Bewitching Barbados

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It may be tee-time in British Barbados for honeymooning Tiger Woods, but the hurricane-free isle is the Caribbean's hole in one

There are plenty of reasons to set your sights on Barbados, whose West Indian and British influences give the island a unique culture all its own. In sharp contrast to other resort-laden Caribbean islands, a good chunk of Barbados is still carpeted with sugar cane crops, dotted with the occasional weathered windmill, as well as English churches whose first stones were laid well over three centuries ago.

Vacations there can be as peaceful or as active as you like. Chill out on the pink-and-white sand of the Southern Caribbean with a stiff rum punch in hand, or slap on the snorkeling gear and swim with the green turtles, whose shells can measure up to four feet in diameter. Take your pick.

Tiger Woods may have just tied the knot there to Swedish model Elin Nordegren, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair has already recharged his political batteries twice this year on Barbados, but the island is accessible to those who live outside the spotlight as well. The Barbados Tourism Authority "Best of Barbados" program, for example, helps vacationers by giving them up to $600 (per couple) in discounts on flights, accommodations, dining, car rentals, and tours galore. (Available through Nov. 30.) Despite the fact that Barbados, which sits far outside the hurricane belt, has not had a serious storm sweep across its shores in 50 years, it still suffers by association and muddles along with the rest of the Caribbean in proclaiming early fall as its "low season," which means prices right now are at their best.

From the Harrison Caves to the top-heavy boulders that appear on Bathsheba Beach like giant fantastical spores, Barbados' natural beauty is genuinely astounding, enhanced by the fact that it's easy to be alone there, sitting on the sands and staring at a sunset--that is until you stumble upon a fisherman, a couple of smooching teen-agers, or elderly Bajans out for a walk. In democratic fashion, all of Barbados' beaches are public, and open to tourists and locals alike. The island's egalitarian approach to life also extends to education: Barbados has the third highest literacy rate in the world. Its rigorous schooling shows in the form of low crime, good jobs, and a generally high quality of life.

Barbados' other riches are perhaps more tangible, and owed in large part to Mother Nature. The trade winds blow directly south from Boston to Bridgetown, the island's capital city to form a triangle with London in what was the most active and profitable shipping route of the day. For better or worse, the brisk sugar business brought slaves, produced plantations, and put Barbados on history's map. Underscoring the unique ties between the island and the US is the recently discovered George Washington House in what was the fortified Garrison district--an area that gets surprisingly little attention from tourists. The house where the first president of the United States lived for a year in 1751 when he was 19 is presently being restored with TLC by the Barbados National Trust, and will soon make for one of the most compelling sights on the island.

Accommodations, and the lay of the island

Marriott lovers, Hyatt fans, and Radisson regulars be forewarned; Barbados is blessedly free of chain hotels and mega-resorts. In fact, no building can be higher than a royal palm, or three to four stories. The result of this centuries-old law is a diverse array of privately owned properties, many of them invitingly intimate in size. Barbados has 3,000+ beds, and each side of the island its own distinct reputation, fostered in part by the character of the beaches, and in part by who lives, works, and plays there.

The South Coast, which encompasses the parish of Christ Church, is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, and is a good choice for younger travelers and those on a budget. The atmosphere is lively, mainly due to the tangle of small resorts, beach condos, and comparatively cheap places to eat, with the St. Lawrence Gap being the center of attention when it comes to nightlife. This part of the island, just east and south of Bridgetown, has a good many of guesthouses, a number of which come ready with kitchens for make-it-yourself meals. Here are a few budget lodging options worthy of consideration:

Shells Guesthouse (Worthing)
Friendly spot with eight rooms (and shared baths). A relaxing place where you can afford to chill out for a while. Rooms $25-50/night.

Cleverdale Guesthouse (Worthing)
German-owned property with a communal flair and generous outdoor terrace. Rooms $25-50/night.

