The Sweet Spot: Barbados

by  Lebawit Lily Girma | Apr 30, 2018

Home to world-class rum — discovered here in the 17th century — luxurious boutique hotels, and elegant resorts, Barbados is known for catering to the wealthy traveler in search of a remote Caribbean escape. Barbados has also gained more attention thanks to its island-born superstar Rihanna, who visits home every year.

What Barbados offers, however, isn’t limited to luxury or claims to fame, but rather a bigger punch in Caribbean vacation value. Moreover, a steady dollar currency tied to the US ($1 USD to $2 Bds) and a higher standard of living than most of its Caribbean neighbors means it’s a safer destination to explore on your own.

Nonstop flights were added in 2017 from major U.S. hubs, making Barbados more accessible to North Americans as visitor numbers steadily rise.

Beyond the beach, culturally immersive Bajan experiences abound, highlighting the island’s mix of African and European heritage—visible in its food, music, history, and towns after nearly three centuries of colonial British rule. From historical walks in Bridgetown (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to interactive museums, historic distilleries, sports, and a diverse cuisine — there’s plenty to do in this seemingly small destination.

Once there, no distance is too big to cover across its 11 parishes, whether in a rental car or by bus. The bonus: Barbados sits outside the Atlantic hurricane belt.

The Perfect Time to Visit

Barbados has two seasons: dry and rainy. The dry season generally runs from November to April, when temperatures are at their most comfortable and average 81 degrees, with a frequent Atlantic breeze. Mid-December through February are peak pricing periods and you’ll want to avoid those, as well as August when the crowds descend on Barbados for the culmination of the Crop Over Festival. Low season in Barbados runs from April to October. During this time, you’ll enjoy the same pleasant weather with better deals, especially in April and May — a great time to visit — as well as mid-November through early December.

The Cheapest Option

September through October is the cheapest time to visit. And although it’s tropical storm season, Barbados is geographically located outside the hurricane belt. This means that chances of a major storm hitting this coral island are very low — but you’ll want to keep an eye on the news. Note that the last time a hurricane happened to hit was 1955.

The Smart Place to Stay

Cobblers Cove

Just a 10-minute walk from charming Speighstown, a coastal town on Barbados’ prized west coast, the historic Cobblers’ Cove — member of the Relais & Chateaux collection — celebrated 50 years this April. Originally a 1944 plantation house, its 40 colonial-style, two-story beachside suites are set amid meticulously landscaped tropical gardens. These boast exquisitely furnished and spacious interiors—decorated with locally sourced woods, paintings, and ceramics — including a living room, kitchenette area with stocked fridge, king-sized bedrooms with full dressers and en-suite baths, and a veranda or balcony. The oceanfront Great House Camelot suite stands out for its private rooftop and tub directly overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Camelot restaurant is where a-la-carte and buffet breakfasts are served seaside — included in the rate — as well as chef-prepared dinners to the sound of lapping waves. A reading room space with veranda sets the scene for daily afternoon tea, and sunsets here are legendary. We found the lowest rates at just $330 a night from May through August, and during the first two weeks of December.

Little Arches

Just steps away from local favorite Enterprise Beach — also known as Miami Beach — the adults-only Little Arches offers 10 well-appointed rooms in a Mediterranean-style building with eclectic décor (think abstract murals). Repeatedly award-winning for its food — on site Café Luna serves “pan tropical fare” fusing Caribbean and Mediterranean. There’s a pool on site, and nearby is the Barbados Golf Club. Rates start at $235 in the low season. 

