Letter from Barbados: We will only be away two weeks, but given the whirling dervish of events back home it already feels longer than that. It took longer than expected to get out of that whirlwind. On the flight from Miami to this small island nation a cluster of Trumpians noticed my significant other’s ironically emblazoned hat, a souvenir from the nonpartisan Foreign Policy Research Institute: “Make America Think Again,” it said.
No surprise the irony was lost. “We like your hat,” one of the Trumpians said, before reading it more carefully. “Oh no,” she said with an air of resignation. “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.”
I jumped into the conversation. “I don’t think we need to disagree about that, do we? Can’t we all agree that thinking is a good thing?” I got no favorable response to that idea. Soon the flight attendant came by to take drink orders. “Bud Light,” the Trumpians requested.
That pretty much summed it up for me. When we landed one of the last bits of news from the states was that Trump supporters were going to boycott Budweiser because of that pro-immigration commercial that ran during the Super Bowl. Maybe they can find some Miller Light here on the island. Let’s hope.
No matter what the political or actual weather back home, it’s been another pleasant stay in Barbados — the third time in as many years that we have flown here for a mid-winter break. What’s not to like: Consistently nice weather, rarely in the path of any hurricanes, English speaking, safe and friendly natives, relatively inexpensive, refreshing water, and very drinkable Banks beer, which brews its light version under a totally different brand.
This time, no doubt prompted by the political climate back home, I consider a possibility:
What would it take to extend the stay here a few months in both directions? What would it take to split my time between a summer cottage in northeastern Pennsylvania, where we don’t even have a television set, and a sunny winter residence in Barbados? I do some simple calculations: I live in an average house in Princeton, worth $900,000 or so, with a $20,000 annual property tax bill. What could I get for those kinds of dollars down here?
So we take a little drive in the rental car. Figuring you only live once, and not for all that long, we head along the coast, looking not for properties that have an ocean view but rather for properties that are actually on the ocean. In the Atlantic Shores neighborhood we happen across a little property with Mediterranean-style architecture and a terra cotta roof at the very end of a quiet residential road. It’s called Lazy Bay.
Checking out the listing later, we find that in addition to its spectacular location on the ocean, with unimpeded views to the left and right as well as straight ahead, Lazy Bay offers a 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath multilevel main house with a den in the basement and a tiered veranda with ocean views, of course. Amazingly, in line with my advice to any first-time home owner, the property even has potential for some additional development in the form of a detached cottage that could be renovated into a studio apartment.
The shoreline at this point is rough and rocky. There will be no dips in the ocean from a comfortable sandy beach. But the property boasts its own “family size” swimming pool — a real estate agent’s euphemism for small, I assume. But it would certainly be big enough for a couple and a few guests. The pool and adjacent sun terrace with offer “amazing views” of the Atlantic Ocean. And that’s not a real estate agent’s euphemism.
The price could be a sticking point: $1,250,000 U.S. But let’s not panic, I think. What if the seller comes down a notch, to say $1.2 million. What if the Princeton market happens to be hotter than I think, especially for in-town and totally walkable locations, and mine gets $950,000? We’re off by $250,000.
But remember that $20,000 annual tax bill in Princeton. It’s hard to say what it the property tax would be on Lazy Bay in Barbados. The online listing form offers no clue. An inquiry to the broker is not immediately returned. A friend of a friend who owns a villa on the west coast, with a pleasing ocean-front view from the upper balcony, pays around $300 a year in property tax on his place that is probably worth in the $400,000 range. But, he explains, taxes are progressive, and the rate climbs with the value of the house. I check out a “land tax” calculator on a real estate website. The estimate for a property the size and cost of Lazy Bay is under $10,000. Not too bad. Even better when I realize that the estimate is in Bajan dollars, not American. It would be less than $5K American, a quarter of what I am paying in Princeton.
With the cushion in my property tax allowance, I calculate that I could mortgage the $250K differential between Princeton and Barbados and we would be there, without dipping into any of the retirement nest egg.
Of course it’s easy to imagine other, non-financial problems. We would be leaving the vibrant Princeton social scene, with gatherings revolving around some of the great intellectual thinkers of our time. But Barbados, small as it is with its population of just 250,000 or so, has its own cultural life. That’s energized by a revolving pool of possibly 100,000 or so visitors, most of whom know how to live the good life. At some point I would have to learn to like cricket and polo.
And as homeowners we would probably begin to take an interest in the island’s economic health. It’s still smarting from the 2008 economic downturn. Infusions of money from outside investors have been tainted by what some label corruption, and lots of commercial property sits undeveloped or abandoned. On our first Friday night on the island we are guests at a dinner hosted by John Chandler, the former owner of a beachfront landmark, the Ocean View Hotel.
The host’s memoir includes photos of the hotel that remind me of a similarly grand property during the first half of the 20th century, the Chateau de l’Horizon on the French Riviera, a house celebrated by British biographer Mary S. Lovell in her latest book, “The Riviera Set,” already selling briskly in England and due to be released in the states in July.
Lovell, a friend of ours who is also a winter resident of Barbados, and her book are grist for a column at another time. But at least the property that figures so prominently in “The Riviera Set” was purchased by the Saudi royal family. The Ocean View in Barbados, in contrast, is now a vacant lot. A big hotel project immediately next to it sits partially constructed and abandoned — disappointing for such a prime piece of oceanfront.
In the February 11 issue of the Sun newspaper here, the Barbados Private Sector Association called for “all sectors to join ranks” to solve problems ranging from a lack of confidence among investors that the government can meet its obligations, an unsustainable fiscal deficit, low levels of productivity, including hundreds of acres of land lying fallow, and “antisocial behavior” caused by illegal drugs.
Interestingly the red flags being raised did not use the word crime, just anti-social. Barbados continues to be a remarkably safe place.
So we could live in rural isolation in the U.S., move for the extended winter vacation for five months or so of the year, and hope to “make Barbados great again.” Or we can catch that next plane back to the states, and resolve to help America think again. Something to ponder over a Banks beer at the beachfront bar.