DoverBeach Club (Dover)
Casual beachside property with welcome A/C, kitchenettes, and nice sized pool. Rooms $75-100/night. doverbeach.com

Places to Stay

Abbeville Hotel (Rockley) This slightly worm mini-motel makes up for what it lacks in charm with a welcoming staff. There's a pool and a big, busy bar. Rooms $25-50/night.

Casuarina Beach Club(St. Lawrence Gap) Attractive full-service resort with tennis courts, pool, and tour desk. There's also a great collection of local art. Rooms from $160/night.

Anchoring the Gold Coast primo spot is Sandy Lane, Barbados' grand-daddy of luxurious stays--and the site of Tiger's wedding. For years, the refined resort has attracted the very rich, as well as the famous that come for its gourmet meals (they're true fruits de mer feasts), Roman-style spa, golf on three impeccable courses, and all-around fine living. Even with $800/night rooms, Sandy Lane commands a healthy clientele of repeat visitors, which includes many families who land there for a full two weeks over Christmas, considered the island's high season. Its wide beach, which is shaded with gracious ancient trees, however, anyone can enjoy.

Places to Eat

It's a well-known fact that McDonald's failed miserably on Barbados. As one local explained, "Islanders are suspicious of beef. Cows are so big, but give us fish, chicken, or pork and we're happy." Just as you won't see monster hotels on Barbados, you won't see many chain restaurants either (except for Chefette, Barbados' answer to KFC-meets-ice cream parlor.)

Bajans eat well, and the island dishes up a range of culinary experiences. Flying fish is one of the most usual suspects on menus at Caribbean joints (first marinated in lime, salt and herbs, then broiled, grilled or seared), but high-falutin' French eateries serving dorado au poivre are almost just as common.

Those who delight in island delicacies will want to keep their eyes peeled for street-side stalls serving such delicious (if greasy) snacks as conch fritters, fried kingfish, and grilled pigtails ($2). Just sidle up, and place your order to go, or hang out and listen to calypso on the radio while you order seconds.

At night, the sidewalks come alive with food vendors. The pedestrian strip between Rockley Beach and Worthing south of Bridgetown is a good bet. There, you'll also find the Ship Inn, an English pub that's been around for decades--think pints of stout and shepherd's pie, but it also serves a mean rum punch ($5) and flying fish and chips ($13).

Nearby David's Place is good for real-deal Caribbean fare for those on a budget. Tuck into dinners of pickled chicken wings and Bajan fish dishes served with fiery pepper pot for all of $20.In the blink-and-you'll-pass-it fishing enclave on Mullen's Beach just north of St. Charles on the West Coast, the family-run Fish Pot restaurant serving gourmet dishes mainly featuring daily catches in a breezy, beachside dining room. The Fish Pot's not near much else, but is worth the drive, or taxi ride to get there. Dinners at this sweet out-of-the-way spot will run you about $30.

Other recommendations include: The Cliff (very romantic and pricey with dramatic torch-lit dining, cliffside), Daphne's (Italian in a stylish setting), Sasafras, Carambola (French), Joseph's, La Mer (International), and Sugar Sugar.

Barbados by air

Barbados sits about 300 miles northeast of Venezuela. Cruise ships do visit the island's lauded shores, but for most people hopping on an airplane is the easiest (and cheapest) way to get to the West Indian isle, especially if you can nab a nonstop flight.

From the East Coast, the five-hour flight is a straight shot south; expect to spend more time on a plane (and more money) from the West Coast. American, which flies daily nonstops from NYC and Miami has a good hold on air travel to Barbados, but so does BWIA with Dallas added as a nonstop gateway. Air Jamaica flies from all of these cities, as well as Chicago and Los Angeles. US Airways, too, is making inroads in the skies over Barbados. The Barbados government requires visitors to pay a $13 departure tax when they leave (both Barbados dollars and US greenbacks are accepted).

For travel post-hurricane season in mid-November, the best prices on round-trip airfare (weekend to weekend) to Barbados are as follows:

$523--Atlanta

$402--Boston

$464--Chicago

$613--Dallas

$573--Denver

$519--Kansas City

$593--Los Angeles

$366--Miami

$419--New York City

$620--Seattle

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