I’m seated in the back of an open-air jeep with a magnificent view of breakers thundering against Barbados’ east coast. I don’t usually get into the sauce before noon, but when tour guide Alwyn White pulls out a jug of rum punch, claiming his concoction is the best on the island, who am I to refuse? A wake-up cocktail, I figure, will make this moment just about perfect.
I take a sip out of the plastic cup, contemplate what mix of fruit juice might be masking the two ounces of rum, then swallow. It’s good—fruity, yet strong, with that famous nutmeg finish.
Everyone on the island swears their rum punch is the best, and White is no exception. “We’ve got the real deal,” he says. “The secret is the bitters.”
White works for tour company Island Safari. It uses bitters that include gentian, a bitter herb and nutmeg, an abundant Caribbean spice. I’ve joined one of Island Safari’s tours as part of a personal quest to find the island’s best rum punch—that quintessential Barbadian (Bajan) cocktail. I have to admit, White’s comes close.
Venture beyond your poolside lounger at the hotel and, in addition to the Barbados Food & Wine and Rum Festival’s wine tastings and foodie events, see as much of Barbados as you can.
The Cliff Restaurant
Elton John and Simon Cowell have both dined at this fusion restaurant. Though you won’t be guaranteed a celebrity sighting at the Cliff Restaurant, you do get a fantastic view of the waves crashing onto the beach below. Chef Paul Owens cooks up a delectable selection of Bajan and Asian cuisine, such as Caribbean shrimp with Thai green curry coconut sauce and char-grilled swordfish with yellow curry sauce. The bar offers its own twists on the classics, including a tall-and-sweet version of rum punch.
John Moore Bar
At the island’s 2,500 licensed rum shops, locals like to gather to talk about the issues of the day. They’re great places to order rum by the bottle or glass and to try the Saturday dining staple of pudding and souse (spiced sweet potatoes and pickled pork). Though the John Moore Bar in St. James looks more like a rum shack—an open-air building with wobbly tables, mismatched chairs and an impressive collection of empty mickies on a table out front—it serves up one of the best rum punches in Barbados. (Weston, St. James; 246-422-2258)
To see Barbados beyond the calm postcard perfect beaches on the hotel-packed west coast, book a jeep tour with Island Safari. Bump along the island’s narrow winding roads, past fields of sugar cane and old sugar mills and plantations, to the wild east side. Here, huge waves crash into the porous rocks and limestone cliffs that make up the shoreline at Little Bay, or roll in magnificently—to the delight of surfers—onto the beach in Bathsheba. These are two of several stops where the guide serves up generous cups of rum punch. There’s also a 4.5-hour long rum shop safari tour.
Venture off on Spirit, one of Tiami Catamaran Cruises’ vessels. Bob Marley music plays in the background as you sip an ice cold rum punch aboard a catamaran—what more could you want? With its distinctive bitters flavour, the punch you get on this sailboat is a medicinal brew that can help alleviate any trepidations you may have about snorkelling with green sea turtles on the West Coast. Tiami catamaran trips run daily and include a full lunch and open bar. Tours depart from and return to the port in Bridgetown.
Lion Castle Polo Estate
Polo isn’t as popular a sport among Bajans as cricket, but it is the island’s social sport. To be part of the rum-meets-Caribbean-sun horsing crowd, head to the Lion Castle Polo Estate, one of six on the island. Watch a polo match on the manicured grounds, then retire to the spectacular plantation-style clubhouse for a cocktail. Sit at the large rectangular bar, sip a chilled rum punch and gaze around at the mounted polo memorabilia including hanging mallets and framed photos of past games. Barbados’ polo season runs January to May.
Mount Gay Rum Distillery
Mount Gay, the oldest distillery in the Caribbean, has been making rum since 1703. Daily tours cover the rum-making process. Learn how five million bottles of rum are produced here annually. Mount Gay exports 85 per cent of its rum, which means the remaining 750,000 litres stay on the island. With a national population of 286,705, you do the math; it’s no secret that Bajans drink a lot of rum. After the tour, retire to the distillery bar and order a rum punch. Distillery tours run daily.