We had absolutely no idea what to expect from the Caribbean island of Barbados when my husband and I stepped off the plane for a week's vacation, and we chose it for that very reason. No one we knew had been there, and no two books or travel sites seemed to paint the same picture. At the end of our trip, I finally got it.
Barbados isn't just a place, it's a lifestyle, and a laid-back one at that. An infectious "no problem, no worries" attitude reigns supreme here, and after months of chasing a never-ending string of deadlines, one that I was happy to catch.
Barbados is composed of 12 parishes spanning 21-by-14-miles. It's the easternmost of the Caribbean islands, roughly 200 miles north of South America. We picked a small, quiet resort on Barbados' west side, known for its calm, turquoise waters and upscale restaurants and accommodations.
Barbados has been described as the "most British" of the Caribbean islands, and there's a lot of truth to that. Under British rule until the 1960s, the island is an odd mix of formal British traditions and easygoing island ethos. Think native Bajans (bay-jin) with dreadlocked hair taking high tea in flip-flops each afternoon. Menus offer standard British breakfast fare such as baked beans and chicken livers, cricket is the national sport, and yes, you drive on the "wrong" side of the road. (Precisely why we decided not to rent a car and opted for the safety of a cab.) The island is such a popular destination for UK travelers that rooms are booked up to a year in advance, and stays range from two weeks to three months. Book early.
Our home for the next few days, Treasure Beach resort, is small but luxurious, with 35 suites situated around a lush garden and pool, and an open-air fine dining restaurant that somehow manages to walk the line between casual and five-star. Suites have sitting rooms with open-air fourth walls that shutter at night for privacy. Simple, whitewashed walls, fans, remote-control air conditioning, and spa-worthy bathrooms give the suites here a simple elegance. Impressed with our surroundings, we quickly unpack and run down the steps from our suite to the beach to, as they say, test the waters.
Perhaps it's because I spent summer vacations on the Mississippi gulf coast, but my perception of what a beach should look like is a bit skewed. I'll admit, I've always been pretty skeptical when looking at glossy travel magazines and postcards showing Caribbean destinations where the water was impossibly blue, bordering on turquoise. "Photoshop," I'd sniff.
I've never been so happy to be so wrong.
My husband and I laugh like giddy children as we wade farther and farther from shore.
"Can you still see your feet out there?"
"Feet nothing! I can see individual grains of sand!"
We look like a couple of rubes, but we couldn't care less. It takes everything in our willpower to wade out of the warm, crystal-clear waters and get ready for the evening at the Plantation Theater.
We'd been told that the dinner and show there is a "must" for first-time visitors, so we had high expectations. For a flat fee, guests receive dinner, cocktails, and a stage show. My advice? Skip the dinner, an uninspired buffet of fish-and-chicken fare, and go late for the show. It's an impressive display of music and theatrics, complete with stilt-dancers and fire-eaters.
Exhausted, we head back to Treasure Beach, order a nightcap from the bar on the way back to the room, then swing the shutters open and kick back with our drinks, looking out at the moonlight shining off the water below.
The next day, we're off on a catamaran for a day of snorkeling and exploring. Barbados' pristine waters and abundance of reefs and shipwrecks make it a choice destination for scuba and snorkeling enthusiasts, and after a few minutes floating along the surface above a barnacle-covered boat below, we can see why. Schools of rainbow-colored fish are everywhere, as are huge sea turtles, which, unlike their land-bound brethren, can really move .
Tanned and tired, we head back to the hotel for cocktails with Treasure Beach's manager, Hamish Watson, who is quick with great stories about guests and local characters alike. Most guests, he explains, return year after year, with one thing on their minds — relaxing.
"One of the greatest things I've ever seen as a resort manager happened about two years ago," he recalls. "A man brought his family here for a week's stay, and the wife and kids were having a great time. He, on the other hand, was constantly on his cell phone, walking all around the grounds, pacing by the pool, loudly discussing business he'd left back home. After two days of this, the other guests staged a revolt," Watson continues, his eyes crinkling with laughter at the memory. "The pool guests ganged up on him and threatened to toss his phone into the deep end if he didn't stop talking business. They banished him from the property. That poor man spent three days with his pants legs rolled up about 30 yards from shore, talking on his cell phone. We were taking bets to see how long he could stay out there each day."
We make mental notes to avoid the pool in case of a phone emergency.
After a few days soaking up the sun, we hit Bridgetown, Barbados' capital city and home to the Cheapside Market, lined with both local craft shops and duty-free luxury stores. Convinced that "duty-free" somehow meant "really cheap," I practically sprint in the direction of Tiffany & Co., only to be bitterly disappointed by the price tags. My husband patiently explains the concept of duty-free, informing me gently that shiny baubles cost pretty much the same in Bridgetown as in Germantown. Nevertheless, shopping is shop-ping, and we put in a full day, breaking for an al fresco lunch at the Waterfront Cafe, where we munched on flying fish‚ a Barbados staple.
