Image: Harrismith Beach, Barbados
AP
This undated photo courtesy of the Barbados Tourism Authority shows Harrismith Beach, Barbados. Sun, surf and sand are the main draws on this tropical Caribbean island.
By
updated 11/15/2010 8:48:58 PM ET 2010-11-16T01:48:58

George Washington slept here.

Among the hundreds of markers that make that claim, the most curious is here on Barbados, the easternmost Caribbean island, off the coast of Venezuela, which Washington visited in 1751.

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He apparently enjoyed his stay, despite a bout of smallpox, writing in his diary, "In the cool of the evening we rode in the country and were perfectly enraptured with the beautiful scenery which every side presented our view. The fields of cane, corn, fruit trees in a delightful green."

It took Washington, who was then 19, six weeks to sail from Virginia with his half-brother Lawrence, who was ailing with tuberculosis. Lawrence hoped the tropical air would be restorative.

It took me and my wife, a somewhat older couple, five hours on a direct flight from New York for our first visit here. And unlike George and Lawrence, who came for recuperation, we — along with friends from London — came for the sun and rum.

The future first president of the United States rode around the island on a horse; we rented a car. A tourist guide booklet noted that H-number license plates identify visiting drivers and "locals are usually accommodating of your confusion and make allowances." The island is 166 square miles, about two-and-a-half times the size of Washington, D.C., and about as difficult to get around by car, with driving on the left (Barbados was a British possession until independence in 1966) and numerous roundabouts or rotaries to negotiate.

It is a relatively flat island, with green hills rising gently inland and stunning vistas on the coasts, the Caribbean in the west, the Atlantic in the east. The scenic beauty of the island was the inspiration for the Alec Waugh novel, "Island in the Sun," which was made into a movie starring James Mason in 1957 and partly filmed here.

Image: The Watering Hole
AP
This undated photo courtesy of Barbados Tourism Authority shows The Watering Hole rum shop in Barbados.

Frequent sights while driving around the island were "rum shops," combination bars and general stores that often serve as gathering places for local Bajans, as the Barbadians are called. It is said that there are as many rum shops as there are churches in Barbados, and there are a lot of churches. The rum shops are the best places to sample local food and drink, watch a game of dominos, or just get to know the friendly and hospitable Bajans.

Cricket fields abound, as do chattel houses, especially on the lesser roadways. The chattel houses are small wooden homes set on blocks rather than on more permanent foundations. "Chattel" means movable property. Historically, in plantation days, the workers did not own the land their house was set on, so they built them to be able to move the whole house quickly in case of a landlord or employer dispute.

A few now serve as stores, selling T-shirts, beachware and gifts in Chattel Village in the inappropriately named Holetown on the southeast coast. Apparently, Holetown got its name because of the off-loading of ships in the small channel nearby. It's where the English first landed in Barbados in 1625.

We lunched there, at a beachside restaurant aptly named Beach House, dining on fish or chicken, and rum, the island drink, usually served with fruit juice as a rum punch.

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If you go ...

On one rainy day, we headed for Bridgetown, the island's capital on the southwest coast and stopped at the Waterfront Cafe for a lunch of flying fish, the national fish of the island. (They don't really "fly," but they do have an Olympian leap out of the warm Caribbean waters to escape predators.)

Not far from Bridgetown are the George Washington House, restored as a heritage site, and the Mount Gay rum visitors center on the northern edge of the capital; the working distillery is in another part of the island. The rum is made from local sugar cane, still the island's biggest product for export and local consumption, although tourism and manufacturing have surpassed the sugar industry in economic importance.

On the rugged and less populated east coast of the island is the strikingly beautiful fishing village of Bathsheba, with white sand beaches stretching across a coastline of erosion-shaped rock formations. A lunch at the Round House here provided a wonderful view of the ocean, where surfers were out. Bathsheba is a popular spot for surfers as well as for Bajans who frequently weekend here in seaside cottages along the shore.

We ventured into the town of Oistins for its famous Friday night fish fry along the shore. Choices included kingfish, swordfish, dorado (called dolphin fish here) or flying fish, with cou-cou (made of corn meal and okra) or macaroni pie. Dinner per person was about 16 Barbadian dollars or U.S. $8 at the two-to-one exchange rate.

Of course, this is a tropical Caribbean island, so sightseeing generally took a back seat to its more alluring features — sun, surf and sand, all in abundance — and accompanying sailing, fishing, surfing and swimming.

