree, converging into a lush tropical interior – resplendent with McArthur Palms, Dracaenas, Cordylines, Philodendrons, Heliconias, Anthuriums, Ginger Lilies and Orchids.

As soon as the exhibit first started to take shape, the general consensus of random passers-by was that this was something very special indeed. By the time it was almost complete on Sunday afternoon, many strangers were predicting a Gold Medal. But the Barbados Team has been coming to Chelsea for long enough to know that there is no such thing as a certainty and they would never take anything for granted – least of all a Gold Medal. So it was with real concern and genuine anxiety that the team awaited the judges’ decision. And that made the eventual news of the Gold Medal success all the sweeter.

To add some more icing to an already delightful cake, the Barbados Association of Flower Arrangers, ably represented by Jackie Ferdinand and Wayne Ramsey, also tasted success by winning a Silver Medal in the Sculpture in the Garden section of the show with their beautiful entry entitled ‘Temptation’.

It is worthy of note that the members of the Barbados Horticultural Society Team are all unpaid volunteers. They take great pride in the fact that they grow, pick and pack their own blooms and foliage, all collected from private gardens and nurseries around the island, and ship them from Barbados to Chelsea in numerous very large boxes. The working team at Chelsea this year comprises Jenny Weetch, Shirley Anne Howell, Carol-Anne Brancker, Trevor Inniss, Wayne Ramsey, Alexia Rudder, John Leach, BHS President Orson Daisley, Jackie Ferdinand, Sally Miller and Trevor Hunte, with Keith Miller giving support with PR work. In addition, there is also a small army of other volunteers who do diligent work behind the scenes throughout the year. The tremendous ongoing success of Barbados at the Chelsea Flower Show is very much the result of a great collective effort, whereby many people willingly share their skills and resources.

Being entirely dependent upon financial support from the Barbados Tourism Authority, corporate Barbados and generous individuals, as well as the donation of flowers from C.O.Williams and a list of other people too long to mention here, the society is particularly grateful this year for the generous contribution of Sir Martyn Arbib and Lady Arbib, who have shown themselves to be true friends of Barbados. On Monday, Lesley Garrett, the highly respected and very popular British soprano, kindly made a special guest appearance at the show on behalf of Barbados during the Press and Celebrity Day, which is one of the UK’s most distinguished and important PR events. Lesley, who is a regular visitor to the island and who recently performed to great acclaim at the Holders Season, attracted plenty of attention from the media and did an excellent job of promoting Barbados. Also in attendance at the event were several distinguished Barbadians, including Mr. Don Johnson, the acting Barbados High Commissioner in London, and Daphne Hunte, who is one of the world’s leading shell artists and modern day creators of Sailors’ Valentines. Daphne was accompanied by her husband Robin, of The Merrymen fame.

As the Chelsea Flower Show continues for the rest of this week, hundreds of thousands of attendees will view the Barbados exhibit each day and enjoy a small but wonderfully delicious taste of what our beautiful island has to offer. Winning a Gold Medal is undoubtedly a monumental success for the Barbados Horticultural Society Team, but perhaps their greatest achievement is the exemplary way in which they represent their country with such dignity and excellence at the highest level on the global stage. If you ever want to see what Pride and Industry really looks like, just visit the Barbados exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Exploring the Forts of Nassau with Children

The forts and military installations in New Providence and throughout The Bahamas formed such an insurmountable defence system in Colonial days that potential invaders were discouraged for attacking the Bahamas. These forts never fired a single gun in battle and remain in impeccable condition. The grounds are perfect playgrounds for children to explore; the history is the stuff of legend and child fantasy. 

Fort Charlotte
A dry moat surrounds Fort Charlotte and is spanned by a wooden bridge on the north side. This is the largest fort in New Providence, with lots of gounds to explore and feed your child's hunger for adventure. At the highest point, the view of the Nassau Harbour is Instagram worthy. Stare down the barrel of a canon as you examine it close up and tour the inside of the fort as you learn its history. Fort Charlotte was constructed during the governorship of Lord Dunmore and was named in honor of the wife of King George III. There are actually three forts at this sight built over the span of 1787 and 1819: Fort Charlotte, the eastern section; Fort Stanley, the middle section and Fort D’Arcy, the western section. In the 2013, Fort Charlotte staged its first reenactment and historic weapon firing ceremony, which is expected to continue on a regular cycle in the New Year.

