Barbados travel guide: an island on the cusp of a historic new chapter
Go on an unforgettable getaway to the Caribbean
“If you’ve never visited Barbados before, then welcome. And if you have, then welcome back!”
This is the warm Caribbean greeting my tour group and I receive from our driver, Andy, as we commence our 45-minute car journey from Bridgetown Airport to Colony Club, a historic luxury resort on the island’s heavenly western coast.
It’s my first time in Barbados, so I fall into Andy’s initial category of visitors. And, with my trip taking place just weeks before the island’s transition from a realm to republic, it’s a particularly interesting time to be a British tourist here.
While much will remain unchanged – one example being the Colony Club name, Omar Carrington, group sales manager for the Elegant Hotels portfolio, tells me – the removal of the Queen as Barbados’s head of state marks a poignant step in leaving behind what inaugural president Sandra Mason has described as “the country’s colonial past”.
Barbados cutting ties with the monarchy will in some ways be straightforward: the Royal Barbados Police Force, who enforce law on the island, will become known simply as the Barbados Police Force, and there will no longer be a governor general – a position established when Barbados gained independence in 1966. But as time goes on, more radical steps away from the legacy of British rule are inevitable, and rightly so.
“Close ties” between Britain and Barbados (as the tourist board might frame it) have drawn millions of Brits to the island over the last few decades. Helped by direct British Airways and Virgin Atlantic flights to the capital Bridgetown (which take less than nine hours), Brits make up the largest tourist group in Barbados, according to Carrington.
Whether the proportion of British tourists in Barbados will change as the island enters a new era remains to be seen, although Carrington thinks it’s unlikely. “We will still have strong ties with the UK,” he says. “We will still have afternoon tea.”
For those in Britain, where temperatures are dropping below zero and the Omicron Covid-19 variant is threatening to cancel another Christmas, a winter getaway to Barbados is a more than attractive prospect right now. And, with the island entering its dry season, December is a particularly bonny time to visit.
Where to stay
The Elegant Hotels group, owned and operated by Marriott International, has seven properties on the island, including the aforementioned Colony Club. Each hotel has its own distinctive personality; some are spa and relaxation-centric, while others provide a wide range of family-friendly activities, from watersports to beachside art.
A complimentary Elegant boat makes regular visits between various Elegant properties, shuttling guests on all-inclusive packages from one hotel to another, enabling them to sample different restaurants, beaches and swimming pools across the island.
If you can get past its name, the 96-room Colony Club is a stunning resort, complete with two sprawling lagoon-style pools, soaring palm trees and luscious tropic gardens. It’s set directly on the beach – so close that I witnessed an enormous pink crab scuttle straight into the reception one morning.
Upon arrival, guests are greeted by the house mocktail – a refreshing mix of home-grown mint, lemon, cucumber, sparkling water and agave – a small touch that goes a long way, especially for those fresh from a long-haul flight. The buffet-style daily breakfast includes traditional English and Bajan favourites (I loved the fish cake), while dinner is served in a grand, high-ceilinged restaurant just yards from the sea.
For those looking for ultimate relaxation, Elegant’s Waves Hotel & Spa fits the bill. With four on-site spas offering all sorts of sensory treatments, from traditional massages to salt scrubs, this resort is all about doing as little as possible in the most beautiful setting you could possibly imagine. That said, water sports, yoga, pilates and mixology classes are available here too.
Like Colony Club, Waves also offers a buffet breakfast each morning (with stunning views of the sea) and it has three in-house restaurants: Seascape, for all-day dining, Shiso for Asian-style cuisine, and Kyma for light bites.
Where to eat
Barbados is steadily putting itself on the map as a destination for foodies and during my four-day trip I was lucky to indulge in two outstanding meals. One was at Colony Club’s first-of-its-kind Rum Vault, a tiny (and heavily air-conditioned) room which contains more than 150 rare and exotic rums from around the world, including Mauritius and Japan.
In the vault, which has to be specifically booked and seats just eight people, you can enjoy a multi-course, authentically Bajan dinner, where each dish is paired to a different rum-based cocktail (unsurprisingly, my memory of the latter half of this meal is slightly foggy).
While each plate – cooked up by vault chef Wayne Maynard – was delicious, the drinks truly stole the show. The vault’s dedicated rum ambassador Corey Sobers, who talks you through each cocktail as he makes them, not only made us cry with laughter, but provided us with a fantastic briefing on the island’s long-standing history with the spirit. “Here in Barbados, we treat rum like wine,” he told us – and by the end of the meal, I totally understood why.
Another culinary highlight was dining at the chef’s table at Tapestry, the in-house restaurant at Treasure Beach – another oceanfront Elegant property (although unlike the other two, this one is adults-only). Tapestry’s award-winning chef, the talented 29-year-old Javon Cummins, has won more than 15 culinary medals and trophies, and represented Barbados at various high-profile foodie events.
What to do
Whether you’re in Barbados for a month, a week or just one day, there is one thing you absolutely must do: go on a walking tour of Bridgetown led by the inimitable Bajan guide and historian Dawn-Lisa Callender-Smith.
Past trauma, gaps in education and a willingness to preserve Barbados as a top tourist destination for the British mean you’ll find few to no obvious signs of the island’s painful history when simply walking around the capital.
But thanks to the work of activists like Callender-Smith, whose eye-opening tour began at the entry point for all African slaves and indentured servants, this relative whitewashing of the island’s dark past is gradually changing.
As well as calling for a national slavery museum, Callender-Smith is part of a campaign to replace Admiral Nelson’s statue (which was removed from Bridgetown’s main square in November 2020 amid the Black Lives Matter protests) with a Bajan hero like Sarah Ann Gill.
Through the lens of her Bridgetown tour, Callender-Smith also taught us about the island’s fascinating Jewish history, which involved a visit to the site of an ancient synagogue – one of the oldest in the Western hemisphere. Once a haven for Jews fleeing persecution in Portugal, and then later Brazil, there are now just 100 Jewish people living in Barbados.
The tour was confronting and at times deeply uncomfortable, but – as a group of British people – it felt like an essential activity. “We can’t change the history, but we can learn from it,” was Callender-Smith’s mantra throughout.
The roughly five-hour tour included a delicious buffet lunch on-board and three stops for snorkelling in water so clear and warm that it was almost bath-like. On the first stop we saw at least five gently inquisitive turtles who swam right over to us, a moment I couldn’t help but find emotional.
The next two stops were to wrecks populated by hundreds of thousands of tropical fish, from slightly sinister ballyhoo bait fish to the more friendly blue tangs (AKA Dory from Finding Nemo).
During our trip, we also paid a visit to the Mount Gay Rum Distillery, home to one of the world’s most famous and historic rum brands. This involved a guided museum tour (which had a brilliant and enthusiastic tour guide but a rather basic display) and the tasting of four signature rums, served neat.
It was a privilege to visit Barbados on the cusp of a historic new chapter. Four days was certainly not enough; I’m already looking forward to returning in the future and observing how it will surely flourish as a new republic.
How to book
Colony Club can be booked via Marriott here (from £215 per night), Waves Hotel & Spa can be booked here (from £267 per night) and Treasure Beach here (from £299 per night). For more information about the Elegant Hotels portfolio, see all-inclusive.marriott.com.