When I first went to Barbados 15 years ago, I had images of polo matches next to sugar-cane fields and afternoon tea at old plantation houses, knowing that the island had been ruled by Britain for 341 years (it won independence in 1966). Instead, I discovered a spring-break fantasy—beach vendors and hair braiders, booze cruises and oceanfront bars. It was even cheap: $400 bought airfare and seven nights at a no-frills hotel.
One day, I snuck onto the beach at the exclusive Sandy Lane resort, where I glimpsed couples who resembled the Howells from Gilligan's Island lounging by the golden sand; surely they had touched down with butlers and Louis Vuitton trunks in tow. It was a scene left over from the high-society heyday (which kicked off in the 1920's and lasted for decades), when Cunard family members docked their yachts in the bustling capital of Bridgetown, former British MP Ronald Tree entertained Sir Winston Churchill at his estate on the privet-lined Platinum Coast, and Hollywood legend Claudette Colbert played the ultimate hostess at her manor next to Sandy Lane. After a new international airport opened in 1979, the island began to attract package tourists. But, as I witnessed, there was a clear divide between the two worlds.
I've returned more than a dozen times since, called back by white-sand beaches, friendly locals (Bajans), and near perfect weather. Barbados has become more all-embracing, offering everything from fish fries and family-run guesthouses to $4,000-a-night villas and white-linen restaurants. These days, it's not surprising to spot a silk-clad Sandy Lane guest eating fried chicken at a roadside stand downtown. Or a couturier selling $2,000 dresses in a chattel house, one of the traditional wooden shacks that dot the landscape. Here, the ultimate guide to Barbados now.
Whoever makes a decent road map could become the island's next millionaire. Street signs are practically nonexistent, and asking islanders for assistance doesn't help; directions differ, depending on where the person providing them is from (west coast residents say they're going "up" to Bridgetown, while east coasters think of the capital as "down island"). Driving here is a test of nerve in any case, since cars use the left-hand lane and pass even on narrow bends. But, because taxis are expensive and difficult to find, it's the best way to explore.
West Coast Opulent mansions and resorts line the Platinum Coast, on the Caribbean side of the island. The dollar signs really flash in the districts of St. James and St. Peter, but even the less populated northern reaches—around the fishing villages of Little Good Harbour and Half Moon Fort, for instance—are going glam.
East Coast Pounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Barbados's windward shore is wild and natural, a panorama of steep cliffs and huge waves, wide fields and lush forests. Most insiders say "the country" is their favorite area. Tiny Bathsheba is the boomtown.
South Coast The road stretching between the "gaps" (hamlets) of Hastings and Oistins provides a snapshot of how tourism can destroy the landscape. Strip malls compete for your attention with condo colonies and noisy pubs. St. Lawrence Gap is an all-night party zone.
Scotland District The sparsely developed northeastern region earned its name for its resemblance to the Highlands.
Bridgetown Wedged between the south and west coasts, Bridgetown is the island's congested capital—and not worth visiting unless you're in the market for duty-free emeralds.
Speightstown Barbados's second-largest town is home to a couple of good restaurants and shops— and not much more. At one time, this west coast port was called Little Bristol.
Holetown Also on the west coast, Barbados's oldest settlement has restaurants lined up cheek by jowl along the main drag.
For such a small island (21 miles long and 14 miles wide), Barbados has an enormous number of hotels. Be prepared: it can take 45 minutes to drive from coast to coast—so in order to experience the entire island, it's best to split your stay between the west and the east. Warning: rates listed below are for the fall season, which ends around December 15 at most properties. Winter rates can be up to twice as much.
TOP HOTELS Hands down, the shining star is Sandy Lane (St. James; 866/444-4080 or 246/444-2000; www.sandylane.com; doubles from $800), where a Bentley is at your disposal. When Sandy Lane reopened in 2001 after a major renovation, it drew heaps of criticism for service flaws. Now that the kinks have been worked out, the only possible complaint is that Sandy Lane is perhaps too over-the-top, with its three golf courses, extensive children's program, beach assistants ready to clean your sunglasses, a five-bedroom villa, and 112 marble-floored rooms—with plasma-screen televisions, no less.
