It's Better in Barbados - My Family Travels

Friendly locals, broad sand beaches, fine resorts and an array of activities for all ages make this Caribbean isle in the British West Indies a top value getaway.

“An eyeful ‘en a bellyful…” Roughly translated, the Bajan proverb (Barbadians are called Bajans) means ‘having a good look at something does not provide the kind of satisfaction derived from eating it.’ True, there is no shortage of dreamy, colorful images of this eastern-most Caribbean island. Picture-perfect photos of the turquoise waters or of trees pregnant with mangoes and breadfruit peer out from travel magazines. The pastel painted homes that dot the island with an eye-teasing, mind-pleasing beauty grace too many tourism brochures.

Ah, but to be in Barbados is a different story; a former English colony (it received its independence only in 1966) it’s not only laid back, it’s especially friendly. The Bajans didn’t reject their Colonial masters the way some of the islands did, and so it seems the lack of resentment made possible a warmth and friendliness to travelers that is unique and a joy to experience.

Barbados from the Back Seat

The best way to see the island, largely made up of coral, rolling hills and with two coasts as different from each other as they are from the rather dense interior, is not to rent a car.

Fodor’s Caribbean makes the observation that “it’s a pleasure to drive in Barbados,” and notes only parenthetically (one line) to remember to drive on the left hand side and observe the many “round abouts” or as we call them, Rotaries.

I happen to think that anyone who feels he can drive easily with the steering wheel on the “passenger’s side” and driving on the left, on roads that are well paved but very narrow, is either in serious denial or has nerves of steel.

The best way without a doubt to see the island is on an Island Safari. Am I making this up? Listen to what the Pollen family from Great Britain with 2 children (9 and 11) say: “We found the Jungle Safari absolutely brilliant. Our driver was ‘Q’ and we feel he made the experience thrilling, informative, and great fun. The children especially enjoyed the rough terrain, and the way the Land Rover bounced them around in the back. We saw a lot of the Country we wouldn’t have seen, as we didn’t feel confident enough to hire a car, and are sure that we saw a lot more than most as they knew exactly where to take us to get the best impression of Barbados.”

After all, the drivers stop off and pick cotton, showing the local flowers and providing a non-stop commentary. As Mr. Pollen says, “We’d recommend it to anyone, old and young alike!” The 4×4 Land Rovers zoom along gullies, plunge into otherwise inaccessible places, get into the forest and then climb hills to look over cliffs at some of the most sunning beauty imaginable – an Atlantic Ocean on the East and the blue Caribbean Sea on the West. In between are numerous palm trees, vivid bougainvillea, sugar cane fields and now and again, green monkeys.

Most visitors to the island only see the coasts; but the safari trips get deep into the island. The Bajan guides are witty, good looking, very knowledgeable and skilled drivers. Believe me. It’s quite fascinating to pull up to an old, beautifully preserved church and have these apparently “care free dudes” explain in detail the construction, and how walls are a mix of egg shells, coral and molasses, and so on.

Around the Island

Driving you’ll pass many sugar cane fields. It’s the chief export of Barbados, and the reason for so much slavery in these islands. The sugar plantation owners prospered while the slaves suffered. At one point there were 30 Black slaves to every White, and it’s amazing to consider that such a small group of privileged people profited from the misery of so many. Slavery was abolished in 1834 – some 29 years before the States, and today 93% of Bajans are of African ancestry.

Sugar cane is still king. The world uses Barbados sugar cane for Rum, molasses and sweeteners. Free standing sugar mills from a by-gone age still dot the island, and the guides talk freely about those dark and troubled times. Now and again an old Sugar Mill, a concrete structure of some elegance catches the eye. The Almond Beach Resort grounds has one of the best on the island. It’s odd how pastel-colored rum shops always exist next to a church. You’re invited to drop in and join the locals as they sip super rum and discuss politics or maybe the sermon.

Though not included in a safari, be sure to visit Harrison’s Cave (246/438-6640/41/43). As noted, the island is heavily coral, some of it fragile, with a large number of impressive caves, often filled with the surging surf. Harrison’s is some special kind of cave, with a nearly-mile-long guided cave trip through stalactites and stalagmites glistening off the indirect light. Reservations only.