No wonder Washington slept here.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Caribbean way of life

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  1. Barbados

    This undated photo courtesy of the Barbados Tourism Authority shows Harrismith Beach, Barbados. Sun, surf and sand are the main draws on this tropical Caribbean island. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Barbados

    This undated photo courtesy of Barbados Tourism Authority shows The Watering Hole rum shop in Barbados. The rum shops on the island are good places to sample local food and drink, watch a game of dominos, or just get to know the friendly and hospitable Bajans. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. St. Lucia

    Developed, beautiful and situated in the Eastern Caribbean, St. Lucia is accessible from Europe and Canada, and reachable -- albeit not as easily -- from the United States. St. Lucia is known as a romantic destination. The island gets plenty of visitors, including wedding parties. (Holger Leue  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. St. Lucia

    Cocoa pods lie on the ground ready to be processed at Fondoux Plantation in Soufriere, St. Lucia. Cocoa is one St. Lucia's main produce alongside the more obvious banana crop. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. St. George's

    The capital of Grenada, St. George's is considered one of the prettiest harbor towns in the Caribbean. Grenada's unique layout includes many finger-like coves, making the island a popular sailing destination. (Richard Cummins  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Cayman Islands

    The Cayman Islands very popular attractions, Stingray City and the nearby shallows known as the Sandbar, provide the only natural oportunity to swim with Atlantic Southern Stingrays. (David Rogers / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Stingray City

    The Cayman Islands very popular attractions, Stingray City and the nearby shallows known as the Sandbar, provide the only natural oportunity to swim with Atlantic Southern Stingrays. (David Rogers / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. St John's

    In high season, up to five cruise ships visit St John's, Antigua, each day. The boats unload mostly American and European passengers who fan out across the island visiting the casinos and beaches. Antigua is easily accessible, and can offer good values for tourists. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Antigua

    Antigua, located in the Northeastern Caribbean, is a popular tourist spot. While there are high-end, stylish hotels, the island also features a large number of mid-priced options. Visitors will find beach bars, restaurants, casinos and shopping. (Richard I'Anson  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Antigua

    People walk along an area known as Devils Bridge in Indian Town Point, Antigua. Antigua is a wintertime destination for many visitors from the north. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Dominica

    Not as well known as other Caribbean islands, Dominica is green, fertile and mountainous. Visitors will find some opportunites to scuba dive, but watersports are not its main draw. The island does, however, offer a slew of rainforest trails -- great for hiking and sightseeing. (Greg Johnston  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Dominican Republic

    An old church building is seen in La Romana, the third-largest city in the Dominican Republic. (Wayne Walton / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Belize

    Belize gets more than 850,000 visitors each year. The hot spot allows watersports such as kayaking and snorkeling, as well as inland activities like hiking and birding. The Mayan ruins of Altan Ha, pictured, are easily accessible from Caye Caulker. (Andrew Marshall / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. La Tortuga

    A fisherman repairs his nets on Cayo Herradura, off the island of La Tortuga in Venezuela. The country offers visitors a variety of activities to choose from, but remains undervisited -- especially compared to its South American neighbors. (Lynne Sladky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Cuba

    Cuba blends the fantastic attractions associated with other Caribbean destinations with an amazing history. Tourists can stroll white sand beaches, take in the incredible architecture and party into the early-morning hours. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. St. Barthelemy

    St. Barthelemy is a vacation spot of stars and millionaires. Trendy, chic and sexy, St. Baarths is safe for tourists, but expensive to visit. About 8,700 people reside on the island. (Mark Mainz / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Puerto Rico

    A man climbs to a 40-foot waterfall at the south side of the Caribbean National Rain Forest, commonly called El Yunque, near Naguabo, Puerto Rico. Most visitors hike the well-marked paths in the northern half of the park's rain forest but the trails in the south allow hikers and nature lovers to explore the only tropical forest in the U.S. national forest system. (Herminio Rodriguez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Puerto Rico

    The cupola of San Juan Cemetary as well as colorful homes sit next to the ocean in Old San Juan, the original capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The old city is a historic district of seven square blocks made up of ancient buildings and colonial homes, massive stone walls and vast fortifications, sunny parks and cobblestoned streets. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Puerto Rico

    Men play dominos in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Old San Juan is a well-preserved colonial city that allows tourists a peek into the past. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Guadeloupe

    Guadeloupe isn't as developed as some other Caribbean islands, but it offers a variety of beaches -- some active with watersports, some secluded. The island also offers beach bars, restaurants, mid-range hotels and other tourist amenities. (Marcel Mochet / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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