The closest competition is Villa Nova (St. John; 246/433-1524; www.villanovabarbados.com; doubles from $450), a country-house hotel set on 15 acres of landscaped gardens. Built in 1834, the coral-and-stone estate was the former residence of British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden. New owner Lynne Pemberton hired decorator Nina Campbell to dress up the 28 rooms, each of which has a private terrace. Since Villa Nova isn't on the ocean, Pemberton is building a beach house a 10-minute drive away, on the east coast. A small spa is also opening for the winter season.
Some 115 years old, the Crane (St. Philip; 246/423-6220; www.thecrane.com; doubles from $225) was the first resort hotel on Barbados. In the 1970's Oliver Messel revamped the main building; a more recent redo has taken the Crane into prime time, adding three buildings with sprawling mahogany suites and private plunge pools.
The tropical-colonial Cobbler's Cove (Road View, St. Peter; 800/890-6060 or 246/422-2291; www.cobblerscove.com; doubles from $371), a member of the Relais & Châteaux hotel group, is looking a little tired—but guests like it just that way. They're also quite fond of the beachside afternoon tea and the restaurant overseen by Michelin-starred chef Michael Taylor.
TRENDSETTERS Each guest is welcomed to the House (Paynes Bay, St. James; 800/326-6898 or 246/432-5525; www.eleganthotels.com; doubles from $550) with an in-room massage. There's no front desk; instead, your personal "ambassador," a butler-concierge, takes care of everything. The 31 one-bedroom suites were carved out of a low-slung 1960's hotel. Some elements of the former property remain—which explains the odd mix of Asian and colonial furniture. White slipcovered chairs, teak checkerboard sets, and giant urns with flaming torches set the scene in the main area.
With just eight rooms, the Lone Star (Mount Standfast, St. James; 246/419-0599; www.thelonestar.com; doubles from $350) can barely be called a hotel. But this former roadside gas station still manages to attract a fashionable clientele with its Philippe Starck-inspired design. Guests can roll out of bed and be drinking coffee at a table on the beach in as much time as it would take to walk down the hall at a bigger resort.
BOUTIQUE HOTELS Housed in one of the oldest structures on Barbados, the newly opened Little Good Harbour (Shermans, St. Peter; 800/347-9154 or 246/439-3000; www.littlegoodharbourbarbados.com; doubles from $226) is a sweet Bali-meets-Barbados find. The 15 one- to three-bedroom cottages—all with full kitchens—are modeled after chattel houses, but the best rooms are in the 17th-century stone fort.
Just up from Miami Beach on the south coast, the stucco Little Arches (Enterprise Beach Rd., Christ Church; 800/860-8013 or 246/420-4689; www.littlearches.com; doubles from $163) throws in extras, depending on the length of your stay. Two weeks in an ocean-view suite ($269 a night) will get you a free cliffside wedding ceremony.
THE CLASSICS A cluster of high-end hotels falls into the category of lovely place to stay, nothing much to say about it. Sister hotels Coral Reef Club (St. James Beach, St. James; 800/223-1108 or 246/422-2372; www.coralreefbarbados.com; doubles from $330) and the Sandpiper (St. James Beach, St. James; 800/223-1108 or 246/422-2251; www.sandpiperbarbados.com; doubles from $330, including breakfast) have recently been redone with sophisticated fabrics and West Indies-style furniture.
Down the beach, another pair of siblings has had a much-needed update: Fairmont Glitter Bay and Fairmont Royal Pavilion (Porters, St. James; 800/441-1414 or 246/422-5555; www.fairmont.com; Glitter Bay doubles from $339, Royal Pavilion doubles from $389).
BEST VALUES Sea-U (Tent Bay, Bathsheba, St. Joseph; 246/433-9450; www.seaubarbados.com; doubles from $95) is a clean and attractive five-room guesthouse run by Uschi Wetzels, a former travel writer from Germany.
On the tip of the south coast, the Silver Rock Resort (Round Rock, Silver Sands, Christ Church; 800/868-9429 or 246/428-2866; www.gemsbarbados.com; doubles from $100) is a water-sports haven. Windsurfing champion Brian Talma can often be spotted offshore.