Round House

Perched over the rugged, eastern coastline of Barbados — a breathtaking scenery of coral boulders dotting the beach, and constant Atlantic surf waves rolling in — the historic Round House hotel boasts four uniquely designed rooms. Built in the 1800s, it was originally a train stop on the Barbados Railway of the 1850s. This small hotel is now a favorite of Bajans who come here for lunch or stop by for a swim in the shoreline tidal pools below. Stay overnight to appreciate the value of this small hotel with its unique architectural rooms. Pro-tip: Book Room 3, shaped like a dome and boasting two skylights, shutter windows with a magical 24-hour breeze, and doors opening onto a rooftop terrace with sweeping views over the beach and world-famous surf spots. Dining on-site is just as delightful, with an indoor or outdoor space offering magical views and breezes, and a menu featuring local seafood, homemade quiches, and salads.  Rates begin at $145 a night, and continental breakfast is included. 

What to See and Do

With the Caribbean Sea on the west coast, and the Atlantic hugging Barbados everywhere else, there’s plenty to do for water junkies. Try stand-up paddleboarding or jet boarding on the western Caribbean shores, go scuba diving in Carlisle Bay, or brave the east coast’s famous surf site known as the Soup Bowl. Deep-sea fishing is also a prime pastime, as Barbados’ clear and deep waters are teeming with critters, particularly on the northernmost point of the island, where you’ll catch barracuda, blue marlin, wahoo, or mahi mahi.  

Off water and sand, Barbados offers an equally wide array of activities. Culture buffs and sports aficionados will find it a challenge to fit it all in a week’s stay.  

Rum tasting is a good place to plunge into Barbados’ past and present. Visit St. Nicholas Abbey, set on a magnificent sugar estate in the northern parish of St. Peter, including one of only three Jacobean plantation houses in the Americas. Its on-site boutique distillery produces limited, unblended rum made directly from sugar cane. After watching a short film on Barbados in its days as a British colony and during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, you’ll enjoy tastings, and are free to relax on the garden-surrounded veranda with cocktails or take a tour of the distillery. Another great experience awaits at award-winning Foursquare Rum Distillery, where you can take a free, self-guided tour of the grounds before ending up at the rum bar.

For an even more value-packed cultural experience, hop on a public bus and make your way around a handful of the island’s rum shops; it's said that there are over a thousand across Barbados. John Moore’s iconic wooden shack is a favorite, set directly on Weston beach, a small fishing town, where you can enjoy a cold Banks beer or a rum punch made fresh on site for just $5, while watching the sun go down.

Save at least a half day to explore Bridgetown, Barbados’ capital and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2012, for a historical and sensory-packed experience. Stroll the Careenage, the city’s scenic waterfront, where sailboats and catamarans whisk visitors away for snorkeling trips; for almost three centuries in colonial times, it was where merchant ships docked to unload goods and enslaved Africans. Take in the view of Parliament Square from the waterfront or Careenage, with a clock tower resembling the one in London. Walk down Broad Street, the shopping hub of the city, an exhilarating mélange of duty free stores against second-story buffet-style restaurants serving Bajan dishes. After shopping, have lunch on affordable fresh fish or Bajan soup, al fresco on Ryanne’s restaurant terrace, overlooking the city’s Broad Street.  

You can also book a historical walking tour of Bridgetown with renowned Bajan historian and author Morris Greenidge, who will bring the capital’s streets and alleys to life as you stroll key areas of the historical center. 

For a small island, Barbados’ museums have solid collections and history, from the time of the Arawak to the days of slavery and sugar cane. Stop in at the Barbados Museum & Historical Society, housed in a historic British military prison that was part of the Garrison or Britain’s first permanent, most extensive military base in the Caribbean. You’ll also find a well-stocked library on site with expert books about the island. Move on to the interactive museum at the Nidhe Israel Synagogue, the oldest in the Americas, built in 1654 with an original mikvah, complete with video presentations on the arrival of the Jewish people to the New World, and their contributions to trade and the development of Barbados. History buffs will enjoy the George Washington House and Museum, the only vacation home abroad that then-19 year-old Washington stayed in for six weeks with his half-brother in 1751. The former plantation home is now a museum with period furniture and a top-floor museum displaying fascinating facts on Barbados in colonial times.

