It is the type of discussion to have with a few friends, perhaps with a glass of rum, a cold Carib or a chilled pineapple juice in your hand. What makes the perfect Caribbean beach bar?
Everybody might have their own opinion on the subject, but there can be no doubt that the image of the Caribbean beach bar is an iconic one. One with a unique, enduring appeal that touches locals and visitors alike. They have been dreamt about, written about and celebrated in countless songs over the years.
I have visited, enjoyed and written about beach bars on more than 40 islands, and here’s my, admittedly very personal, take. For the perfect Caribbean beach bar, all you really need to start with is a beach and a bar. And then add that one more, somewhat indefinable, ingredient. But I’ll get to that later.
The popular image is of a rickety wooden hut with a bamboo bar and palapas scattered on the sand among the palm trees. Now, I’ll admit that there are some excellent bars located on beaches around the Caribbean that wouldn’t look out of place in Architectural Digest (Barbados’ Lone Star and St. Barth’s Nikki Beach, for example), but that’s not what we are really talking about.
We are talking about that simple waterside shack. A place to sit back (perhaps with toes in the sand), with a cold drink in your hand, an ocean breeze in your face and good music playing in the background. Quite simply, a place to lime. And that could mean just hanging out with a few friends or, as in the case of many vacationers, simply soaking in the sun and scenery, and letting the everyday stresses of back home sail off into the sunset.
Since we are talking about bars, drinks obviously need to be considered. Local beer and rum (the Caribbean has many excellent examples of both) are essential. Music is also a key ingredient. It must be island music. Not just Bob Marley, as indispensable as he is. There is so much more to Caribbean music than reggae. There’s calypso, soca, ska, zouk, reggaeton, kompa and more. And, this is important, it should never be played too loud. Certainly, never loud enough to drown out conversation.
But these are add-ons. The core of the beach bar comes down to that other ingredient I hinted at. For want of a better term, let’s just call it authenticity: being true to the spirit and character of its location – and that means not just the Caribbean, butthe individual island. That authenticity can’t be bought or added in a remodelling. It has to be there from the start. As such, it mainly comes from the people who conceived and built the bar in the first place. And many of those islanders behind some of the Caribbean’s most famous beach bars are as legendary as the places themselves.
There’s Llewelyn ‘Sunshine’ Caines, who started out sailing to Nevis from his native St. Kitts every day to deliver food to workers rebuilding the hurricane damaged Four Seasons Resort. Then, with a steel drum barbecue and $40 worth of beer and chicken wings, he decided to set up on the adjacent beach. With his engaging personality and a few marketing tricks (e.g., paying local children to chase down beach goers and bring them back to the bar), he steadily built his business. Today, Sunshine’s is world famous, the walls adorned with photos of its always-smiling owner posing with presidents and prime ministers.
Or the British Virgin Island’s Foxy Callwood. Back in the ‘60s, noticing the increase in boaters visiting tiny Jost Van Dyke, he set up beside his mother’s food stand with a sign saying “Mom’s Booth, Foxy’s Bar. Drinks 25 cents”. A sailor cum entertainer cum bar owner, Foxy has steadily built both his business empire and reputation over the years. Along the way he has earned the Order of the British Empire and even made his way into the lyrics of a Jimmy Buffett song.
Local reggae-folk musician Bankie Banx, the owner of Anguilla’s Dune Preserve, wanted to preserve some pristine Anguillan beach front from development by the mega resorts and condos that were springing up on either side. He bought the land, build the appropriately named bar and settled in. The Dune Preserve is still going strong (despite being virtually washed away by Hurricane Irma in 2017), playing host to the annual Moonsplash music festival that draws visitors from across the Caribbean and around the world.
Then there’s Basil Charles of Basil’s Bar in the Grenadines. Moving, virtually penniless, to the undeveloped Mustique following a motorcycle accident in his native St. Vincent, he was hired as a bartender by the eccentric British aristocrat Lord Glenconner, who had just bought the island. Despite a sometimes tumultuous relationship with his employer (including the occasional fist fight), he was put in charge of a new waterside bar, which was named in his honour. He eventually took control of Basil’s in 1981, fending off an attempt to buy the bar and turn it into a private club by a syndicate led by Viscount Linley, the son of the late Princess Margaret. Although he no longer owns it, Basil still mixes drinks at his namesake bar, where he can reminisce about serving cocktails to Princess Margaret, David Bowie and Mick Jagger, and boast about (though he never does) being a guest at William and Kate’s wedding.
With characters like these behind them, no wonder so many Caribbean beach bars are special places. Of course, most evolve from the simple shacks and humble origins, but the best ones – the authentic ones – stay true to their roots.
Photo: The best beach bars, like Anguilla’s Dune Preserve, can put you directly in touch with the soul of the Caribbean.