At the Coral Sands Beach Resort (Worthing Beach, Christ Church; 800/588-9504 or 246/435-6617; doubles from $158) all the rooms have kitchenettes and overlook the white sand.
Casuarina Beach Club (St. Lawrence Gap, Dover, Christ Church; 800/223-9815 or 246/428-3600; www.casuarina.com; doubles from $110) takes its eco-friendly approach very seriously—guests are asked to recycle in their rooms.
ALL-INCLUSIVE With so much to do on Barbados, it's hard to imagine why anyone would want to stay at an all-inclusive resort. But Almond Beach Club & Spa (St. James; 800/425-6663 or 246/432-7840; www.almondresorts.com; doubles from $500) keeps its fans content with a spa, four bars, three pools, and two restaurants, including Enid's, modeled after a famous local chicken joint with the same name.
TOP RESTAURANTS In recent years, as chefs have found it easier to import ingredients from abroad, the Barbados food scene has taken off. Some claim the catalyst was the Cliff (Derricks, St. James; 246/432-1922; dinner for two $165), which opened on a precipice in 1995 and raised the bar with such innovative combinations as Cajun salmon on a spicy eggplant salsa with Indian curry oil and minted cucumber relish.
The oceanfront Carambola (Derricks, St. James; 246/432-0832; dinner for two $100) puts an Asian spin on seafood dishes. Witness: Vietnamese-style lobster and snow-crab spring rolls with sweet and hot sauce. Owner Robin Walcott guarantees nightly stingray sightings.
What a difference a new location can make. Being moved from a nightclub onto the grounds of the Royal Westmoreland villa development utterly transformed La Terra (Porters, St. James; 246/432-1099; dinner for two $100). Before opening his restaurant, Barbados-born chef Larry Rogers traveled the world, dreaming up recipes such as jerked-pork gnocchi served over a sweet pea purée.
SEASIDE SPLURGES A number of Barbados restaurants supply the perfect combination of fabulous food, beach setting, and flawless service. The sexiest new entry is Daphne's (Paynes Bay, St. James; 246/432-2731; dinner for two $115), from the owners of the House hotel. The dimly lit room has carved Indonesian teak panels and tables surrounded by silk curtains, to ensure privacy. The menu takes its inspiration from Italy, with minestrone di verdure, and linguine and spicy crab.
Casuarina trees grow through the roof at the Tides (Balmore House, Holetown, St. James; 246/432-8356; dinner for two $110), run by Guy and Tammie Beasley, both of whom trained under the Roux brothers at France's Le Gavroche.
Josef's (Waverly House, St. Lawrence Gap, Christ Church; 246/435-8245; dinner for two $150) provides a respite from raucous St. Lawrence Gap. Request a table by the water and indulge in twice-baked goat cheese soufflé, lobster thermidor, and warm rum cake.
Other notable waterfront restaurants include the Fishpot (Shermans, St. Peter; 246/439-2604; dinner for two $100), at Little Good Harbour; La Mer (Port St. Charles, St. Peter; 246/419-2000; dinner for two $125) in a new condominium development; the Eurotrash Lone Star (Mount Standfast, St. James; 246/419-0599; dinner for two $90); and Mango's by the Sea (West End, 2 Queen St., Speightstown; 246/422-0704; dinner for two $60), which has an adjoining gallery.
HOLETOWN HOT SPOTS Don't have a reservation?Not a problem. Just stroll through downtown Holetown, and if you're lucky you'll find an empty table. British chef Scott Ames goes Mediterranean at Olive's Bar & Bistro (Second St.; 246/432-2112; dinner for two $70). The Japanese restaurant Sakura (Second St.; 246/432-5187; dinner for two $75) is the Nobu of Holetown. Blue Rare (First St.; 246/432-6557; dinner for two $75), a new steak house and rum bar, serves USDA prime cuts that will make you forget about fish. In a rainbow-colored chattel house, Angry Annie's (First St.; 246/432-2119; dinner for two $76) dishes up a mean curry.
LUNCH SPOTS Select your meal from the tank at Lobster Alive (Bay St., Bridgetown; 246/435-0305; lunch for two $75), a fish shack that also supplies lobsters to most of the island's restaurants. The best tables are on the sand.
