A place where refined luxury and exceptional culinary delights dance and mingle among lush tropical greenery, limpid blue waters and warm golden sunlight.
From refined English history, stately plantations and luxury resorts to West Indian street feasts, buttery beaches and championship surfing and golfing, Barbados will leave you wanting for little but a repeat visit
Barbados is numerous islands wrapped into one: Whether you seek soft beaches with calm water, rustic beaches with powerful surf, refined sophistication and white-glove afternoon tea, or the up-tempo, festive feel of a Caribbean street party, Barbados has an offering for you.
This meld comes courtesy of cultural history and geography: Barbados is the easternmost of the Lesser Antilles islands and, as such, enjoys the graces of two oceans. The island fronts the relatively calm Caribbean Sea on its west side – home to many of the destination’s resorts and best swimming beaches, including Mullins Beach and Paynes Bay. The rougher Atlantic Ocean abuts its eastern end, with prime surfing spots, including Bathsheba/Cattlewash. And a windy convergence of the two bodies of water is found on the island’s southern shores, where smaller hotels – and legions of windsurfers – await.
Culturally, Barbados today keenly reflects both 3 1/2 centuries of British rule – it gained independence in 1966 – and the faith and endurance of the former slaves who populated the island to cultivate sugarcane under the British. The local Bajans, as they are known, display a brawn inherited from their ancestors and a wealth of traditions that have influenced every facet of life, from music and dance to cuisine and herbal ‘bush’ medicine.
Bajans are engagingly warm, a quality that is perhaps best on display in a seaside town called Oistins, where sunset kicks off an open-air street-fair atmosphere, with dozens of fish-fry and barbecue stations and even more rum shacks. Many visitors say they get their best meal of the week here – the local specialty is flying fish – and a heaping plate costs less than $10.
Barbados is not for the frugal, with luxurious hotels, inns and villas lining many beaches, including the 15-mile Millionaires’ Playground (a.k.a.Platinum Coast). Even if you stay in a more reasonably priced part of Barbados, the area is worth a drive to see the elaborate gardens. It’s so posh here that some top-tier restaurants require jackets for dinner.
That’s not to say Barbados lacks energy: Each summer, Crop Over, Barbados’ premier festival, celebrates many Bajan customs. The event can be traced to 18th-century sugar days, when a raucous party marked the end of the late-summer sugar season. Today, the five-week Crop Over features markets, carnival shows, calypso concerts and colorful parades.
The island’s plantation history is wonderfully showcased year-round at a number of well-preserved homes. In the late 1600s, Barbados was the world’s leading producer of sugar, and the crop made English planters rich. Their stately manor houses reflected their good fortune. At Sunbury Plantation House, which dates from 1660, you’ll find a collection of antiques, including carriages and farm implements. Overlooking the countryside surrounding St. Philip, the estate is a testament to the grandeur of a bygone era. Other homes worth touring include the Jacobean-style St. Nicholas Abbey and the Francia Plantation. These cane-farm hills are dotted with all manners of fruit trees: orange, banana, grapefruit, mango, avocado, apple and breadfruit.
Despite this rolling beauty, Barbados does not offer great reaches of wilderness or natural parks; the island is amply populated (more than 250,000 people live on 300 square miles), and almost all the land has been developed or cultivated.
So Much to Do
If your idea of a perfect Caribbean vacation is lying on the beach doing nothing all day, the Barbados experience may be lost on you. The island offers so much to see and do that your more active companions might tease you about a wasted plane ticket.
Take a tram ride through Harrison’s Cave and gape at a breathtaking collection of stalactites, stalagmites, waterfalls and pools. Stroll through Andromeda Gardens, which brims with orchids, bougainvillea, palms and ferns. Tee off at one of three lush golf courses, including championship links designed by Robert Trent Jones and Tom Fazio. These include the Green Monkey, a spectacular second course at the rebuilt Sandy Lane resort. The Green Monkey challenges duffers with deep gullies and long shots. The Garrison Savannah horse races are a hot ticket. Other popular sports on the island include tennis, cricket, squash and polo.
Paddle into the often-towering surf on the islands’ east side, or rig up a windsurfer for high-speed (and challenging) thrills on the southern coast. Or, take your time ambling among plantation houses, where you might feel like you’re in England on a hot day.
Start your exploration in Bridgetown, the island’s charming capital city, where a bronze statue of Britain’s naval hero Lord Admiral Nelson presides over National Heroes Square. Broad Street, the main thoroughfare, is the heart and soul of shopping in Barbados: Several large department stores and duty-free shops offer prices that can be 20 to 40 percent lower those than back home. During cultural events, especially Crop Over Festival, you’ll see street vendors toting plastic jugs of mauby, an odd-tasting beverage made from boiled barks and spices.
Throughout the island, you’ll notice the Bajan chattel houses, which could be moved about the island wherever work was found, and the cane fields, which still writhe in the wind, awaiting the day when their crop has ripened enough to be turned into one of the island’s chief exports, rum.
Tour operators make exploration easy. Interested in homes and gardens? Thrills? Arts and crafts? Heritage sites? Eco and nature tours? Local experts will be glad to bring you to the top spots. You can also rent bicycles and motor scooters,
Special events draw visitors to Barbados throughout the year. Holders Season, a celebration of opera, theater and music, is internationally renowned for its March series of performances. Visitors might follow a day on the beach with a Gershwin piano concert, a Zimbabwe singing group, a Noel Coward play or a funny take on Shakespeare. There is a Christmas Jazz event held in December, and presently, there is a new jazz event called Naniki Caribbean Jazz Safari, which runs in January at various venues around the island.
Barbados hosted the World Cup finals in 2007, and cricket matches can always be found around the island. Cricket is the national sport and residents can always be spotted on the pitch, plus local and regional matches are held here regularly.
Reggae and calypso music are performed in nightclubs around the island. You can find a mix of music types at discos including the open-air beachfront Harbour Lights and PULSE. Some other new and popular nightclubs are PRIVA, located in 2nd Street, Holetown St. James, and SUGAR located in St. Lawrence Gap, Christ Church. Sharkey’s Bar at The Boatyard is a quiet beach bar by day that turns into a happening spot after dark.
Even outside the posh west-side resorts, Barbados boasts a trove of outstanding restaurants serving refined international and local specialties. For an elegant evening, sit down to a candlelight dinner at the edge of a wave-lapped cliff at places like The Cliff or the new restaurant CIN CIN BY THE SEA, located in Prospect, St. James. But don’t overlook Bajan cuisine: Flying fish is a staple of the Bajan diet, served in some version at almost every restaurant (probably because Barbados has competitions for how fast the tiny fish can be deboned). Bajans also enjoy cou-cou, a cornmeal-and-okra porridge, and jug-jug, a dish of Guinea corn and green peas. You’ll find these specialties and more at the Sunday buffet at the Atlantis Hotel, an island institution. So much of an island, so little time.