Imagine sandy beaches shaded by bended palms, warm turquoise seas, luxurious hotels with tropical grounds and your-wish-is-my-command service, and indulgent villas staffed with housekeepers and chefs. Barbados delivers all of that in spades, particularly along its western shores. Dubbed the Platinum Coast, it is where well-heeled Britons, including many celebrities, have been heading in droves for decades to unwind.
But the Caribbean island is so much more than just a glamorous holiday spot to simply flop on a beach or chill by a pool. It has a long and fascinating history. First settled by the English in 1627, Barbados became one of England’s richest colonies – dubbed its jewel in the crown in the Caribbean. It was all due to the sugar cane plantations that covered the island, and the production and exportation of sugar – or white gold as it was called. The fortunes made by the ruling elite were made possible thanks to an enslaved, disposable workforce living in horrific conditions.
Past and present
Fast forward to the present day and Barbados has just finally fully separated itself from its former colonial master. On November 30, 2021, it became the world’s newest republic, removing Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state. The ceremony was timed to coincide with the country’s 55th anniversary of independence. In attendance was Barbadian global superstar Rihanna, who was declared a national hero, as well as the Prince of Wales, who acknowledged the appalling atrocities of slavery the island had suffered under colonial rule.
Aspects of Barbados’ troubling past are apparent as you explore the island. In a roundabout on the outskirts of the capital Bridgetown you pass a monumental statue of Bussa breaking his chains – the slave led a failed revolt in 1816. Gun Hill Signal Station, constructed two years later on high ground near the centre of the island, was one of six lookouts set up across Barbados to warn the British rulers of further uprisings, as well as the approach of enemy ships.
Many of the historic plantation houses are still present. St Nicholas Abbey, set at the end of a drive lined with ancient mahogany trees in the hilly north of the island, is a rare, surviving example of a Jacobean plantation house. It provides a good idea of life for the so-called plantocracy, not least in its absorbing home movie shot in the 1930s. Among the other attractions are a cane-crushing steam mill, rum distillery and steam train ride through the grounds.
To appreciate Barbados’ colonial importance, you should also visit the Garrison in the south of the island. The 150-acre complex, which is set around a scenic horse-racing track, was Britain’s largest military establishment in the region in the late 1700s. You can tour the elegant George Washington House, where the first US president stayed in 1751 with his sick half-brother and explore a section of the network of mysterious tunnels that lie beneath the Garrison complex. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with parts of bustling Bridgetown just up the coast. Don’t miss the Synagogue Historic District in the backstreets. Dating from 1654, the pretty-in-pink synagogue is one of the oldest in the western hemisphere, and the associated museum explains how Jewish settlers from Brazil introduced revolutionary, wind-powered techniques in sugar-cane production to the island. Back in the centre of Bridgetown you can’t miss the elegant, neo-Gothic Parliament Buildings.
Barbados provides explorers much more than just history lessons. Though the island is fairly densely populated, heavily cultivated and lacks the mountains and rainforests that make some other Caribbean islands thrilling, it nonetheless excels in pockets of man-made beauty. Especially so since Barbadians (also known as Bajans) are famously green-fingered – a fondness for gardening is said to be inherited from the British – and every year the Barbados Horticultural Society comes away with an award or two at the Chelsea Flower Show in London.
Several delightful botanic gardens lie hidden away amid the rolling fields of sugar cane of the island’s interior. The pick is Hunte‘s Gardens. Set in a 45m-deep sink hole formed by a collapsed cave, it is a magical world of towering palms and statues nestling in the tropical foliage, with classical music wafting around to enhance the atmosphere.
Nearby PEG Farm and Nature Reserve is also well worth visiting. In a beautiful spot just inland from the wild east coast, it is a leading light in efforts to diversify the island’s agriculture from its centuries-old dependency on sugar cane. You can take an educational tour of the biodynamic farm, or just drop in for breakfast or lunch. Its open-air café, on raised decking and enjoying 360-degree views, serves delicious food using free-range and organic produce from the farm.
Barbados is very much a place where it pays to be a little adventurous, to explore beyond your hotel compound and to engage fully with local life. It feels safe and friendly. While it is a good idea to hire a car for a day or two to explore the interior and take in the wave-bashed east coast, for short journeys consider using public buses. The mini-van versions, which belt out calypso music, are an intense and fun experience.
As well as history and scenery, food is another of Barbados’ big draws. The island aspires to be the culinary capital of the Caribbean. This is in part reflected in its many fine restaurants – more than enough to provide a different, memorable lunch and dinner every day of a two-week stay. Yet part of the island’s gastronomic attraction also rests on all the distinctive Bajan street food specialities on offer. These are the result of numerous cultural influences: African, South and North American, European. As well as sampling some of those fancy restaurants, you should snack on rotis (Chefette, the local fast-food chain, does very decent ones), salt cod fish cakes, and flying fish “cutters” – that’s what Bajans call sandwiches. Some restaurants and cafés oriented to locals serve rich and spicy pepperpot stew or so-called pudding and souse, pickled pork and sweet potato. And part of the satisfaction of eating at Oistins’ famous Fish Fry street party every Friday evening is not just the barbecued lobster, tuna, swordfish, mahi mahi and snapper, but also the accompanying servings of classic sides such as macaroni pie and rice & peas.
