Barbados is a tale of two coasts: the west draws sunseekers to its famous Caribbean shores, while the east is a frontier for adventure lovers lured by its epic Atlantic surf.
The first and last time I saw Rihanna — in a swimsuit, no less — was at the airport. Her likeness was just behind the customs booth, hanging in a place typically reserved for government leaders.
I had expected to see Barbados's most famous daughter many, many times over the course of my weeklong stay. But I quickly discovered that the locals aren't especially caught up in Rihanna's allure. They'd rather focus on people and places that the rest of the world hasn't already discovered.
Barbados has always been a bit of an outlier in the Caribbean. Geographically, this former British colony is the region's easternmost country, a pear-shaped island jutting far out into the southern Atlantic. (It is so far east, in fact, that it is usually spared by hurricanes.) And though the Caribbean-facing western coast has long been popular with well-heeled Brits who fly in for the polo, the five-star resorts, and the pristine beaches, the windswept, Atlantic-facing eastern coast is still wild and unpolished. It draws a bohemian, international crowd of hippies and outdoorsy types, who come not only for the laid-back pace but also for the spectacular surf — something that few Caribbean islands can claim. The breaks in Barbados may not be on the same level as the Gold Coast of Australia, but the country is slowly gaining international cred, as evidenced by last spring's Barbados Surf Pro, the first-ever professional tournament held there. I came to this underrated surfing paradise to spend time with my dad, Paul, a wave enthusiast who had always tried to lure me, a reluctant sun worshipper, to the beach.
Culturally, Barbados produces proud outliers: people who want to build a life on the island, yet also want their work to be recognized beyond a country so small that when you ask people which neighborhood they're from, they'll give you the specific street. The painter Sheena Rose is one of these outliers. With her statement glasses and ever-changing hair, Rose looks like someone you'd see on the streets of Brooklyn. "I consider myself a Bajan Frida Kahlo," she told me when we met shortly after I landed for a lunch overlooking the sea at the Crane Hotel.
Barbados does not have an art school. Nor is there much of an art scene (most of the galleries cater to tourists who want paintings of sunsets) beyond Rose and her crew of creative friends. And yet Rose is a rising star in the contemporary art world, whose work has appeared at the Venice Biennale and London's Royal Academy of Arts. Venus Williams collects her. Rose earned an MFA from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, which she attended on a Fulbright scholarship. "I feel like an outsider now, after Greensboro," she said, as we drove to her tiny studio. "I don't feel like a full Bajan anymore." Rose still lives with her parents in a middle-class neighborhood of pastel homes faded by the salty air, not far from Bridgetown, the capital city. When we walked in the door, The Andy Griffith Show played on the large TV in the living room, and Rose crouched down to pet one of her three dogs. (Their names are Popcorn, Caramel, and Candy.)
She then took me into her studio — once her brother's bedroom — to see Sweet Gossip, her latest series of paintings. Local black women were drawn in outlines, their faces marked by dabs of color to show how the light hit their skin. And what colors they were: dusky roses, slate blues, dark caramels, olive greens. Some of the women were talking on the phone, others lounged in classic poses like odalisques. The backgrounds and clothing, with their bright geometric patterns, recalled West African batiks or Moroccan tiles.
After oohing and ahhing over the paintings so much that Rose's mom, Elaine, a caterer, started laughing at me, I told Rose on the spot I needed to buy one.
Later, a question occurred to me. "Is it Barbadian or Bajan? Is one preferred by the locals?"
"Not really," Elaine replied.
"Maybe people prefer Bajan, I guess," Rose added. She used my curiosity as an excuse to introduce me to popular local phrases. "There's ‘cheeseon,' which is kind of like saying, ‘Jesus,' and ‘cawblein,' which is if you're surprised or can't believe it."
A taxi driver named Valance picked me up at Rose's home and drove me the hour or so to the town of Bathsheba, the epicenter of the surf scene on the eastern coast. As we passed mahogany trees, a lighthouse, and a rainbow, I got a call from my dad, who was meeting me there and had arrived the night before.
"This place reminds me of Hawaii in the seventies," he said. "And I know because I was in Hawaii in the seventies. I need you to get a bottle of Mount Gay XO rum. Are you writing this all down?"
I answered in the affirmative.
"I didn't know I liked rum, but this stuff is amazing," he said.
Valance and I stopped at a supermarket to pick some up. Barbados is, after all, the birthplace of rum, so I knew it would be good, but I wasn't prepared for the smoky elixir that is Mount Gay, the oldest brand. It's perhaps even more delicious when mixed with passion-fruit juice, bitters, and nutmeg into a punch, which is the welcome drink the Sea-U Guest House, in Bathsheba, serves to arriving visitors. Perched on a hill overlooking the coast, it's the kind of small bed-and-breakfast that attracts adventurous, laid-back guests who don't mind the lack of room service and air-conditioning because they're more interested in finding the best surf spot or chasing a recommendation of a great local yoga instructor.
