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Barbados Essentials

Barbados is occasionally called “Little England,” and with good reason. While other Caribbean islands were passed among colonial powers like so many hot potatoes, Barbados flew only one flag — the Union Jack — for over 300 years until it gained independence in 1966. Traces of the British invasion remain in Barbados — in the native tongue, in the cars driving on the left side of the road, in the Anglican churches found in every parish. But perhaps the greatest evidence of the British influence is, well, the British tourists. Barbados is a prime playground for Brits on holiday, not to mention a healthy proportion of Yanks and other international visitors as well.

Away from the big resorts and tourist hot spots, though, Barbados is a thoroughly Caribbean island, complete with lush tropical foliage, colorful chattel houses (moveable houses where plantation workers used to live) and a laid-back, “why hurry?” attitude. Despite heavy development along the western and southern coasts, the rest of the island is full of sweeping natural vistas — from the Atlantic surf pounding the dark cliffs of North Point to the miles of undulating green hills visible from the Cherry Tree Hill viewpoint. The island rewards independent exploration; rent a car or hire a driver to see its unspoiled side.

Though today the sugarcane fields speak more to the island’s past than its present (tourism, not agriculture, now drives the Barbadian economy), visitors can still experience the island’s heritage at a number of traditional plantation houses, or at one of the distilleries where the island’s world-famous rum is still made. If you’d rather skip the history lesson, there are plenty of places to just get away from it all, from the colorful blooms of the Flower Forest to the soft white beaches of the south coast.

Where to Stay

Barbados has a wide range of accommodations, mostly found on the south and west coasts. You’ll find the most affordable options on the busy south coast, with its easy access to the city of Bridgetown and to the island’s international airport; those in search of luxury should head to the splashy all-inclusive resorts on the more serene west coast.

Looking for a splurge? Barbados’ most luxurious resort is Sandy Lane (St. James Parish), on the island’s Platinum Coast. A chauffeured limo brings you from the airport to a Palladian-style mansion on the beach, where amenities include multiple golf courses, a world-class spa, and plasma televisions in every room.

If you’re looking for an all-inclusive experience without the Sandy Lane prices, try one of the island’s two Almond resorts. The sprawling Almond Beach Village (Heywoods, St. Peter Parish), which fronts the Caribbean Sea on Barbados’ west coast, offers a wide variety of recreational opportunities (golf, aqua bikes, squash, snorkeling) as well as a Kids Club that will please everyone from infants to teens. Couples looking for a quieter stay should head down the road to the intimate Almond Beach Club & Spa (Vauxhall, St. James Parish), an adults-only resort with a spa that offers a full complement of treatments from massages to seaweed baths. Guests at either resort can enjoy the facilities at the other for no extra charge.

Just a few minutes outside Bridgetown on the south coast, the Savannah (Hastings, Christ Church Parish) is a gracious beachfront property that offers style and luxury without the all-inclusive extras. The hotel consists of a historic main building, once a 19th-century plantation, flanked by two modern additional wings where some of the hotel’s loveliest rooms can be found. There are two restaurants, two pools, three bars and a spa on site.

You won’t have to pay for any of the fancy extras at Peach and Quiet (Inch Marlow, Christ Church Parish) — just a serene oceanfront location and friendly service from the property’s owners and staff. On site is a reasonably priced restaurant and bar.

A good second choice for travelers on a budget is the Sea-U Guest House (Bathsheba), offering sweeping views of the pounding Atlantic surf from a hilltop on the island’s east coast. This is a perfect place for a true escape — this part of the island is much less developed than the west and south coasts. The hotel offers both studio apartments and a guest cottage. Be aware that the rough Atlantic surf is not safe for swimming — so you’ll have to head to the Caribbean side of the island for snorkeling and bathing.

Where to Eat

In this island nation you can’t escape the seafood — nor would you want to, when it’s so abundant and fresh! One national specialty is the flying fish, which you’ll see fried, grilled or steamed Creole-style. And what better place to eat seafood than on the waterfront — from casual beach bars to elegant fine restaurants overlooking the sea. While you’re here, don’t miss trying classic Bajan drinks like Mount Gay rum or Banks beer.

The Tides (Balmore House, Holetown) offers elegant waterfront dining along Barbados’ Platinum Coast. The view of the placid Caribbean Sea is lovely during the day, but even more romantic is dining in the evening by flickering candlelight, surrounded by tropical greenery and lulled by the gentle lapping of the waves. The food lives up to the setting; try the pave of mahi mahi or the chargrilled veal cutlet, and be sure to save room for the “Tidation” dessert — a sinful, all-chocolate creation.

