OISTINS, Barbados – The fish are frying, the local Banks beer is flowing and an early Saturday-night crowd at Oistins' fish-market-cum-street-party is clapping enthusiastically. Oscar Dion, the brother of Canadian chanteuse Celine Dion, is about to take the stage. At least that's what the wisecracking DJ in charge of the karaoke machine would have us believe.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he announces as the first notes of the love theme from the movie Titanic float across the warm evening air, "just back from visitin' sister Celine in Las Vegas, it's Oscar Dion."
A tall fellow with nut-brown skin, curly grey hair and a slight lean that suggests he's enjoyed a glass of rum or three lurches for the microphone and begins a fantastically screeching rendition of "My Heart Will Go On." The crowd hoots and claps. The music builds and Oscar reaches—unsuccessfully—for the high notes. A six-year-old girl with cornrow braids sitting beside me at one of the market's long white picnic tables sticks her fingers in her ears.
For a fun night of hanging with the locals, nothing beats Friday or Saturday at Oistins (pronounced "Oye-stins") seaside fish market in the parish of Christ Church on the south coast of this eastern Caribbean island.
By day, Oistins is a bustling harbour and market where local fishermen unload their catches and sit in the shade repairing their nets. On weekend nights the market is transformed into the island's best down-home party scene.
Locals and tourists come together (the split is about 80/20) to enjoy heaping plates of traditional Bajan fare prepared at beachside stalls, to drink, to shop for household goods and local crafts, and to dance. And dance we do, to a mix of soca (a blend of soul and calypso), reggae, country and popular music.
When our stomachs grumble, we wander through rows of stalls selling flying fish, tuna, marlin, chicken, macaroni pie, potatoes, creole breadfruit, peas and rice. We spy eight people waiting to order at Mo's Grill & Bajan Cooking—a sign that this stand is a good bet—and so join the line.
Mo (Maureen) is working the grill and we chat as she dips fish and potatoes in an olive oil, garlic and ginger marinade, and puts them on the cooking surface. "Been cooking here eight years," she tells me. "No better place."
Over the course of the night a steady stream of the good, the bad and the ugly of amateur singers (local and tourists) entertain us. Just before the karaoke machine is turned off and the dance music turned up, the DJ introduces one last singer, Kunta Kinte.
If the name sounds familiar, Kinte was the lead character in Arthur Hailey's epic novel and television series from the 1970s, Roots. The singer does an impressive job of handling both the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers parts of the duet "Islands in the Stream." When he belts out the line about feeling no pain, the crowd cheers. I get the distinct impression he's not the only one.
Rum that's "something really special"
ST. PETER PARISH, Barbados – Once upon a time, almost all of Barbados' 300-plus sugar plantations would have made their own rum. Before the coming of emancipation, a rum ration was one of the few perks for the slaves who worked the plantations.
But after the end of slavery in the Caribbean in 1838 the number of on-site distilleries began to decline. Today, there are still dozens of sugar plantations in Barbados, but virtually all the island's rum is made by three big companies: Mount Gay, Malibu and Foursquare.
Now Larry Warren, the owner of St. Nicholas Abbey, is bringing back plantation rum and in the process, he hopes, creating a new niche market.
St. Nicholas isn't really an abbey — it's a 17th-century Jacobean plantation great house, one of only three in the Western Hemisphere and possibly the second-oldest building in Barbados. (The oldest is thought to be Drax Hall, the island's other Jacobean great house, still occupied by the Drax family. The third one, for those who must know, is in Virginia, in the United States.)
The "abbey" is an imposing, three-storey home, open to the public and still attached to a 90-hectare [222-acre] sugar plantation. Warren is taking over the harvesting of some of its crop from Barbados Agricultural Management Company, the government agency that operates many of the island's remaining plantations.
Starting in January 2009, he'll be turning sugar cane into rum right on the premises, using a 19th-century press. Visitors will be able to watch the entire process.
There won't be a lot of rum: a maximum of just 7,000 bottles a year, Warren estimates. (Compare that with the 400,000 bottles Mount Gay can turn out in one hour.)
It will be aged in old bourbon barrels for 10 years, but you can already buy some: until the first made-on-the-premises product is ready, about 2018, Warren is working with Foursquare distillery to make his artisanal product.
For St. Nicholas, the presentation is as important as the golden liquid itself. The bottles the rum flows into are Italian cut glass. Each one has frosted lettering, and you can have your own personal inscription added. The stopper is hand-cut cork, mahogany and leather.
The price, naturally, is well above the US$13 you pay in Barbados for a 750 millilitre [26 fl. oz.] bottle of Mount Gay's best rum, Extra Old. A similar amount of St. Nicholas Abbey rum is US$60. The idea, as Warren says, is that you're buying "something really special."
If you're exceptionally well-heeled you can buy your own barrel of rum. It'll be stored at St. Nicholas, but you can visit it any time and when you want a bottle or 10, for yourself, friends or clients, just let Warren know and he'll tap your barrel (which holds about 450 bottles), frost your desired inscription on the glass and ship your order wherever you want. How much? Well, if you have to ask...but think mid-five figures, in U.S. dollars.
For those on a tighter budget, the house and distillery tour are a much more manageable US$13, and include a tot.