Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
A coral island set apart from the rest of the Eastern Caribbean chain, this “singular” island has a character and landscape of its own, with an emphasis on beauty, fun, and friendliness.
Garrison Historical Area
Andromeda Botanic Garden
St Nicholas Abbey
Barbados has some of the most varied terrain in the Caribbean. The north is the least populated section, its shores punctuated by dramatic cliffs and crashing waves. Equally unspoiled is the scenic east, with miles of windswept beaches along the Atlantic coast fringing the hilly “Scotland District.” As the Atlantic Ocean rushes wildly along the south coast westward toward the Caribbean Sea, the sand becomes whiter, hidden away in rocky coves edged by palm trees, washed by the breakers that are finally lulled into submission on the narrow but pretty beaches of the west coast, also known as the Platinum Coast for the luxury hotels here. The center of the island is covered with gently rolling cane fields, rural villages, and lush tropical vegetation. The southwest is the most heavily populated region, containing the capital, Bridgetown, and its suburbs.
Glitz at the Barbados Carnival.
Barbados Tourism Authority
Although some of the hills are very steep, Barbados is considered a flat island. Coral rather than volcanic, its highest point, Mount Hillaby, is just 1,115ft (340 meters) above sea level. Off the beaten track, 100 miles (160km) east of the rest of the Lesser Antilles, Barbados is often referred to as “the singular island.” During the days of sailing conquerors and Caribbean settlement, this isolation provided Barbados with an unwitting defense: it is difficult to sail here from the other islands because of the prevailing easterly winds.
Densely populated - about 277,000 people live in a space just 14 miles (22km) wide and 21 miles (33km) long - Barbadians, or Bajans, as they are generally known, have one of the highest incomes per head in the West Indies and a literacy rate of over 98 percent.
The first Bajans
Amerindians came in canoes from Venezuela in around 1600 BC. Different tribes came and went, with the Tainos remaining most evident, but these gentle fishermen and farmers are believed to have been captured by the Spanish at the beginning of the 16th century and taken as slaves to Hispaniola - no archeological evidence has been found that Caribs ever lived here. When the English arrived in 1625, all they found was a population of wild hogs left by Portuguese explorers who had anchored briefly in 1536.
A pannist (steel pan musician) in action.
Barbados Tourism Authority
In 1627, on February 17, 80 English settlers and 10 African slaves landed on the west coast. Barbados became the first English possession to cultivate sugar on a large scale. By the 1650s, it had a booming economy based solely on sugar cane, and became known as “the Brightest Jewel in the English Crowne.” As the sugar plantation system evolved, the institution of slavery (for more information, click here) became firmly entrenched, but not without some notable uprisings - in 1675, 1695, and 1702 - cruelly quashed by the planters. The final 5,000-strong rebellion came in 1816 when the abolition of the slave trade had failed to give the slaves the freedom they mistakenly thought they were due. That didn’t come until 1834-8.
Between 1850 and 1914, after abolition and the decline of the sugar industry, around 20,000 laborers desperate for work left for Panama to help build the canal. The lucky ones returned, their pockets stuffed with US currency, with which they bought land, educated their children, and increased their standard of living. However, there were few opportunities for black Bajans afterward and most returned to the plantations as laborers. The poor conditions there and a lack of political power sparked a half century of intense political and social change.
Perhaps the most noteworthy figure to challenge the ruling white planter class was Grantley Adams, the acknowledged leader of the Barbados Progressive League, the island’s first mass-movement political party, formed in 1938, which over the course of 30 years and eventually under the title of the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) helped attain fair labor laws and universal voting rights.
Political independence from Britain finally came in 1966, with Errol Barrow of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) at the helm. Remaining in the British Commonwealth, the island has continued with a Westminster-style parliament consisting of a Senate and a democratically elected House of Assembly, and now the government swings between the BLP and DLP.
A city of contrasts
Bridgetown 1 [map], the capital of Barbados, features Unesco World Heritage sites (historical Bridgetown and its Garrison were inscribed on the list in 2011) and a city of contrasts. While duty-free shops sell luxury items like cameras, crystal, and cashmere, a Rastaman peddles coconuts from a wooden cart outside and country women, or hucksters, sit by their stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables picked from their gardens. Old ramshackle colonial buildings stand next to multimillion-dollar office blocks, and the strains of calypso emanate from juke boxes in back-alley cafés.
Cricket, lovely cricket
Cricket is much more than a game in Barbados; it is a national religion, inspiring the islanders with a fierce passion, particularly when the West Indies meets England, their old colonial masters, in a Test match.
