I've been obsessed with Barbados since I was a kid, when I read the Newbery Medal-winning book "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" by Elizabeth George Speare. For anyone who somehow managed to escape their summer reading, the book is about a fictional 17th century young woman who, orphaned, must leave her home in Barbados and travel to New England. Now in Puritan Connecticut, she often reminisces about her home and her childhood growing up in beautiful Barbados.
Yes, as an adult, I now realize the colonizer themes that ran rampant in the book. However, the images left in my mind's eye of the lush and balmy Barbados had impressed on me the desire to make my way over to the tiny island as soon as I was able. No better time then the present, so we headed over to finally see the nation well known as the birthplace of rum.
Located in the lesser Antilles of the West Indies, in the Caribbean region of North America, Barbados is about a five-hour flight from New York City. Just 166 square miles in total, it dwarfs the smallest state in the U.S. by quite a bit (Rhode Island, at 1,034 square miles), and it packs a lot into a small space.
Though she be but little, she is fierce. Alright, perhaps not exactly fierce, but definitely a force. On this wisp of an island, you will experience amazing food (yes, quite a lot of seafood, but vegans and vegetarians rejoice, there are plenty of options on this very foodie-progressive island), blissful beaches, friendly people and incredible scenery. No matter what you are interested in, you will find plenty to keep you occupied while you vacation in beautiful and diverse Barbados.
Explore and learn
Not ones to lay about the beach and resort all day, we wanted to see as much as we were able to in our (much too short!) stay. Not that lying about has anything wrong with it — you couldn't pick a more picturesque place to relax and take in the sun and sand. We did our share of lazing, but spent most of our time exploring the island. The history of the island is as colorful as its gardens, and during our stay we enjoyed learning about the island's first peoples through events in our current time period. Luckily for us, there are some fantastic tour guides who are gracious enough to share Barbadian culture and history with tourists, and they are very thorough. The best part is, the more you learn, the more you want to know.
The Arawaks and the Caribs were the first inhabitants of what became known as Barbados. English Captain John Powell arrived in 1625 and claimed the island for King James I of England. After returning to England and back again, the island was given the name "Los Barbados," a variation of "Os Barbados," used by the Portuguese sailors since 1536. It was named after a tree that grew on the island, the "Bearded Fig Tree" aka Shortleaf Fig (Ficus Citrifolia) that the sailors thought looked like a bushy beard. As Barbados was named for its magnificent foliage, you can rightly assume that the surrounding natural beauty is going to make it hard to put your camera away.
Regardless of what kind of touring or adventure you are after, you are bound to be excited by and admiring of the natural beauty that will envelop you. One of the first tours we opted to take was a walking tour of Historic Bridgetown. This three-hour walking tour was the perfect introduction to the area, and was led by local professor and historian Morris Greenidge. Extremely passionate, knowledgeable and just honestly impressive, Greenidge is "the" expert, called to discuss Barbados and topics that intertwine with the local history on panels and conferences worldwide.
When there was not enough history or information available, Greenidge just decided rather than lament it, he would research and write the histories himself. Almost all by himself, as well. Self-taught, he has researched and written the history of the island from its founders to local legends and heroes as well as walking guides and more. (Side note, some of these books are hard to find outside of Barbados, so you may want to buy them while you are there if you like them. Bonus, he will be happy to sign them for you. I regretfully only bought two of his books at the time, and am having a rough time finding some of the others. Lesson learned, hopefully you can avoid my error.) There are not a ton of books out there on the history of Barbados, not many novels either, so they were a good find and give good insight from that of a lifelong inhabitant. As well, I have to admit that after having spent time with Greenidge, I hear the books in his voice and they are quite a fun and unique reminder of our time spent touring.
