Gardens, Mansions, Distilleries, Food, and yes, Beaches in Barbados!
By Tab Hauser
Barbados checked all boxes for my tropical island vacation. For many, perfecting their downtime on the beach with a book, nap and a frozen drink is all that is needed.
While Barbados does that well, I came here for a mix of beach time and to be a little more active seeing the fun and tasty sites on this friendly island.
Barbados is the most eastern island of the lower Caribbean. It measures out at 21 miles long by 14 miles wide.
The island’s two unusual features, when compared to its neighbors about 100 miles to its west, are that it is flat and it is positioned away from the hurricane belt.
This former British colony is clean and safe and a place where I encountered the politest school children. Here you will find good beaches, gardens, old mansions, the oldest rum distilleries, good food, and a nice Caribbean vibe about it.
Beautiful Barbados Beaches
There are 80 beaches in Barbados and they are all open to the public. Below are some of my favorites.
Sandy Lane Beach was our most used stretch of sand. This is because it was a three-minute walk from The Club Barbados Resort and Spa where we stayed for the week. (More on that later).
This 1000 feet of fine powder beach is never crowded because it is shared by a few luxury villas and the high-end Sandy Lane Hotel.
While laying on our traveling floats we barely felt a ripple on the water. There are no public services at this beach.
Payne’s Bay is very similar in size and makeup to Sandy Land Beach just to its north. This beach is busier because it is just off the main road and it has chairs and food available.
Dover Beach is a sugar soft section of sand that is used by locals and visitors. It is adjacent to St. Lawrence Gap so there are plenty of services. Some hotels have beachfront restaurants.
Rockley Beach is a good place for boogie boarding and swimming in the surf. It is backed by a retail area with easy access to food and boogie board rentals. The Barbados Boardwalk begins here.
Bathsheba and the Soup Bowl on the wild Atlantic side should not be missed on any tour of the island. You come here to watch the surfers and the beautiful views. Here you can see large waves crashing around the stunning large rock formations in the sea. This is Barbado’s top surfing beach.
Freights Bay is the place to surf for beginners or intermediates. People can watch from the top of the cliff.
For lunch, join other wave catchers at the Surfers Bar and Beach Restaurant just a five minutes drive away.
Brandon’s Beach is the place for cruise ship people that just want time on a fine patch of sand and light surf. It is only a 20-minute stroll to get there from the docks. It is also a full-service beach.
For a full listing of all of Barbados, beaches click here.
Getting off the beach and seeing what makes Barbados special is easy with a rental car and your cell phone GPS pointing the way.
Driving here is British style and my secret to dealing with this is to place a few sticky notes on the inside of the windshield under your nose that say “THINK LEFT”.
We used Drive-A-Matic at the airport which had us in and out in 10 minutes. www.car hire.tv
As Barbados is not large, I grouped a few attractions that were close together that you can see in the same day or half-day without rushing.
The sights listed together are 20 minutes or less apart. If you prefer not to drive, a taxi can be hired for about $150 to $200 a day. If you deduct the cost of the rental car at about $50, the price is not bad for having someone else do the driving.
Mansion, Gardens, and Pottery
The Sunbury Plantation House was built in 1660. The mansion is of a classic Colonial-Georgian style of architecture sitting on six gardened acres left from the original 435 acres. It is reportedly one of the best-restored sugar plantations in the Caribbean and one of the few with all the rooms open to the public.
Guided tours take you through the house that is said to be the best viewing of antiques in Barbados. On the first floor, the dining room is set for 24 people. Inside the house, there is a collection of Barbadian mahogany, Victorian women’s undergarments, furniture, dolls, china, glassware, silver, and historical prints.
Adjacent to the house is a collection of horse-drawn carriages and a room full of old optometry and cameras left by the last owners. The tours end with a complimentary rum punch. Allow an hour here. (www.sunburyplantation.com)
The Andromeda Botanical Gardens is on six acres.
