ST. JAMES PARISH, Barbados — It was a night at the opera I'll never forget. A history of Italian opera in memorable arias sung by artists from New York's Metropolitan and City operas is sure to be a crowd-pleaser any time. But what if you added the charming British actor David Souchet (better known to American TV audiences as Hercule Poirot) as master of ceremonies, and then threw in a full moon and tropical Barbadian breezes? And what if your opera house was the manicured grounds of a 17th-century island plantation?
The annual Holders Season festival has been a staple of Barbados' cultural season since 1993 and is the premier cultural event in the Caribbean. For several weeks every March, Holders' founder, Wendy Kidd, a British expat and mother of supermodels Jemma and Jodie Kidd, opens the grounds of her estate for a festival of jazz, blues and classical music, theater and comedy.
During the festival, the plantation's centuries-old mahogany and palm trees are festooned with twinkling lights and hung with chandeliers; there are laser shows that would do justice to a Super Bowl halftime performance, transforming the night sky into a brilliant kaleidoscope of colors; and patrons — some wearing evening attire and sipping champagne, others in tie-dye and swilling Red Stripe beer — take up every square inch of the lawn. It's a phantasmagoric hybrid — as if England's posh Glyndebourne Opera had mated with New Orleans' down and dirty Jazz Fest.
The eclectic nature of the festival is reflected in the performances. During last year's event, two nights after I attended Bravissimo: The World of Italian Opera, I found myself caught up in the melodic and hypnotic beats of Malian superstar Bassekou Kouyate and his band, Ngoni Ba, which treated us to The Sounds of Africa. If the former elicited polite applause, nods of approval and the occasional "Bravo," the latter resulted in frenzied toe-tapping, hand-clapping and swaying in the seats.
On other evenings, festival-goers enjoyed a musical tribute to Frank Sinatra; the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain: The Traveler; Beolach, a Gaelic band from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia; and a recital by acclaimed young pianist Greg Anderson.
Such is the nature of Holders Season.
"No one quite realized what a journey it would be when we sailed away into our first Holders Season," Wendy Kidd said.
By the time the fourth season rolled around, Kidd had gotten Luciano Pavarotti to agree to perform, and she knew she had a winner on her hands.
That winning tradition continues with this year's season, March 18 to 27. Among the scheduled performances are An Evening With Bing Crosby, featuring London West End sensation Ian Casey; actor Bruce Morrison in Shakespeare: As You Like Him; The Classical Piano, an evening of Chopin, Bach and Beethoven; and Broadway Live, a tribute to the New York stage.
Plenty of history
The Holders Season is reason enough to plan a trip to Barbados, but there are plenty of other activities to pique your interest, and I'm not just talking about the gorgeous beaches and world-class resorts and golf courses. If you are looking for something more historical, how about a visit to St. Nicholas Abbey or the Old Jewish Synagogue and Nidhe Israel Synagogue Museum?
St. Nicholas Abbey, in the northern parish of St. Peter and surrounded by lush banana groves, is one of only three mansions in the Western Hemisphere built during the Jacobean period. It is thought to be the oldest building on the island (1660), having begun as a sugar plantation. Now a museum, the Abbey showcases Barbados' British colonial history — from the impressive exterior of white limestone with three rectilinear gables to the period furniture, including a bed said to have belonged to Empress Marie Louise, the second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The island's Jewish history dates back almost as far as its British history, with the first influx of Jews arriving from Brazil in the early 17th century. Visitors can trace that history at the Old Synagogue in Bridgetown (one of the two oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere) and its adjoining cemetery. The nearby Nidhe Israel Synagogue Museum tells a related story — how the island's Jews helped establish the sugar industry, ultimately making Barbados the jewel in Britain's Caribbean crown.
He did sleep there
If our nation's first president slept in all the places that claimed he did, he would have spent his entire life slumbering. However, documentation proves that he did sleep at Bush Hill House, now known as the George Washington House and Museum. It was to this bright yellow, two-story dwelling in St. Michael's Parish that Washington, then 19, came in 1751 with his half-brother Lawrence, who was suffering from tuberculosis. During the nearly two months he spent in Barbados tending to Lawrence, George promised to return to Virginia and make a name for himself.
The house is open to the public after a major renovation.
If you are looking for your own plantation house — at least for the afternoon — enjoy Sunday lunch at the Fisher Pond Great House. You have to take a rutted path to the end of a cane field to get there, but don't let that deter you. The 350-year-old plantation house is beautifully restored, and owners John and Rain Chandler might just be the best hosts on the island. John will greet you with a rum punch or a piña colada and will join you in the overgrown tropical garden, with its bevy of colorful (and talkative) macaws, just as he has done with past guests including Tony Blair, Prince Harry and Helen Mirren.
Meanwhile, Rain is in the kitchen, whipping up delectable island favorites: pumpkin and ginger or callaloo soup, peas and rice, plantain fritters and Barbados' famed flying fish. The dining room, open to the cooling tradewinds, overflows with bougainvillea and orchids, and a pianist plays for your dining pleasure. One visit here and you will have found your island home.