It’s easy to see why Bar­ba­dos has long been fa­vored as an es­cape to the sun


Es­cape to the sun in Bar­ba­dos

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

Bar­ba­dos has a breadth of ap­peal few is­lands can match, and not just for wealthy clien­tele

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

What the is­land sets out to do – pro­vide a re­li­able get­away at all lev­els – it does like no other

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.

ABOVE LEFT: At­lantis Ho­tel, BathshebaABOVE: Colour­ful Speight­stown

TOP: Lie back and en­joy the view at Cob­bler's Cove ABOVE: St Ni­cholas Abbey rum dis­tillery

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