For 5 days, the Kensington Oval, the island’s cricketing headquarters and national shrine, takes on a carnival atmosphere as supporters of both teams (Barbados almost sinks under the weight of the English fans who fly out for the event) pack the stands. With a “We must win but if we don’t, then we must still have a good time” attitude, the West Indians welcome their visitors, encouraging them to join in the fun and share their picnics and “liquid sunshine.”
The game of cricket has been described as “like abstract art - you only understand it when you have watched it for a long time.” Introduced to the island almost 200 years ago by the British as a character builder, cricket now has no class boundaries, and Barbados has produced many heroes: the “Three Ws” - Clyde Walcott, Frank Worrell, and Everton Weekes - were knighted in the 1960s; Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, one of the world’s best opening pairs; several fast bowlers; and the man often said to be greatest cricketer of all time, Garfield “Gary” Sobers, who was knighted in 1975, having scored 8,032 runs, taken 235 wickets, and held 110 catches.
Early British colonists established a settlement here in what was no more than a swamp, where they found a bridge left by the Amerindians - hence the name. The first harbor was built in the outer basin, called the Careenage, where the boats were “careened” or keeled over so that their hulls could be repaired and cleaned.
Now there are two bridges across the river, which in fact is just an inlet of sea: the wider Charles Duncan O’Neal Bridge and Chamberlain Bridge A [map], the gateway to Bridgetown, which used to swing back to allow boats to pass through, and is now closed to traffic. Down on the south bank, as part of a major renovation program, the old warehouses are being converted into shops and cafés, such as the Waterfront Café where you can relax and watch the water world and city life unfold in front of you. At night the tempo rises with a jazz band. In the Careenage, where the island’s trading center once was, large catamarans offer sightseeing trips along the coast, and sportfishing boats are all set to hunt down the big wahoo and marlin.
A controversial monument
Between the two bridges sprawls Independence Square B [map], a city park dominated by a statue of the first prime minister and national hero, Errol Barrow. Walking over Chamberlain Bridge past the stalls of colorful fruit and vegetables, visitors come face to face with a bronze statue of Nelson located in what was known as Trafalgar Square, renamed National Heroes Square C [map]. Seen as a symbol of colonialism, the monument to Nelson, erected in 1813 (17 years before Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square) was controversial as early as 1833. Many local people want a Barbadian hero in its place.
The island’s 10 National Heroes can be seen immortalized in stone in the Museum of Parliament and the National Heroes Gallery (tel: 246-310 5400; www.barbadosparliament.com; Mon, Wed-Fri 10am-4pm, Sat 10am-3pm) in the Parliament Buildings D [map], opened to commemorate 40 years of independence. These buildings were constructed in the 1870s to accommodate the Houses of Parliament, which were founded in 1639, making them the third-oldest parliamentary body in the Commonwealth after Bermuda and Britain.
The Parliament Buildings in Bridgetown.
Broad Street is the main shopping area, with several large duty-free stores; many of the buildings retain their old colonial grandeur. At the far end is the Georgian St Mary’s Church E [map] (daily; donations), which also serves as a hurricane shelter, surrounded by beautiful gardens. Opposite, the concrete facade of Cheapside Market fronts a typically colorful Caribbean scene on Saturday morning.
Westward along the seafront is Pelican Craft Center F [map] (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 9am-2pm) in a renovated purpose-built center where Barbadian artists and craftspeople can be seen at work, and where you can buy their wares - a handy spot for the passengers of the cruise ships that dock in the Deep Water Harbor at the end of the Princess Alice Highway. Some 665,000 people visit on cruise ships each year, compared with 532,000 who stay on the island.
All aboard for an island safari.
Barbados Tourism Authority
From National Heroes Square, take the road east to St Michael’s Cathedral G [map] (daily; donations welcome). Dating from 1665, the original building was destroyed by a hurricane in 1780. However, it was rebuilt in solid limestone coral 9 years later, with the help of lottery money, ironically lending a church blessing to gambling. Inside is a single-hand clock. A few blocks farther to the east lies the tranquil oasis of Queen’s Park H [map] with the magnificent Queen’s Park House (1780) as its centerpiece. This fine Georgian building, with an impressive wooden balcony, houses a small theatre that puts on plays with a Caribbean flavor, and an art gallery exhibiting the work of local artists.
The Garrison Historical Area
Leaving Bridgetown via Charles Duncan O’Neal Bridge, you pass the bus terminal for the south and Fairchild Street Market, and continue along Bay Street to the Garrison Historical Area, where the Garrison Savannah 2 [map], once a parade ground for the British West Indian forces, is now a busy racecourse and sports venue. Nearby is George Washington House (tel: 246-228 5461; Mon-Fri 9am-4.30pm), the restored Barbadian residence where the first American president stayed for 2 months in 1751, aged 19. He never went abroad again.
