When you think of Barbados, you may have visions of Simon Cowell riding a jet-ski and Rihanna dancing at the colourful Crop Over Festival. But there’s more to this small island than beautiful beaches, rum-swilling parties and celebrity sightings.
For an island of its size, Barbados is bursting with activity and a dizzying array of opportunities for relaxation, exploration and authentic experiences. Not only does it attract visitors in search of some of the Caribbean’s best beaches, restaurants, nightlife and world-class resorts, it also has more than enough to keep history buffs, culture vultures and nature lovers happy.
At a glance
Best time to go
Barbados is a popular year-round destination. With over 3000 hours of sunshine a year and direct flights from London – in just nine hours you’ll be feeling that welcome blast of warmth on your skin as you step off the plane. The dry season runs from December to June and if you travel in April and May you can sneak in between peak season and low season so you’ll get more for your money, avoid the crowds and still get to enjoy glorious weather.
A week is ideal if you want to combine relaxation with a little exploration, but you’ll need two weeks if you want to pack a lot in but still have time to enjoy the easy-going Bajan pace of life (and plenty of rum punch). If you want to explore other Caribbean destinations, then you could twin Barbados with a contrasting island like Dominica or combine it with New York for the ultimate city and beach holiday.
Tempting as it may be to lounge on the beach all day, there is so much to see and do that you’ll be itching to venture out and explore. And it’s easy to get around; you can stroll to shops and restaurants, hire a car – they also drive on the left here, or be chauffeured in an air-conditioned taxi. For a real taste of Bajan culture, hop on one of the renowned yellow reggae buses, which is an experience in itself. Be prepared for a bumpy ride as they whisk you around the island while pumping out dancehall music, and all for just BDS$3-4.
Food and drink
Barbados is one of the culinary capitals of the Caribbean and there’s a real focus on fresh seafood. Don’t be alarmed if you spot dolphin on the menu; you won’t be tucking into an adorable flippered friend but rather what the Bajans call (the slightly less endearing and unsmiling) mahi-mahi. Cou-cou and fried flying fish is the national dish and this tasty mix of polenta-like cornmeal, okra and fish is served with a spicy sauce.
Graze your way through Bridgetown on our Bajan Street Food Tour, accompanied by an expert guide who’ll share the stories behind each delectable dish. The island is famously the home of rum and at the Mount Gay distillery, you can learn how to make rum cocktails and impress your friends with your mixology prowess when you return home.
Bored of full board?
When it comes to dining options, we think Barbados has the edge over some other Caribbean islands. Not only is it unrivalled when it comes to quality dining – from street food to Michelin-star quality restaurants, but as most hotels are close to shops and restaurants, it’s easy to explore local restaurants. And if you enjoy eating out then we recommend room and breakfast instead of full board or all inclusive..
Road-side shacks are a must for fresh crab or fishcakes. Fine dining restaurants on the island are plentiful too. On the west coast, head to The Tides Restaurant for delicious Asian-inspired seafood, or, if you’re pushing the boat out, The Cliff, which has a dramatic clifftop setting and is regarded as one of the world’s top restaurants. Head to the south coast for some of the island’s finest seafood at Champers or for a casual setting and tasty Caribbean bites such as coconut shrimp and Bajan salt cakes, we like Sharkey’s Tropical Café. And on a Friday night don’t miss Oistins’ famous fish fry – locals and tourists mingle at this lively street party and feast on grilled fish washed down with cool Banks beer.
Where to stay
West or south coast?
The popular Platinum Coast on the west of the island is home to Holetown and Speightstown, where you’ll find calm beaches and some of the most luxurious resorts. The super-swanky Sandy Lane is prime celeb-spotting territory and attracts pop royalty, Hollywood hotties and sports stars. And as all beaches in Barbados are public, you can gawp all you like and may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a few famous faces.
Choose boutique and adults-only The House by Elegant Hotels if you seek the finer things in life (like a daily Champagne breakfast). Indulge in the ultimate wellness escape at Waves Hotel and Spa by Elegant Hotels, where you’ll be pampered with up to four spa treatments during your stay (depending on room type and duration).
The House by Elegant Hotels
The south coast is home to the popular St. Lawrence Gap, a strip of restaurants, bars and clubs. You’ll also find bigger waves which are great for water sports, as well as some reef-protected areas for swimming. Excellent all-inclusive resorts here include Sea Breeze Beach House by Ocean Hotels, a beach-chic style resort that’s perfect for both couples and families. Turtle Beach Resort by Elegant Hotels has a great choice of food from Italian favourites to flavour-popping Caribbean fare, plus, you’ll enjoy dine-around privileges at sister Elegant Hotels through their Taste of Elegance Dine Around Programme.
Sea Breeze Beach House by Ocean Hotels
What to see and do
On the road
Hiring a car and driver is a great way to enjoy a different perspective of the island. Your driver will whisk you away from the busy west and you’ll drive through tropical rainforest and past pastel-coloured chattel houses which run the spectrum of the rainbow – peppermint, lemon, peach and hot pink – like the swirling colours of a stick of rock. Watch surfers ride the island’s biggest waves at the renowned Soup Bowl in Bathsheba and admire some of the best views across the island.
Caves and gardens
Surprisingly, many of Barbados’ top attractions are found further inland and even underground. In Harrison’s Cave, an electric tram takes you on a subterranean tour of limestone caverns, lakes and waterfalls – wear a hat if you want to avoid the water dripping from the roof. Barbados’ spectacular gardens offer a shady alternative to days on the beach and the chance to spot monkeys, hummingbirds or mongooses – and in Barbados it’s considered good luck if one of these fast-moving weasel-like creatures runs across the road in front of you. Hunte’s Garden is a tropical paradise set in a sinkhole-like gully in the centre of the island and at nearby Welchman Hall Gully, you can watch green monkeys in their natural habitat. But nature lovers needn’t stray far from their resort as several places, such as Cobblers Cove, Fairmont Royal Pavilion and Colony Club by Elegant Hotels offer tours of their gardens.
Colony Club by Elegant Hotels
Swimming with turtles tops the list of must-do experiences in Barbados. Depending on where you’re staying you can swim out from the beach or head out on a catamaran cruise to find these majestic creatures. Guests at The Fairmont Royal Pavilion, a five-star luxury hotel that oozes old-school elegance, can join a free daily trip to swim with the turtles. On the south coast, turtles can be seen close to shore on Worthing Beach, just down the road from The Gap, while on the west coast, Paynes Bay and Sandy Lane Bay are prime turtle-spotting territories. From mid-May to mid-October you may spot turtles nesting on the shore at aptly named Turtle Beach by Elegant Hotels.
Island of contrasts
Barbados has so much more to offer than beaches and all-inclusive hotels. One day you could be browsing craft stalls for mahogany carvings, while the next you could be treating yourself to a new Burberry handbag. You could find yourself ‘liming’ – a Bajan term for relaxing and hanging out – with locals at a rum shop one minute and then rubbernecking at celebs on Sandy Lane’s beachfront the next. Barbados is the kind of place you can return to again and again and always discover something new.