Barbados offers tourists ready pleasures but rewards travelers who take their time.
When the cruise ships dock in Barbados, passengers dash for nearby beaches, local shopping, Mount Gay rum tours or Rihanna’s house. At the all-inclusive resorts, the drinks and food and sunburns are copious, but few leave these properties and experience the rest of the island. That’s a shame. The true beauty of Barbados is its slow pace, which cruise ship passengers don’t have the time for, and its lack of high profile attractions, which won’t entice most all-inclusive resort guests to stray from their poolside cocktails. But travelers who take the time to explore will be rewarded by the beauty of the island.
Barbados’s west coast is home to luxury resorts tucked into forests that stretch to the white sand. I stayed at the Fairmont Royal Pavilion, one of the few properties on the island built before constitutional law restricting constructions to thirty meters from the sea. The Fairmont’s only a solid long jump away from the water’s edge. While it was easy to spend the days on site, taking high teas, enjoying the beach, cruising the celebrated gardens or searching for elusive green-tailed monkeys and yellow-breasted bananaquits somewhere within the palms and bearded fig trees, I wanted to see what else the island offered.
Most of the island’s top restaurants are near the water. Some of the best are the Fish Pot and Daphne’s. While Daphne’s is Italian, it offers better fish and octopus than most seafood restaurants, as well as phenomenal pastas and desserts.
On a Friday night, locals and visitors often head to the bustling fish fry at Oistin’s on the south coast. (Even guests at all-inclusive resorts consider making this their one outing, as many properties offer this as a “tour.”) On the same night, less crowded and even removed from the coast is the curious experience of attending Friday evening services at the Western Hemisphere’s oldest synagogue, Nidhe Israel. It is the spiritual home to the 50-plus Jews on the island. (Note that Nidhe Israel is used only from about September to April) But one does not have to attend the quick evening service to experience the synagogue that is set in Bridgetown’s UNESCO World Heritage district. Year round, visitors can explore the grounds, which includes a cemetery, mikveh (or ritual baths), and a former schoolhouse that has been transformed into a museum, detailing Bajan Jewish history. On the same city block is a monument to Codd’s House, where the emancipation bill had been signed.
Back on the south coast, head to Freights Bay, where surfers and nature-lovers can revel in the day. Slight waves wrap around the headland and break in front of the cliffs, where a pagoda stands and cacti grow. Surfers can rent boards at Barry’s Surf Shop or just watch the surfers bob and the turtles surface.
Driving across the flat island to the east coast, you’ll travel past limestone gullies and past sugar cane fields to the rocky shores of the east coast, where life is less busy. Ferns grow from cliffs; houses on slopes are leveled out with crudely constructed limestone bases; and buildings are newly painted in Caribbean hues, while others are so weather-beaten that their highlighter pinks and greens and yellows have faded. The only noise on this coast is the waves, especially at Bathsheba’s Soup Bowl, one of the Caribbean’s best breaks. Even if surfing is not your sport, on an epic day, it’s worth watching from the shore, as surfers disappear behind head-high blue curtains and hope to emerge from the barrel unscathed. (It’s best for novice and intermediate surfers to sit this spot out, too.)
Whether you’re a fan of rum or Rihanna, surf or Semitic history, Barbados makes for an easy weekend retreat and requires only some venturing out, but at a pace not promoted by the cruise ships.
Noah Lederman is the author of the memoir A World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets. His writing has been featured in the Economist, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, the New Republic, Slate and elsewhere. He writes the travel blog Somewhere Or Bust and tweets @SomewhereOrBust.