John B Hewitt
Barbados boasts blue skies and near-perfect temperatures alongside a fascinating history and culture and plenty of things to do. The west coast of this 166-square-mile island hosts a lengthy string of soft white-sand beaches lapped by the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, while the eastern Atlantic …coast features pounding and jagged hillsides. Barbados melds Afro-Caribbean culture and traditions with strong historic ties to Great Britain, of which it remains an independent commonwealth. The capital, Bridgetown, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the island has a lively sports scene, including world-class golfing.
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Barbados has annual “wet” and “dry” seasons, with the higher rainfall that characterizes the former coming from June to November and the latter extending from December to May. Nevertheless, in general Barbados weather is remarkably consistent and temperate, and the island is located outside the principal Caribbean hurricane zone. Visitors can also plan their travel around the island’s many cultural events. The Barbados Independent Film Festival in January, for example, showcases films from a variety of genres, while the annual Holetown Festival in February uses music, dancing, and parades to commemorate the 1627 landing of European settlers and African slaves that established Barbados as a British colony. The most colorful time to visit, however, is during the raucous summer Crop Over festival, which is like a Bajan version of Brazilian Carnival.
Airline service from North America into Barbados’ Grantley Adams International Airport (BGI) has ramped up sharply in recent years. Jet Blue currently offers flights to Barbados from Boston, Fort Lauderdale, and New York, as well as Mint premium-class service aboard Boston–Barbados and New York–Barbados departures. American Airlines offers flights to Barbados from Miami, and Delta Air Lines flies from Atlanta. Barbados is only 21 miles across at its widest point and locations around the island are easily reached by taxi, which can be hired near attractions or at hotels. Fares should be negotiated in advance (Barbados taxis do not use meters) and tend to be reasonable, in part because distances between resorts and attractions are relatively short. Some hotels offer shuttles that transport guests to points of interest across the island. The “route taxis” that operate in and around Bridgetown offer an at-times crowded but economic option. Barbados’ public bus system operates seven days a week.
Bajans don’t need much prompting to launch a celebration. Crop Over is the island’s premier festival and began in the 1780s as a celebration of the sugar cane harvesting season’s end. Held between July and August, Crop Over is also akin to a Bajan version of carnival celebrations in Brazil and Trinidad. Full of passionate, island-wide revelry, dancing, colorful costumes, and all sorts of raucous partying, Crop Over is the unquestioned highlight of the Barbados festival calendar. Crop Over ends with the Grand Kadooment, a jaunty parade with bands and dancers adorned in elaborate outfits. For a fun year-round alternative, residents and visitors alike fill the streets of Oistins each Friday night for the the traditional fish fry. A virtual outdoor party, the fish fry takes place along dozens of street stalls and open-air restaurants in this seaside town on Barbados' southern coast. Pulsating dancehall, calypso, soca, and reggae beats thunder from the restaurants and downtown crafts shops featuring works by Bajan artisans.
Barbados offers a well-rounded gastronomy that ranges from deluxe fine dining at Zagat-rated restaurants to high quality but casual West Indian street food. As well as peas and rice, oxtail stew, and other Caribbean staples, local fare includes pudding and souse, which consists of pickled pork with spiced sweet potatoes, and flying fish. The latter is traditionally eaten on Fridays with spicy gravy and cou-cou (a kind of cornmeal grit cooked with okra), and is the Barbados national dish. One of Barbados’ most famous food purveyors is Cuz, whose tiny, eponymous sandwich shack near Aquatic Gap and Pebbles Beach on Carlisle Bay has served savory flying fish “cutter” sandwiches for more than 20 years. Barbados is traditionally celebrated as the birthplace of rum—a distinction generally considered likely, but impossible to prove. It's believed slaves invented rum in the 17th century by fermenting molasses left over from sugar cane production. By the 19th century Barbados was an international rum-producing center and the drink was an integral element of the island’s social life. Today’s visitors can explore Barbados’ rum legacy at one of several distilleries, via an hour-long tour at the Mount Gay Visitor Center outside of Bridgetown, or simply at one of the country's estimated 1,500 neighborhood rum shops.
Barbados' colonial history remains an integral part of its present-day character. Originally inhabited by native Arawak and Carib peoples, the island's colonization by Great Britain and its development via a plantation-based slave economy resulted in the blend of West African, European, and Caribbean cultures that locals proudly acknowledge today. Bajans’ distinctively accented English is influenced by and draws from West African languages. The country's 17th- and 18th-century Jewish settlers were of Dutch origin and introduced the windmill to the island, and Bridgetown’s ancient mikvah and synagogue incorporates a museum and a major archaeological site that is still being excavated. The Garrison Savannah, near Bridgetown, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and features a historic horse racing track and 18th- and 19th-century military buildings. Music is an integral element of Barbados culture and each year the island hosts several popular music festivals and numerous concerts. Calypso, Barbados’ first popular music, was developed in the 1930s and retained its popularity even as ska, jazz, and other popular forms took hold between the 1960s and 1980s. Modern Bajan music remains focused around calypso, reggae, ragga, and soca styles. Global pop superstar Rihanna remains the island’s most famous musician and native.
Safe, serene, and filled with beautiful beaches and natural attractions, Barbados is perfect for families, whether they want a week of water sports and adventure or just somewhere special to spend quality time together. All of Barbados’ beaches are public and the west coast, which faces the Caribbean Sea, is lined with white-sand beaches lapped by calm waters. The most popular beaches feature food shacks and water sports operators offering catamaran, snorkeling, kayak, paddleboard, and dive excursions. Marked by a series of small inlets, Hastings Rock Beach in Christ Church is ideal for families with small children. Batts Rock Beach in Saint Michael parish is close to Bridgetown and very popular with snorkelers. Families can also explore Barbados’ undersea environment via an Atlantis submarine dive. The submersible craft takes passengers up to 150 feet beneath the Caribbean Sea to view colorful coral formations and marine life. The Barbados Wildlife Preserve is located in a mahogany tree grove near Farley Hill National Park in Saint Peter parish. The reserve is designed so travelers can observe agouti, armadillo, brocket deer, pelicans, and caimans interacting in their natural environment. Harrison’s Cave is an underground cavern featuring intricate stalactites and stalagmites. Visitors tour the massive caves by tram, where they will find exhibits and interactive displays.
Casual food options abound in Barbados. Pink Star on Baxter's Road serves famous liver cutters (sauteed liver in a salt bread roll). Kermit's Bar in Thornbury Hill is the spot for such local fare as macaroni pie, fried chicken, or fish, but locals most love the bar's pickled “sea cat”—the Bajan term for octopus. Travelers can shop for fresh, distinctive local produce at the Green Grocer in Speightstown. The Souse Factory restaurant in St. John parish is known among locals for hot, mild, and no-pepper pork souse, chicken, steam pudding, sea cat, chicken feet, and fried pork.
Brian Major is a veteran travel writer, public relations professional, and media consultant. He is currently Executive Editor – Caribbean and Latin America at TravAlliance Media. His background includes past positions as director of public relations for the Cruise Lines International Association and senior editor posts at Travel Agent and Travel Weekly magazines. He resides in Brooklyn, N.Y.