Fort Fincastle and The Queen's Staircase 

The 1793 Fort Fincastle on Bennett’s Hill is a sister attraction to the Queen's Staircase. Built in the shape of a paddle steamer, the striking structure once had almost 70 cannons mounted on its perimeter, including a short barrel Howitzer cannon. It served as a lighthouse until September 1817 when it was replaced by the lighthouse on Paradise Island. It was subsequently used as a signal station.

Fort Fincastle sits at the head of The Queen's Staircase: Here children can learn about the enslaved Africans who carved 65 steps out of solid limestone in the late 1700s. The 65 steps in the 102-foot staircase are said to represent the 65-year reign of Queen Victoria. The steps were originally constructed as a protected way for soldiers to reach the hilltop Fort Fincastle. Nowadays The staircase is a great way to reach other Nassau attractions, including Bennett's Hill, Gregory's Arch, the Graycliff Hotel, and other popular visitor sites. Bahamians use the steps in the mornings and evenings for their daily exercise regimes.

Fort Montague

Fort Montague is the smallest of the main forts in Nassau and the only one located directly on the coast. Sitting on an active public beach, Fort Charlotte is also the only unmanned fort. Unlike Fort Charlotte and Fort Fincastle, which both have administrations that coordinate tours and develop the sites as attractions, Fort Montague stands all on it own. Unattended but commanding nonetheless. The fort was built between 1741-42 by Peter Henry Bruce, an engineer, during the governorship of John Tinker. It was built of locally cut limestone and named after the Duke of Montague. A sea battery, northeast of the fort located today on Potter’s Cay, was called Bladen’s Battery for John Bladen, son of Governor John Tinker. The fort and Bladen’s Battery were finished in July 1742 and mounted with 17 cannons. Originally, the fort contained a rainwater cistern, barracks for officers and soldiers, a guardroom and powder magazine.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Caribbean carnival of carnivals

Unlike the rest of the world where carnivals are typically held in February (the most famous of which are in Venice and Rio), visitors to the Caribbean can find a carnival at almost any time of year. Islands such as Trinidad and St Lucia where the original colonists were Catholics tend to keep their carnivals on the traditional schedule, meaning they climax in the pre-Lenten period before Ash Wednesday, usually around February. But elsewhere, local festivals like the July Harvest Festival on the former British colony of Barbados have morphed into huge events with all the trappings of carnival.

No matter the name or origin, all of these explosions of creative energy share raucous dance, pounding music and flamboyant costumes that combine into one heaving, sweaty orgy of colour and sound. And while Caribbean carnivals share much, each has its own flavour. You will need to visit many – if not all – to get the complete picture of what is always the main event on each island's calendar.

Visitors are welcome at all these events and you can fully expect to be swept up in frenetic, hectic riot of it all. So pick your month, pick your carnival and enjoy the celebration.

Trinidad has one of the world's largest carnivals. The celebrations begin up to eight months in advance, with costumes becoming more elaborate and spectacular every year and hundreds of calypso bands preparing their music. Easily the pulsing heart of Caribbean carnival creativity, the island’s sounds are constantly evolving -- you may hear booming rapso (a mixture of calypso and rap) or the latest variation on soca (the ubiquitous carnival sound that started on Trinidad 50 years ago and combines calypso, soul and African among many other influences). It is a huge honour (and a large cash prize) to be named the Calypso Monarch, the person chosen in national judging for their musical performances.

Affluent Aruba’s local music tradition is also a focus of its carnival celebration. Parades last for about four weeks before Ash Wednesday, with the entire island thronging in the capital, Oranjestad, for the Grand Parade on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The parade includes the ritual burning of an effigy of King Momo, a bad spirit. Most carnivals throughout the Caribbean, even the ones most closely linked to religious traditions, have a component of old African mysticism and often involve the exorcising of evil spirits.

