Somewhere between listening to the Caribbean waves lap outside my seaside villa, admiring the artwork in some of the island’s grand plantations, and tasting some of the freshest cuisine in the world, I fell in love with Barbados, an island that had previously been neither here nor there on my list of places to travel to. A longtime holiday destination for the British, Barbados, or “Little England” still attracts a majority of European visitors, but it’s slowly making its way onto the shortlists of many American vacationers. I had the pleasure to visit the island as a guest of the Barbados Tourism Authority, and my greatest regret during my four day stay was having to leave early to catch another trip the following day.
Barbados has long enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most upscale of the Caribbean islands. In fact, the only other destination the BA Concorde made other than New York and DC was Bridgetown. Today, one of its planes rests at the Grantley Adams International, the main port that visitors arrive. (The other, St. Charles, is the docking station for yachts and strictly off limits to island tourists and residents to respect the privacy of the VIP who enter.) St. James Parish, along the west coast of the island, lies along a strip of beach so posh that it recently upgraded its nickname from Gold Coast to Platinum Coast. The island’s ultra exclusive resort, Sandy Lane, the wedding destination of Tiger Woods, commands nightly rates starting at $3,200 during high season, earning its reputation as one of the priciest in all of the West Indies. Yet, Barbados is surprisingly accessible for a wide range of budgets and offers visitors a gorgeous, authentic and friendly experience without necessarily asking them to fork over the big bucks.
There’s a diverse range of accommodation in Barbados, ranging from private adult-only resorts such as The House, to children-friendly hotels such as the Hilton, and familiar luxury properties such as The Fairmont, where I had the pleasure of staying. The majority of upscale resorts line a quiet, almost residential-feeling street along the Caribbean in St. James – though newer properties are starting to pop up along the island’s Northern and Southern Coasts (Barbado’s Eastern Coastline is pounded by rough Atlantic waves that make it more attractive for advanced surfers than sunbathers). The weather in Barbados steadily remains in the low 80’s year round with a cool breeze coming from the ocean. Any time is good to visit, but during the off season, mid-April to mid-November, hotel rates go as low as 50% of busy season. Regardless of when or where one stays, the entire island is easily accessible by car and taxi, and the greatest disservice any visitor can do is not leaving his/her hotel’s borders.
Unlike some other resort destinations, Barbados offers much more to its visitors than simply an infinity pool and on property restaurant. On the way to the Fairmont from the airport, I was immediately struck by three qualities that are rare in many tourism driven countries. First, the island is incredibly well maintained from coast to coast, with much less poverty than I’ve seen in any other developing country. Second, there’s a shockingly low number of peddlers who try to sell you their products. And the occasional one that does approach you, quickly leaves with a shake of your head. Three, the drivers are courteous and follow laws – an immense relief since I still remember the anxiety of being driven around in more haphazard places such as Jamaica and Peru. One can request a private or group tour through companies such as Drayton’s Transport (call 246.428.6831 – Jerry, my guide, was great), or rent a car and explore the island at your own leisure.
Barbados offers a wealth of activities for history buffs, art lovers, spirit connoisseurs, sportsmen, foodies, nature activists, and daredevils. I, of course, couldn’t choose so I did them all. Much of the rich history of Barbados is contained in its grand plantations. Today, they have come under the protection of both the National Trust and private individuals, and transformed into galleries, restaurants, venues, museums and even sporting grounds open to the public. Just the houses themselves tell such intriguing and complex stories, that I’ll be devoting an entirely separate piece to their role in the island’s rich culture. But in short: art lovers will want to frequent Lancaster House, an art gallery with rotating exhibitions. Currently, they are showcasing the first furniture show in Barbados. Brown spirits connoisseurs should visit St. Nicholas Abbey (one of only three remaining Jacobean mansions in the Western Hemisphere) where they make rum so fine and complex that it tastes like a cognac. Those who want to dabble in polo are welcome to Rugby Plantation, where local legend Jeff Evelyn offers private lessons through the Barbados Polo Club. If you prefer to watch rather than play, it’ll only cost you $10 per match at Lions Castle Polo Estate. And my personal favorite, Fisherpond Great House, is a private residence where owners John and Rain Chandler open their door to the public every Thursday for lunch and every Sunday for brunch at what is surely one of the most elegant dining venues on the island. The plantation also serves up the tastiest rum punch I’ve had (quite a feat when even the ones that come out of barrels into plastic cups are pretty damn good). My Thursday lunch there included being served on the same banquet table that had seated Queen Elizabeth and eating off century old plates with imprinted British Royal crest. The decor is absolutely extravagant and the visual and sensual are accompanied by beautiful live piano music. Lest this all sounds possibly too stuffy, I shall also let you know that Bajan green monkeys reside in Chandler’s back yard and he entertains the crowd with an endless number of jokes and stories (once, he upstaged the Queen and got his American diplomat girlfriend subsequently deported).
Speaking of food, Barbados offers some of the world’s finest dining. Their iconic restaurant The Cliff, is regularly ranked as one of the top 50 in the world. Dining there is both a visual and culinary stunner and one that I believe every visitor should splurge for. A two course prix fixe menu runs $120 per head but it’s easily a three, four, or five hour experience that no diner will soon forget. Of course you can choose to eat at fine dining locales every meal as Barbados offers no shortage of all sorts of cuisine. Daphne’s at The Elegant Hotel’s House property (Italian) and L’Acajou at Sandy Lane (French) both received rave reviews from my friends who were also on the island during the same period. But part of the pleasure of visiting a foreign country is to experience some of its more genuine local offerings. Lobster lovers should lunch at Bridgetown’s Lobster Alive– a charming shanty that serves spiny lobsters on one of the island’s most beautiful beaches. You don’t need to head to restaurants called “The Tides” to enjoy fresh fish. Oistins, the island’s famous market, serves grilled fish in Styrofoam containers and a party to locals and tourists alike every night. I had as much fun sitting in between a picnic table of Bajans and drunken Pittsburg college students lining up rows of empty Bank (the local beer) bottles as I did sampling the tasting menu at the Fairmont’s elegant oceanfront Palm Terrace. Even the local fast food chain Chefette is so popular that they ran out McDonalds from the island.
With all that said, no Caribbean vacation is complete without at least some time devoted to the beach. All of Barbado’s beaches whether along a hotel’s property or more in more accessible places are free and open to all on the island. Many resorts offer complimentary water sports if you’re staying on property and to the public at a fee. However, public beaches mean that you can check out any that you want (discreetly). A Barbados native tipped me off to lounge at The Crane (sneak down the “back” entrance via the side road, not through the hotel, and climb over a few rocks to get on the most incredible beach).
Barbados’ beautiful houses, rolling hills and peaceful beaches will always call to me. But even more importantly, the island offers an incredible learning experience, a Caribbean vacation for the inquiring mind. I came home with an incredible amount of new knowledge just by touring the different parishes, listening to stories and being on vacation. And for that reason, Barbados will always have a special place in my heart.
For more tips on my favorite things in Barbados, check out my follow up article!
Photos © The Daily Obsession
1. The beach behind Lobsters Alive
2. Fairmont Royal Pavilion
3. Antique map of Barbados for sale at Lancaster House
4. Polo Match
5. Bathroom decor at Rugby Plantation
6. Duck at The Cliff
7. Cooks at Oistins Fish Market
8. Evening view from my terrace