Hidden in the cool highlands above an organic flower farm, Naniki (Suriname, St. Joseph; 246/433-1300; lunch for two $55) uses only fresh ingredients in its dishes, which include stewed conch, seared shrimp with beetroot, and saltfish with ackee.
Two of the best places for flying-fish burgers are Bombas Beach Bar & Restaurant (Paynes Beach, St. James; 246/432-0569; lunch for two $25) and Fisherman's Pub & Beach Bar (Queen St., Speightstown; 246/422-2703; lunch for two $15).
BEST BRUNCHES Fisherpond Great House (St. Thomas; 246/433-1754; brunch for two $65, cash only) is said to be haunted, but the ghosts don't usually come out during Sunday brunch, which has become a who's who of island celebrities. Former hotelier John Chandler has filled the great house with antiques; his wife, Rain, cooks Caribbean specialties like pepperpot stew and guava bread-pudding. Be sure to ask for detailed directions, as the house is extremely difficult to find.
Fisherpond's closest rival is the restaurant at Villa Nova (St. John; 246/433-1524; brunch for two $110), which overlooks the hotel's gardens. Villa Nova serves dinner, but it's better to visit during the day and take a stroll through the grounds.
THE OISTINS FRY In a category all its own is the Friday fish fry in the fishing village of Oistins, an event that creates a traffic jam worse than rush hour in Los Angeles. Tiny fish shacks are arranged all along the water, but the best catch is at the Fishnet Grill (no phone), where Bajans stand in an hours-long line for $7.50 takeout dinners of grilled tuna, snapper, marlin, or swordfish. Grab a $1 Banks beer and a spot at a picnic table. As the night goes on, diners work off the calories dancing to calypso and reggae bands playing along the waterfront.
TOP SPOTS There's a happening night for every club and bar. But since Baku closed this summer, there has been a raging competition to take over the Saturday slot. Some say the prize might go to the new Club Xtreme (Worthing Main Rd., Christ Church; 246/435-4455), but not everyone is up for foam parties. Thursday is the night to be at the nautically themed Ship Inn (St. Lawrence Gap, Christ Church; 246/435-6961), where the reggae band (and island legend) For the People plays. Fridays, head to the Boatyard (Bay St., Bridgetown; 246/436-2622), a colorful outdoor club near downtown. In a chattel house, the pubby Crocodile's Den (Paynes Bay, St. James; 246/432-7625) comes alive on Mondays, as does Harbour Lights (Marina Villa, Upper Bay St., Bridgetown; 246/436-7225), which throws a massive beach party. Throughout the week, crowds gather for margaritas during happy hour at Café Sol (St. Lawrence Gap, Christ Church; 246/435-9531).
COCKTAILS Those after a cosmopolitan scene should try the bar at Daphne's (Paynes Bay, St. James; 246/432-2731) or the upstairs lounge at Olive's (Second St., Holetown; 246/432-2112).
AFTER HOURS Later in the evening, everyone flocks to Baxters Road, in Bridgetown. Also known as the Street that Never Sleeps, Baxters is lined with 24-hour rum shops and roadside chicken stands.
ADVENTURE Sneak in a workout and a plant lesson on a Sunday hike with the Barbados National Trust (246/426-2421), which leads educational tours in unspoiled locations around the island. The free expeditions take off at 6 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. and are split into three groups: choose according to how fast and how far you want to go. Call for directions; itineraries change each week.
Independent hikers can walk along the old Bathsheba-to-Bridgetown train tracks. Built in 1886, this stretch of railway was closed in the 1930's. The section from Bathsheba to Bath, where you can swim in the ocean, takes 90 minutes.
For a look at the island's hilly interior, sign up for a bicycle tour with the Highland Adventure Centre (246/438-8069; 1 1/2-hour tour $45 per person, including transportation, bike rental, and rum punch). The trip ends up on the Atlantic Coast.
Most sailings include snorkeling with turtles off Cobbler's Cove. Tip: the namesake hotel lends masks and fins to its guests. When the tour groups depart, you can swim alone with the mammals.
ENTERTAINMENT Longtime island residents Johnny and Wendy Kidd (supermodel Jodie's parents) open their plantation house every March for the Holders Season festival (Holders Hill, St. James; 246/432-6385; www.holders.net), which brings opera greats like Pavarotti to town.