East of the Garrison is the Barbados Museum 3 [map] (tel: 246-427 0201; www.barbmuse.org.bb; Mon-Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 2pm-6pm), housed in an early 19th-century British military prison. Beautifully presented in the old preserved prison cells, this portrayal of island history with an art gallery and children’s hands-on gallery is one of the best in the Caribbean. There is also a café in the shady courtyard and a well-stocked museum shop.
Cannons at Garrison Savannah.
The road hugging the south coast leads through a built-up area of hotels, shops, and restaurants punctuated with glorious white beaches which offer plenty of fun and water sports. This part of Barbados is “jumping” after dark with islanders and visitors, all after some nocturnal action, from Harbour Lights and The Boatyard on Bay Street, open-air nightclubs on the beach outside Bridgetown, to the cluster of bars and restaurants at St Lawrence Gap, 3 miles (5 km) away off Highway 7. Each nightspot has its own ambience and following, but they all rock with the sounds of soca, calypso, reggae, soul, or jazz.
Oistins 4 [map], farther on, the fishing capital of Barbados, is another hot spot to try out on Friday night, but of a different kind. Here, the Oistins Fish Fry - fish cooked outside in enormous pans over burning coals - is held in an area of bars and stalls adjacent to the fish market on Friday and Saturday. Rum and beer are sold by the bottle and the music is turned up loud for dancing. You can still find a good fish supper here on other, quieter nights. On weekdays, the fishermen take their catch of dolphin (dorado or mahi mahi), snapper, king fish, tuna, and the national delicacy, flying fish, to the market, where women deftly gut and fillet them for sale.
Treat your tastebuds at the Fish Fry in Oistins.
Oistins also has an historical tale to tell: in 1652 the Royalist islanders had been besieged for weeks by Cromwell’s Roundheads. The contretemps was finally settled in the Charter of Barbados, which pledged the islanders to obedience to the hated Cromwell and his Commonwealth Parliament in exchange for the right to religious freedom and consultation over taxation.
Foursquare to Crane Resort
Heading inland from Oistins into the parish of St Philip, you reach The Foursquare Rum Distillery and Heritage Park 5 [map] (tel: 246-420 1977; www.rumsixtysix.com/foursquare-rum-distillery; Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 10am-9pm, Sun noon-6pm) at Foursquare off Highway 6, where you can a tour a modern, computerized rum distillery. In the adjoining Heritage Park is an amphitheater, an art gallery, and several craft shops. Farther north off Highway 5 is Sunbury Plantation House 6 [map] (tel: 246-423 6270; www.barbadosgreathouse.com; daily 9am-5pm), a beautifully restored 300-year-old plantation house, full of colonial antiques, which gives a real feel of what it must have been like to be a wealthy plantation owner. You can stop for lunch here in the café at the back and return for a typical lavish evening banquet.
Back across Six Cross Roads to the southeast coast where two beaches and an old hotel are worth spending some time; all three are notable for their beauty and stunning location. Head south toward the first beach, Harrismith, where narrow steps lead down to a secluded cove lined with tall palms. Farther along the coast a left turn leads to Bottom Bay, a fine stretch of wide sandy beach that is perfect for picnics. It is here that the Atlantic meets the Caribbean and the waves build up some force, ideal for body surfing.
Tyrol Cot, the former home of the first premier of Barbados, Sir Grantley Adams, and his son Tom, the second prime minister, is part of a Heritage Village (Mon-Fri 8am-4.30pm) northwest of Bridgetown.
The waves are especially good around Crane Resort 7 [map] (daily; charge for non-guests, redeemable in the bar or restaurant). Opened in 1887, it was the island’s first exclusive hotel, patronized by the wealthy. Before that the bay contained a small port where boats arrived with goods from Bridgetown. A crane at the top of the cliff unloaded the boats, giving the area its name. The resort, with its beautiful cliff-top view, has undergone rapid expansion. Several five-story blocks of time-share apartments have been built alongside the original hotel and a glass lift takes people down to the pink-sand beach.
Sam Lord’s Castle stands farther along this craggy coastline. Now closed, the 18th-century house was a hotel for many years, but before that it was the home of Sam Lord, a notorious planter and pirate and one of the most colorful characters in Bajan folklore.