Rum little bars
Talking of rum – a spirit made from fermented molasses, a by-product of sugar-refining – Barbados claims to be its birthplace. The island’s most famous distillery, Mount Gay, has been operating since 1703. While there are conventional bars aplenty to sample the national tipple in the south coast’s nightlife hub of St Lawrence Gap and on the west coast in Holetown and Speightstown, to get under the skin of Barbados drop in on one or two of the island’s rum shops. With an estimated 1,500 dotted around the island, they are not hard to find.
The art of 'liming'
These rough-and-ready but colourful bars often double up as little convenience stores and function as community hubs. They are all about ‘liming’ – the local term for hanging out and shooting the breeze – playing dominoes, and of course having a glass or two of rum. Just bear in mind that in traditional rum shops the beverage is sold only in bottles, not by the glass. Thankfully, mini bottles are available, but even so it is best to plan on settling in for a slow-paced afternoon or evening...
One of the island’s top hotels, set around a powder-pink mansion near Speightstown. Intimate and unflashy, it has the feel of an English country house – but with tropical accents. All the elegant and spacious bedrooms are suites.
Road View, Speightstown, St. Peter
Outstanding, family-run, luxury hotel in a prime west-coast spot, behind a sandy inlet a short walk from the centre of lively Holetown. Bedrooms are spread around seven acres of glorious gardens, and Harold’s Beach Bar is a much-loved institution.
Porters, St. James
An early 1900s plantation house on Bridgetown’s outskirts, in an elevated spot surveying the south coast. Peacocks roam the lush grounds, the swimming pool looks like a natural pond and bedrooms are full of antiques.
Brittons New Road, Bridgetown
The luxury resort is amongst the best in the Caribbean. Set amidst, beautiful mahogany trees, it offers unspoilt, white beaches on the west coast, and elegant suites and rooms. There is also a gorgeous five-bedroom villa, a 45-hole golf course and a vast wellness area. Its informal Bajan Blue restaurant has a great lunch buffet on the terrace.
Speightstown, St. James
Small-scale, adults-only hotel on the edge of Oistins, with a chilled vibe, excellent rooftop restaurant (Café Luna) and 10 pretty, individually-designed bedrooms. Across the lane lies idyllic Enterprise Beach, a popular locals’ hangout.
Enterprise Beach Road, Christ Church
Atlantis Historic Inn
One of the few places to stay on the unspoiled and invigorating east coast. Dating back to the late 1800s, the waterfront hotel has a stylish colonial chic look. It also has a good restaurant with a West Indian Sunday buffet lunch.
Tent Bay, St. Joseph
Paul Owens at the Beach House
Possibly the best restaurant in Barbados at the moment. This eatery has a relaxed vibe but the kitchen led by Paul Owens, the former executive chef at The Cliff Restaurant, produces top-notch food. Highly recommended.
Sunset Crest, Holetown
The Lone Star
The restaurant in the five-star hotel of the same name, has a fantastic setting on the beach in St. James, a lounge atmosphere with music plus great Caribbean creations.
Mount Standfast, Porters, St James
Sister restaurant of The Tides, executive chef Antonio Mellino from the two-Michelin starred Quattro Passi has brought the flavours of the Amalfi Coast to Barbados. Highly recommended à la carte Italian cuisine.
Derricks, Saint James
Frequently changing menu, with much of the seafood sourced from the ocean right alongside. Tuck into octopus carpaccio or grilled lobster tail at lunch or later, a cocktail or two under the stars.
Mullins Beach, St Peter
Best restaurant on the south coast. The setting, directly above the ocean, is thrilling, and classic dishes such as lobster risotto and coconut pie with coconut ice-cream hit the mark. An art gallery showcases local artists.
Skeetes Hill, Christ Church
Local & Co.
Showcasing produce supplied by local farms and fishermen this Speightstown restaurant is a leading light in the island’s sustainable farm-to-table movement. Converted from an old coral-stone warehouse, it backs on to a beach.
Queen Street, Speightstown
This modest-looking roadside eatery in Hastings serves creative and spicy Caribbean and Asian dishes. Order bao (steamed Chinese buns) filled with fried chicken or roasted pork, and the sweet potato crusted fish.
Hastings Main Road, Bridgetown
The Fish Pot
Upmarket but casual restaurant occupying a 17th-century coral-stone fort directly above a beach in an off-the-beaten-track fishing community on the north-west coast. Uncomplicated fish dishes and curries are its strength. Good choice for lunch.
Little Good Harbour, Shermans, St.Lucy
Cuz’s Fish Shak
Hands down the best place on Barbados to have a fish cutter (sandwich). The hut, by a car park behind Pebbles Beach, is altogether basic, but the prepared-to-order, marlin-filled rolls are delicious.
Carlisle Bay, Hastings (between Hilton Resort and Radisson Resort)
Oistins Fish Fry
The island’s big weekly street party takes place every Friday evening in the fishing town of Oistins. Crowds come to eat – several dozen stalls grill and fry fish – drink, socialise and dance the night away.
Oistins Bay Gardens, Oistins, Christ Church
A slice of the Côte d’Azur in the Caribbean. Bottles of rosé, boules and a rustic-chic ambience set the tone at Barbados’ coolest beach club. It’s hidden away on pretty Batts Rock Beach, north of Bridgetown.
Batts Rock, St. James
Little Bristol Beach Bar
The most enjoyable drinking spot in Speightstown is a few-frills, easy-going affair, with picnic tables on a wide wooden deck above the town’s beach. Usually live music on Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Queen Street, Speightstown
John Moore Bar
Famous, ramshackle rum shop on the west coast, next to Weston fish market and backing on to a soft-sand beach. Though very much a locals’ hangout, it welcomes tourists.
Hwy 1B, Weston, St. James
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