After nine days in Trinidad and Tobago, we were off to our third Caribbean destination: Barbados. This time, we flew with LIAT (short for Leeward Islands Air Transport), another first for us. Given their fleet of ATR42 / ATR72 turboprop aircraft, the airline enforces even stricter rules for carry-on luggage, allowing only a maximum of 7kgs (or 15lbs). As our backpacks weigh slightly more, we were forced to check them in, the very first time in six months. UPDATE 2020: While placed under administration, LIAT is due to resume services soon.
While normally not an issue, it did cause some anxiety (at least for me) as Trinidad and Tobago are considered to be a hotspot for drug trafficking between South and North America, and only the main compartment of my backpack can be locked (one of the disadvantages of the Osprey Ozone 46). So, with the line of passengers waiting behind us, I tried my best to lock the other compartments with the cable ties I had brought along for those cases. Picturing myself in a Barbadian jail because someone had snuck a little package of something into my backpack, I was apprehensive… until I was reunited with my pack. Luckily the cable ties I had put on in such a rush were still in place.
As we approached Grantley Adams International Airport, about 16kms east of downtown Bridgetown, the first thing we saw was endless white-sand beaches with turquoise water… followed by the realisation: Barbados is pretty flat. We later learned that Barbados, unlike all its Caribbean neighbours, is not volcanic. The island sits at the juncture of two tectonic plates. As one (the Atlantic plate) was pushed underneath the other (the Caribbean plate), the island emerged, and as the seafloor lifted, coral reefs formed, which were lifted, again and again, building the multitude of coral terraces that make up a large part of Barbados today.
This time, we chose a short-term rental accommodation between the airport and downtown Bridgetown, in the quiet residential suburb of Sheraton Park, Christ Church. Our host, David, kindly picked us up from the airport. After we checked into our gorgeous ground floor apartment, he drove us to the supermarket, waiting in the car park, while we bought our groceries for the week… what a service indeed.
What did we get up to?
As the following day was a Sunday, Jenny and David invited us to spend the afternoon with them and their friends (Dawn, Marvel and Carlson) at Browns Beach. With their respective 4WDs parked right on this long stretch of sand, we enjoyed a wonderful afternoon in great company. Cold drinks in hand, we shared some yummy food (made by Carlson), exchanged stories (all three of their friends have lived in other countries: in Germany, US and UK), enjoyed a swim in the turquoise waters of Carlisle Bay… and finished off with a gorgeous sunset. What a way to end our first 24 hours on the island…
The next few days, we:
- checked out Oistin’s fish market where local fishermen sell their daily catch fresh off the boat.
- explored downtown Bridgetown, checking out Palmetto Market, the commercial area around Broad Street and Swan Street, and the Parliament building, with a lunch stop at Square Restaurant on Swan Street. Looking for some food at Palmetto Market, we stumbled upon this little local place on the upper floor of a Swan Street shop by pure chance.
- enjoyed the (surprisingly short) boardwalk between Hastings and Rockley Beach, with a lunch stop at Blakey’s – where I had some yummy steamed, Creole-style flying fish with breadfruit cou cou (a local dish that looks a bit like mashed potatoes).
- took a public bus north to roam around laid back Speightstown and spend the afternoon at Paynes Bay on the posh West Coast, where we discovered another little gem – a little pizza restaurant called De Clay Oven which had only opened recently and served delicious, thin-crusted pizzas with a Bajan twist.
We were tossing up to visit either the George Washington Museum & Garrison Tunnels or the Barbados Museum & Historical Society but in the end, a third option won: the Concorde Experience. Prior to our arrival, we had no idea that the Concorde also flew to Barbados. I remember seeing (or firstly hearing) her flying over Hammersmith on her approach into Heathrow, back in the days when I lived in London. Well, given the Concorde’s importance for Barbados’ development – many of the super-rich and (more or less) famous bought property on the West Coast – the aircraft that serviced the island was retired in Barbados. You can visit it in a hangar adjacent to the airport. While it would have been awesome to get a flight simulation (I would love to know how it is to fly at Mach 2), it was a great experience to sit on the plane and learn more about a piece of aviation history that sadly, no longer exists.
