The idea of spending Christmas in the Caribbean might not sound particularly festive… instead of snow you’ll have white powder beaches, you’ll trade getting cozy in front of a roaring fire for seeking shade beneath a palm tree and rather than sipping mulled wine to stay warm you’ll be ordering jugs of rum punch to cool off. It might not be the most conventional Christmas if you’re from the northern hemisphere but for me, there’s no better feeling than escaping cold, dark, dreary London for a fortnight in Paradise.
And a visit to Barbados is especially magical at Christmas. Throughout December, you´ll hear reggae versions of well-known Christmas carols pulsating from taxis, the jet ski guys on the beach will be dressed up as Santa and nearly every house is ablaze with head-turning neon lights.
Even without the lure of the festivities, it´s an island that doesn’t need much marketing, just google the blindingly white West Coast beaches or the East Coast’s rugged coastline and it will instantly earn a place on your travel bucket list. But Barbados is more than just a holiday destination for me, it’s my 2nd home. My parents are Bajan residents and have lived in St Thomas parish for the last 5 years. It’s one of those places you can’t just visit once and tick off your travel list, I haven’t met anyone who has not vowed to return or been completely blown away by what this tiny island has to offer.
So here’s my ultimate to-do list if you plan on going to Barbados, or if you’re a regular visitor but normally get sidetracked by beaches or the hotel pool. Barbados is a country rich in history and culture so don´t leave without making a few road trips around the island, starting with…
Probably my favourite spot on the whole island, it’s like stepping into another world. Horticulturist Anthony Hunte is a Bajan local who has opened up his garden to the public. But to call it a garden is wildly misleading, he has transformed a sink hole-like gully into a lush botanical retreat. It’s the most exotic and enchanting garden I’ve ever set foot in. Pay $15 at the door to explore this jungle-like crater, full of surprising features like laughing buddah statues peaking out from ferns and orchids, hummingbirds swirl around colourful flowers and water features.If you look carefully you’ll spot tiny tree frogs nestled amongst fluroescent leaves and banana trees. It’s the sort of place you can lose yourself completely in – Anthony has hidden speakers amongst the towering palm trees and dense foilage, so you’ll be immersed in the sound of classical music as you meander down the winding steps into this magical and otherworldly space.
It’s like being transported into a film as the echo of Chopin fights to be heard above the hum of insects and birds. Don’t leave without meeting the man himself, Anthony can normally be found fixing his famous rum punches on the terrace or showing guests around his home, a converted stable which oozes with charm. Old beams, exposed brick walls and rusting chandeliers give it a glamorous but rustic feel.Sitting with Anthony on the terrace whilst enjoying a slice of rum cake is one of the most idyllic ways to spend an afternoon in Barbados. If you’re a pianist, he’s always delighted when visitors tickle the ivories of his grand piano which takes pride of place in the sitting room. Photographs don’t really do this place justice, it’s so multi-scensory that you really have to visit it yourself…
Animal Flower Cave
A popular tourist spot at the furthest north point on the island, it’s easy to combine a visit here in the morning with a visit to Huntes Garden in the afternoon. Visiting the cave is weather dependent but over Christmas, it’s usually possible to descend the steep, slippery steps into the eerie cave below (take sensible footwear or go barefoot). The caves are so photogenic that they’ve been used for music videos and Rihanna herself had a photo shoot down here.
Start with lunch in the restaurant above (booking strong advised over Christmas), where you can eat fresh fish cutlets whilst looking out at the dramatic point where the Atlantic and Caribbean seas meet. Afterwards, a guide will accompany you to explore the cave and see the famous animal flower, a tiny organism immersed in the water that retreats into itself when touched. On calmer days, it’s possible to take a dip in the pools of water which are filled by crashing waves coming straight into the cave from the ocean. Don’t leave without walking further down the coast to take in the staggering views, watch where you walk though as there’s a huge hole where waves crash beneath and spray up in a dramatic show.
Whilst the Mount Gay Distillery in Bridgetown remains one of the most popular tours on the island, it’s a pretty touristy affair and you’ll have to endure a hard-sell of all the rums on offer which concludes with a visit to the factory’s shop. It’s worth doing if you’re a big rum afficianado but for a more authentic experience, work your way around the island’s local rum shops. I say ‘shop’, but they’re more local bars, nearly always within close vicitinty to a church. This is where you’ll really experience Bajan culture – sit and play dominoes with locals, eavesdrop on the latest gossip and while away an afternoon drinking Barbados’ most famous export. There are some great rum shops on the East Coast and you can guarantee a very warm welcome whichever one you choose to stop at.
Located adjacent to the Grantley Adams airport past Bridgetown, this huge hanger houses the retired British Airways Concorde aircraft. It’s worth arriving an hour earlier at the airport before your departure to do this tour. You’ll learn the fascinating story of Concorde’s rise and fall, with a video and immersive tour of the plane itself. An awe-inspiring feat of engineering, this technological advancement in aviation has never been surpassed and it struck me as a great shame that the planes were grounded. I was amazed to learn that the fleet could still fly again however after the tragic crash in Paris (due to a piece of debris on the runway), the re-launch was ill-fated as it coincided with 9/11. Subsequently aviation travel took a huge dip and Concord simple couldn’t stay profitable. I’m not much of plane spotter but the history and artefacts relating to old Concord flight are well worth a visit.
A Day At The Races
Our family’s annual tradition is to visit the horse races. It’s one of the most popular things to do on the island on Boxing Day and you’ll queue alongside hoardes of tourist and locals to get a ticket. If there are enough of you and your budget allows, hire a box, or for $10 you can get a general admission ticket to the grand stand which is arguably more fun.
