St Nicholas Abbey is on a 162-ha (400-acre) estate comprising 91 ha (225 acres) of sugar cane fields as well as lush tropical gullies, mahogany forests, formal gardens and Cherry Tree Hill (260 m), a prominent landmark that you can walk or drive up.
If you’re going south and inland from Cove Bay it’s just under 4 km via Boscobelle; other routes to the abbey from the west coast and the south go via Highway 2A; there are plenty of signposts. Approached down a long and impressive avenue of mahogany trees, St Nicholas Abbey was never actually an abbey – it has no monks’ cells or cloisters and some have supposed that the ‘St’ and ‘Abbey’ were added to impress.
It is, however, one of only three surviving Jacobean mansions in the Western Hemisphere (the other two are Drax Hall, also in Barbados in St George near the centre of the island, the first place on the island where sugar was cultivated in the 1640s and today a private residence; and Bacon’s Castle in rural Virginia in the US, which, like Barbados, was a wealthy English plantation colony in the 17th century).
St Nicholas Abbey is thought to have been built by Colonel Benjamin Beringer in 1658, but was sold to Sir John Yeamans, who set out from Speightstown in 1663 to colonize South Carolina. The three-storeyed house has a façade with three ogeeshaped Dutch gables over its main portico and cornerstone chimneys and fireplaces of local coral stone; as these are unnecessary in the Caribbean it’s likely that Beringer purchased the plans in England.
Today, scrupulously restored, it is one of the architectural treasures of Barbados, with a Chippendale staircase and cedar-panelled rooms containing antique furnishings including a 1759 James Thwaite of London grandfather clock, an 1810 Coalport dinner service and a collection of early Wedgwood portrait medallions. Visitors are given an interesting tour of the ground floor of the house, as well as the rum and sugar museum and the gardens.
The rum distillery uses a traditional pot-still to make the unique St Nicholas Abbey Rum sold in the shop, which also sells molasses and brown sugar from the estate, plus jellies and chutneys made with fruit from the gardens. Behind the house, near the 400-year-old sandbox tree, the Terrace Café serves lunch, tea and other light refreshments.