All the French-speaking islands celebrate carnival for at least five days before Ash Wednesday, and St-Barthélemy has one of the best around. It has all the expected parades, music competitions, pageants -- but because of the island's small size, the festivities seem all-pervasive. Here, King Carnival is the name given to the evil spirit and he goes up in smoke on beautiful Shell Beach.

Jamaica's week-long carnival celebrates the island's world-famous music. On Easter, bands from across the region converge in the capital, Kingston, for festivals that start on the beaches and parade through the streets.

Back in the 17th Century when Barbados was largely British sugar plantations, the slaves and locals began celebrating the cane harvest with the appropriately named Crop Over Festival in late July. Over the years it has become a proper carnival, the second-largest in the Caribbean after Trinidad's. Calypso band competitions begin in mid-July and peak on the first Monday in August, called Kadooment Day (Bajan slang for 'big commotion', when Barbados is one big party. Once an island of carnival mania, the celebrations in Cuba became muted in the early 1960s -- with the notable exception of island's second city Santiago de Cuba, which throws a bash as good as any despite official efforts to discourage it. The spirit and vigour are raw, and you sense island-wide carnival energies just below the surface waiting to explode should change come to Cuba. Sint Eustatius may be small, but its late July carnival is not. Like many islands, it has a midnight-to-dawn parade that ends with the burning of an effigy -- here charmingly called Prince Stupid -- to rid the island of evil. Given the island only has 3400 inhabitants, this carnival is almost one-big family reunion. The mid-July carnival on the island of St Lucia is one of the Caribbean's largest, as seemingly every one of the 170,000 islanders has a vital role to play. The capital Castries shuts down for a week so it can explode in colour, song, dance and non-stop revelry.

In Antigua, the abolition of slavery on 1 August 1834 is the root of this suitably free-spirited bash which reaches its wild peak on the first Tuesday in August. Like other carnivals, music is a key component, but on Antigua there is even more of an emphasis on entertaining the jubilant masses island-wide. Bands of all sizes thread their way around the island visiting villages big and small to party before heading to the capital, St John’s, for the final explosion.

Junkanoo, as the party is called in the Bahamas, has its roots in secret West African societies before slavery. Now a fully-fledged carnival in terms of music, dance, colour and costumes, it kicks off on Boxing Day (26 December) for a short and frenzied swirl of parties and parades that culminate on New Year’s Day (1 January). Personal 'floats' worn by one person and weighing up to 90kg vie for prizes and star in parades in the capital, Nassau. There is another flurry in July, mostly because it has already been six months since the last Junkanoo.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sex and the Beach: Caribbean Sex Guide

The Caribbean is known as one of the most romantic vacation destinations on Earth, but island getaways are not only about long walks on the beach and spooning in hammocks. "Hooking up" is also a big part of the appeal for newlyweds spending their first extended time together as husband and wife very often use some anabolic steroids, parents escaping the kids for a few precious days, or singles looking to connect for a vacation fling.

Nearly every Caribbean resort has the kind of amenities that can make for a romantic vacation, including sun-drenched beaches, hot tubs, nightclubs, and couples-friendly activities like horseback riding or catamaran cruises. If your goal is to stoke the fires of passion with that special someone, you can make it happen at almost any decent hotel or destination.

Some resorts, however, stress the erotic over the romantic, where activities can include nude limbo contests, body painting, and fetish dance parties - and the Desires resort in Cancun, which unabashedly promotes itself as a destination for couples looking to explore "alternative lifestyles" - such as swapping partners in a special "play room" conveniently located next to the resort's disco.

The Caribbean also is home to a number of other clothing-optional resorts, as well as resorts that have special areas set aside for nude sunbathing and swimming. However, in most cases nude does not necessarily translate into "naughty": a few clothing-optional resorts do cater to swingers, for example, but more appeal to nudists and naturists who don't view nudity in a relentlessly sexual context, and in fact ban overt sexual behavior. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Seven Natural Wonders of the Caribbean

In a region where the natural beauty of tropical rainforests, pristine beaches and colorful reefs are among the main attractions, you'll find plenty of nominees that merit inclusion in any "best of" list. 