As in Curaçao and Tobago (and attempted in Trinidad), we hired a car for a day to explore more of the island. First up was Harrison’s Cave. While we saw some gorgeous formations on our tour, and it would surely impress a lot of people, the experience was a little underwhelming for us (especially given the entry fee of BBD60 / USD30 per person). You can join more explorative, longer cave tours but the most common one offered (and the only one available when we were there) was the tram tour. Visitors are basically driven around the cave and past the formations in a mini train. You can get off every now and then, but being driven removes part of the adventure of visiting a cave. We have seen beautiful caves in many parts of the world, most recently the Jenolan Caves in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains and Western Australia’s Jewel Cave… these were all by far more impressive.
From the cave, it’s only a few kilometres to Welchman Hall Gully, a collapsed limestone cave that retained some of the island’s original rainforest and is now home to green vervet monkeys. We timed it to be there for the 1030h guided tour… we shouldn’t have bothered. Our guide rushed an oversized group through the gully, and you could hardly hear her speak unless you were directly behind her. We may have been just unlucky on the day. However, they do hand out an informative brochure, and it’s easy to walk around the gully self-guided. Based on our experience, you’ll learn more. It is worth being there though when the monkeys are being fed which seems to coincide with the start of the guided tour. They put out pieces of banana and cucumber for them… guess what was their favourite.
My highlight of our day around the island was Hunte’s Gardens, a ten-minute drive from Welchman Hall Gully further towards the east coast. Anthony Hunte, a horticulturalist, together with five helpers created in a giant sinkhole the most stunning garden I have ever seen… with little terraces all over the place where you could stop, sit and enjoy the colours, smells and sounds. You could even visit his house and talk to him. Sadly, by the time we got there, Paul and I were starving, so the visit was only short.
On our search for a place to eat, we stopped at Bathsheba on the east coast, briefly watching some daredevils surf the Soup Bowl before we headed further up the East Coast until we found a little restaurant by the roadside called Sand Dunes that served some delicious flying fish and shepherd’s pie. After lunch, we headed further up north, past St Nicholas Abbey – which we didn’t end up visiting as the entry fee (at BBD45 per person) was just too much for us after an already expensive day – all the way to the top of Barbados at Archers Bay… We have no idea why the Lonely Planet made such a fuss of it. If we would do it again we would give the North a miss, and instead spend more time on the gorgeous East Coast, with a drive back to Bridgetown via the South Coast. One for next time…
We finished our week in Barbados with a huge and yummy fish dinner, infectious music and dancing at Oistin’s Fish Festival on Good Friday – together with Jenny, David and Matthew, our hosts’ son, who had visited from Canada for a few days.
Each of the four islands we have visited so far has been different and unique, and each of them had aspects we liked (and disliked). Barbados though has been our favourite to date.
Why? Firstly, the genuine friendliness of the Bajans (as the people of Barbados are also called) really stood out for us… People would chat to us at bus stops as if we were part of the community. We felt at home. We attribute a large part of this also to our wonderful and generous hosts, Jenny and David. Secondly, Barbados felt safer, more progressive and orderly than Trinidad and Tobago or even Curaçao… There were no bus drivers who tried to rip us off. Bus fares are set at BBD2 per person, no matter where you go on the island. The Barbados Transport Board has schedules of the government-operated buses (blue with yellow stripes and one of three types of buses servicing the island) on their website. What’s On that tells you what’s happening on the island on any given day of the year. Thirdly, we had no problems with mosquitoes (if you are eaten alive like me this is actually quite important), and finally… Barbados has some truly gorgeous beaches.
The downside of being a relatively progressive island nation that is visited by cruise ships and more well-off West Coast tourists is that many things are more pricey – whether it be groceries, car rental or entry fees. If you are a more budget-conscious traveller like us you just have to be selective in what you do and buy on the island. There is still plenty to enjoy if you can’t afford a hire car or don’t want to fork out the entry fees: beaches are free; bus travel is cheap, and it gets you (almost) anywhere on the island if you have time; and according to the What’s On website, there are donation only, early morning or late afternoon hikes organised by the National Trust. We didn’t get to do them but would love to try them out one day.
Island of the bearded ones, we will definitely return.