The island, which was once commonly referred to as “Little England,” flew the British flag without interruption between 1627 and 1966. A statue of Lord Nelson stands in the former Trafalgar Square (renamed National Heroes Square in 1999). American travelers to Barbados today can walk in Washington’s footsteps and marvel at a culture that is both familiar and exotic.
I stayed at Cobblers Cove, a former sugar planter’s beach house recast as an elegant small resort. The guest rooms have wicker chairs, languorous ceiling fans, and Edwardian-era prints of tropical plants; guests may feel as though they’ve walked into one of those British Campaign spreads in a Pottery Barn catalog. Impish green monkeys of the sort seen on retro colonial-empire upholstery played outside on the grounds, at times crashing onto the roof with the delicacy of a misplayed medicine ball.
The hotel was populated chiefly by British tourists (none of whom, evidently, had received the memo about sandals and black socks). At breakfast on a terrace overlooking the ocean, toast arrived upright in a tidy stainless-steel rack, accompanied by shot-glass-sized containers of marmalade. In the afternoons, tea and what appeared to be crumpets were set out near a patio.
The island’s Anglo antiquity is as much a draw as its palm-fringed beaches and upscale restaurants. Like Washington, I spent my days examining forts and sugarcane fields, which are dotted with the stumps of old stone windmills. I dropped in at several venerable estates, including Sunbury Plantation House, which dates back more than three centuries and stands with a grave dignity amid a shady thicket. It’s now a museum with a courtyard restaurant; the cellar and second-floor bedrooms have been given over to artifacts with neatly handwritten labels, including “pond grass scraper” and “Victorian knickers.”
More impressive still is St. Nicholas Abbey, a regal Jacobean mansion built about 1650, with Dutch gables and coral stone finials. Reached through an allée of mahogany trees, it has the feel of a fugitive estate from a Jane Austen novel, muffled in an ancient silence interrupted from time to time by the insane screech of the guinea fowl that roam the grounds with a haughty and proprietary air. The birds sometimes charge at visitors, forcing them to take evasive measures involving brisk, awkward steps.
Which brings to mind cricket. Islanders are daft about the sport. You can see it played informally on various grounds around the island, or catch periodic matches at the Kensington Oval. (The World Cup finals will be held here next year.) I know as much about cricket as I do about crumpets. Washington had the London theater to make him feel like a slack-jawed rube from the provinces; I had cricket.
No matches were scheduled during my stay, but I watched children being coached on a neighborhood pitch, and later stopped by the Centre for Cricket Excellence’s Walk of Fame on the campus of the University of the West Indies, just outside Bridgetown. I took the time to admire a list of every West Indian batsman who’d scored a “century,” and every bowler who’d effected five or more “dismissals.” (A century, I was later informed, is a score of 100 points by an individual player, and a dismissal is something like an out in baseball.)
Here was foreign travel at its best: when you find yourself in a fugue state, where people speak a familiar language, yet all you hear is intoxicating jibberish. This was, I believe with about 95 percent certainty, the state in which George Washington spent at least part of his sojourn abroad.