The Baths, Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands - The Baths is the Caribbean snorkeler's paradise, a jumble of ancient underwater boulders that form a series of caves, grottos and pools along the coast of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. Thanks to the calm and sheltered waters, even the most novice snorkeler can enjoy the beauty of the coral-kissed rock formations as tbey paddle from hidden pools right up onto the shore of the main beach. There's nothing more refreshing than a plunge into the sparkling sea after exploring The Bath's intricate shore caves - it can take an hour or more of clambering and snaking through the rocks to see them all.

Bioluminescent Bay, Vieques, Puerto Rico - A kayak trip down a narrow mangrove river leads to Vieques' Bahia Fosforescente, or Biolumnescent Bay, which is both a unique natural site and a wonderful experience for visitors to Puerto Rico. The bay's shallow and bacteria-rich waters provide the ideal environment for one-celled protozoa that use bioluminescence, or light creation, as a defense mechanism. In other words, these microorganisms light up when disturbed, either by a predator or a swimming tourist.
On a moonless night, a swim in the biolumanescent bay of Vieques is truly a magical experience as ripples and waves of light stream from your paddling arms and wiggling fingers. If you can't make it out to Vieques, there's also a bioluminescent bay in Fajardo can that be reached via day-trip from San Juan. 

Bonaire National Marine Park - In a region where nearly every destination has a reef system and boast of its diving opportunities, Bonaire is acknowledged as one of the true meccas for scuba buffs and snorkelers. Bonaire's National Marine Park literally surrounds the island, from the shoreline to the point where the water reaches 200 feet in depth, and is the best protected reef system in the Caribbean. Human activites, while closely controlled, range from swimming, kayaking and windsurfing to diving and snorkeling.

El Yunque Rain Forest, Puerto Rico - The Caribbean's most famous rain forest is also it's most beautiful, one of the crown jewels of the U.S. National Park Service. The Puerto Rico park isn't huge, but its 28,000 acres includes staggering biodiversity - home to thousands of native plants and hundreds of animal species. With 600,000 annual visitors, El Yunque can sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed, but quieter experiences can be had in the summer (when locals enjoy a dip in the cool rivers, largely away from tourists), spring, and fall. Hiking, fishing, and even camping is available to those who truly want to immerse themselves in the rainforest experience.

The Pitons, St. Lucia - One of the iconic vistas not only of St. Lucia but in the entire Caribbean, the twin volcanic peaks of the Pitons rise dramatically from the sea. The Pitons Management Area, a UNESCO World Heritage site, includes active hot springs, coral reefs, and tropical forests. Hardy visitors to St. Lucia take the challenge of hiking to the top of the 2,619-foot Gros Piton (Petit Piton, at 2,461 feet, is off limits to climbers).

Pitch Lake, Trinidad - Some call the Pitch Lake of Trinidad the ugliest tourist attraction in the Caribbean, and some visitors have likened its appearance to a giant parking lot. But this bubbling, hissing, stinky 100-acre lake of liquid asphalt is the largest of its kind in the world, and well worth a visit. Located near the town of La Brea, the Pitch Lake is 350 feet deep, and visitors can walk on parts of its crusty surface. Guides will show you how the lake is constantly moving and swallowing some items, spitting out others. The lake, which contains an estimated 6 million tons of asphalt, is replenished from pitch veins that run deep below the earth's surface.

Soufriere Hills Volcano, Montserrat - The highly active, sometimes angry Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat has been both a blessing and curse to local residents. A major eruption of the volcano beginning in 1995 devastated the tiny island, rendering the entire southern half of Montserrat uninhabitable, burying the capital city of Plymouth under tons or ash, and killing 18 people. But the volcano also is an irresistible lure for island visitors, who can view current eruptions and abandoned buildings from a former golf course now covered by volcanic mudflows. Tourists also can visit the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which closely monitors activity at Soufriere Hills.