With temperatures holding steady in the upper 80s and a slight breeze, the climate in Barbados is ideal for almost any type of activity, but beware. Though you might not be roasting in the heat, you are broiling in the sun that close to the equator. I saw more than one unhappy, blistered tourist glumly sucking down rum punch in an effort to relieve the pain.
While you can escape sunburn with a generous daily slathering of sunscreen, there's no escaping the island's passion for rum — in all its forms. With miles upon miles of sugarcane fields and a handful of distilleries, Barbados is the world's largest exporter of the sugary libation, and evidence of its importance to the island is everywhere. (Fun fact: anywhere from 10,000 to 18,000 bottles of rum a day are produced here.) Rum bars line the streets in the heart of more populated cities like Bridgetown and St. Lawrence Gap as well as the most rural farming communities on the northern tip of the island. No more than shacks, these bars serve rum — and only rum — in un-air-conditioned rooms with tin roofs. No need to dress up for a visit to one of the modest bars, heck, no need really to shower. In fact, most bars and restaurants – including the pricey five-star places — opt for overhead fans and open-air patios instead of air-conditioning. After about two days, you barely miss it.
At the halfway mark of the trip, it's time for a venue change. Although we love everything about Treasure Beach, there's more of the island to see, so it's north to the Almond Beach Club and Spa. The Almond is an adults-only hotel, with a nearby sister resort, the Almond Beach Village, that caters to families.
We're greeted by a tropical flower arrangement and fruit basket as we open the door to our suite, which overlooks the water. An ironic twist, there's not much "beach" to the Almond Beach. It's man-made, complete with lounge chairs and a bar that overlooks a tiny sliver of actual beach a few feet below. But with views like the one offered from our suite, we've got no complaints.
I'll admit that the word "spa" in the resort's name sealed the deal when it came time to make accommodation choices. (In a spa-induced frenzy, I suppose this is why the "all-inclusive" detail was overlooked). The Almond Spa is worth the trip alone, and I'm no stranger to spa services. Located in a separate facility within easy walking distance of the suites and pool areas, the spa seemed like another world once the French doors quietly closed behind me. There was, of course, the requisite New-Age music, low lighting, cushy robes and slippers, and fresh flowers galore, but the service was truly outstanding. A facial, pedicure, and a reflexology session (massaging various pressure points on the feet that correspond to various parts of the body) set me back $170 and four hours of vacation time, but was worth it in every way.
That evening, it's off to Champers Restaurant, a fine dining restaurant about 15 miles from the Almond. (If you make plans on various parts of the island, be sure to give yourself plenty of time. The island's infrastructure hasn't quite kept up with the population increase. The two-lane highways are overtaxed with traffic.)
After sunning, snorkeling, shopping, and sipping our way around the rum-soaked St. James area, it's time to see what the rest of the island has to offer. A daylong "safari" is our last order of business. At 8 the next morning, we're picked up by an affable tour guide named Ron and shuttled off in a zebra-striped Land Rover for our six-hour sightseeing adventure, which will take us to all 12 of the island's parishes.
Even with the punishing sun beating down and layers of dust and grime coating us, this is by far the most exciting of our island adventures. We careen down tiny dirt paths carved through sugarcane fields, getting our first glimpses of what the guide describes as "the real Barbados." Tiny, tin-roof homes known as chattel houses dot the landscape, and black-bellied goats graze lazily in side yards. Trees heavy with breadfruit (the troublemaking produce that caused such headaches for Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty ), mangoes, and bananas offer temporary relief from the sun on several rum-punch rest stops (I tell you, there's just no getting around it).
After visiting parish churches, grave-yards, and eighteenth-century windmills and plantation homes, we break for lunch, then head back toward St. James. One final surprise? A quick visit to one of our guide's friends, who just happens to have some friendly monkeys hanging around.
The week has passed more quickly than we could have possibly imagined. Before we even make it back to the airport, we are plotting ways to get back. It'll take a bit of saving up on our part, though. Prices on the island pretty much mirror those here, with the exception of lodging. Since peak season runs from December 15th through April 15th, rates this time of year are considerably lower than in the high season. A night at Treasure Beach in the off-season, for example, will run you about $450 a night, and rates in peak season double. That said, there isn't anywhere on earth I'd rather go than this gem in the Caribbean.
Even if it takes years, we'll definitely return. For now, though, we'll always have a little piece of Barbados with us, as long as our rum supply holds out, anyway.