Experiencing Eclectic Barbados Without All the Tourists
By Alexandra Cheney
Barbados, celebrated as the birthplace of both rum and Rihanna, packs quite the historical punch. Although the Caribbean island was first colonized by the Spaniards, Britain occupied it for some 330 years. The happy resulting mix: airy plantations, luscious botanical gardens, and still-functioning sugarcane fields mix with stylish hotels, beach vendors, and a vibrant restaurant scene. Despite claiming the most luxury properties per square mile in the Caribbean, it’s still possible to stumble upon an unfiltered, tourist-free, and unapologetically original Barbados.
In the little central town of Coffee Gully, horticulturist Anthony Hunte tranformed a sinkhole-like gorge into a magnificent terraced garden. There are no Latin plaques labeling plants—it’s an informal affair that finds meandering guests bumping into sculptures of Greek gods and fat, smiling Buddhas. A mélange of statues hides behind bright orange heliconias or India red water lilies. It’s likely that Chopin or Bach will be playing throughout the gardens, and even more likely that Hunte, watering can in hand, will be humming along.
Swimming with turtles
All-embracing Barbados offers everything from freshly cut $1 roadside coconuts to $5,000-per-night waterfront villas, but the native turtles are equally charming no matter your budget. Bajans (the nickname for locals) will happily bring you to popular and secret spots to see the reptiles up close. It’s easy to hire a skippered boat out of the main harbor.
If it’s a Friday night, everyone is at Oistins Bay. Beachgoers, party mavens, toddlers in arms, and grandpas alike descend upon the fish fry, where dozens of stalls with names such as Uncle George’s and Pat’s Place light up their barbecues, serving everything from the very popular flying fish to fresh-caught mahi-mahi and swordfish. Grab a six-pack of the locally brewed malty Banks, a favorite among Bajans, to wash it all down.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the capital city of Bridgetown is flanked by Constitution River and colonial building-lined streets. The Mutual Life building (pictured, and originally constructed in 1894) is worth a quick look, especially since Chefette, a beloved fast food restaurant, is just down the block. Its vanilla milkshakes are not to be missed.
Flower Street, Bridgetown
The artists of Flower Street, which is more of an alleyway than a street, have taken it upon themselves to paint mural after brightly colored mural. Cultivating the breadth of local talent, teenage Bajans are often found shoulder-to-shoulder with their elders, adding more. They might even ask you to pick up a brush, inviting you to make your own contribution to the town’s history.
Yes, the sand in Barbados lives up to its hype—it’s powder white and silky soft. But the beaches aren’t packed. The east coast of the island, battered by the Atlantic Ocean, is wild and untamed, with big swells and daunting cliffs alternating with broad beaches and grassy fields. A region loosely referred to as "the country" is an insider favorite for peace and beauty.
Bodie’s School of Surf
Don’t be shy—call up Bodie (yes, that’s his real name), at Bodie’s School of Surf and sign up for a lesson. He’s a local legend, and although he refuses to call it a team, he regularly coaches a group of island kids in the sport. His intuition about surf conditions has a nickname among surfers—"coconut wireless." He’s always dialed in to the waves hitting every part of the island and will make sure you score.
St. Nicholas Abbey rum seal
Rum: It was invented on this island, and while the larger brands have established tours, instead you should swing into the boutique St. Nicholas Abbey, a 350-year-old plantation that still uses the traditional distillation process that centers around a pot still. The Abbey also produces equally delicious varieties of sugarcane.
Sugar Bay Barbados resort
The original, ritzy shining star of Bajan hospitality is Sandy Lane, an luxury stalwart since 1961. In recent years, however, the rise of all-inclusive hotels (very popular with the islanders) such as Sugar Bay Barbados have upped their dining options and cocktail programs, adding fun twists to longstanding classics like rum punch and mojitos. (Think locally sourced sugars and syrups). The hotel’s Colin’s Beach Bar (pictured) is fashioned after a traditional rum shop. It’s an ideal spot to sample the famous island wares.
As foreign ingredients have become easier to import, the restaurant scene on Barbados has exploded. The Cliff, rightly named as it hugs the edge of a dramatic precipice, has earned culinary respect. Entrees such as open shrimp ravioli with pesto sauce, tomato fondue, aged parmesan, and savory snails in a puff pastry case with chive cream sauce have inspired other restaurants worth trying, as well as swanky lounges like Red Door. The Red Door’s twist on the bloody Mary, aptly titled the Hickory Smoked Mary—with bacon-infused white rum—is unforgettable.