When I tell people I’m from Barbados, I usually get some variation of the same response. “Ooh, paradise,” they say, as they conjure up coconut trees, tropical drinks, bright sunshine and foam-crested azure waves.
But on an island where holidays can come at shockingly high prices, this idea of paradise feels woefully beyond the reach of the average traveller. However, as every Bajan knows, the charms of this tiny coral island between the Caribbean and the Atlantic can be unlocked without breaking the bank at a luxury hotel or being limited by a package deal.
There are plenty of charming low-cost hotels, cheap-and-cheerful eateries and bars, under-the-radar beaches and free or low-cost fun activities to be enjoyed if you know where to look.
WHAT TO DO
Take a hike
Barbados doesn’t have soaring peaks, waterfalls, rivers or tropical rainforests like some of its neighbours. Nevertheless, it is a tropical island, and its vegetation can be lush, wild, and breathtakingly beautiful. Hike Barbados is a local organisation that conducts free hikes through less accessible areas. Its three-hour hikes run throughout the year, with morning walks starting at 6am, afternoon walks at 3.30pm, and moonlight walks at 5.30pm.
Watch the sun sunrise at Farley Hill
At least once during every visit to Barbados, we get up 45 minutes before dawn and drive to Farley Hill national park to watch the sunrise. Farley Hill, a ruined plantation house, is worth a visit on its own merits, but try sitting atop the hill in its grounds overlooking the Atlantic one cool morning, and watch the sky gradually lighten before the sun finally makes its dramatic appearance. All the while, blackbirds and wood doves lend their approval to this feat of nature, as the wind whistles through the large casuarina trees along the hilltop’s ridge. It’s an unforgettable experience. And although it’s an isolated spot, it’s quite safe. On our last visit we noticed the park has added an overnight security guard at the entrance.
Catch a drive-in movie
I grew up going to open-air, drive-in cinemas, so was surprised to find they’re not the norm everywhere. There’s still one in Barbados, the Globe Drive-In in Vauxhall, and I always go when I’m home because it’s a unique experience. Tickets are £6. If your accommodation will permit it, take blankets and pillows for a picnic under the stars while you watch your flick. You’ll be almost entirely among locals, and when the film reaches a dramatic moment – like the satisfying death of a villain – be ready for the chorus of car horns beeping their approval.
See the Christmas parade
If you have the good fortune to be in Barbados in the festive season, head to Queens Park in the capital, Bridgetown, on Christmas morning, where dressed up people promenade in a ritual going back over 100 years. The park, formerly the grounds of the Commander of the British troops in the West Indies, was acquired by the government in the early 1900s. In 1907 it commissioned the Royal Barbados Police Band to hold free morning Christmas concerts to establish it as a people’s park. You’ll be blown away by the colourful and outlandish outfits, sexy Santa costumes and splendid ballgowns. Walking around in 30C heat, rum punch in hand, caught up in the festivity of a tropical Christmas, sums up for me the meaning of peace on Earth and goodwill to all men.
Barbados has some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean and although in recent years erosion has taken its toll, there are still many unspoilt gems. The key is to choose a beach based on what you want to do, or not do.
The west coast of Barbados is fringed by the calm Caribbean, so is ideal for relaxing. I have a few favourites here, but Paradise Beach is my top pick. It gets its name from a hotel that was here until the 1980s. With its closure, and efforts to open another hotel stalled for years, it’s an oasis of peace, interrupted only by the occasional boat or jet ski. Most visitors have no idea the beach exists – you get there by walking south from neighbouring Batts Rock Beach – but it’s a wonderful place for relaxing, swimming and enjoying the peace.
My second-favourite beach on this coast is a great place to try jet skiing, sailing and waterskiing, and for finding a boat to go swimming with hawksbill and leatherback turtles. There are organised tours from £80, but the many local operators of jet skis and boats will do deals for around half that for a 30-minute excursion, including snorkelling equipment. Paynes Bay is a short walk from the Sandy Lane Hotel beach, for some discreet spotting of celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Wahlberg, and Naomi Watts.
For a more meditative beach experience head just south of Bridgetown. The water in this sheltered bay is quite still, making it an excellent place for standup paddleboarding (SUP). Paddle Barbados offers classes at £50 for a 90-minute group class, and SUP Yoga at £30 for a 75-minute class.
WHERE TO EAT
Eating out in Barbados can be very expensive, and food costs can exceed those of accommodation. Happily, though, there are plenty of good inexpensive eateries on both sides of the island.
Sand Dunes Bar and Restaurant, Windy Hill
This restaurant on the island’s rugged east coast is one of my favourites. The food is simple and unpretentious but fresh and full of flavour. The menu changes daily and consists of local favourites such as breadfruit coucou (mashed with butter and milk), salt fish with gravy, and a salad or side vegetables. There may also be fried flying fish served with rice and peas, and macaroni pie. A full meal will cost around £12 a head.
