Drop a regular Caribbean traveler blindfolded onto an island and they will know which one they are on. Each has its own distinctive traits and atmosphere. Barbados has a gentler landscape than the raging Windwards (Dominica and Grenada among them) and a slightly balmier climate, with some 3,000 hours of sunshine each year.
The island is entirely coral-based, giving it more of the Caribbean’s white sand and lustrous blue sea. And the Bajans are extremely welcoming – gracious and polite, even a mite reserved (for the Caribbean, that is). The island has always had a special place in sun-seekers’ hearts. So how did this come about?
Thanks in part to its uninterrupted 340-year connection with the British Empire, and currently, the Commonwealth, Barbados became a natural choice for English-speaking travelers. The advent of leisure travel in the 20th century – a trend that started with the banana boats to Jamaica – saw the likes of JP Morgan, William Randolph Hearst, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn making the trek to the island.
Beach hotels began to appear on the now famous west coast in the 1960s and island regulars built their villas, many of which were decorated by stage designer Oliver Messel. A winter social whirl began. Visitors would stay a month or two, avoiding the cold weather.
The island was renowned among the horse-racing set (the sport continues here and the island has its own Gold Cup). They were followed by the jet set. Barbados was so popular with British holiday-makers that until 2003 Concorde flew directly to it. It made the Atlantic crossing in four hours, arriving before it left London. There is now a Concorde on display at the airport.
In the 1980s, as package tourism arrived, Barbados was quick to respond and less expensive hotels began to appear along the south coast. The two coasts still retain their distinctive feel: the south coast easy, upbeat and unpretentious, the west more mannered and glitzy.
Meanwhile, in the 1990s Barbados discovered fine dining. According to one chef, in the early days, salmon would arrive “deep-frozen, with the elasticity of a cricket bat.” Nowadays, fish comes packed for sous-vide cooking, and local fishermen phone in their catch on their cell phones.
The villas took a new turn too, as visitors fell in love with the island and invested. Properties started to appear on estates, each of which has a specialty. Royal Westmoreland centers on a golf course, Port St Charles and, more recently, Port Ferdinand on their marinas, and Sugar Hill on tennis. Apes Hill was built around a polo pitch (of which there are an improbable four on an island of just 21 by 14 miles).
All this is to say that Barbados has a breadth of appeal few islands can match, and not just for wealthy clientele, but also for travelers with more restricted budgets.
Tourism contributes 12 percent to the nation’s GDP, which stood at $4.5 billion in 2016. Brits make up a high → proportion of visitors at around one-third of the total, with Americans and Canadians also coming in large numbers. Around 14,000 jobs are directly tied to tourism, around one in ten of the island’s workforce. And then there are dependent industries, such as tours and activities, food supply and construction.
Finding the Way
The best way to get a feel for Barbados is to take a drive around the island, which is about twice the size of Washington, DC. This comes with a warning: you will undoubtedly get lost, though this is part of the fun.
First, cruise along the southern coast from Bridgetown, through suburbs called Hastings, Dover and St Lawrence. This is the tourist heartland, with hotels and apartments lining the shore and dotted along the roads. Just inland from here is where the majority of new homes have been built for Bajans, too.
Some of the best beaches are beyond the airport, cut into the coves in the southeast, all stacked sand and luminous turquoise sea: Harrismith, Foul Bay and Bottom Bay. Borrow a cooler and take a picnic from Cutters Deli. Or mosey up the Atlantic coast to the Atlantis Hotel in Bathsheba, whose tables groan twice a week with a West Indian buffet – pumpkin soup, curried fish and candied sweet potato. Or head for the northernmost point, where the restaurant at the Animal Flower Cave has lovely views.
You will drive between rippling 15-foot-high curtains of sugar cane, grown since the 1600s to satisfy the European sweet tooth (and the source of untold misery to those enslaved to work it). Today, the sugar industry is stuttering all over the Caribbean; yet there is currently a revival in sugar’s by-product, rum. Mount Gay, Cockspur and Malibu are made here. Join the Bajans in any rum shop (though never allow yourself to think you might beat them at dominoes) and if you want to tour a distillery, try Four Square or the smaller, delightful St Nicholas Abbey.
Barbados is generally well organized in comparison to some parts of the Caribbean – a fact that both benefits the island and which causes some ribbing from others in the West Indies – and so there are plenty of things to do and places to visit.
The Bajans love their gardens. Perhaps it’s another British legacy, like its parliament and education system, both of which are built on the British model. Even a humble yard will have a tree and a line of plants such as colorfully → variegated crotons, with some hot chili peppers growing at the rear. Hunte’s Gardens, which fill a limestone sinkhole to bursting, and Andromeda above the east coast display fantastic collections of tropical plants.
Finally, you will run down the west coast, with its exceptionally smart hotels, villas and restaurants, winter home to so many extremely wealthy British families. The media moguls and models we hear about are just the tip of the iceberg.
Barbados may not have the vertiginous beauty and explosive greenery of the larger Caribbean islands, nor the bygone charm found elsewhere. It is more developed than that. But what the island sets out to do – provide a reliable getaway at all levels, from bucket and spade to super-luxury – it does like no other.
Eats & Drinks, Sails & Cycles
Every new restaurant opening is an event in Barbados. The most notable arrival is restaurant and beach club Nikki Beach of Florida fame, which has moved into Port Ferdinand, on the west coast north of Speightstown. The beach bar’s trademark white parasols and double daybeds have been laid out around a pool above the sea.
Hugo’s, serving international cuisine in Speightstown, has begun to make a name for itself, as has the nearby Lobster Pot. And the beloved Bomba’s beach bar is back, now painted in red, green and gold.
Among the top restaurants, The Cliff (and The Cliff Beach Club for lunch) are top of the tree, joined by The Tides and Cin Cin. The Lone Star is always fun. On the south shore, Primo in St Lawrence Gap and Champers continue to do a fine job.
Elsewhere, a new catamaran is making waves for its luxury service. The 62-foot The Cat & The Fiddle offers daytime and sunset sails up and down the west coast of the island, with top-notch meals. If you are the active type, then Bike Caribbean near to St Lawrence Gap will guide you along the east coast by cycle.
Of course the crowds shift from bar to bar just as sand shifts on the tide, but the epicenter of evening action is still Holetown (and St Lawrence Gap on the south coast). This year, popular bars include Fusion in Limegrove, popular with Bajans after work as well as with tourists, and West Bar. After an early evening drink, people head for restaurants up and down the coast before returning to round out the night at the Red Door on Second Street.
January to April this year sees the Sugar and Rum Season (which itself forms part of the 2018 Year of Culinary Experiences) highlighting everything from local cuisine to mixology classes, historical lectures and tours of distilleries and great houses.