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Caribbean: Barbados, a Natural Family High

BARBADOS, West Indies-Descending down into a lush gully lined with sugar cane, our trustworthy jitney suddenly lurched to a complete stop. "Ladies and gentlemen," the guide warned, "Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle. The edges of the sugar cane are very sharp and can cut quite badly should they come in contact with bare skin." As the tractor slowly started pulling us toward the rutted path ahead, our little group of Canadians and Americans scrunched away from the open sides of the jitney to avoid the knife-like stalks. Nonetheless, the cane was so thick and the road so narrow, it wasn't long before the tall greenish stalks were invading our space. "Help," said one woman, whose face seemed framed by the jungle-like foliage. It had surrounded our little caravan and was whapping around us. "I feel as if I'm going through a car wash," said one man, as the vehicle bounced and shook itself through the cane field over the ruts and the pot holes in the road.

Then just as quickly as we had been submerged by cane leaves, we were out of them and riding up another incline onto another plateau where we could see fields populated with red, shaggy cattle and trees festooned with orchids and poinsettas. "Touch the Real Barbados" urged the pamplet from Highland Outdoor Tours and that's just what we were doing. Throughout our two hour jitney tour of Canefield Plantation in St. Thomas Parish, we experienced a Barbados that was far removed from the tourist posters of couples swooning on a beach. Instead, we stopped at a modernized dairy farm, stroked the newborn calves and let them lick our fingers; we rode through a quarry and touched the chalky inside walls of an abandoned lime kiln; we picked up wonderfully fragrant frangipani blossoms as they dropped from the trees, felt the tropical heat in the gully, and learned how to find our way back to civilization just in case we were ever lost in the forest- "Look for palm trees," instructed our guide. "They were always planted in groups by the big houses to keep them shaded from the sun."

More and more, visitors to Barbados are discovering that this former British colony is more than sand, surf, sea and tea. On this exotic guided tour around the Canefield Plantation in St. Thomas Parish, we travelled from one of the island's highest points (in the geographical centre of the country), through farms and villages, past old sugar boiling houses and pastel painted chattel houses (so called because the dweller could carry the whole foundationless house with him when he moved), around fields populated with reddish, shaggy cattle and black bellied sheep. We visited a reconstructed bamboo hut from the Arawak Indian period, complete with sleeping loft and look-out post, outfitted in the style of the first inhabitants of the island. We visited a dairy farm in action and stopped by a tree that seemed to be dripping roots, the actual geographic centre of the island. We could have chosen to do the tour on horseback, with walking sticks, or by mountain bikes. But the transport mode was unimportant. To travel slowly over the green interior was to see a country that is quickly becoming a world leader in saving its resources and linking tourists to nature.

And one certainly doesn't have to stray far from the hotel zone to experience it. During my recent five-day stay on the island, I was constantly being surprised by my close enounters of the animal kind. One evening, when I was returning towels to the booth on the beach, a mongoose came scurrying down from the dunes and almost ran right across my feet. It startled me. But I was thrilled to see this weasle-like, rat-loving creature in fast motion. While zooming to the Atlantis submarine in a motor boat, a school of silvery flying fish came alongside and leapt in and out of the water like a synchronised swim team. Walking through the Flower Forest, a garden of native plants, we spotted a small green monkey peering at us from under a fern. As we drove around the pear-shaped island, we had to swerve several times to avoid hitting the creatures, so numerous that the farmers consider them to be pests. Furry pelicans, hawksbill turtles, and, at the Canefield Plantation, black bellied sheep that look just like goats-it was like living in the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.

At the Barbados Wildlife Reserve, we spotted a wild green monkey leap over a fence, grab a mango, and quickly devour the whole thing. Canadian Jean Baulu, founder of he Barbados Primate Research Centre and the Barbados Wildlife Reserve is working to save the Barbados green monkey. It seems to be working. There are so many of the creatures roaming the island (last count 10,000) that you are sure to spot one of them. Nad you could always return to the Centre between 3 and 4 p.m., feeding time for the hundreds that return each night. But be careful. Some of the monkeys carry a virus that can be transmitted to humans and they shouldn't be handled.