The Waterfront Cafe is a Bridgetown institution on the waterfront at the Careenage. It’s a great spot to people-watch over a casual lunch, or to listen to live jazz in the evenings. Seafood lovers will enjoy the steamed flying fish or the whole snapper; steaks and pasta are also available. Come on Tuesdays for the Caribbean buffet, accompanied by traditional steel pan music.

At the Fish Pot (Little Good Harbour, St. Peter Parish), a relatively new addition to Barbados’ west coast, wobbly-looking pillars extending out into the Caribbean offer the ultimate waterfront seat. Feeling decadent? Treat yourself to the grilled local lobster.

Cocomo’s (Holetown) is a casual beachfront bar and restaurant with a laid-back vibe and great flying fish sandwiches. It’s one of the more reasonably priced alternatives in this glitzy area of the island.

What to See

Barbados is a mix of natural beauty, British colonial history and Caribbean charm. Rent a car, motor scooter, or bicycle and explore for yourself — and when you’re done, pull up a stretch of beach and make it your own.

The capital city of Bridgetown feels a bit like a miniature, Caribbean-esque London, especially along Broad Street, the main shopping drag. History buffs should head for St. Michael’s Cathedral, the island’s “father” church, and Trafalgar Square. Or take the 45-minute Mount Gay Rum Tour at the rum maker’s Bridgetown visitor’s center.

Ride the electric tram through the otherworldly chambers of Harrison’s Cave, a natural cave where you can see bubbling pools, craggy stalactites and streaming waterfalls. Advance reservations are recommended (call 246-438-6640 or reserve online).

Check out the island’s natural beauty at one of its botanic gardens. Orchid World (Highway 3B, St. George Parish) lives up to its name, with thousands of exquisite blooms. Combination admission is available to both Orchid World and Flower Forest (St. Joseph Parish), where you can see a wider variety of flowers (and, if you’re lucky, a few monkeys!). A bit further afield (but worth the trip) is Andromeda Botanic Gardens (St. Joseph Parish), showcasing palms, orchids and waterfalls with lovely views of the island’s east coast.

Rent a car or hire a driver and head up to gorgeous North Point. On the way you’ll drive through St. Lucy Parish, in the heart of Barbados’ agricultural region; grown here, in addition to the ubiquitous sugar cane, are onions, squash, cucumbers, beans and cotton. At North Point, the Animal Flower Cave (named for sea anemones found in its pools) is one attraction; the view is quite another. Waves bash against dramatic 80-foot stone cliffs, sending spumes of water in all directions.

A good choice for the independent traveler in search of Kodak moments is a drive to Cherry Tree Hill; after winding through a grove of mahogany trees, you’ll come to the second-highest point on the island, overlooking the white-flecked Atlantic surf and a valley nicknamed “Scotland” for its rolling green hills. Then head downhill and continue with a drive along the magnificent Atlantic coastline.

Pick a beach and let the world pass you by. On the southern part of the east coast, Crane Beach, with its cliffs, dunes and pink sand, has received accolades as one of the Caribbean’s prettiest beaches; it’s a great place for body-surfing. For romance and calm waters, check out the stretch of coastline in Holetown between Sandy Lane and Payne’s Beach.

Where to Shop

Most of the shopping in Barbados is in Bridgetown, the capital city, where you can find plenty of duty-free goods, clothing and souvenirs. Authentic Bajan crafts are available not only in Bridgetown but also in other hideaways all over the island.

Prices are duty-free at Cave Shepard and Harrison’s, two Bridgetown department stores that stock a bewildering variety of luxury goods like spices, made-on-island pottery and clothing. (Note: To get the duty-free prices instead of paying the much higher local prices, show your airline ticket or cruise card.) More shopping in Bridgetown can be found along Broad Street.

A few minutes outside downtown Bridgetown is Pelican Village (Princess Alice Highway), housing artisan boutiques and a working cigar factory. It’s closed Sundays.

Earthworks Pottery (Edgehill Heights, St. Thomas Parish) is located mid-island — not exactly convenient, but worth a detour. (Note: You can also buy some of its pieces at Cave Shepherd in Bridgetown.) The studio produces one-of-a-kind ceramic pieces such as vases, microwave-safe dishware and decorative items.

Next door to Earthworks Pottery is the Potter’s House Gallery, located in a blue and white chattel house, where you’ll find Caribbean crafts made out of clay, glass, fabric and metalwork. There’s an adjacent cafe.

There are a number of artsy-crafty souvenir boutiques in Holetown, about halfway up the island’s west coast; we especially like the colorful Chattel Village.

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