Great Escapes: The Calm, Formidable Beauty of Barbados

Barbados offers the Caribbean's crisp blue waters and white sands.

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Lots of Americans know about Barbados—its name conjures sparkling blue seas, immaculate beaches and swaying palms—but few actually go. Other closer Caribbean isles, like the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, tend to dominate the U.S. market. But Americans are missing out. Barbados, with its numerous pristine beaches, friendly, clean townships, and spectacular diving and dining, is one of the Caribbean’s loveliest islands (not to mention one of the safest from hurricanes). In comparison to its neighbors, there are few things that are unique about Barbados–it has, in spades, the expected Caribbean draws of beach, sand, surf, and rum. Rather, it is that Barbados does it all so well. And with a number of new high-end developments coming in, now is a great time to visit. 

Twenty-one miles long, Barbados lies on the southeastern end of the Caribbean in the Lesser Antilles. The pear-shaped island is relatively flat with green rolling hills and miles of farmland, much of it dominated by sugarcane. Mount Hillaby, the highest point on the island, reaches 340 meters above sea level. Settled by various indigenous groups since at least the 4th century A.D., Barbados eventually became a British colony, cherished by the Crown for its fertile soils that proved perfect for sugarcane. Enslaved Africans were imported in mass to work on the plantations, which led to several large and historic revolts. In the 1960s, Barbados gained independence, though it remains part of the British Commonwealth. 

Outside of Bridgetown, the colorful capital and largest urban area, the country is rather rural, made up of cozy townships with names like Holetown, Oistins, and Speightstown. With nearly 300,000 residents, the island is a friendly, welcoming place, boasting one of the lowest crime rates in the Caribbean. English is the national tongue, though locals also speak a Creole dialect known as Bajan. Most Barbadians are of the Afro-Caribbean ethnicity, though there is a significant number of European descendants as well. There are also many British tourists and expats. 

An aerial view of Port Ferdinand.

Port Ferdinand

STAY

Compared to many of its overdeveloped neighbors, Barbados has relatively few five-star hotels. The traditional go-to for high-end travelers has been Sandy Lane, which sits on an enormous coastal property with a golf course.

For something newer and more intimate, book a room at Port Ferdinand, a gorgeous collection of villas set around a yacht marina, on the beachy West Coast, also known as the Platinum Coast. From there, one can take a water taxi to its sister property, Saint Peter’s Bay, which is a more family-friendly hotel, with a great pool, powdery beach, and apartment-sized villas. 

EAT & DRINK

Dining is a delight in Barbados. One of the newest restaurants on the island is Hugo’s, which serves up top-notch Caribbean fare with a fine-dining twist; think grilled octopus with breadfruit crumble and soused chayote. Wonderful Italian with a heavy seafood focus can be found at Daphne’s, which boasts spectacular ocean views. For some high-end comfort food in casual but photo-worthy surroundings, check out the open-aired Chrysalis Cafe on PEG Farm and Nature Reserve, a delicious farm-to-table experience (don’t skip the pulled-pork papaya pancakes). And Dockside at 13°/59°, the elegant waterside restaurant at Port Ferdinand, which specializes in inventive Mediterrean-inspired food like local Rabbit ballotine pan-roasted in prosciutto, is superb. 

The country where rum is said to have been created offers ample tipple. There are countless rum distilleries on the island, but one which certainly should not be missed is St. Nicholas Abbey, a sprawling distillery and sugarcane plantation dating back to 1660. Beyond exploring the delightful, bird-dotted grounds and historic plantation house, one must take a ride on the newly launched heritage railway. The 20-minute journey on a restored 19th-century steam train takes you to the top of Cherry Hill, which boasts some of the most spectacular views of the island. Back on the coast, enjoy a sunset rum punch at La Cabane, a casual but refined pop-up beach bar run by two Frenchmen that is very popular with locals.

Paddleboarding along the shore at St. Peter's Bay.

St. Peter's bay

For a more upscale, old-school spot, try The Cliff Beach Club, revered for both its dishes and cocktails. A place nowhere near the beach but offering marvelous martinis is Scarlet, a dimly-lit, sexy lounge. 

EXPERIENCE 

Sunbathers will find no lack of opportunity in Barbados. But for those wanting something more active, there is plenty to do. One well-kept secret of the island is its stupendous surfing. Mellow, numerous and warm, Barbadian waves are perfect for beginners. Take lessons with Paradise Surf School, which is run by professional surfer and Barbados local Bruce Mackie. Afterward, snag a fish cutter sandwich at the famous Cuz’s Fish Stand, which is cash-only. At the northern tip of the island, in the parish of St. Lucy, gawk at giant, candy-blue waves smashing against dramatic cliffs; there is the popular Animal Flower Cave here as well. Diving in the waters off Barbados, which abound in shipwrecks, is superb. 

Barbados Blue Watersports, located near the Hilton, offers fun, professional tours, including to the island’s largest shipwreck, a Greek freighter from the ’50s known as the Stav. For nature-lovers, take a stroll through four acres of mahogany forest at the Barbados Wildlife Reserve, keeping an eye out for peacocks, tortoises and the island’s iconic green monkey. 

The writer was hosted by Port Ferdinand. 


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