The wild and rugged east
The scenery changes dramatically along the East Coast Road compared with the flat pastureland of the south, and as it cuts through tropical woodland, the impressive entrance of Codrington College 8 [map] (tel: 246-423 1140; www.codrington.org; daily dawn to dusk; free, donations appreciated in the chapel), with a drive lined with majestic royal palms, hoves into view. Founded in 1702 by Christopher Codrington, the Barbados-born governor-general of the Leeward Islands and de facto owner of Barbuda (for more information, click here), the theological college has a fascinating nature trail in the grounds, leading through primeval forest. The adventurer and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor described it in the late 1940s: “in a hollow beyond a spinney of tall mahogany, south of the township of Bathsheba, a beautiful Palladian building, reclining dreamily on the shores of a lake among lawns and balustrades and great shady trees, suddenly appeared, its columns and pediments conjuring up, in the afternoon sunlight, some enormous country seat in the Dukeries.” And it has barely changed.
Cherry Tree Hill, St Andrews, Barbados.
Continuing north on the East Coast Road, the undulating sugar-cane fields change to steep hillsides of banana plantations that drop to the sea. A right turn plunges down to Bathsheba and the Andromeda Botanic Gardens 9 [map] (daily 9am-5pm), with one of the finest displays of tropical flowers and shrubs in the Caribbean, currently containing more than 600 species. Created in 1954 on a rocky hillside by amateur horticulturist Iris Bannochie, who died in 1988, the garden is intelligently designed and harbors exotic plants she collected on her travels around the world. There is a splendid example of a bearded fig tree alongside collections of orchids and bromeliads. A stream cuts through the 6-acre (2-hectare) profusion of tropical flora, now owned by the Barbados National Trust.
Harrison’s Cave, Barbados.
Barbados Tourism Authority
At Bathsheba is the wind-battered Atlantis Hotel, where Barbados’s most famous author, George Lamming, sometimes stays when he returns. It is one of the oldest hotels on the island, and serves local dishes. Surfers flock to Bathsheba for the Soup Bowl, where the waves are a challenge. The beach here is distinguished by rows of giant boulders marching out to the white, surf-churned sea. There are pleasant rock pools you can cool off in, but swimming is dangerous. Better to sit on the beach and watch the daredevils riding the waves with their boards.
At Cattlewash, north of Bathsheba, the road runs beside a long golden beach washed by Atlantic rollers. Usually deserted during the week, the sea is dangerous for swimmers.
The Scotland District hills
Homesick British colonists likened the lush landscapes of Barbados to England, and the rolling hills and bizarre rock formations to the Scottish Highlands, earning the nicknames Little England and the Scotland District. An excursion into the island’s interior will take you through open countryside, past acres of cane fields and small hamlets of chattel houses, each with a rum shop-cum-store. Leaving the ABC Highway in Bridgetown on Highway 3, follow the signposts to Gun Hill Signal Station, where there is a small museum (daily) and a white stone lion. Just over a mile farther on you reach Orchid World ) [map] (tel: 246-433 0306; daily 9am-5pm). Around 20,000 orchids of all sizes and species flourish here. The landscaped paths take you past a waterfall and through a coral grotto, offering views of the surrounding countryside.
The Barbados National Trust (tel: 246-426 2421; www.barbadosnationaltrust.org) runs an Open House scheme in which private houses - old and new - are open to the public for one afternoon a week in high season.
Farther north, Harrison’s Cave ! [map] (tel: 246-417 3700; www.harrisonscave.com; daily, tours 8.45am-3.45pm) is a geological feast for the eyes, a crystallized limestone underworld of gorges, grottoes, streams, and waterfalls encrusted with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites at which you can marvel from an electric tram, then on foot.
For tranquil, natural beauty above ground, walk through the luxuriant jungle greenery of Welchman Hall Gully @ [map] (tel: 246-438 6671; www.welchmanhallgullybarbados.com; daily 9am-4pm) nearby. The half-mile (1km)-long ravine was once part of a series of caves connected with Harrison’s Cave, whose roofs fell in. Now owned by the Barbados National Trust, there are some 150 species of plants, flowers, and trees, plus large families of green monkeys who snap up the fruit.
Watch the surfers in the Soup Bowl while you tuck into delicious Bajan fare at the Bonito Bar and Restaurant in Bathsheba. This breezy restaurant is open for lunch Sunday to Friday; tel: 246-433 9034.
Another botanical delight is the Flower Forest £ [map] (tel: 246-433 8152; www.flowerforestbarbados.com; daily 8am-4pm) a little farther north, where you can touch and smell the wonderful array of tropical flowers and plants in 50 acres (20 hectares) of lawns and woodland set against magnificent views downhill to the east coast. In the center is a young baobab tree, traditionally grown in the middle of African villages.
