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The Rum Diaries

Journey to the heart of Barbados, home to the world’s best rum­—and the Caribbean’s most refined destination.

The beach at the Fairmont Royal Pavilion in St. James, Barbados. Originally built as the Miramar Hotel in the ’40s, it’s hosted everyone from Queen Elizabeth to Mark Cuban.

Dining at the Fairmont Royal Pavilion in St. James.

Mount Gay rum aging in barrels until Master Blender Allen Smith says it’s ready

It doesn’t get much more romantic than The Cliff Restaurant in St. James.

Pour it up, pour it up!” Rihanna sings over the radio as we drive from the airport to our hotel. Our just-acquainted tour group smiles at each other and laughs. We’re in Barbados. Rihanna is from Barbados. Get it?

The second Rihanna song comes on shortly after and, this time, we crack a few jokes about how they mustreally like her here. Then another Rihanna song comes on. And another. We better get used to it: It’s not long into our trip that we realize the Rihanna soundtrack is virtually nonstop in this idyllic island nation—at hotels, in cars, at restaurants and lounges. At first it’s surprising. Then baffling. Then, as we settle into island life, it starts to make perfect sense: Barbadians, or Bajans, as natives of this Caribbean island self-identify, are not only extremely proud of their native daughter, but Barbados is all about celebrating. And her music is nothing if not celebratory. Like the island itself, it just makes you feel good.

The only thing Bajans might be more proud of than Rihanna is laying claim to producing the world’s best rum, which is what’s brought our group here. Mount Gay Rum (mountgayrum.com), founded in 1703, is the oldest rum distillery in the world, and one of the most respected. They’ve invited us to learn a bit about their much-anticipated new offering, Black Barrel. The only Mount Gay rum finished in charred bourbon oak, smooth and spicy Black Barrel is expected to be Mount Gay’s new star.

Barbados offers endless ways to enjoy the spirit. I begin to understand that as our group checks into theFairmont Royal Pavilion (fairmont.com/barbados) in the parish, or region, of St. James. Founded as the posh Miramar Hotel in the ’40s, the Royal Pavilion offers 72 rooms, all with ocean views, in sprawling open-air environs that are as serene as they are refined. Weary from travel, we relax and sip on rum cocktails in the elegant pink-hued lobby before making our way through the lush grounds to our rooms. Ah, I think as I enter my suite—yet another cause for celebration. With gorgeous hardwood floors, a European marble bathroom with rain shower and, most of all, a private deck with a stunning ocean view, it’s time to pour another short one and toast my good fortune. It’s no surprise that the hotel has hosted everyone from Queen Elizabeth to, for his wedding and honeymoon, Mark Cuban. I’m not sure how long Cuban stayed but, if I had his resources, it would have been measured in weeks, not days.

While visiting Barbados’ best restaurants and hotels is certainly a pleasure, it’s driving around the island seeing the sights and listening to our guides where we really see the country. We learn loads on our way to Harrison’s Cave (harrisonscave.com), a crystallized limestone cave where visitors can see firsthand the coral-purified water instrumental in the production of Mount Gay. The former British colony, our memorably affable guide Chester tells us as we make our way across the island, enjoys universal health care and higher education, and has close to a 100-percent literacy rate. It’s clear, just exploring and talking to the locals, that its British roots run deep, from the system of government to driving on the left-hand side of the road to, most of all, the genteel and gracious disposition of the people. At one point we stop and see historic “chattel houses,” movable residences originated by slaves who had to follow the crops around the island. Then it’s off to one of the western hemisphere’s oldest temples, the Nidhe Israel Synagogue, originally built in 1654, destroyed by a hurricane in 1831 and rebuilt two years later. We also see the George Washington House(georgewashingtonbarbados.org) where the founder of our country stayed with his older half-brother, Lawrence, while the latter recuperated from tuberculosis. The sojourn, our guide tells us, might have truly changed the course of American history—George Washington contracted smallpox while in Barbados and, when there was an outbreak of the disease during the Revolutionary War, he was immune and didn’t get sick. On a lighter note, he so enjoyed the local spirits that he reportedly ordered a cask of rum sent north for his 1789 inauguration.

Later we stop by a rum shop: a popular casual Bajan gathering spot where locals buy bottles of spirits in the front, then move to tables in the back to pour, sip and enjoy while talking or watching a football game.

After an exciting tour through the cave, where our guide has a little fun by turning off the lights completely, it’s off to a sugar cane field to learn about the second major component in Mount Gay, the cane from which fermented molasses is derived. Like everything on our trip, our visit is done in impressive style, in a white safari tent. Our group enjoys high tea in the shade with cucumber sandwiches. After the repast we follow Chester into the field, where he demonstrates how one cuts the cane with a machete—far more difficult than you might imagine. We chew on the cane while Chester tells us about Crop Over, a two-month Bajan Carnivàle-style celebration in July and August that celebrates the harvest—and often sees the triumphant return of the most beloved Bajan of all, one Robyn Rihanna Fenty.

The intellectual crescendo of our trip, though, is a visit to the Mount Gay Rum distillery, where we powwow with Master Distiller Allen Smith. The talent behind the company’s premium offering, Mount Gay 1703, as well as Black Barrel, Smith is a biologist and chemist by trade who fell in love with perfecting his country’s native spirit along the way. Dressed in lab coats, we even try to make our own Black Barrel, experimenting with different proportions of single- and double-distilled Mount Gay. Then we visit the warehouse, where the rum is aged… until Smith says it’s done. Because of the island’s climate, he explains, it ages far faster than in other parts of the world, and there’s no set time to achieve the perfect taste.

It’s all fascinating but I, a layman, come to really appreciate rum as more than a nice mixing spirit later that night, sitting on the deck at The Cliff Restaurant (thecliffrestaurant.com), which has to be, hands down, one of the most beautiful dining destinations in the world. Sipping on 1703 neat with the waves swirling below while torches light up the deck like a dreamy Robinson Crusoe fort, no other drink seems possible.

The love affair continues the next day when we set out on a catamaran to follow a Mount Gay Rum Regatta(facebook.com/sailingspokenhere), one of more than 100 regattas Mount Gay sponsors annually around the world. While our group loves staying in the sailors’ wake, I have to say we have it better as we casually motor about, stopping only for lunch and a swim. We’re in good hands as our excitable captain shouts orders in a Bajan dialect so thick his words are indecipherable to our ears. For the rest of us, though, there’s nothing to worry about. And for me, it’s Black Barrel and ginger—a perfect refresher that celebrates the spices, flavors and spirit of this singularly lovely island.

Hot Stops

Cin Cin By the Sea
The only thing sinful about this breathtaking restaurant on the water is not making a stop on your trip. Try the bouillabaisse or spiced salmon while playing “name that celeb” with the vintage portraits by Bob Kiss hanging on the walls. cincinbarbados.com

The Crane Resort
Even if you’re not staying here don’t miss a stop to the seemingly endless grounds of this resort, first opened in 1887. The pools and 10 restaurants are wonderful, but the real attraction is the world-famous beach.thecrane.com

Mount Gay Rum Visitor’s Centre
Stop by Mount Gay headquarters to learn about the distillation, blending and aging processes of the world’s oldest rum on your choice of three different tours. mountgayrum.com