If you need an antidote to all that is grey and monotonous in life, then Barbados is it. It’s hard not to OD on superlatives when describing this Caribbean island, as it truly is breathtakingly beautiful, fascinatingly interesting and brilliantly friendly.
Phew, see what we mean? On top of that, there’s no need to decide if you want a bar-filled party holiday or something more outdoorsy and active, because in Barbados you’ll want to do both. Here’s what you can’t miss.
There are some travel cliches we’re happy not to be challenged on and the image of a daydream-perfect Caribbean beach is one of those. Well fear not, you’ll find that beach in Barbados.
Because it lies between the Atlantic and Caribbean oceans, the coastline of Barbados varies vastly round the island and you can go from rugged, dramatic cliffs to impeccably smooth sand in a short drive.
On the Atlantic side of the island the coastline is gloriously undeveloped. Cliffs separate dramatic beaches and, although the crashing waves mean that not everywhere is ideal for swimming, it’s here that you’ll find Barbados’ best beaches.
Don’t miss Crane Beach, a stretch of white sand overlooked by craggy cliffs. You can reach it from the swanky Crane Beach Hotel and it’s worth spoiling yourself with a cocktail on the ocean-overlooking veranda before taking the lift – surreally carved into the cliff – down for a swim.
For amazing, rocky views and undisturbed walks, check out the north coast. A series of coves contain winding tunnels and secret caves which can be explored at low tide.
The west coast of Barbados is the island’s most developed – as beautiful as the long, sandy beaches are, they tend to be lined with resorts, bars and restaurants. If you prefer a bit more seclusion, try Prospect Beach.
Explore the island’s history
Like the other Caribbean islands, Barbados was brutally shaped by the slave trade. From the mid 1600s, large numbers of West Africans were brought over to work on the sugar plantations and the current ethnic composition of the island began to emerge.
Slavery was finally abolished in Barbados in 1838, but physical reminders of the trade remain.
Many of the grand old houses built on profits from the sugar plantations are still standing. George Washington House is a good place to begin exploring this sadly not-so-distant time.
The house where America’s first president, a slave-owner himself, once stayed has been reconstructed to show how the moneyed classes once lived.
Wine-cooling rooms and four-poster beds testify to a cushy existence which makes the collection of manacles, chains and barbed neck collars – used to restrain slaves – all the more shocking.
After emancipation, slaves were still tied to plantation owners through a tenantry system and were not able to own land. To get around this, workers invented an early prototype of the mobile home – a simple wooden house set on cement blocks that could easily be dismantled and moved from one plantation to another.
You can spot chattel houses all over the island and many are still lived in.
In more touristy areas, such as St Lawrence Gap, the houses have been dollified, painted bright colours and made into craft shops.
Get active – land or sea
You’re allowed a couple of days lying around with a rum-induced hangover on a trip to Barbados, but there’s too much to do to spend your visit in a coma.
If you like hiking, visit the island’s Scotland District, so-called by homesick settlers as it supposedly reminded them of their homeland. There are hills, but the resemblance stops there and you certainly won’t need an Aran jumper as you climb the palm-covered slopes.
If you’re not feeling up to using your own legs for transport then throwing yourself on a horse could be the way to go.
Many of the treks take in beaches, so you can suss out good sunbathing spots for the next day.
Part of the Barbados adventure lies under its waves. Unlike its volcanic neighbours, the island is formed mainly of coral, making for spectacular diving and snorkelling.
Along the south and west coasts, you can visit both deep and shallow reefs abundant with bright coral and exotic fish. There are also several shallow wrecks to dive, which are teaming with sealife.
Perhaps most exciting of Barbados’ ocean pursuits is the chance to encounter hawksbill and leatherback turtles in the wild. Once endangered, they are now protected and in some monitored areas have become comfortable enough with humans to swim with us.
Take a boat trip to snorkel with the turtles; seeing these gentle other-worldly creatures up close will be one of the highlights of your life.
Barbados party guide
At Oistins Fish Fry on Friday nights the fishing town’s market comes to life. Flying fish is fried at wooden stalls and served with delicious sweet potato, macaroni pie or coleslaw. Once you’ve chowed down, get on your feet and dance to some soca (the frenetic child of soul and calypso). Equally entertaining is watching the older folk ballroom dancing outside Lexies bar – it’s memorably surreal.
Barbados’ annual carnival is worth planning your trip around. The build up lasts for weeks and culminates in a flamboyant parade – Grand Kadooment – with thousands of costumed, feathered dancers giving it their booty-shaking all to the sounds of Crop Over’s calypso anthems.
Baxters Road, Bridgetown
To hang out with locals, get down to Baxters Road where the party carries on until daylight. Bars are ramshackle, fun and friendly. Food is cooked up on the side of the street, so there’s plenty to soak up your rum and coke if you’re hungry.
The Boatyard beachclub opens day and night for open-air mischief. On Tuesday and Saturday you pay a cover charge then drink all you want, so things get messy. Harbour Lights is smaller but equally fun and also caters for booze-loving tourists.
St Lawrence Gap
St Lawrence Gap is a touristy but pretty strip of bars, restaurants and clubs on the south coast. There’s loads on at night here and even though it’s hectic, the vibe is laid back.
Barbados’ natural wonders
You’ll feel as if you’re on another planet as you enter this cool, echoing labyrinth of chambers and tunnels. Fantastical shaped stalactites and stalagmites made of white calcite create shapes that look like people and animals. In one cave a 12-metre waterfall cascades into an emerald pool and a river pours through another. You can take a tram through the huge subterranean caverns.
Barbados Wildlife Reserve
Visit this haven for Barbados’ most colourful and exotic animals, many of which are endangered. Happily, there are few cages so you can watch animals living freely in the stunning mahogany forest. Expect to see green monkeys, parrots, flamingos, iguanas, turtles and snakes. Take a guided tour or just wander around.
Andromeda Botanical Gardens
On a hillside overlooking the coastline, the breathtaking gardens showcase a dazzling array of flora. Highlights include an ancient, giant bearded fig tree and a hibiscus garden which attracts the tiny, native hummingbirds which are always so magical to spot.
WHEN TO GO: It’s warm all year round with temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees. Tropical rains occur from June to October.
GETTING THERE: British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly direct to Barbados.
GETTING AROUND: It’s easiest to rent a car if you want to explore, although you’ll need a visitor’s driving permit (BBD$10). You can also hire a bike or scooter or arrange a guided jeep tour of the island.
VISAS: If you’re from Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, you don’t need a visa to visit Barbados.
CURRENCY: Barbados dollars. 1 GBP = 3.18 BBD. Most places also accept US dollars.
GOING OUT: A beer costs between 2 and 6 BBD depending where you drink.
ACCOMMODATION: A B&B in a family home costs from £20 a night. Get a list from visitbarbados.org.
GET MORE INFO AT: visitbarbados.org
» Frankie Mullin flew to Barbados with British Airways (ba.com) and stayed at the Southern Palms hotel (southernpalms.net). For more information about Barbados see visitbarbados.org.