"I came here twenty years ago as a writer and thought, Well, I don't have to travel anymore," Uschi Wetzels, the German owner of Sea-U, told me. "This place is luscious and remote and yet not that far from civilization."
I was staying in the whitewashed main house, where the six simple rooms have rattan chairs, Patricia Highsmith novels, and beds draped with mosquito nets (which I quickly learned were not entirely decorative and, actually, totally necessary). That evening, Paul and I sat on our shared balcony facing the sea, rum punches in hand.
"Did you surf today?" I asked.
"No. I needed a day to observe," he replied, somewhat elliptically. My dad has been surfing since his early teens and still goes out on the water every week in Santa Cruz, California, where I grew up. As his only child, I was a real failure in the outdoorsy department, spending trips to Kauai bored in hotel rooms reading the Brontë sisters and wishing I were in gray northern England. I have since come to my senses and learned to appreciate tropical vacations, even though I had no intention of getting on a surfboard on this one.
Later on, we walked down the road from Sea-U to dinner at De Garage Bar & Grill, a casual, open-air café. On the way there, we ran into two local surfers named SeaCat and Biggie, who chatted with Paul about their favorite board shapers in San Diego. At the restaurant, soca music blasted, and we ordered grilled whole red snapper with rice and peas to share. The temperature outside was a perfect 80 degrees, and the local Banks beers were ice-cold, which made the fish taste that much better. Dessert was a shared sliver of piña-colada-flavored cheesecake that we devoured in 90 seconds.
The next morning, I drank coffee on the porch to fight my hangover while watching a family of green monkeys jump from tree to tree. I walked down the hill from Sea-U to the beach, which, thankfully, took all of five minutes, stopping to wave hello to Valance, who was driving by in his taxi. At the bottom of the hill was the main road — the only road — with beach houses and rum shacks on one side and the coast on the other. The beach went on for a couple of miles and was strewn with massive limestone boulders that separated it into smaller sections and surf spots, each with its own name. Soup Bowl, the most famous break, is one of Kelly Slater's favorite waves in the world.
"Have you seen a tall, white American guy surfing?" I asked a passerby. He hadn't. Giving up the search for my father, I stopped at Parlour, a beach with tide pools the size of small swimming pools, where an eclectic crowd — a young couple with a baby, a crew of teen girls, a group of middle-aged women — was soaking in the turquoise waters to get a little relief from the heat. We all watched a man fishing for squid and then cheered on someone's dog who had dived into the water.
I eventually found Paul, and we caught up over lunch at Sea Side Bar, a classic island shack that locals frequent to hear cricket matches on the radio and eat a mean mahi-mahi sandwich, heavy on the addictive, just-spicy-enough yellow-pepper sauce that's more ubiquitous on the island than ketchup. Paul filled me in on his trip to Bath Beach, about
half an hour south, with Jason Cole, who owns Paddle Barbados, one of the island's most popular surf outfitters. "Soup Bowl was windy in the morning, so we went down the coast, where the waves were about waist-high," Paul told me. "There are sea urchins and lionfish, so you have to be careful."
One day at Soup Bowl, Paul and I ran into Chelsea Tuach and her mom, Margot. Tuach is an east-coast fixture. Ranked 23rd in the world in women's professional surfing, Tuach is a third-generation Bajan. She's 22, but looks much younger in her braces and jean shorts. "Out here it's a bit of everyone surfing, really," she said in her lilting, almost Irish-sounding accent. "Old guys like Snake who come down for big swells, my generation who go out every day, parents teaching their kids to surf."
While Tuach went out in the water, we sat on raised benches under a sign that read da spot. Paul explained the byzantine and entirely unspoken pecking order that determines which surfer gets which wave. "It's who was there first, but at the same time, the local surfer and the better surfer go first." As both a local and a pro, Tuach would always get priority. We watched as she caught a wave and Paul narrated: "Chelsea up. Boom! Off the lip." A serene moment passed between us. "Who knew I'd ever be sitting and watching surfing with you?" I asked. My dad laughed and patted my head. "I love you."
Our father-daughter serenity lasted until the next day, when we had to drive together. We were leaving the eastern coast for the west, the wild for the more expected, and doing the hour-long road trip ourselves in a rented Suzuki jeep with a canvas roof. In Barbados, which is part of the British commonwealth, driving is on the left. When Paul would veer off the narrow highway so as to avoid cars coming in the other direction, my eyes jumped to the four-foot-deep ditch just inches away from our vehicle — I was terrified that the jeep was going to roll over.
The interior of the island can be dry compared with the jungly eastern coast. We passed small, faded houses and seemingly endless fields of sugarcane until we came to Hunte's Gardens. What sounded like just another tourist attraction turned out to be a lush oasis (and a welcome relief from the tension between us). Bajan horticulturist Anthony Hunte bought this former sugar plantation, which dates back to the 17th century, in 1990; he opened it as one of the world's most unlikely public gardens 10 years ago.
