Caribbean 101: Barbados - My Family Travels

The eastern Caribbean island of Barbados is especially accommodating to families because of its excellent infrastrucure and plenty of attractions for all ages.

If you fantasize about lying in the shade of a palm while the kids frolic safely in the sand, welcome to Barbados, where the citizens speak English and the frangipani-scented warmth of the tropics is offset by trade winds.

The locals aren’t restless; they’re well educated and self-sufficient with a lifestyle that’s familiar — if a bit more formal than America’s — after three centuries of British Colonial rule. In fact, since Barbados became independent in 1966 it has remained such a popular holiday spot that during the beautiful plane’s supersonic lifetime, there was regular Concorde service from London and New York.

If you’re concerned about traveling to the Caribbean with young children or elder parents, rest assured that good roads, excellent medical care and weekly polo matches await.

A Proud History

The size of Maine, Barbados lies to the northeast of Venezuela surrounded by the gentle Caribbean Sea to the west, and the roiling Atlantic to the east. Tourist facilities are concentrated on the hard-packed sand beach studded with coral that fronts the Caribbean. The hilly east coast has beautiful, broad sand beaches punctuated by limestone outcroppings and a smattering of smaller lodges favored by expert surfers and deep sea fishermen.

In 1536, the Portuguese named this deserted island draped in the roots of native fig trees Los Barbados, the Bearded Ones. Nearly a hundred years later the British arrived, toting tobacco and cotton to be planted in the new Parish of St. James. When these crops failed, sugar became the island’s staple.

After abolition in Great Britain, thousands of enslaved plantation hands remained here as free citizens. Native Bajans (pronounced BAY-jenz) have adapted many British customs, some patronizing the island’s 900 churches, some the 1100 rum shops, and all taking tea, playing cricket, and watching polo.

Crop Over Symbolizes Barbados Today

The island’s most popular festival — for its colors, style, music, food — is the annual Crop Over each summer.  Crop Over dates back to the 1780s when Barbados was one of the world’s foremost sugar producers.

Crop Over typically spans approximately 14 weeks during May, June, July and August. The festivities commemorate the end of the sugar cane season with an exciting and vibrant extravaganza of music and masquerade, heritage and culture, and its a huge tourist magnet.

Families may prefer to visit earlier during the festival, when activities are less crowded. Crop Over begins with the Super Six Cavalcades in May, continues into the summer with a variety of Heritage Fairs highlighting artists and their crafts, and culminates in August with big stage shows boasting pyrotechnics, flashing lights and booming sound systems.

During the final three days of Crop Over, Spring Garden Highway is the heart of the festival. The entire stretch of road is converted to a bustling marketplace of arts and crafts, traditional foods, plus entertainment including steel bands, dance groups, folk performers, gospel singers and calypsonians.

The grand finale, and a universally celebrated national holiday, is known as Kadooment Day. This summer street carnival occurs the last Monday of Crop Over, usually in early August. The streets fill with people consumed by ‘festival fever’, dancing to Caribbean soca music and wearing spectacular, multicolored costumes and body paint. Fireworks light the skies.

Around the Island

Those prone to sightseeing may want to rent a car: you’ll need a Visitors License and must drive on the left, exit to the right, and heed the flashing traffic lights which tell other drivers to cross first. After you’ve dropped grandparents off to play 18 holes at the celebrated Royal Westmoreland Golf Course, head to the Barbados Wildlife Reserve (open daily 10am-5pm) where everyone can admire tropical birds under a netted aviary or visit the green monkeys who came here with African slaves 350 years ago. Kids love the sun-bathing Cuban iguanas, turtles, free-roaming peacocks, and the ubiquitous black-bellied sheep seen from the Reserve heights.

Crossing the north coast on the inland highway you’ll pass mahogany trees crowned with stunning orange flowers. If the whitewashed, windmill-like structures dotting the green landscape catch your fancy, stop at the Morgan Lewis Sugar Mill, one of the few extant mills offering tours. The sugar harvest begins in February and ends with Kadooment, a Calypso band parade which caps the summertime Crop-Over Festival at the end of the season. There are wonderful festivals almost monthly, so check with the Barbados Tourist Office before setting your travel dates.

The Round House Inn Restaurant and Bar (246/433-9673) makes a very scenic lunch spot before exploring Bathsheba, the surfing center on the east coast. Be sure to stop and admire some of the preserved chattel houses, steep-roofed wooden cottages with jalousie windows that could be easily transported to a new plantation. (Slaves who were sold up North exported this design to the Charleston, South Carolina area.)

The capital of Bridgetown has little historic charm, but makes up for it with interesting places to spend your allowance, such as the Cave Shepherd Department Store, Laurie Dash toy store (for cricket gear and British children’s books), the Public Market and the Temple Yard crafts market.

Two of the better organized tours are the ‘Barbados’ Most Popular Tour’ by Jeep offered by Island Safari Tours ( 246/429-5337) and the Sunbury Plantation House tours given by the Barbados National Trust.

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