Air of Sophistication

Barbados’ British flavor disguises its laidback nature

By: David Swanson

Landing in Barbados is a tease. From the air, endless fields of sugarcane unfurl in every direction with little to break the visual monotony. Drive out of the airport left side, please and into the thick of bustling traffic. There are people everywhere (the island is one of this hemisphere’s most densely populated countries), cruise ships dominate the harbor and a British residue blankets the island with an air of formality. This is the relaxed tropical vacation your clients wanted?

Well, yes. Barbados brims with sleek, comely beaches, abounds with restaurants that prepare swank and pricey Euro cuisine and is chock-a-block with tony hotels. However, I think the real reason to come to this island is for the Bajans, your savvy, exceedingly courteous hosts. For example, owing to the island’s intricate tangle of unmarked roads, sooner or later, your clients will misplace their destination and pull over in the rental car to reconnoiter with a map. Tell them to glance at their watch and note the time. Within five minutes, I can virtually guarantee that someone will pull up alongside to ask, “Can I help you find where you’re going?”

And that’s the Caribbean sojourn your clients want: warm and friendly.

It could be said that Barbados started entertaining visitors in 1751, when George Washington visited the island to convalesce with his tubercular brother Lawrence. Two-and-a-half centuries later, Bajans have practiced the art of tourism long enough to get it right.

Unlike adjacent volcanic islands, Barbados is a muted limestone massif and lacks the lofty summits that would otherwise regularly seduce rain clouds to its shores (a location outside the traditional hurricane belt ensures tempests are few and far between). So, sunny days are a virtual given, and the limestone slowly erodes along the coasts to create a loamy halo of sand with but a couple of exceptions, every one of the island’s 70-odd hotels is within 100 feet or so of a beach.

The accommodations are on the west and south coasts. Sometimes referred to as the Platinum Coast, graceful casuarinas pines and lanky beaches line the island’s western shoreline, attracting big spenders to places like the rebuilt 122-room Sandy Lane, where the rooms average 900 square feet and $1,200 a night. The resort’s 47,000-square-foot spa is perhaps the Caribbean’s most lavish, and the golf courses are & well, Tiger Woods chose this hotel for his wedding vows. The 73-room Coral Reef Club has been run by the O’Hara family for five decades and features a quintet of third-floor Plantation Suites, elegant colonial-style abodes with a plunge pool on the private sundeck.

Barbados’ busy south coast caters to travelers of more moderate means, with a long roster of hotels where each has less than 100 rooms. Two noteworthy resorts bookend the coastline. Just outside the capital of Bridgetown is the Hilton Barbados, which was recently torn down and rebuilt, reopening in 2003 to much acclaim. At the quiet east end of the coast is The Crane, overlooking a spectacular beach. With 120 years of operation it is perhaps the Caribbean’s oldest hotel and recently saw the addition of 128 modern rooms and a sushi bar.

Visitors will find little in the way of accommodations on Barbados’ east coast generally referred to as Bathsheba but it boasts the island’s most resplendent scenery. Catch it early, as the morning mist is lifting from the shore, and clients will probably spot the surfers that ply the rolling Atlantic, dodging bulbous rock outcrops that pose like giant mushrooms planted along the coast.

Unlike Jamaica and a few other outposts, Barbados is not an all-inclusive island nor would you want it to be. Local food means “oil down” (breadfruit and pork stew), “cou-cou” (baked cornmeal pudding) and the ubiquitous “pepper pot.” The real specialty is flying fish little darlings that flit over the seas and onto virtually every restaurant menu in a variety of preparations. (Bajans have a particular knack for de-boning these flyers.)

It should be noted that the overall dining scene is refined and energetic enough that the tourist board hired Zagat Survey to produce a guide just for Barbados. At venues like The Cliff, a romantic dining terrace becomes a stage for superb meals served in front of a shimmering moonlit backdrop of sea and stars. (Do your clients a favor and book ahead for this prime venue.) Another favorite is Lone Star, tucked behind an art deco-era filling station converted to a chic beach eatery.

Yes, the island is somewhat more dressy than most of its Caribbean neighbors. But for travelers seeking a happily upscale tropical vacation, Barbados delivers the goods.


The Cliff

Coral Reef Club
(Ralph Locke Islands)

The Crane

Hilton Barbados

Lone Star

Sandy Lane