Meeting us in dress slacks, crisp shirt and suspenders on a blisteringly hot day, Greenidge speaks slowly and deliberately, often pausing in thought, giving an incredibly thorough tour of a place you can see he loves dearly. We began the tour at Chamberlain Bridge in aptly named Bridgetown (the capitol and by far largest city in Barbados) under Independence Arch. The bridge connects Bridgetown over the Careenage aka Constitution River, which cuts the city in two parts. Formerly a swing bridge that was vital to the shipping industry as well as connecting one part of the city to its other half, it's now rebuilt and designed for the current needs of the island — mostly pleasure boating and fishing. Not only one of the oldest cities in the Caribbean, but also a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site, there is a lot to experience in Bridgetown.
We toured the "best of" and "must see" spots such as the garrison, forts and religiously important buildings, as well as some hidden gems, hearing interesting stories and about local characters, and of course important governmental sites such as the Parliament building. We ended our tour in the shopping and restaurant district, which was perfect, as it was indeed lunchtime. Those outdoor cafes are delightful, but if it's still too hot for you, head indoors and find some air conditioning. Many offer both options.
As mentioned, Barbados is the birthplace of rum, which Bajans are quite proud of. There are more rum tours and tastings then you can shake a stick at (because that's something normal people do, anyway) so you will have to choose your tour(s) wisely. We really enjoyed out time at St. Nicholas Abbey, which is one of the smaller options in terms of distilleries, but the extraordinary house, gardens and museum aspect more then made up for that. Located in St. Peter parish, it gives visitors more then just rum. If it were not enough to be a plantation house, museum and rum distillery in one, St. Nicholas Abbey is architecturally unique as well, as it is one of only three genuine Jacobean mansions in the entire Western Hemisphere. Built in 1658, it has never had anything to do with the church despite its heavenly name, and was always a sugarcane plantation (until 1947). Barbados thinks enough of this location to name it one of the "Seven Wonders of Barbados," and we agree. It's absolutely lovely — and yes, you can indeed visit the distillery and taste the rum.
Historical touring and gardens are a "must" in my book, but with the clear, always warm waters that stretch in nearly every direction you turn, I'm guessing at least part of why Barbados calls to you is its open ocean. There are as many ways as there are hours in the day to spend time in Bajan waters; narrowing it down might be the hardest thing you do while on your holiday. Of course, beach lounging has its place in the sun (so to speak? Pun intended? Sorry, I had to) but while you are here and escaping your ordinary, why not opt for some extraordinary as well?
I highly recommend taking the time to go snorkeling or scuba diving. The water is warm and clear as day, the fish and underwater flora are varied and beautiful (and friendly! No fear of humans, and will swim in your oh-so-close proximity), it's both a relaxing as well as exciting day. About how many things can you say that? As well, I cannot, cannot recommend taking the Bliss Boat tours enough. When you book, make sure you head out with Hayden and Emmanuel, they and their crew are the most excellent team. Experienced, fun, easygoing, and the best part — well prepared. Honestly just all around cool people. This was a standout portion of our time in Barbados, and the people made it so as much as the location and tour itself.
Hayden and Emmanuel will get you to all the best spots in their glass-bottomed-boat, and while not crowded with other boats or catamarans. This is important, since you don't want to be swimming into other people (or have them endlessly crashing into you). Not only that, but it makes for better photos and wildlife spotting. There is an excellent chance you will not only see, but swim with turtles (who are treated with the respect and care they deserve). Hayden comes with you and your group, and takes underwater photos that he sends everyone in a Dropbox after the trip for no extra fees. These are beautiful, we cherish them. Visual keepsakes of this amazing time are priceless and quite special, some of the shots are amusing as well. Really, this excursion is one to top the list. Don't forget to book with Hayden, you will be so thrilled that you did.
I could go on for ages about all there is to do and experience in Barbados, and that's not even touching upon the amazing food (don't even try to diet) or the laid-back atmosphere, the gracious people we were lucky enough to meet and spend time with, the perfect weather (even during its bursts of rain, perfection), and of course, more food. It was ridiculous to wait 20 years to visit Barbados, I kept putting it off, because ... well, you know. Life. I won't be waiting 20 more to return.