"This is paradise," I shouted to Paul as we parked on the side of the road and walked down the stairs to see this incredible spot in the middle of the rain forest. Spread out before us was an over-the-top, rambling tropical garden built into a sinkhole 150 feet deep and 500 feet across. Paths wound through towering palm trees, red ginger, birds-of-paradise, monsteras, impatiens, and taro that would make any budding horticulturist burn with envy. Sculptures of saints and Buddhas were scattered about. I followed a trail past a giant lobster-claw plant and was surprised to come upon a British family having a proper afternoon tea.
Later, I bumped into Imran, the sole groundskeeper. "We keep it natural," he told me.
"How does it stay so lush but groomed?" I asked.
"Remember, a weed is only a weed if you don't want it there," he replied.
As bewitching as we found these unexpected havens, there comes a time when calm, sandy beaches and climate-controlled hotel rooms call out to you. The Lone Star, a stylish boutique hotel and restaurant on the western coast, was the answer to our prayers.
Purchased in 2013 by the British millionaire and soccer team owner David Whelan, the Lone Star was once a garage and gas station. The old structure is still intact, but it now houses six chic guest rooms, each named for a classic American car. I was in Buick, which was done up in preppy, crisp blue and white and had a terrace the size of my living room in Brooklyn, about 20 feet from the water.
"Now this is the ideal beach for drinking rosé," Paul said. The Lone Star's small stretch of sand runs just the length of the hotel. It is private for guests and never crowded. There were plenty of chaises and umbrellas, but I settled on my terrace, with the bottle of rum punch that the hotel leaves for everyone as a welcome gift. I started a watercolor painting of a potted palm.
Within an hour, Paul resurfaced, dragging a paddleboard down the beach. "This is big enough to land a plane on," he said, by way of invitation. After a few days of watching everyone else stand up on a board, I had decided to give it a go. I attached the leash to my ankle, swam out in the waveless water, and hurled myself onto the board with all the grace of a sea lion. I managed to balance for a few seconds and then fell. Paul stood on the beach, rosé in hand, and shouted instructions I couldn't make out.
That night, we went to dinner at the Lone Star's restaurant, which is one of the most famous on Barbados, for good reason. It's open-air, right on the beach, and decorated all in white. The whole place is reminiscent of something one might find in the south of France, and it attracts a similarly fashionable crowd of men in linen and women in Isabel Marant dresses.
There was plenty of local fish on the menu, but also curries and shepherd's pie for the British lads. Paul ordered snapper, I had the seafood linguine, and we split an exceptional bottle of bone-dry Pouilly-Fuissé. But the high point of the meal was the banana doughnuts with coconut ice cream, rum caramel, and crushed pistachios. The restaurant was so fun and the food so delicious that we couldn't wait to return the following night.
When I woke up the next day, I could see Bajan grannies in shower caps bathing in the water, gossiping as they kept afloat on pool noodles. I swam out into the sea, perhaps a little too far. I could see a lone figure on a paddleboard, a mile or so up the coast. It was Paul, communing with the ocean one last time.
As I swam back to shore, I heard a familiar song playing at the Lone Star's restaurant. "We found love in a hopeless place," sang a plaintive voice coming over the speakers. It was a cover of a Rihanna song, and I was happy to hear it.
The Details: What to Do in Today's Barbados
Fly nonstop to Grantley Adams International Airport from multiple U.S. cities, including New York, Boston, Miami, and Charlotte.
Lone Star Boutique Hotel: A small yet polished boutique hotel on the west coast. Enjoy breakfast on your suite's terrace. Doubles from $2,000.
Sea-U Guest House: The best place for a visit to the island's east coast, this property may not have air-conditioning, but it makes up for it with tropical gardens and unspoiled beaches. Doubles from $179.
Restaurants & Bars
De Garage: Grilled whole fish and piña colada cheesecake at this divey local haunt are made even better by the loud soca music and convivial atmosphere. Bathsheba; 246-433-9521.
Dina's Bar & Café: Sit outside at this multicolored café and indulge in the island's famous rum punch. Main Rd., Bathsheba; 246-433-9726.
L'Azure: Overlooking the pristine Crane Beach, this restaurant at the Crane Resort is arguably the most picturesque on the island. Entrées $23–$58.
Lone Star Restaurant: The all-white décor and extensive wine list make this space at the Lone Star Hotel feel like something from the south of France. Don't skip the banana doughnuts at dessert. Entrées $32–$57.
Sea Side Bar: A classic rum shack on Bathsheba's main drag. Order a fried-fish sandwich with potato wedges and wash it down with Mount Gay rum. 246-831-1961.
Hunte's Gardens: This hidden tropical garden in St. Joseph is built into a sinkhole and will make you feel as though you're encountering a real-life FernGully.
Paddle Barbados: Rent your own paddleboarding gear or have owners Jason and Sarah Cole take you out for a private lesson.
Soup Bowl: Witness surfers of all ages and proficiencies riding the waves at this iconic surf spot, one of the best in the Caribbean. Bathsheba.