Barbados has a long horse racing history dating back to colonial times and Garrison Savannah is one of the oldest horse racing tracks in the Americas. Racing in Barbados dates back to 1845 when the tiny Caribbean island was part of the British Empire. British officers would race against wealthy merchants and plantation owners.
It’s a great day out with a lively bar and the opportunity to make your money back if you bet wisely. The Boxing Day event is hugely popular so arrive early to get a good parking space and feel free to dress up – some people go super casual but locals and tourists alike will also get dressed up for this event. Not quite Ascot but a dress and sandals are suitable.
If you can’t make the races, you can see the horses being bathed in the sea at Carlisle Bay most mornings – a spectular sight if you don’t mind getting up at 6am.
Scuba Dive in Speighstown
Speightstown (pronouced Spike’s Town) further up the West Coast from Holetown and just far enough from the sprawling resorts and paparazzi-populated beaches around Sandy Lane. There’s a great family-run dive shop here called Reefs and Wreckers which offers PADI open water courses and a variety of dives for more experienced divers. I’ve done a couple of trips with these guys and highly recommend them. Barbados has great visibility and there’s some wonderful sites, from intact wrecks to coral reefs teeming with marine life.
Dine under the stars
Barbados has some world-class fine dining restaurants. For a memorable meal where you can feel the sand beneath your feet, book for lunch or a candle-lit dinner at Lobsters Alive in Bridgetown. The owners fly their lobsters over from St Vincent and you can watch as they pluck them from the tank and prepare them to order. Listen to live jazz music and order their speciality – lobster thermadore served with spicy fries. For sushi, Nishi or Fusion in Holetown are the spots to try.
Lone Star is another firm favourite – housed in the location of a former car garage right on the beach, the staff wear white merchanic boiler suits and serve up incredible tuna tartare, blackened catch of the day and seafood linguine. And for a blow out dinner you’ll never forget, visit Simon Cowell and Rihanna’s favourite restaurant – The Cliff. Run by charismatic manager, Huggy, it might be a favourite celebrity haunt but it’s the spectacular setting on the water´s edge and sensational food that you´ll be more distracted by. Next door is the Cliff Beach Club which boasts an equally breath-taking setting but at a fraction of the price. At Christmas, restaurants get booked up months in advance so for most popular spots – The Cliff, Tides, Cin Cin and Lone Star are the ones to book early. New Year´s Eve parties at The Cliff and Lone Star sell out quickly so make sure you contact them well in advance.
Liming like a local
Liming is Bajan slang for relaxing / hanging out and it’s what being in the Caribbean is all about. If you want nightlife, the most popular party spot on the island is Harbour Lights in Bridgetown – on the surface a grimy beach club but you’re likely to rub shoulders with Olly Muirs or Suki Waterhouse as you jostle for a space at the bar. Christmas Eve’s red and white party gets particularly packed and the best bit your entry fee is inclusive of drinks all night (for about $30) – note it’s open on Wednesdays and Fridays only.
St Lawrence Gap is another lively spot, a strip of bars and clubs which is busy most nights over Christmas and New Year. For something a bit different, check out the Naughty Lime Party on Boxing Day, a crazy booze-fuelled beach party which will have you dancing from midday until sunset. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for the location of this anual event.
St Nicholas Abbey
Barbados is full of plantation houses harking back to its colonial past when slaves were forced to work the land, farming sugar cane. One of the most famous plantation houses is St Nicholas Abbey, which also distills it’s own brand of rum. A visit to the house makes a fascinating afternoon (especially if you get Maureen as your guide). You’ll get to try generous samples of rum before seeing where it’s distilled.
Oistins Fish Market
Fridays in Barbados mean one thing – Oistins Fish Fry. You’ll queue behind a slow stream of cars to reach this small town on Friday nights as locals and tourists descend on it for it’s famous open air dining experience. From red snapper to dolphin (mahi mahi), the fish is as fresh as you’ll ever taste but it’s the atmosphere people really come for. Eat dinner on long tressel tables and don’t forget to order sides – macaroni pie, sweet potatoe pie, rice and peas… Barbados has lots of expensive restaurants but this will be the most atmospheric dinner you’ll have and a steal at about $20 per head including drinks. Stay for more rum punch and shake your hips to dancehall at the open-air stage.
Bathsheba & Cranes
When the shopping centres, flash hotels and congested roads of the West Coast get a bit too much, retreat to the blissfully quiet East Coast. It’s wild and unkempt with swaying palm trees, crashing waves and dramatic vistas down the coastline. You won´t see paparazzi lurking on the beach for a shot of Bieber and you might not find a sunbed to rent but it´s all the more enchanting as a result.
Bathsheba is well worth a visit, where unusual rock formations jut out from the sea. Drive further down the coast to Cranes, Fouls Bay and Bottoms Bay for great body boarding spots but keep at eye out for the red flags, the water here can get pretty rough. These beaches are particulalry popular with locals on New Year’s Day when they fire up BBQs and have family get togethers on the beach. These beaches are less developed than the touristy West Coast, so you´re more likely to find a secluded spot to yourself – load up your car with a picnic and cooler of Banks beer and pitch up for the afternoon.
There are still lots of places in Barbados I want to visit… Welchman’s gully, Harrison´s Cave, the Banks beer factory and the famous Cricket Ground to name a few but hopefully this list will give you some inspiration. Have you got any suggestions of places to visit? I’m always keen to hear of new secret spots on the island.
ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY BY LAURA MENZIES