Bridgetown Beckons

The island is divided into eleven parishes, all of them British as in: St. Michael; St. George; Christ Church and so on. Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, is on the southern section of the West Coast and very much worth a day’s visit, or more. For some, the city will just appear to be another overcrowded, bustling Caribbean city, cleaner than most and reasonably attractive. But for those willing to explore and give up a day at the beach, Bridgetown has a lot to offer.

It’s rather modern with several recently built banks and insurance companies and the like. And, yes, there are lots of Tax-Free shops selling diamonds and clothing by Liz Claiborne and Tommy Hilfiger. But the town doesn’t have that “made for tourists” look typical of, say, St. Maarten, where the only justification for the city’s existence is to sell to tourists. Wander the streets of Bridgetown for an authentic West Indies experience. Get into the Marketplace, buy some mangoes or well- made sandals or bunches of bananas (often called “figs”). Stop at any of the small restaurants for a snack to get the flavor of the Caribbean, just as you’re supposed to.

The Sunbury Plantation House (246/423-6270) is a 25 minute drive from Bridgetown in the tranquil St. Phillip countryside. Look for the sign just before Six Cross Roads. The Plantation is a classically restored 18th-century Barbadian sugar estate “Great House” functioning as a museum. The main attraction is the elegant dining room that serves a candlelight dinner around a 200-year-old mahogany table, twice a week. Diners sit in the midst of a wonderful collection of antiques, china, silver, old prints and the Caribbean’s finest collection of antique carriages, while sampling the very savory fillet of Dorado, Calypso chicken, guava ice cream and a range of other delicacies. A buffet lunch is available in the open courtyard downstairs. When we were there, one of the Caribbean’s famous torrential rain storms swept in. But sitting under the narrow wooden roof, eating fresh flying fish, plantation vegetables, macaroni pie and tropical ice cream, who cared. The rain fell in sheets, and the palm trees flailed about helplessly, but it was a grand Barbadian day!

Night Time Is For Kids, Too

Partying is a Caribbean ritual. Drinks can be expensive, though the US dollar is strong. While I prefer a quiet stroll on the beach or a beer under the stars, I do have to recommend two “must do’s.” You can safely bring the kids, too.

1) The Tropical Spectacular (246/428-5048) is basically a dinner theatre serving a very good buffet, free drinks all night, and showing a very good intro to the dance and rhythms of the islands. The steel band is a dynamic and talented group, but the live show is a terrific presentation of all the variations of Carnival Dances from the Bahamians to Trinidad and Tobago. The dancers are beautiful; the costumes’ flared and feathered constructions and hot colors run the riot of tropical plumage. At the end of the show, “Ms. Limbo” appears in all her pink and costumed glory. She sets the limbo bar ablaze, creates a circle of fire around her – and what may qualify as one of the undiscovered wonders of the dance world, she actually limbos under the fiery pole starting from four-feet-way down to a mere 14 inches off the floor! Awesome and graceful. The stunned audience quickly recover their surprise and break out into a well-deserved applause, after which they rush to the floor and pass the night away dancing to the steel band. Fun. A smattering of kids was having as much fun as their parents (maybe more) and while it was a commercial event, it was very satisfying.

2) You must not miss the Friday or Saturday evening Fish Fry at Oistins, in the south part of the island. If I had to shoot a cover for a Bajan or Caribbean magazine, I’d shoot Oistins. This collection of ramshackle, brightly colored shacks on the water is where to go for real Bajan food and atmosphere. Open fires sear freshly caught fish, and pots of rice and beans bubble away on crude stoves. Patrons sit on mismatched chairs along rough tables, laughing, drinking and enjoying the platters of coleslaw, barbeque and plantains. And, of course, the fish. Drop into the shanty called Mo’s. She’s cool and the food is, well, hot. And the music blares. A real fun night out and very authentic. Too bad it’s just two nights a week.

