Everyone knows about Barbados: a millionaire's playground in the Caribbean with white beaches, turquoise sea and a national obsession with cricket and rum. All true but there's much more to it than this.
As an ex-British colony, tourism and finance have long since taken over from sugar as the main money earner. It's a small, rather flat country, very different from the jagged, volcanic landscapes of nearby islands. It is also very densely populated, although you are only aware of this in the southern and western parishes near the capital Bridgetown.
It's a special island, and that's why so many people choose to go there each year. Of course, the essence of Barbados lies in its stunning Caribbean scenery and climate. But one of the most important things that makes this such a wonderful place is the Barbadian people (Bajans). They are delightful – warm, open, funny, articulate, kind and helpful. Most have family in the UK, the US or Canada and many are now returning after 30 or 40 years living and working in London or New York. And although the Bajan dialect can sound like a foreign language, it is English.
So, go and spend time in the rum shops, where many people like to socialise. Every street corner, town or country, has one. Sit on the step. Watch the world go by and chat to your fellow drinkers while enjoying the warm breeze.
Currency - Barbadian dollar ($) (BBD)
Time - GMT -5
Language - English
Telephone Services - Country Code +1-246 Emergency numbers - Police 211, Ambulance 511 and Fire 311
It makes a difference when you visit Barbados. The high season is from Christmas to Easter. This is when the weather is at its best and when prices are highest. The summer can be cloudy – but still warm. The autumn is the hurricane season and later the rainy season, but the weather is becoming less predictable than it used to be. Even in the rainy season you might get a few hours of tropical rain and then the sun comes out and dries everything within half an hour.
Things to do and see
Bridgetown is certainly worth at least a brief visit. It's the old colonial capital with its own parliament buildings. The shops are not great but it is worth exploring some of the back streets. The best part is around the careenage, the wharf right in the middle of the city that was once full of wooden fishing boats but is now full of enormous white and chrome charter boats. There are plenty of cafés and restaurants and a pleasant morning can be spent sitting in the sun watching the bustle. At night the best place is Baxter's Road, an edgy street full of small bars and fast food.
On the west coast you come to Holetown with shopping malls reminiscent of Florida. Four or five miles further north is Speightstown, a lovely and largely unspoiled town that used to be a small port. The place to chill out here is The Fisherman's Pub, built over the beach and next to the fish market, where you can buy your freshly caught flying fish (the national dish). Make sure you get them filleted. Inexperienced hands will reduce them to a soggy, bony mass within minutes.
While on the topic of fish, there are two fish-fry nights worth going to. At Six Men's Bay (a few miles north of Speightstown) on a Friday night you can eat fresh fish and drink beer on the street. On an even bigger scale there is the Oistin's fish-fry at the south of the island with scores of stalls, most of them cooking on open fires.
The one thing you must do is go to the wild and windy east coast. It's too dangerous to swim in the Atlantic swell and the main beach from Belleplaine to Bathsheba is five miles long and completely deserted. There are spectacular hills and roads to take your breath away. The Chalky Mount pottery, perched high on a narrow strip of highland road is worth the effort. And Bathsheba itself, home to surfers, has a few cafés and hotels - the best is the Atlantis Hotel. Every Sunday they have a wonderful buffet lunch (you must book this well in advance). You sit on their balcony, cooled by the wind, looking down at the fishing boats while you tuck into the best fresh food on the island.
If you get fed up of all this then Barbados is a great springboard for the rest of the Caribbean. St Lucia, St Vincent, Grenada and Dominica are just a one-hour island hop by small plane.
One of the joys of visiting this beautiful island is travelling around it. Car hire is easy, providing you are happy driving on the left. Because Barbados is only about 25 miles long and 15 miles wide, you can easily get everywhere in a day. The network of roads is amazing, taking you from village to village through the cane fields. There is also always a cooling breeze from the east (and the Atlantic), so exploring rarely leaves you hot and bothered.
The island's buses are an excellent alternative to hiring a car. Every corner of the island is on a bus route and whether you use the official Barbados Transport buses (painted in the national colours of blue and yellow) or the private enterprise minibuses, the fare is standard wherever you go. The routes tend to centre around Bridgetown but it's a wonderful way of getting around: fast, cheap, sociable - and because you sit up high you get a much better view than from a mere car. On a private 'pick-up' you usually get a stereo pumping out a reggae beat.
The main airport is Grantley Adams (Barbados, BGI), which is 13km to the east of Bridgetown. There are frequent bus and taxi services to Bridgetown and other parts of the island.
As an international harbour, you can also reach Bridgetown on one of the many cruise liners that port there on a regular basis.
Out of dozens of expensive hotels in Barbados, the most famous is The Sandy Lane Hotel in St James, situated by the sublime beaches and calm sea of the west coast. However, this does not mean that these palm-fringed paradises are only for the ultra-rich. No beaches are private and there are clearly marked access points all along the coast.
But, for cheaper accommodation, the south coast is the place to go. Lots of package holidaymakers find themselves here. Moreover, unlike the west coast there is a lively night-time scene with clubs, bars and life on the streets. St Lawrence Gap is the epicentre. You could almost be in Ibiza.
Cheaper still are the hostels and guesthouses around the island. Once again, these are to be found along the south coast.
Health care issues
There are no stipulated health precautions to take before entering Barbados. However, insect repellent is highly recommended for a less itchy holiday. It is also very important to have health insurance too, as medical care is not cheap.
Barbados Tourism Authority
Tel: 246 427-2623
Fax: 246 426-4080
Ministry of Tourism
Sherbourne Conference Centre
Two Mile Hill
Tel: 246 430-7500
Fax: 246 436-4828