Spend a relaxing day in quaint Speightstown (pronounced “spice-town”), the second largest town where the clock seems to have turned back several decades. Stroll the boardwalk to the main beach, shop the artisan galleries in town, and throw back a rum punch over sunset at Fisherman’s Pub, offering a buffet of local delicacies at low prices. A stop at Arlington House Museum is well worth a visit for its history on the town’s schooner culture, spread across three floors, and its interactive audio and visual displays on Bajan sugar cane history. Dine to the sound of crashing waves on Speightstown’s beach at The Lobster Pot.

Barbados’ botanical and flower gardens are part of the island’s British heritage. Hunte’s Gardens, located in St. Joseph, offers a tranquil space teeming with tropical lilies and hummingbirds and welcomes visitors who want to picnic with their own bottle of wine.

If you’re curious about Rihanna’s humble beginnings, head over to the newly renamed Rihanna Drive—formerly Westbury New Road—on the outskirts of Bridgetown, where a plaque honors “Barbados’ Diamond” on the street where she grew up. You can stop by her childhood home for an outside view, and have a drink at one of two rum shops a couple of steps away.

Beach hopping is a bona fide activity, of course, and all beaches are public. The majority have vendors by the entrance for affordable snacks, meals, and drinks. Opt to spend time at local favorites such as Enterprise Beach (also known as Miami Beach) for food trucks, and games of road tennis with locals—a sport native to Barbados and created in the 1930s, similar to table tennis but sans table. Browne’s Beach is another top choice for its spacious, long white-sand undeveloped strip. For a unique experience, head east to Bathsheba—one of the most scenic drives in Barbados, and enjoy an all-you-can-eat traditional West Indian Buffet Lunch at the Atlantic Hotel with music and stunning views of boulders strewn across the beach and crashing waves.

Tips to Save More

Look for airline and hotel specials on social media, and keep an eye on special cultural and outdoor events often organized by Barbados Tourism Marketing as you plan your trip. There’s a new cycling festival in September 2018, for example.

A major advantage is that the public buses in Barbados stop at or near many of the island’s prime sights and attractions, and cost just $1 each way. You can even catch one to the airport if you have time to spare and your flight doesn’t depart early in the morning. Buses run until midnight, though it’s best you stick to daylight hours.

Eat local and save a bundle. Local restaurants, as well as the rum shops, serve home-cooked Bajan food. On Saturdays, ask for a traditional plate of pudding and souse — pickled pork with steamed sweet potato — washed down with rum.   

On Friday evenings, head to Oistin’s Fish Fry in the southeast of Barbados—a big outdoor cookout festival with an authentic Bajan menu, from fish to chicken, and sides like roasted breadfruit, plantains, and macaroni pie. Diners are served on wooden picnic tables across a wide space. Walk it off by visiting the arts and crafts vendors, the dominoes’ playing quarters, or dancing al fresco.

St. Lawrence Gap is where the majority of hotels and tourist-catering restaurants are located — expect high prices. To shop with value, head to Jordan’s local supermarket, located around the island. You can also go to rum shops for your own alcoholic drinks — it’s not hard to find when some of the best Caribbean rum is made on the island. 

Biking is an economical and fun way to explore this relatively flat island. Rent from Bike Caribbean, located in the Gap, with reasonable prices on well-maintained mountain bikes or beach cruisers. They will even drop them off wherever you’re staying, take you on tours, or chart a sample course for you depending on your desired level of difficulty.

Bring your snacks and drinks to a park and relax. Folkestone Marine Park in Holetown faces a family-friendly beach and turtle snorkeling area, as well as greenside picnic tables. Farley Hill National Park, a historical site, has a minimal fee per car and boasts a gorgeous panoramic view over southern Barbados, as well as picnic tables to relax in the shade. A handful of music festivals are held here throughout the year.

Check the local papers upon arrival, and the latest issue of Ins & Outs of Barbados for the week’s latest free events and entertainment.

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