A trip to Ecuador

At an altitude of 1171 feet above sea level, single-storey Chimborazo House, St Joseph, is the highest residence on the island of Barbados. From any approach it looks down on you and I suspect that’s exactly what the original builder envisioned when he chose the site: to look down on his plantation and workforce.

But there’s also a practical purpose to building these houses on high spots: they then catch the trade winds blowing from the east to west, giving the house air conditioning free, gratis and for nothing. Chimborazo was laid out so that the front door could remain open through the day and the breeze blew straight through the house and exited a door at the opposite end, a door which opened outwards rather than inwards so that it wouldn’t slam shut!

Chimborazo (meaning high spot) is named after Ecuador’s highest mountain (20,700 feet) which is located 1.5 degrees from the equator. Its not the highest mountain on earth, but due to the planet’s equatorial bulge, this mountain is the point on the earth’s surface which is farthest from its centre – apparently.

Chimborazo House has had a bit of a chequered history since it was built in the late 18th century as a plantation house. Being so high (and therefore exposed) it has often been badly damaged during hurricanes, including one in 1898 which caused £1287 worth of damage – quite a significant sum 112 years ago.  It was originally two-storey, but the top half came off in an earthquake in 1927!

The house has been in many different hands since it was first built and is now available as a holiday let through Island Villas. But yesterday it was ‘open house’ as part of the Barbados National Trust’s Winter 2010 programme of fundraising events. Each Wednesday afternoon from early January to late March a different property is available to view and some of them sound extremely sumptuous.  These are not National Trust properties in the sense we know back in Blighty, rather private residences, the sort you drive past and think “I’d love to have a peek in there”.  Well this programme lets you do just that!

Yesterday’s crowd (and believe me, it was a crowd) was interesting to say the least. I’d say the vast majority were Bajans with a sprinkling of tourists like me, with about 95% white to 5% black visitors. Whether its lack of interest (or motivation) or something like that, the black population doesn’t seem especially interested in the island’s heritage or modern day values (ie poking round other peoples’ houses!).

Everyone was in snazzy gear, not necessarily Sunday best but definitely more than the average UK visitor to a NT property would don. It was extremely social, little cliques gathered round some feature or other chatting away about last week’s horse racing event or this weekend’s upcoming polo match.  I think you get the drift! All rather la-de-da in my opinion, a bit like drinks at the big house in a pretentious English village (I can think of several I have direct experience of at home!). Not, I’m afraid, my cup of tea.

The entrance was B (about £6) with 50% discount if you belonged to the Barbados National Trust or a reciprocal organisation like the NTS which I do, and I had my card with me).  The drinks table was doing a roaring trade, including the ubiquitous rum punch and various fruit juices. I paid B for a mango juice, absolutely yummy and freshly-squeezed (do you freshly squeeze mangoes? I don’t know).

It was a lovely house, it is clearly very much loved and the rooms were splendidly large. Being a holiday rental though I did rather expect it to be perhaps a little more sumptuous than it actually was, indeed it felt very spartan, especially the children’s bedroom with stacking bunkbeds, one on either side of the room, and full-size divans at that, none of your foam mattress and a bit of MDF.  The room was austere in the extreme.

Outside there was a lovely kidney shaped swimming pool surrounded by decking beyond which the hillside fell away and there was verdant growth everywhere.

The Barbados National Trust was founded in 1961 ‘to preserve the unique heritage of our island home, be it historic buildings, places of natural beauty or the island’s flora and fauna’. During my stay I’ve seen loads of buildings with blue plaques placed by the National Trust on buildings they regard of historical importance.

I suspect the trust doesn’t have an awful lot of money because about a mile down the road from Chimborazo there’s a semi derelict sugar windmill.  It hasn’t always been like that, P&D told me that it was badly damaged in a storm about 18 months ago when the sails fell off, yet nothing has been done to restore it to its former glory.  I can’t help wondering if someone forgot to insure it. Perhaps that what the fundraising programme is for!

I didn’t take any pictures of the house so I can’t show you what it looks like. There was a threatening sky yesterday afternoon with the promise of heavy rain (which didn’t in the end materialise). The house was surrounded by trees and was very dark and foreboding on the outside, lighting was essential inside.  Consequently I didn’t bother my camera…

Next we visited St Nicholas Abbeyone of the seven wonders of Barbados” (?) which isn’t an abbey at all (and never has been).  It used to be called St Nicholas Plantation but a past owner decided Abbey was better.  Its almost (but not quite) as old as Drax Hall, but built in a very different, Dutch, style.  It is also, unlike Drax Hall, open to the public, and one is made very welcome.  It is under new ownership since 2005 but up until that point it had been in the same family since it was first built in the 17th century.

We were shown a fascinating movie film of the late owner’s grandfather visiting Barbados in the early 20th century, we saw the ship leaving Dover, crossing the Atlantic and arriving in the Careenage at Bridgetown. Later on we were shown how the plantatation worked all those years ago, with manual labour galore. It was a fascinating tale, all narrated by the late owner in a deep, rich English accent “and there you can see him taking orf his pith helmet (which was the sign of a plantation owner)” etc.  Afterwards there was rum tasting session, followed by a rum punch!

Back home again a quick change, wash and brush up and we were out again, this time to a very posh dinner at The Cliff, Barbados’ most expensive restaurant. A very swish affair it was too. I’ve read the reviews on Trip Advisor, a very mixed bag, but I found it delightful.  All open air, with canopies that suddenly swish out if there’s the slightest hint of a shower (there were a few last night). Once the rain stops they swish back again, almost by magic (but I saw someone press a button!).

Here are some pics from our trip out yesterday.

Today (28th) is my last day in Barbados. I’m all checked-in for my flight home tonight, and I’ve just about completed my packing. Once I’ve published this I’m off down to the pool for a grill and swim, and then I believe we’re going out to swim with turtles in the sea if its calm enough (given the wind at the moment I suspect it won’t be). I’m not sure how soon the next blog update will be – depends on whether I get jet lag on four hours’ time difference…

Read on for another post: “Halo polishing” which I published late last night!