But Highland Outdoor Tours and the Barbados Wildlife Reserve are not the only practitioners of this islandwide push to recognize the beauty of the land, save the environment, and pass on this knowledge to visitors and citizens. For years the National Trust has held walks each Sunday for Bajans. Now the tourists can participate. Local residents have opened up their gardens for visitations on certain days of the week. Organizations like the Boy Scouts have been performing clean-up operations; a gardening component using native plants has been added to the course of study at one post-secondary institution. A Toronto woman and her son started Earthworks, a successful pottery business using local clay. I also visited one of the most famous environmental showcases- the world-famous Andromeda Botanical Garden. Their biggest coup is the discovery of a timber tree, traditionally used in the floorboards and handrails of the old plantation houses. "There was one tree left in Barbados," said garden manager John Leach. They found it and cultivated it. "We're trying to save it from extinction."

At the end of our jitney tour around the plantation, we again reached the summit where we could view almost the entire east coast of the island. We peered beyond the bluish-green peaks and valleys resembling Scotland (and indeed called the Scotland district). You could see the ocean striped with surf resembling parts of the English south coast on a nice day. But this was indeed Barbados. The tour guides offered fruit punch and island shishkebob. The wind had died down a bit and the air radiated heat. But I was glad to linger on the top of all that greenery, where the real heart of the country was centred. The Bajan flag is blue for the ocean, and yellow for the sun. Perhaps, the citizens should add a splash of green. Right in the middle where it's visible to all.

GETTING THERE: Air Canada flies non-stop to the capital of Bridgetown four times a week, although if you've got kids, you may want to avoid their Wednesday morning 3 a.m. return flight to Toronto. Canada 3000 and Royal also offer regular flights.

HIGHLAND OUTDOOR TOURS: We enjoyed our two-hour Plantation Tour; cost $50 U.S. for adults, $30 U.S. for children. But I would also be keen to experience their full-day horseback tour of the interior culminating in a feast on the beach. The day begins with simple coconut bread, coffee, and tropical fruits, and ends with Bajan gourmet flourish-pumpkin soup, fried plantain, flying fish, breadfruit, peas and rice, sweet potato, sugar cakes and guava cheese served under traditional bamboo huts. As for the horses, the well-trained polo ponies are sure-footed enough the guides assured me to carry youngsters as young as three. Cost $200 U.S. for adults and children; half price for a half day. If you're the hiking sort, you can do an all-day ramble, $140 U.S. for adults, $100 U.S. for children; for a two-hour hike, $50 U.S. adults and $30 U.S. children. A new two-hour mountain biking tour costs $75 U.S., for a full day including lunch, between $150 U.S. and $200 U.S. Phone 809-438-8069; fax 809-438-8070 or write to Highland Outdoor Tours, Canefield, St. Thomas, Barbados, W.I.

NATIONAL TRUST WALKS: Organized jointly by the Barbados National Trust and Future Centre Trust, the walks begin each Sunday at 6 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. They are free and participants are divided into three skill levels: "Beware!" (fast), "Here and There" (medium), and "Stop and Stare" (slow). Once a month, there is a night walk during the full moon. Call 246-425-2020 for more information.

WHERE TO STAY: There's a hotel choice in Barbados for every budget. The Almond Beach Village is a beachfront all-inclusive hotel with nine swimming pools and a great children's program for kids from one to 17. The Casuarina Beach Club is a laid-back hotel with an island atmosphere, though elegant enough to have a library and tea in the afternoon. Marriott's Sam Lord's Castle is a romantic hotel loved by honeymooners. MORE INFO: Contact the Barbados Tourism Authority at www.barbados.org





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