Barbados’ Top Beaches, Gardens, and Rum Distillery

Sun, sand and the legacy of plantation life make Barbados a multi-leveled experience.

A couple of years ago, I joined a flock of migratory snow birds and left a freezing Toronto winter for balmy Barbados. Staring out of the plane window as we came into Grantley Adams International airport, I saw a multitude of sea-glass blue bays beckoning. The warm moist air seemed to seep into the aircraft as we landed.

There is nothing more glorious than stepping into steamy heat after departing a northern chill.  “Would you care for your welcome drink?” asked the front desk clerk as I checked into Sea Breeze Beach House, a four-star, all-inclusive resort on Maxwell Beach at the south end of the island. Nodding my head emphatically, the beginning of holiday bliss began to wash over me.

Although the resort beach was lovely, I wanted to see some of the island’s most famous spots and set out on a driving tour in my rental car.

All the beaches on the island are public, usually with easy walk-in access and rental chairs and umbrellas.  After checking out a few, my vote for best wave bobbing/body surfing went to Crane beach on the southeast coast. Named one of the 10 best beaches in the world, it had baby powder pink sand and a steep cliff backdrop topped with luxury hotel The Crane. As much fun as I had there, I wouldn’t advise it for small children. Sometimes the waves were fierce and the undertow strong.

For family water activities such as snorkeling, jet skiing, and banana boat rides, the best bet was the calm clear water on the west coast around Speightstown, Mullins Bay, Holetown, and Batts Rock 

The southern coast was the most populous and Dover Beach, Miami Beach, and Silver Sands were humming with body surfers, windsurfers, and kayakers.

Barbados was settled by the English in 1627. It gained independence from the British in 1966 but vestiges of jolly old England can be seen in the parliamentary system and traffic that flows on the left-hand side of the road.

In Bridgeport, I wandered the grounds of Queen’s Park, home to the Commander of the British Troops stationed in Barbados for the West Indies.  Queen’s Park House now contains a theatre and gallery. The most amazing thing about the park was the 1,000-year-old baobab tree, one of only two on the island.

During the booming sugar trade there were almost 1,000 plantations owned by British overlords. After emancipation more than half became lease-hold villages that still thrive today. Many of the remaining great houses are protected by the Barbados National Trust and in a few cases they are privately owned.

St. Nicholas Abbey’s great house, built by Benjamin Berringer in 1658, is one of just three Jacobean style mansions remaining in the Western Hemisphere. It is one of the finest historic sites in Barbados.  The 400-acres estate includes an historic house museum, sugar cane fields, ruins of an enslaved worker village, flower and herb gardens, and distillery where you can taste some of the Abbey’s finest rums.

Another historic home of the same vintage that I visited was Clifton Hall Great House. Built in the mid-1600s, it was restored to its former glory in 2009 by Massimo Franchi, an international lawyer and football agent.

One evening I attended a party at the national heritage plaza site known as Codd’s House, in Bridgetown. The event, for a travel writing group I belong to (Society of American Travel Writers), was a colorful affair with local performers, food and craftspeople.  Codd, I learned, was a local businessman who bought property in the area in the early 1800s. Although the house is no longer there, the plaza is also home to the historic Nidhe Israel Synagogue Clifton Hall, which still holds services today.

In keeping with its British heritage, Barbados has an active horse racing culture. One day, while taking an early stroll on the beach, I came across a bevy of thoroughbred horses being taken for a cooling dip in the ocean. Turns out I was right across from the Historic Garrison Savannah race course, home to Barbados Turf Club.

After my explorations, I had worked up an appetite for some local fare. Oistins fish market, on the south coast just outside Bridgetown, was a full-out, rockin’ Bajan experience. Oil drums sliced in half leapt with flames as the day’s catch sizzled. Numerous food stands boasted menus of sword fish, flying fish, fish cakes, and shrimp. Carrying my tottering plate to an outdoor picnic table, I joined a friendly crowd of Bajuns and dug into some of the most succulent seafood I have ever tasted.

Spotting sea creatures is a favorite pastime of mine, so I signed up with Tiami Catamaran Cruises where you can snorkel with sea turtles. The company owns eight catamarans and offers sunset or luncheon cruise, complete with buffet and beverages. I opted for the day trip and was treated to a cruise of the turtle habitat on the west coast where I was thrilled to swim with three adult Hawksbill turtles and one baby, as well as a swarm of curious, colorful fish.

On another day, up near Bathsheba, I discovered Andromeda Botanical Gardens. Founded by horticulturist Iris Bannoche in the 1950s, the property was filled with exotic samples she brought back from her world travels. Now owned by the Barbados National Trust, the gardens were magical with winding trails framed by branches dripping with fragrant flowers. For the non-expert, markers pointed out bromeliads, heliconia, orchids and various palms.

Other verdant spots included the Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary, owned by Canadian investor and philanthropist Peter Allard, the Barbados Wildlife Reserve, established by Canadian primatologist Jean Baulu and his wife Suzanne, and the Flower Forest Botanical Gardens, a 50-acre property that was formerly a sugar plantation.

In each of these natural settings, there was plenty of fauna to accompany the flora. Walking down an overgrown path in the Flower Forest, I was greeted by loud chattering.  The trees were shaking and plop, down to the ground dropped a handful of green monkeys. I watched them feed on bananas and plums and then, leaping into the dense foliage, they vanished.

These memories of monkeys, sun and sand, are precious to me as I sit at home dreaming of travelling again.

It’s our sunny dreams that will help get us through these challenging times.

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