There’s more of course to Barbados. There is to most cultures if you get past the vacation mind-set and get into traveler mode. Likely, though, it’s the Bajans themselves that make this place so special. They care and that’s the best of the Caribbean.

Family Resorts & Beyond

Almond Village (407/872-2220 or 246/422-4900), for example, where I stayed, is an all-inclusive resort for families, but not just for families. Located in the west coast’s Speightstown, St. Peter and formerly known as the Almond Beach, it snuggles along side a sweeping, sinuous Caribbean beach. The resort’s different buildings, all open-air, are connected by a series of spraying fountains, archways and pools (nine of them) that unify the property, providing lots of space, yet providing ways for guests and families (mostly from the UK) to connect and enjoy themselves.

What impressed me was the easy, un-selfconscious camaraderie among the staff, the kids, families, and guests in general. Family activities were intelligent and well planned. They were balanced in a way that provided glimpses into Bajan values and life style as well as plain fun. Calypso and limbo dancing alternated with trips to the Wildlife Reserve; a “Taste of Barbados” provided a sampling of local food (great fish), while hikes, beach activity, pool time, free time, story and puppet time were all designed for various age groups. Cricket and Bajan jewelry-making seemed especially popular with the “older” crowd – meaning kids from 11 up to my age! Cocoa-skinned Bajans with easy laughs and lilting speech built sand castles with pale-skinned guests, a glimpse into a way of life that still has me wondering why it seems so easy there and so difficult here.

The resort’s three restaurants each have a Kids Menu. The Reef has a variety of fresh, home-made pizza all day long – as well as burgers, fruit and salads. Meals are included in the rates, and even the buffets are quite good. I was impressed that the chef came out to ask how my dinner was, as I dined on Sea Bass and Bajan vegetables. He stood a moment or two to be sure he saw me enjoying my meal.

A family-owned and run hotel, fit for families or anyone on a budget, is the Coconut Court Beach Hotel (246/427-1655) in Hastings. I spent some time on the property, meeting the management, and was impressed with the energy and spirit. The beach is a few feet away, and it’s endless. The bar was active and the atmosphere decidedly up-beat. A bit cramped perhaps but well managed.

The island boats some truly elegant, stylish hotels as well as some very posh (usually well-hidden) private homes and upscale properties. There are also some very simple and gracious small guest house-type places tucked into corners of the island that are very attractive.

For example, The Coral Reef Club (246/422-2372) and The Sandpiper (246/422-2251) are classy places. Clearly The Sandpiper lives up to its billing as “one of the most exclusive small hotels in the West Indies – a perfect vacation hideaway on the West coast of Barbados.” I can compare it to Playa Careyas in Mexico, a multi-leveled terraced affair with lush gardens and dramatic flowering plants that edge walkways leading down to the bay, where the water is about as crystalline as it gets.

But “classy” doesn’t mean expensive. Neither place was, and negotiating a price is strongly recommended. Thinking of living like a native by renting a property or villa? Good idea. Check out Bajan Services Real Estate and you can save a lot there, too.

So, it’s a travelers’ market on Barbados with good bargains for those willing and able to bargain.

Insiders’ Tips to Barbados

  • Bajans speak that delightfully inflected English that’s often more musical than decipherable. But you’ll get it, Mon.
  • Leave the Driving to Them! Island Safari (246/429-5337) They boast that they go “to places even Barbadians rarely get to,” and I believe them. On IS trips, lunch is included at the purple, pink and blue cottage-like restaurant, the Chattle Bar and Restaurant next to the Sandridge Beach Hotel in Speightstown. Highland Outdoor Tours (246/438-8069) is another safari tour operator offering horse back riding and mountain bike riding safaris recommended to me.
  • The Barbados Tourism Authority is very helpful too. (800/221-9831, 212/986-6516/8 or 246/427-2623″)
  • The currency is the Barbadian Dollar trading at about 2 Barbadian for 1 US. US currency accepted and discounted. ATM machines are plentiful.
  • Calling long distance in the Caribbean is expensive. Internet cafes are starting to pop up in Barbados for e-mail and other Internet needs.

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