The Most Magical Tropical Garden in the Caribbean Is Hiding in a Sinkhole in Someone’s Backyard — and You Can Visit
In central Barbados, you’ll find a different kind of tranquility than what the white-sand beaches and bright waters offer.
On a sunny — albeit a tad humid — Barbados morning, with white sand skirting gently over the teal-hued shoreline mere steps outside my room at charming boutique resort The House, I headed to a botanical garden in the central part of the island. Without knowing much about the popular attraction, I had a vague sense it must be special if people are willing to tear themselves away from languid sips of tropical cocktails on cushioned lounge chairs to go. Almost immediately after stepping through the gates of Hunte’s Gardens, I was charmed by the cavernous, lush greenery sprawling around me, and it all made sense.
The West Coast of Barbados, where some of the most luxurious resorts are, can be quite manicured – which, of course, is part of the appeal of planning a relaxing getaway there. Coming from one of those pristine, impeccably accommodating resorts myself made Hunte’s tropical masterpiece even more of an unexpected respite I never anticipated wanting. (Who expects to need a break from a luxury beach vacation?) Nosediving into a collage of greens, bright reds, and all things wild, I meandered down the pathways of Hunte’s Gardens, losing a sense of size and scale in only two acres of forestry.
While monkeys' feet crunch through the brush 10 feet away, visitors work their way through a maze of local plant life in a space that feels organic, overgrown, and unkempt in all the best ways — like a lost civilization you’ve somehow stumbled upon and now have as a secret garden all to yourself. The funny thing is, the garden and the mini gardens within are anything but haphazard. Horticulturist (AKA plant wizard) Anthony Hunte has been meticulously plotting and maintaining his backyard, a sinkhole-like gully, since 1990, when he bought 10 acres of a former sugar cane plantation in the Saint Joseph parish of Barbados. In 2007, Hunte opened his gardens to the public “because I had the largest collection of tropical plants in the Caribbean as well as contacts to get more varieties from the tropical world,” he told Travel + Leisure. “Plants mature quickly in the tropics, so mature gardens do not take forever.”
On the edges of the concave garden, where different varieties of plants bloom all year round, large stone buildings matching the splendor of the landscape peek out over the flowers and trees. The buildings, which are hundreds of years old, are updated remnants of the historic plantation — creating the optimal canvas for his vision.
“I’ve always wanted to show the best garden in the West Indies. The sinkhole in which I created the garden is millions of years old and had the most wonderful selection of royal palms. I added other varieties of palms to create a cathedral with a very very high canopy," said Hunte, whose full title became Mr. Anthony Hunte BCH when he was awarded the Barbados Centennial Honour for horticultural excellence.
Footpaths made of leaf-imprinted stones circle the dreamscape bowl, leading guests to hidden hideaways and quaint resting spots nestled throughout Hunte’s creation. The esteemed horticulturist has created intentional experiences within his exotic paradise, each special enough that he has no single favorite spot or plant. “Plants are my children and grandchildren and I love them all,” Hunte professes. “I’ve placed groupings by the various patios so you can relax and enjoy different types of tropical foliage and flowers in each area.”
Antique stone tables and benches dot the land, inviting you to sit and simply enjoy, and the worn-down statues and plant pots in vintage styles add to the impression of a life once lived on the land before the plants and animals took over. It’s possible even to recapture some childlike wonder here, getting lost in a make-believe life where you, a dedicated anthropologist, have amazingly chanced into your magnum opus. Fueling this cinematic daydream, classical and opera music waft from somewhere unseen in Hunte’s house and over the garden, through the leaves, adding texture to the open spaces and gaps in foliage. “There is always the sound of birds and the wind in the palms along with lovely classical music,” Hunte said.
When you’re done discovering the more than 84 plants and animals — on your own time, of course — you’re invited toward the music and into Hunte’s house, which looks more like an artistic greenhouse than a conventional home. Hunte’s rooms have large leaves and flowers seeping in through open gaps where windows and screens might have once been, and hanging plants drape down overhead in an otherworldly dining room fit for a fairy queen and her trusted disciples. “I converted the old stables into a living area,” Hunte said. “It has a 1934 grand piano that is kept tuned for visitors to play. The furniture, some of it hundreds of years old, comes from old plantation houses in the area.”
On one of the stone ledges just outside, you might catch Hunte’s pet cat, Miss Marbles, peacefully basking in the beams of sunlight creating marbled shadows over his fur and the wicker patio pieces on which he’s splayed.
In Hunte’s house, earthy and manmade elements bleed together, somehow simultaneously depicting a one-of-a-kind artifact and lived-in home where real dinners with regular people take place. The entire property is luxurious, warm, and welcoming. Choose a seat on the back porch with your favorite view and order a classic Barbadian rum punch, the cherry atop a magical experience.
One of the best times to visit Hunte’s Gardens is in the morning soon after it opens at 9 a.m., when the Caribbean sun isn’t at its hottest and the tall trees can still offer effective shade. Getting there early will also give you the best odds of experiencing the property in relative solitude. “The light changes throughout the day, but the morning and afternoon light and cooler temperatures are better for photographers,” Hunte said. “I’d say just after I open at 9 in the morning and from 3 to 5 are the best times.”
Tickets cost $15 and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be greeted at the front entrance by Mr. Hunte himself, happily working away in his garden like any other homeowner.