Operated by the Barbados Astronomical Society, the Harry Bayley Observatory (Clapham, St. Michael; 246/427-0912; $5 per adult) lets you peek at the Southern Hemisphere through a 14-inch Celestron telescope on Friday nights. But be warned: the society operates on island time. The astronomers might be late—or might not show at all.
For another kind of star encounter, catch a first-run flick at one of the Caribbean's last remaining drive-in movie theaters: at Globe Drive-In (Adams Castle, Christ Church; 246/437-0479; $4 for two films), the snack food goes beyond popcorn to rotis and flying-fish burgers.
SIGHTSEEING The best lookout is from St. John's Church (Porthouse, St. John), on the edge of 800-foot Hackleton's Cliff. The 168-year-old stone edifice affords 270-degree views of the island.
Skip the canned plantation-house tours. The Barbados National Trust open houses (246/426-2421; $7.50 per person) unveil a different private residence to the public every Wednesday from mid-January to mid-April.
Celebrating its 300th year, Mount Gay rum is one of Barbados's best-known sugarcane exports. Downtown, the Mount Gay Rum Tour & Gift Shop (Spring Garden Hwy., Bridgetown; 246/425-8757; tours $6 per adult) offers a glimpse into the production process—and free samples afterward. Better yet, arrange for a tour of the actual Mount Gay Rum Distillery in the north of the island.
Though its name may sound cheesy, Orchid World (Hwy. 3B, Groves, St. George; 246/433-0306; admission $7.50 per adult) is anything but. More than 30,000 grow in greenhouses, on trees, and in coconut shells. Go just before closing, about 4:30 p.m., when the sun is starting to set over the surrounding sugarcane fields.
It's over in a snap, but a tour with Bajan Helicopters (Bridgetown Heliport, the wharf, Bridgetown, St. Michael; 246/431-0069; from $100 per person for a 20-minute ride) provides remarkable, though stomach-churning, views. We won't even tell you about the acrobatic tricks over Bathsheba.
The Caribbean's waters are placid, but the golden beaches along the island's west coast are slight (an exception: Mullins Bay, south of Speightstown). The east coast, on the Atlantic, is home to the most gorgeous strands, listed from south to north.
Silver Sands: A windy outcropping ideal for kite surfing. The area holds an annual Waterman Festival every February.
Crane: Ask one of the rasta boys on this wide crescent of talcum sand for an impromptu surfing lesson.
Bottom Bay: Deserted even in high season, the pink-sand cove is surrounded by high cliffs. If you're thirsty, beachboys will split open a coconut for a few dollars.
Bathsheba: Massive boulders are scattered along the shore of this surfing capital.
If even the most luxurious resort won't do, check out the island's wealth of villa rentals. Fustic House (St. Lucy; 246/439-9045; www.bajanservices.com; from $3,000 per night*), an 18th-century sugar plantation, was restored in the 1970's by stage designer Oliver Messel. With its top Bajan chef and space for 11 guests, it appeals to the likes of Liv Tyler and Oprah Winfrey. Sandy Lane Estates (Wimco; 800/932-3222; www.wimco.com) looks like a suburb of Houston, Texas, lined with splashy mansions. One of the top properties is the eight-bedroom, $28,500-a-week Bon Vivant. A Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course is the centerpiece of Royal Westmoreland (St. James; 246/422-4653; www.royalwestmoreland.com; from $8,000 per week), which has palatial two- to seven-room villas and spa services.
*Prices reflect holiday rates.
Avoid Bridgetown's Pelican Craft Centre, an overpriced tourist trap. The linen clothes at Details (252 Mayhoe Ave., Sunset Crest, St. James; 246/432-6566) are perfect for a hot afternoon. Set in a former plantation house, Greenwich House Antiques (St. James; 246/432-1169) has Fiestaware and Wedgwood. La Galerie Antique (Paynes Bay, St. James; 246/432-6094) specializes in vintage linens—and $7,000 four-poster beds. Earthworks Pottery (2 Edghill Heights, St. Thomas; 246/425-0223) is the source for the hand-decorated tableware that shows up in every restaurant. Gourmet Shop (5 Chattel Village, Holetown, 246/432-7711) carries local treats, such as sugar-coated tamarind balls. Shell Gallery (Contentment, Gibbs, St. Peter; 246/422-2593) does the beachcombing for you.