It is recognized by the Royal Horticultural Society “as one of the most unique and outstanding gardens in the world”.
It is the only Society partner garden in the West Indies. Viewing the 500 plant species and many trees in its 20 connected gardens is easy using a follow the numbers guide that takes about an hour. www.andromedabarbados.com
When you leave the gardens, make a right and drive a few minutes towards the ocean on the way to Bathsheba and the Soup Bowl.
At the top of the hill take in the view of the giant rocks eroding in the waves. This area is one of the prettier photo spots in Barbados.
Flower Forest, located 15 minutes from the Soup Bowl, is the place to seek out a bit of Barbados’ nature. Located on 53 acres, Flower Forest has a walking loop surrounded by trees, plants, and flowers.
It is located 850 feet up on the side of a hill with nice views of the area and the Atlantic Ocean. This is a good place to just take it slowly and enjoy the natural surroundings. www.flowerforestbarbados.com
Earthworks is a stop for any pottery fan. They are a 40-year-old studio that produces dinnerware, vases, decorative plates, mugs, and more. Their store is also their factory where you can see everything hand finished with underglaze colors. www.earthworks-pottery.com
Barbados Food, Fun, and History
Lick Rish Food Tours combines a historical walking tour with a taste of Barbados. Tours start at Independence Square where an overview of the island’s history and food culture is given. The walk covers about 1.5 miles of downtown Bridgetown stopping at landmarks and places to sample food.
During our tour we tried Bajan-style fish cakes, pork chops, flying fish with polenta, bread, local non-alcoholic drinks, tropical fruit, and ending with creamy coconut-based ice cream.
Taking this tour gave us the inside scoop on coming back to some of these inexpensive and tasty places later in the week to try other things. (Hint: mac pie!)
The easy walk took us past Parliament, into the Palmetto (produce) Market, and through the adjacent Swan Street which is where the Bajan’s shop.
It also went through the UNESCO downtown area that included the Synagogue Historic District and the restored Artesian Work Shop. www.lickrishfoodtours.com
The Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown has its roots dating back to 1654 when Sir Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews from Brazil to escape persecution and move to Barbados.
In 1985 the building was given to the Barbados National Trust and under the guidance of Jewish leaders, it was meticulously restored.
In 2008 a mikvah, or ritual bathhouse was unearthed dating back to the 1660s and restored also. In 2011 the Nidhe Israel Synagogue was designated as a UNESCO protected property.
Oistins Friday Fish Fry Fun
Friday nights in Oistins is a Barbados tradition. Here the freshest seafood and good music combine into a lively party-like atmosphere.
The name “Fish Fry” is a misnomer as the selection of fresh tuna, mahi-mahi, marlin, lobster, and chicken are all cooked over BBQ grills.
I feasted on “just out of the sea” grilled marlin, a generous side of mac pie, coleslaw, and a banks beer for $25.
Food stalls get busy around 7 PM. We chose to eat at Dora’s near the stage as you can sit down and order from a server as well as hear the music without people crowding around you.
Don’t miss browsing the craft tables.
Steam Trains, Barbados’s Best Rum, and an Unusual Cavern
St. Nicholas Abbey offers an interesting, fun, and tasty three-part tour. Visits start by going aboard their 118-year-old narrow gauge steam locomotive train.
This ride blends your senses. Onboard, you smell the coal burning, hear the distinct whistleblowing and feel the clickity-clack of the track as it takes you through their property ending at a scenic overlook of the Atlantic Ocean.
At the top, you get a history of the old island-wide rail system as well as volunteer to turn the locomotive on the wheel for its return.
Part two of the tour is in the mansion. St. Nicholas Abbey was never a religious building but a private house built in 1660 and renamed in the 1800s.
Guided tours take you into the fully furnished first floor which includes the drawing and dining room, study, and hallway.
Afterward, visitors are shown a 20-minute edited and narrated homemade movie from the 1930s. This is a fascinating unfiltered look at life at the time.
