Sadly, there aren’t many places in the world where the dollar remains strong, but in Barbados—a Mount Gay rum-saturated oasis from the storm—$1 converts to about $2 Barbados dollars, and the luxe accommodations, lavish feasts and lovely vistas cost a fraction of what you would expect.
True, the 21-mile-long island of Barbados—Portuguese for “bearded-ones”—is a bit more remote and trickier to get to than, say, Jamaica. But its gently rolling, terraced landscape, relative immunity to hurricanes and ultra-friendly vibe immediately lulls travelers into a beachy state of mind upon arrival. Adding to the allure, Barbadians—colloquially, Bajans—are an enveloping bunch.
I flew into British-established Bridgetown——the island’s capital and largest city within the parish of St. Michael—for a four-night and three-full-day stay. At the core of Bridgetown lies the Constitution River, which allows smaller boats access to the city. It’s also the site of the duty-free-laden Broad Street shopping district and Parliament buildings (the latter situated just north of Heroes Square).
From there, I made fast tracks to my hotel, Tamarind Cove, which was about 35 minutes north of the airport. It’s a pleasant red-tile-roofed spot with luxury amenities—robes, top-tier toiletries, plush bedding and roomy balconies—all back-dropped by the lovely Caribbean Sea. Adding to the appeal, there’s free Internet service in a high-tech-enough business center, easy-to-arrange airport transportation and a free water taxi between Elegant Hotels’ west coast properties. I arrived late to the sound of waves crashing on the shore and made a mental note to pad down to the white-sand beach first thing in the a.m.
Waking up refreshed, I did just that—only to find a coral reef fringing the hotel, just yards from dry land. (Snorkeling gear is on hand and free to guests.) It should be noted that the island itself—breezy and temperate from trade winds—is actually composed of coral, which was pushed out of the ocean by volcanic activity. I found all manner of coffee table-worthy, red and green-gray-tinged coral remnants when trolling the beach.
After a plentiful, complimentary buffet breakfast—sausages, habanero hot sauce-slathered hash browns, fruit and fluffy scrambled eggs washed down with Bajan cherry juice—I was ready to hit the road, using public transportation when possible to keep costs in check.
My first destination was the Mount Gay Rum visitor center, the distillery’s final processing plant, in St. Michael. A cheap tour buys humorous local anecdotes, generous whiffs (and samples) of its potables and access to the ultimate destination: a gift shop stocked with rum varieties you can’t find in the U.S.
Keeping the spirit alive—or at least my momentum in check—I moved on to a local hangout, John Moore Bar in St. James, which is one of more than 1,500 rum shops on the island. Unique to Barbados, rum shops—each one distinct, many serving a signature snack—are watering holes where Bajans chat about politics, play games and unwind. John Moore, known for its uber-fresh fried barracuda and bonita, is an invitingly no-frills affair where you purchase a “flask” and receive a plastic tub of ice, glasses and your mixer of choice, all for about $6 U.S.
After that, it was on to 350-year-old St. Nicholas Abbey in St. Peter, a wondrous Jacobean plantation house believed to be the oldest building on the island. I toured the picturesque, well-landscaped grounds and buildings, indulged in a sandwich on the wrought-iron table-topped patio and tasted its own heavenly small-batch—you guessed it—rum, which is hand-bottled in delicately etched, gift-worthy bottles.
By then, a sunset meal at casual-chic, beachside Mullins made sense. While waiting for my admittedly overpriced (about $19) hamburger, I watched banana boats and kayaks bobble on the turquoise-blue water and mapped out the next day.
The following morning kicked off with a thunderous bang at the Flower Forest in St. Joseph. The rain seemed only to heighten the experience, however, evoking the scent of soil, flora and fauna. While breathing deeply, I learned about indigenous plants, from birds of paradise to the unpleasantly pungent fruit of the painkilling noni tree; saw lemons and avocados; and wondered at the fragrant ylang-ylang growing along the winding paths.
Once the sky had cleared, I scored a table at Champers in Christ Church, a super-popular piece of real estate (and wine bar) overlooking the glinting water. Here, the just-plucked, generously portioned barracuda was redolent of capers and garlic.
When I could tear myself away from the view, I checked out the historic Nidhe Israel Jewish Synagogue, one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere, and companion Nidhe Israel Museum. I peered at the artful displays chronicling the scattering of Israel’s peoples, particularly the Dutch Jews. Unbeknownst to me, they introduced the windmill to the Caribbean, powering the sugar cane industry.
That night, after a mellow (and delicious) meal of fiery, fried basil-topped green curry shrimp at The Mews, situated at the tip of Holetown, it was on to the must-see fishing town of Oistins on the island’s south coast. It’s a lively spot where calypso, reggae and rap emanate between ramshackle food and beverage stalls.
Transportation, easily arranged by hotels on weekends, is less than $35.While nothing fancy, it’s a more-than-festive destination where tourists (and locals) down liquor-laced punch and Banks beer (about $3) alongside massive platters of fried fish (about $12).
On my final day, I visited the too-cool Arlington House Museum, a stylish, rehabbed colonial home with fun, hands-on displays about Barbados’ history.
Afterward, I figured it was time for an adventure of some kind. Settling on zip-lining, I meandered to Aerial Trek Zipline Adventures, which launches from the treetops of Jack-in-the-Box Gully in St. Thomas. The irreverently fun—but thoroughly professional—crew happily hand-held first-timers through the jungle-like ecosystem. You might be lucky—I happened to be—and catch glimpses of prized, rare African green monkeys.
As my trip wound down, I decided to partake in happy hour at Scarlet, a St. James lounge with pop art-dotted walls painted its namesake hue.
The mixologist-crafted cocktails—the mean mojito, in particular—served as a perfect precursor for what came next. My swan song was dinner at tony—and, yes, expensive (a little more than $100 per person for two courses)—The Cliff . Torch-lit, perched waterside and utterly magical, its menu lived up to the hype. You only live once, and I fortunately can still conjure the taste of tart apple salad-garnished, chilled celery and Stilton soup.
Whether I was taking in an interactive history lesson at museums (about $6 on average) or sipping complimentary rum on a cost-conscious tour, I found Barbados by and large to be a pocketbook-savvy haven. Really, the best part of Barbados—sea, surf and sensational food notwithstanding—was the fact that I came home with change to spare, less tension in my neck and the knowledge that I lived in the lap of luxury, if only for a short time.