Spa culture was practically nonexistent here until the arrival of the Spa at Sandy Lane (St. James; 246/444-2100; treatments from $70 for a 30-minute herbal linen wrap). The 14 high-tech treatment rooms have heated beds that can be raised and lowered like dentists' chairs; there's also an ice cave for cooling off after a steam. The new Suga Suga Spa (Mullins, St. Peter; 246/419-4507; treatments from $43 for a 45-minute massage) is the next best thing, at about half the price. The top package (facial, massage, manicure, pedicure) takes 3 1/2 hours and costs $142. Suga Suga has a small pool and a lovely beach—a perfect place to spend the day. The Soothing Touch Da Spa (12 Frère Pilgrim, Christ Church; 246/436-9405; treatments from $50 for a 50-minute massage) offers a basic range, including hot-stone massages and clay wraps.
In the Spirit
According to legend, rum was invented here. A 17th-century visitor called it "Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divill...a hott hellish and terrible liquor." Bajans spend the night "old-talking" (reminiscing) in the rum shops. There are roughly 1,600 of these brightly painted shacks. The most popular include John Moore's (Weston, St. James), which the Barbadian PM is rumored to frequent; the crowded Marshalls (Holders Hill); and Gagg's Hill Rum Shop (Gagg's Hill, St. Joseph), known for its jukebox and card games.
The native cuisine is a result of the island's mix of cultures, from English to African.
Flying fish: The national dish of Barbados, this fish—which appears to soar across the water—is tastiest fried and served on a hamburger bun.
Cou-cou: A cornmeal and okra dish that accompanies saltfish stew or flying fish.
Pudding & Souse: A Saturday pig-parts special. Pudding is intestines stuffed with sweet potato and blood; souse, pickled feet.
Saltfish: Dried, salted cod, soaked and softened and made into fritters or fish cakes.
Macaroni pie: Just like it sounds.
Sorrel: Brewed from the sorrel plant, this sweet concoction is consumed on Christmas.
Maubey: The bitter aftertaste of this drink, made from the bark of a West Indian tree, isn't for everyone—but it will cool you off on a hot day.
Lime squash: Bajan lemonade.
Ginger tea: Drunk so hot that it burns your throat, ginger tea is a local cure for the common cold.
The British Were Here
Under crown rule, Barbados was called Little England. Some colonial traditions endure.
Cricket: A national religion. Major matches are held in Kensington Oval (246/436-1397; www.cwcricket.com), where attendees create a racket using cymbals, conch shells, and tin cans.
Polo: Cavalry officers introduced polo to the island in the 19th century. Thursdays and Saturdays, from October to May, international competitions are staged on Holders Hill (St. James; 246/432-1802; $7.50 per adult).
Afternoon tea: The most traditional is at Villa Nova (246/433-1524; tea for two $26). Patisserie Bistro Flindt (First St., Holetown; 246/432-2626; tea for two $68) sells it to go.
Pubs: Expats like the Coach House (Sandy Lane, St. James; 246/432-1163) for Guinness at the long wooden bar.
'The best shop is Simon Peter [Paynes Bay, St. James; 246/236-3294], run by a local designer whose clothes really reflect the mood of Barbados.'
Jodie Kidd, supermodel
'On Barbados, New Year's Eve is called Old Year's Night. Everyone drives to Bathsheba beach with a picnic in tow. We stay up to watch the dawning of the new year.'
Lynne Pemberton, owner, Villa Nova
'When I don't have time for a real lunch, I go to a Chefette drive-through for a chicken roti, an East Indian dish of chicken curry and potato wrapped in dough. It's quick, filling, and good.'
Jerry Edwards, a blender at Mount Gay Rum
'The Sunday night drag show at Ragamuffins [First St., Holetown; 246/432-1295], held in a tiny house, is larger-than-life. But it's a little long, so try to sit near the door and sneak out on the early side.'
Simon Foster, clothing designer