Winning tip: Nigel Benn’s aunt’s rum bar, St Andrews
The west coast has plenty of swanky bars but you have to go to a local rum bar to get the authentic Barbados drinking experience. Nigel Benn’s Aunty’s Bar in the north-east was bought by the British boxer Nigel Benn for his exuberant elderly aunt Lucille. Arrange your own transport rather than going with a rum tour group and you’ll have more fun with auntie and her other regulars. Put some reggae on the jukebox, sip a glass of Old Brigand rum from the nearby distillery and listen to some great local stories surrounded by pictures of someone’s favourite nephew.
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Hike the island
Walk with Xtreme Hikers Barbados to experience the island’s varied terrain and escape the tourist traps. The hikes, up to four hours long, suit all fitness levels and are run mornings and evenings. You’ll visit lesser-known beauty spots on the east coast, such as Culpepper Island and Bath beach. At the beginning or end of a hike, attach a visit to this serenely empty beach. It gets busy on bank holidays and weekends but it’s just what you’d imagine a Caribbean beach to be at any other time. Hikes are free but leaders accept donations.
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Free walks off the beaten track
Barbados is stunning walking country but it’s not easy to know where you can safely wander. I recommend joining one of the friendly three-hour guided hikes that run several times a week for free – though a donation to the Barbados National Trust is appreciated. There are a range of difficulty levels, from the six-mile Stop ‘n’ Stare to 12-mile Grin ‘n’ Bear (and these are tough, believe me). The routes are always changing so you can take your pick: a dramatic east coast walk or (my preference) a walk in the tropical interior.
• For a schedule of the walks see barbados.org
Brilliant beach to yourself
Small, secluded Bottom Bay beach in the south-east is hard to get to: either in a ridiculously overpriced rental car or a two-mile tripfrom the nearest bus stop on a nondescript unmarked lane. All of a sudden, it opens up: a few steps past an old Rasta selling coconuts and trinkets “at his office” and you see waves hitting the creamy shore with just enough force for the best body surfing experience of your life. The bay is small, perhaps 150 by 50 feet, sheltered on three sides by small but steep cliffs, with a central group of tall palm trees throwing shade that circles the beach like a sundial. You may have the place to yourself. But don’t forget to settle that coconut price beforehand or it might be $10. For my money, a huge bargain, given the surroundings.
Lo-fi boutique close to the surf
I recommend the beachside MoonRaker Beach Hotel for the budget-conscious traveller. Each room is a mini apartment with a well equipped kitchenette. There are just a few rooms around a lovely pool. There is an on-site bar and restaurant, too, which is great for meeting locals and surfers. It is a little off the beaten track but only a short bus ride into Oistins. We stayed with young kids and they loved it. This is a hidden gem.
• Doubles from $105 a night room-only, moonrakerbarbados.com
Jacobean abbey and rum distillery
One of our most memorable excursions was to St Nicholas Abbey. Not a church, but a mansion built in 1650 for plantation owner Benjamin Berringer. It is one of the few remaining Jacobean homes in the world and has been occupied continuously. It boasts gorgeous gardens with a shady avenue of ancient mahogany trees. There’s a working rum distillery in the grounds. The displays in the on-site Sugar and Slave museum make for uncomfortable viewing, but it was heartening, too, to read of the Bussa slave rebellion of 1816, the largest slave revolt in Barbadian history, which helped pave the way to emancipation.
Fish Friday at Oistins
Every Friday after sunset, the coastal village of Oistins goes crazy for fish. Local housewives and fishermen celebrate the weekly catch by frying and grilling their freshly snared swordfish, mahi-mahi and flying fish along the waterfront. All are welcome and for around $15 you can have a feast with a beer thrown in. The fun goes on to the open-air beat of reggae and calypso all night long. Young, old, men and women come out in a real show of old-fashioned community living, welcoming all comers. You’ll have the beach to yourself on Saturday morning if you wake up before noon.
East coast hike
There are several rewarding walks on the untouristy east coast. Scenic Bathsheba beach is a favourite with surfers, and from there you can follow a section of old railway track (now a hiking trail: the Colin Hudson Great Train Hike) with fabulous views of the Atlantic, to the settlement of Cattlewash. It’s worth making a detour into the forest as you cross Joe’s River, to glimpse another side to Barbados’s natural beauty. Here you’ll be shaded by ancient mahogany trees and palms, and possibly teased, as I was, by the sound of green monkeys calling. Reward yourself with grilled marlin at Dina’s bar back in Bathsheba.
A day at the races
If you’re around on a Saturday, head down to Barbados Turf Club near Bridgetown for some local horse racing (there are about 25 race meetings throughout the year). Held at the Historic Garrison Savannah, tickets are $10 Barbadian and there are plenty of food stalls selling traditional rice and peas, pudding and souse and fried fish, as well as cold beers. It’s a great local atmosphere, and a fun day out away from the beaches.
West coast eating on a budget
The west coast is renowned for its money-munching prices, but we discovered a low-cost place to eat that ditches the glamour and gives you a true taste of Barbados. De Outback Bar & Grill is tucked away in Lower Carlton, just off the coast road. It’s scruffy and basic but the garden you eat in is pretty and the atmosphere is Bajan. Choose the fish of the day and the rum sours and listen to local musicians banging out tunes under the stars. Fun times for minimal dimes.
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