Island's Great Houses Offer Colorful Glimpses of Times Past

Associate editor Cathy Carroll visited several great house estates in Barbados. Her report follows:

Reed Travel Features

ST. PHILIP, Barbados -- Over dinner, I felt the pirate's gaze from across the castle's long mahogany dining table. Hibiscus blossoms fluttered as a warm gust from the Atlantic swept through the open French doors, and my eyes met those of Sam Lord -- in the portrait hanging on the wall. In a nearby painting, his wife, Lucy, wore a deceptively calm stare, considering Lord's penchant for chaining his plain but wealthy betrothed in a dungeon while he entertained at lavish balls upstairs.

At Sam Lord's Castle, like several of Barbados' plantation estates open to visitors for tours or dinners, it seemed easy to go back in time to the days of sugar, slaves, rum trading and piracy. Today, guests at the castle, which was completed in 1833, stroll on the beach amid the coconut trees on which Lord is said to have hung lanterns to fool ships' captains into thinking they had reached Carlisle Harbour (now Bridgetown). Legend holds that the ships would crash into the reef, their crews would drown and Lord would plunder the vessels' treasures, carrying home the loot via an underground passage to the castle dungeons. This presumably could have helped him pay for the construction of the castle, which withstood the devastating hurricane of 1831. Only the roof suffered damage.

But some pirates apparently have interior design sensibilities, as well. Lord recruited Englishman Charles Rutter, who designed the ceilings of Windsor Castle, and two Italian assistants to decorate the ceilings, several of which remain intact. The ceiling in the entrance hall, for example, is painted a pleasing shade of sea-foam green. The creamy white-plaster detailing is the same as that in Windsor Castle.

Groups should be aware that the castle features seven-course dinners that replicate the menu created for a dinner here in 1972 honoring Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. The dinners, which include poached fillet of mahi-mahi and beef Wellington, are available by reservation only for a minimum of 14 persons. They cost $100 per person and are commissionable. In addition, clients can stay in Lord's room and sleep in his original four-poster mahogany bed for $155 per person, double, which is commissionable. I climbed the three steps leading up to the waist-high bed and tested its comfort but didn't have the guts to sleep there. Daily tours of the castle cost $1.25.

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Other plantation estates are the following:

* Francia Plantation House in St. George. Built in 1913, it was among the last of the great houses to be built in Barbados. One of the first things visitors see here is the original hand pump and "dripstones" used to filter rain to supply drinking water for the house. At the top of the front steps, in the entrance hall, a Victorian love seat helps to spark the imagination about the court-ship customs of that era. The piece is circular, with three rose-colored, velvet seats -- for a man, a woman and a chaperone. The dining room is filled with mid-19th century mahogany furniture displayed beneath a crystal chandelier with etched hurricane shades. The drawing room opens onto a veranda overlooking terraced lawns and gardens. Intriguing varieties of orchids and blossoming trees are punctuated by ponds teeming with frogs and lily pads. Simply strolling the gardens here while listening to the cooing wood doves could soothe the soul of even the most frazzled urban visitor.

* St. Nicholas Abbey in St. Peter. This property features a curved gable, making it one of three Jacobean-style plantation homes in the Western Hemisphere. It is believed to have been built between 1650 and 1660 and boasts a unique collection of furniture and other pieces, such as a grandfather clock that has stood in the same spot on the stairway landing since before 1800. The home's "gentleman's chair" resembles a genteel predecessor of today's recliners. The upholstered wing chair is equipped with a tray for meals; a smaller tray for a drink; a swiveling metal arm for an open book, and a foot rest.

* Tyrol Cot Heritage Village in St. Michael. Built in 1854, it was home in the 1930s to Sir Grantley Adams, Barbados' "father of democracy" and the only prime minister of the West Indies Federation. Of particular interest is the collection of photos of Adams and his political cronies, who often met with him at his home.

* Sunbury Plantation House in St. Philip. The property, built in 1660, claims to be the only great house with all its rooms open for viewing. (The owners of several other great houses live on the premises and open only the downstairs portion to tours.) The house boasts a comprehensive collection of horse-drawn carriages on display in the cellar. The estate, which underwent a meticulous restoration last year, is the setting for "Murder So Sweet," a comedy murder mystery performed Thursday evenings. The show relies on the audience to search the house for clues to help solve the crime. It is $60 per person and includes a buffet dinner, drinks, a tour of the home and transportation.

All of these great houses can be visited individually or as part of a three-hour bus tour organized by the Barbados National Trust. The tour cost is commissionable at $18 per person, including entrance fees. More information and reservations for great-house tours are available by calling the trust at (809) 426-2421. Sam Lord's Castle can be booked through all major CRSs or by calling (888) 765-6737. In Barbados, the number is (246) 423-7350.

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