• Ermy Bourne Highway, Windy Hill, +1 246 422 9427
Animal Flower Cave, North Point
Aside from the delicious, if slightly pricy, food – rotis from £13, salads from £10 – what makes this restaurant stand out is its location on the cliffs of North Point, where between December and April humpback whales can be spotted playing in the surf. Beneath the restaurant is the island’s only accessible sea cave, Animal Flower cave, known for its fascinating sea anemones (animal flowers). Guided visits adult £8, child £4.
• +1 246 439 8797, animalflowercave.com
Orange Street Grocer, Speightstown
Bajans are not big coffee drinkers, but a handful of places serve really good coffee, and this beautifully designed cafe, with a large terrace overlooking the ocean, is one of them. It’s a great place to start the morning or watch the sun go down in the evening. It serves salads, pizza and other light fare, but I find these a little pricey, so usually stick to coffee and one of their tasty desserts, which cost around £6.
Cuz’s Fish Shack, near Pebbles Beach
Even if you’re not staying on the south coast, pay a visit to this colourful and somewhat ramshackle Barbadian equivalent of a food truck. Cuz first became a favourite among divers and surfers on nearby Pebbles Beach. The “cutters” – the local term for any sandwich made using a bun known as salt bread – are filled with fried steakfish, tomato, lettuce, Bajan pepper sauce and a bit of mayo, with optional toppings of cheese or a fried egg. They cost £2–£5 and are delicious with a cold Banks beer or a Plus, an energy drink made from sugar cane.
• On Facebook
WHERE TO DRINK
Rum shops, everywhere
Bajans like to boast that Barbados is the birthplace of rum. Records show that the honour might actually belong to Brazil, but Barbados is the unrivalled champion of the rum shop scene in the Caribbean – they have been part of our landscape for more than 300 years. They come in every shape, colour and size, and are much more than just a bar: they’re a place for friends to meet, drink, talk politics, tell jokes, and play dominoes. And they are incredibly cheap. In general, a beer costs about £1.50, a rum punch (a deliciously refreshing concoction of rum, lime juice, sugar cane syrup, a splash of Angostura Bitters and a scrape of nutmeg) is £4, and a small bottle of rum is just £2. The best approach is to simply walk into any shop that catches your fancy – they are convivial places where everyone is welcomed.
One Love Bar, Holetown
On one of my return visits, I wandered into this bar with my husband Andrew. I’d never been there before, but we were tired and needed a break from the heat. We ordered two bottles of Plus, and were promptly told by one of the patrons, who was already pretty plastered at 3pm, that men don’t drink Plus. He then proceeded to pour Andrew some of his white rum, and there followed a pleasant afternoon of aimless, good-natured chatter and much drinking. One Love Bar is a bit of an anomaly among the expensive restaurants and swanky boutiques of the west coast, and we’re always relieved when we return to see it still there going strong.
• 1st Street, Holetown, on Facebook
Bay Tavern, Martin’s Bay
Bajans come from all corners to this east coast fishing village to “lime” (hang out) and “fire a rum”. Thursday afternoons are particularly popular, so stop by then as it has a real party atmosphere. It also does lunch and dinner. Local dishes, grilled marlin, rice and peas and fried plantain, say, are delicious at around £10.
• On Facebook
WHERE TO STAY
South Gap Hotel, St Lawrence Gap
The south coast of Barbados has a party reputation, so this is the place for those whose idea of a perfect holiday involves frequent nights out. The South Gap is a modern hotel with pool, restaurant and bar in St Lawrence Gap, a lively 1.3 km stretch of road in the parish of Christ Church. A studio for two with balcony and mini kitchen costs from £100 B&B.
Becky’s by the Sea, Fitts Village
Just across the road from the beach in Fitts Village on the west coast, this modern guesthouse has two en suite rooms from around £50 a night. Guests have use of living areas, several patios and kitchen. Becky’s doesn’t offer breakfast but promises that you’ll wake to “freshly brewed coffee, herbal teas, local fruit and juice when in season”. For more substantial fare, take a bus to Holetown, a few miles up the road, where Bean’n’Bagel cafe does a real Bajan breakfast of fried flying fish and bakes (the local version of a pancake) or a more traditional cooked breakfast.
The Stables, Little Holders House, Holetown
For £55 a night for two, this spacious, fully equipped cottage a few miles further up the west coast has a large patio, open-plan layout and a mixture of traditional and modern furniture. It offers quintessential Caribbean living.
Rostrevor Hotel, St Lawrence Gap
The most affordable approach to a Barbados family holiday is to self-cater, but to escape household chores, try the Rostrevor Hotel. This beachfront property on the south coast has doubles with small kitchens from about £94 a night room only. It also has a poolside bar-restaurant.