The Platinum Coast
The west coast of Barbados is lapped by the deep azure blue of the tranquil Caribbean Sea, with pinky-white coral sand beaches edged with casuarina trees and palms, living up to the tropical island dream. Earning the tag Platinum Coast, this is where the smart hotels jostle for the best sea view, each in its own landscaped paradise and sporting such tantalizing names as Glitter Bay, Coral Reef, and Tamarind Cove. As no one can own a beach in Barbados, it is possible to walk for miles along the water’s edge, stopping at the beach bars for a rum punch and trying out the wide variety of water sports on offer.
Animal Flower Cave, Barbados.
Pictures Colour Library
The world-renowned Sandy Lane Hotel $ [map], refuge of the rich and famous, is tucked away in Sandy Lane Bay just south of Holetown (about 3 miles/5km north of Bridgetown on Highway 1). Built in 1961, the original hotel was demolished and the site redeveloped into a large, luxurious resort, which has a spa and three spectacular golf courses.
Captain Henry Powell accidentally landed in Holetown % [map] in May 1625 on his way to somewhere else. He took a fancy to what he saw as a nice piece of real estate and, as any true Englishman would have done in those days, he stuck his country’s flag in the ground and claimed it on behalf of the king. In February 1627 an expedition to settle the island arrived and, today, the Holetown Festival celebrates the anniversary with parades and street parties.
Creation of a new culture
After more than 40 years as an independent nation, Barbados has come into its own culturally. There is an appreciation of things Bajan, and a movement to preserve aspects of the folk culture that had been dying out. With Britain as the sole colonial master, there is no French, Spanish, or Dutch influence in the language. There was no mass immigration from India or China after the abolition of slavery to add spice to the cuisine. So Bajans turned to their African roots for their cultural heritage rather than endure the pejorative name of “Little England.” In the 1970s, the Black Power and Rastafari movements had a profound impact on island identity.
The enthusiasm the revived annual Crop Over Festival in July and August generates is one sign of the new cultural pride, and calypsonians are a major force in Bajan society. The 5-week-long festival celebrates the end of the sugar-cane harvest and is the highlight of an annual calendar of events.
Another powerful influence on Bajan culture in the past four decades has been US television and music. One of the island’s most famous calypsonians, the Mighty Gabby, has sung about the negative effect of commercial programs on society, advocating more worthy Barbadian subjects instead.
Speightstown and the spectacular north
Speightstown ^ [map], the island’s second town, was once an important port for transporting sugar to Bristol in England, earning it the name of Little Bristol. Its story is imaginatively told in the restored three-story, 18th-century balconied Arlington House (tel: 246-422 4064; Mon-Sat 9am-5pm), an interesting museum with interactive exhibits on sugar, slavery and trade. The town has a good selection of restaurants, bars, beaches, a boardwalk, and the largest art gallery on the island. Walking tours of the town and up into Whim Gully on the Arbib Nature and HeritageTrail (tel: 246-234 9010 for advance reservations; tours Wed, Thur, Sat 9am-2pm) to see bearded fig trees and coral boulders, are rewarding.
Highway 1 continues through the pretty fishing village of Six Men’s Bay and into the rugged, sparsely populated northernmost parish of St Lucy. At the very northern tip of the island is the Animal Flower Cave & [map] (www.animalflowercave.com; daily), named for the few tiny sea anemones that may be seen in the pools. The view of the sea from the cave is tremendous but it has to be closed in rough weather. The ocean’s relentless pounding has created steep, jagged cliffs and rocky, barren land that resembles a moonscape. A restaurant operates daily between 11am and 3pm.
From here the road cuts inland to the Jacobean plantation house, the privately owned St Nicholas Abbey * [map] (tel: 246-422 5357; www.stnicholasabbey.com; Sun-Fri 10am-3.30pm). Thought to be the oldest original building on the island, dating from 1660, it has never been a religious institution, despite the name, and is full of fascinating features (note the chimney) and antiques. Allow a few hours to see the house, the gardens and grounds, the rum distillery and rum and sugar museum, to watch the home movie, and visit adjacent Cherry Tree Hill. There is a café here and you can, of course, buy the rum, made by traditional methods.
The Morgan Lewis Sugar Mill in the northeast is the largest working windmill in the Caribbean. Restored and run by the National Trust, the mill can be seen in action on certain days. Call 246-426 2421 for more information.
Farther south you reach the main road back to the west coast and Barbados Wildlife Reserve ( [map] (daily). Here the only caged creatures are pythons and boas - the green monkeys, tortoises, sprocket deer, iguana, and other animals roam freely alongside the visitors in a mahogany woodland. The entrance ticket includes admission to Grenade Hall Forest and Signal Station.