One of the smaller Caribbean Islands, covering roughly 166 sq mls and measuring 21 mls long by 14 mls across at its widest point, Barbados is a mostly flat coral island fringed by reefs and long, white beaches. By Caribbean standards, it is densely populated, particularly in the low-lying W and S of the island, where development is almost continuous along a narrow coastal strip. This has led to significant traffic congestion, especially around the workaday capital, Bridgetown, which is the major commercial centre and boasts a full range of shops and services. Speightstown in the NW is the second town, but is barely more than a large village; Holetown is smaller still and, apart from a few local shopping parades in the SW tourist areas, all other centres are tiny villages with little more than a convenience store and bar/restaurant. Inland areas are largely rural and fairly green, with the more hilly and relatively sparsely populated N and E sections planted with large tracts of sugar cane. The flight path for incoming aircraft is along the S coast and, although it is not a particularly busy airport, there can be noise from passing planes, which is most noticeable the farther E you go. Overall, this stable political democracy basks in a friendly, low-key ambience; it also enjoys a low crime rate although, as with anywhere else, open displays of wealth are unwise.
Buses are frequent and cheap, and most places are served by the bus network or have a stop nearby. Privately run minivans (also known as ZR vans, due to their "ZR" licence plate) are also cheap and regular, although slightly less comfortable as operators cram in as many people as possible. Taxis are plentiful and fares reasonable; no meters, however, so agree the price beforehand. Car hire available; a Barbados driving permit is required, obtainable via car-hire companies (charge).
Location: Most easterly Caribbean island. 112 mls SE of St Lucia. 210 mls NE of Trinidad. Airport 11 mls E of Bridgetown.
Position: Towards the S end of the Windward Islands.
Barbados Grantley Adams International (BGI) - Flight time from the UK: 9 hrs
Suits anyone seeking a relaxed and mellow holiday. Main clientele are fairly comfortably off couples, with more mature guests favouring the peak winter season and the younger market the summer; British, Americans and Canadians dominate. Also popular with water-sports enthusiasts, golfers, honeymooners and couples tying the knot "in paradise".
W-coast beaches tend to be narrow and have slightly coarser sand than in the S, where wide, soft, white-sand beaches are the norm. The W coast faces the relatively calm Caribbean Sea, although steeply banked beaches can create undercurrents; in some narrower sections, beaches are subject to tide and storm erosion. The sea along the S coast tends to be a little less settled and appeals to windsurfers. The E coast has picturesque, almost deserted beaches facing the Atlantic, but the water has a reputation for strong currents and tends to be the exclusive domain of surfers and strong, experienced swimmers. All beaches are officially public, even the stretches colonised by the 5-star resort-style beachfront properties. Nothing is allowed to be placed on the beaches so there are no amenities to mention. Naturist and topless bathing are also illegal, and the law is almost universally observed.
Mainly limited to everyday basics with a wide variety of locally produced craft goods and clothing on offer. Duty-free shopping, however, is a major attraction, with several large shops in Bridgetown offering bargains on international brand-name jewellery, cosmetics, crystal, tobacco, leather and alcohol. Most upmarket shops will offer some form of duty-free arrangement. Rum is a major local product and most tourists end up leaving with at least 1 bottle.
Daytime: a wide range of water sports including sailing, diving, surfing, windsurfing, kite-surfing, kayaking and some motorised options; paragliding; horse riding; walking and hiking; cycling; golf; spectator sports like cricket, soccer, rugby, field hockey, horse racing and polo.
Nightlife: all-inclusive packages at hotels usually feature regular live music (reggae, jazz and steel bands are popular), floor shows and special barbecue evenings; outside hotels, there are a number of music bars, pubs and "rumshops" as well as a couple of nightclubs, Bridgetown and St Lawrence Gap being the liveliest centres; dinner show featuring traditional music and dance at popular restaurant venue (twice weekly); evening cruises and romantic catamaran trips for two. The overall scene, however, is fairly low key – options are limited for young ravers.
All-inclusive hotel packages mean limited independent dining options, with the main concentration of (upmarket and expensive) eateries on the W coast. A modest selection of more reasonably priced options S of Bridgetown and in the St Lawrence Gap, but prices are generally well above the UK average. Most hotels participate in some form of dining-exchange scheme, so people can eat at different places. "Casual smart" dress code applies at most restaurants; occasionally smart dress may be required and black tie for special occasions. Cuisine on offer includes local, seafood, Indian, Greek, Chinese, Polynesian and Italian; some beachside bar/restaurants and KFC outlets. Island specialities: pepper pot (spicy stew), jug-jug (moulded chopped ham, salt beef and peas), flying fish, cou-cou (maize meal) and Barbadian black pudding. Don't go home without tasting Barbadian rum, either!
W-coast hotels tend to be considerably more upmarket and exclusive; mid-range properties predominate on the SW coast. Self-catering options are concentrated in the S, with most also offering in-house food, beverage and entertainment facilities. All establishments are fairly modest in size, with a few notable exceptions.
Rum and sugar factory tours; colonial plantation mansions including the 17th-century St Nicholas Abbey; Morgan Lewis restored sugar mill; Harrison's Cave with its crystal-clear pools, waterfalls, stalactites and stalagmites; Bridgetown for shopping and sightseeing, including Garrison Historical Area with National Cannon Collection and Barbados Museum; eco- or heritage tours of the island; E coast tour; wildlife reserve and monkey sanctuary; deep-sea fishing; scenic boat trips and lunch-time pirate-ship cruises; submarine trips.