Yes, the people are warm and friendly, and the rum flows freely - but the real reason to go to Barbados is to make the most of those beautiful beaches
It's no exaggeration to say that rum is a big part of life in Barbados. Like beer in Britain or vodka in Russia, rum is the thing to drink, and no one will raise a disapproving eyebrow should you choose to enjoy straight rum with a meal rather than wine or water. The Mount Gay Rum distillery is a good outing if you’re interested in the history of this spirit. Don't go otherwise, though; it could get pretty tedious if you're only vaguely interested.
But it’s probably beach fun you’re after. After all, any Caribbean holiday is going to be dominated by beach time. It's kind of the whole point. And Barbados, just 21 miles long by 14 miles wide, and with more than 70 square miles of beach, is an island where it's impossible to be far from the seaside. So here's my guide to the beaches...
Many have hotels built very close to them so it can appear as though the beaches are owned by resorts. Don't worry about it: not one metre of Barbados’s coast is private, so you can walk, swim near or sunbathe on any piece you choose. The absence of private beach may be surprising on an island so devoted to the luxuries of wealthy tourists and celebrities but it remains the case and is worth raising a glass of rum punch to.
The island is in both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, so you can choose from typical postcard-style beaches, where clear blue seas lap at white sands, or go for wilder waves crashing against rugged rocks. The west coast has calmer beaches, ideal for swimmers and families. Try Mullins Beach, Church Point and Paynes Bay. The latter is home to the famous Sandy Lane Hotel, much-loved bolthole of ageing celebrities Simon Cowell and Michael Winner. (For more glamorous celeb-spotting, head to Bridgetown for a possible glimpse of chart-topper Rihanna, or the polo pitches for supermodel Jodie Kidd; both of them grew up on Barbados.)
Over on the east, beaches such as Bathsheba are less built-up and more attractive to thrill seekers. For me, this is the more beautiful – and unspoilt – area of the island. It’s popular with surfers, with its huge Atlantic Ocean waves. Huge craggy rocks sit on the beach as waves crash on to the shore and the island rises up away from you. There are fewer tourists here, too. Warning signs point out the dangers of swimming if you don’t know the sea here, so don’t chance it. It's as known for its riptides and undercurrents as for its beauty.
One of the island's most celebrated attractions is the sea turtle. Companies offer snorkelling boat trips - with instructions and equipment - to get a look at them. I took a trip with Kool Kat catamarans and waited a while to see one of these strange sea-dwellers - but when they turned up it was worth it to watch them in their natural habitat.
The west and south coasts have nearly 25 dive sites between them, including The Stavronikita, Berwyn and The Friars Cage. More experienced divers obviously have more options, though there are plenty of opportunities to train to all levels of PADI. Maycocks Bay, on the northwest coast, has large coral reefs that are worth a look. Most of the boat trips to these sites will also feed you, and offer drinks and entertainments as you speed across the clear waters in the sun.
Where to stay
Sea-U! Guest House (Tent Bay, Bathsheba, St Joseph)
A small hotel with just seven rooms and a homely atmosphere; you’ll feel well looked after and not just one of many faceless holidaymakers. You can even spot monkeys from your breakfast table if you’re lucky! Caribbean and European cusine is served, with coconut and banana bread a breakfast speciality. You're 100 metres from the beach but if you get tired of seaside scenery, it’s just a short walk to Andromeda Botanic gardens. Activities available through the hotel include surf lessons and yoga classes.
Round House Inn (St Joseph)
A small, family-run hotel in a gorgeous building more than 175 years old. This place is designed to help you forget life back home, and each room has a relaxing air and individual feel. It’s a short walk from the beach and provides a calm retreat from tourists when you need a bit of quiet time.
Turtle Beach Resort (Dover, Christ Church, St Lawrence)
This spacious, all-inclusive hotel offers holiday-makers three pools, despite being right on the beach. Staff are helpful and up for a laugh. The breakfast is pretty good but food overall isn’t great - catering to American tastes, maybe, with lots of fried fish and chicken, fries and stodgy veg. Drinks are lovely, though and, of course, free. Rooms are cool and airy, with private balconies. There’s always a good atmosphere between guests, with lots of Americans and British up for the best two weeks of their year.
What to do
- Kool Kat catamaran cruises cover the west coast and offer snorkelling and the chance to see turtles.
- Outdoors Barbados do all sorts of ocean-related activities, including submarine tours.
- Tiami Catamarans do day trips with turtles and snorkelling but also sunset tours and private chartering.
- Atlantis Submarines dive 150 feet, taking you around the wrecks and reefs of the Caribbean, and you don't even get wet.
- Dive Barbados offers training and dive trips.