The latest owners of St Nicholas wanted to keep the tradition of sugar and rum alive. Part three of the tour continued to the distillery.
Here you will see a restored 1890 steam engine with its giant gears crushing cane into juice from January until May.
In the next room, the distilling takes place in a combination pot and column still named Annabelle, after the present lady of the estate. From the still, it is aged in American bourbon oak barrels. Tastings of the white and five-year-old rum are done at the store.
If you are into learning and sipping the finest of rum book the Rum Experience Tour. This upscale tour includes lunch and a tasting of their white, 5 years, 8 years, and 18-year-old rums with Larry Warren, the owner of the estate.
The website is very detailed on the tours, history, and rum production. www.stnicholasabbey.com/
Animal Flowers Cave located on the northern tip of Barbados is one of the more unusual caverns to visit.
While it was formed at sea level, it is now located six feet above the sea due to Barbados rising one inch per thousand years.
The cavern was formed over time by waves and wind eroding out large holes to open it up.
Visitors need to wear water shoes to walk around and a swimsuit to wade in the shallow inside. The entrance is with a guide who will caution you on slippery areas.
Once down the steps, you will see large natural openings to view the ocean. In the cavern, shallow pools are formed from the surf jumping through the openings. In the pools live sea anemones that look like flowers, in which the cavern is named after.
Make sure your camera or phone is waterproof because you will not want to miss the photos here. Allow 30 minutes inside. The cavern is closed when strong waves are coming from the north. www.animalflowercave.com
To get to the Mount Gay Distillery Experience you drive on the narrow northern country roads that lead to a view of acres of sugar cane surrounded by the distillery.
Rum has been made in Barbados since the 1600s and Mt. Gay is the world’s oldest rum distillery. It is also the second oldest distillery established in 1703.
This is a hard hat tour that starts at the same well dug over 300 years ago. Here you are told about their heirloom yeast and fields that make up the flavor Mt. Gay rums.
Guests are taken into the different buildings used for open-air fermentation, barreling, and aging. It is followed up by viewing the copper pot and column stills. In each building, the guide gives a detailed explanation of what is going on in that stage of rum processing.
The Distillery Experience comes with a welcome rum punch and a taste of two premium-aged rums. For US$7.50 you can try some of the super-premium and limited editions rums.
This tour is given two to three times per week so reservations are essential. If you are looking only for a tasting experience consider visiting Mt. Gay’s visitor center in Bridgetown.
Where to Stay
The Club Barbados Resort and Spa is on the west coast, a walking distance of Holetown. This is a good four-star all-inclusive hotel for adults and children over 16 years old.
Centered on its 3.2 acres are three pools surrounded by lounge chairs. The resort has a commanding view of the Caribbean Sea and its stunning orange sunsets.
While there is a petite and shallow beach on the property, I recommend putting on water shoes and walking three minutes along the shore to float off Sandy Lane Beach.
The hotel has two restaurants. The Sunset Restaurant serves breakfast and lunch buffet style.
For Breakfast, there is a station to order eggs and pancakes. The same grill at lunch cooked up burgers and had a carving station.
Dinner here is a mix of buffet and ala carte evenings. Ala carte selections had plenty of variety and were tasty. One evening stalls were set up near the water in an “Oistins” fashion grilling up fish, frying fish cakes, and flambéing desert up.
The restaurant we enjoyed most on the property was Enids. This is a colorful Barbados-themed place showing off some of the island’s flavor. Another local style taste was The Club’s weekly Bajan-themed dinner.
Snacks, gourmet coffee, and an ala carte lunch were offered at the coffee shop next to the main bar. Opposite the main bar is a large covered area used for nightly entertainment. Another bar was closer to the sea.
Water activities included kayaks, Hobie cat sailboats, and stand-up boards. The hotel also treated guests to free 20-minute boat rides to admire the Barbados coast lined with villas and beaches.
The Resort has a full spa, gym, and daily or weekly activities that included mixology, painting, dancing, rum tasting and aqua aerobics, and more.