On my first day at the Apes Hill Polo Villas I was awakened from an afternoon nap convinced that I was in the middle of an earthquake. The floor and walls seemed to be vibrating. Through the open doors of my veranda, beyond a wall of fuchsia bougainvillea, I could hear the sound of shouting in the distance. As I got my bearings, I realized that the voices were calling out polo plays in a mixture of Spanish and English and that the ground was shaking because there were eight horses running at a full gallop, only yards from where I had been sleeping in the balmy breeze.
Wearing a sundress and sandals, I stumbled over to an immaculate fern green field. The players and their horses were attired in a Crayola-box array of colors, and the play was fast and agile, with quick changes of direction and an abundance of passing—the kind of match that is a thrill for spectators because of the whole team's involvement. The horses' coats gleamed as brightly as their polished tacks and they charged for the ball as if they were running the Kentucky Derby (the majority of them are, in fact, former racehorses that the Apes Hill staff has trained to play polo). After the daylight had faded over the beaches of the west coast, the revelry continued in the salmon-hued, plank-floored clubhouse, where the players drank Banks beer and I enjoyed a rum punch sprinkled with nutmeg. Almost everybody knew everyone else by first name, and though there were no celebrities in attendance that evening, Prince Harry of Britain had been a recent visitor.
This is polo in paradise: The island of Barbados, only 166 square miles in size, boasts five pristine fields, stables holding more than three hundred horses, and some of the world’s best players, who come for the combination of competitive-but-unstuffy tournaments and the chance to relax on exquisite beaches afterward.
Sitting in the airy clubhouse adjacent to his world-class golf course is Sir Charles Williams, the founder of the Apes Hill Club resort and the man most credit with the recent efflorescence of Bajan polo. He describes himself as "possibly one of the luckiest men in the world."
Sir Charles's ancestors emigrated from England to Barbados in 1652, and he has lived on the island and played polo his whole life, captaining the Barbados Polo Club for more than thirty-five years. He describes the rough-and-tumble origins of polo in Barbados, when it was a pastime of the British cavalry who were based on the island in the late 1800s. The island became independent in 1966 but chose to be a Commonwealth realm, not a republic—Queen Elizabeth II of England is the head of state of Barbados.
"We had to work to change the perception on the part of the government that polo was only a rich white man's game–that it could reach a wider audience. Now it is one of the premier planKs For sports tourism."
– Sir Charles Williams
With tourism beginning to replace the receding sugar-cane industry in the 1970s, Sir Charles—who was knighted in 2000 for years of service in construction, agriculture, and other business ventures, along with his contribution to sports in Barbados and the Caribbean—saw the opportunity for polo to become a stabilizing force in the Bajan economy. "We had to work to change the perception on the part of the government that polo was only a rich white man’s game — that it could reach a wider audience. Now it is one of the premier planks for sports tourism." His philosophy in building Apes Hill was to "aim for the best, and I feel we were wise to do it." His only regret is not building a second polo field—it's in the works.
Among the island’s most popular tournaments is the yearly Battle of the Sexes, one of the few polo games in the world that pits men against women at the medium-goal level. At the opening match at Holders field, the island’s oldest and the home of the Barbados Polo Club, games kick off with the playing of “God Save the Queen” and a prayer by the local reverend, Father Andrew Hatch. This time, Father Hatch said a special prayer for the safety of the men, one it looked like they might need after the first chukker, when the women were beating them tidily. Though the fairer sex ultimately lost by two points, Rosie Ross, one of a small number of female players in the world to achieve a two-goal handicap, was named the MVP. As the sound of flashing cameras was replaced by that of popping champagne corks, she told me succinctly what she loved about playing in Barbados: “Stunning fields and awesome horses.”
This was a sentiment echoed by Jack Kidd, who has been playing professionally for the past twenty years, and whose family has a long association with polo in Barbados—they bequeathed the field at Holders. Kidd graciously offered a tour of his family’s nearby seventeenth-century plantation house, Holders House, where a mahogany center-staircase branches off toward bedrooms decorated with coral-patterned fabrics and priceless antiques. Kidd, who has recently opened a polo school at Holders in partnership with the Apes Hill Polo Club, has traveled everywhere in the world that polo is played but thinks the quality of the Bajan horses just gets “better and better” and that the island is “one of the most special places in the world for people to come and relax—it’s perfection.”
"The quality of the Bajan horses just gets better and better and the island is one of the most special places in the world for people to come and relax–it's perfection."
– Jack KidD
After hearing such raves about the island’s ponies, I decided to try one for myself. Neil Dickson, the resident instructor at the Apes Hill Polo Club, was happy to help. Dickson coaches tourists and locals alike—from absolute beginners to experienced players—and after cantering around the field alongside me, to make sure I was a good enough rider, he sent me off to hit some balls. My horse seemed to know what to do without my having to tell it anything: It recognized the subtlest shift of my weight as a signal that it should move left or right, and it positioned me perfectly next to the ball. Within minutes, Neil had taught me how to do a proper neck shot and showed me how to make my back shots travel twice the distance.
After we finished, I collapsed, exhausted and happy, on the deck of my villa, where I watched dun-colored lizards dart around the perimeter of the plunge pool and black hummingbirds, heads daubed with iridescent blue, drink from the hibiscus flowers. Part of the mission of the Apes Hill Club resort, which comprises 470 acres, is that two thirds of it will remain open space. The variety of flora and fauna at the resort is spectacular: There are fields of grazing cattle, ravines filled with vines and waterfalls, and green monkeys scampering across the roads. I wanted to drink in the scenery, but knew I needed to rest. There would be another set of chukkers in an hour, and I expected to be awakened once more by thundering hooves.
Andrea Walker is a writer and editor based in Norwalk, Connecticut. She has written for The New Yorker, Bookforum, and the Times Literary Supplement. She plays polo with the Yale Polo Club in Bethany and Hamden, Connecticut.