Barbados, like many Caribbean islands, conjures images of sun-soaked palm trees, glamorous oceanside resorts and glistening turquoise beaches. But look beyond the shimmering surface of the island and you’ll discover a whole world of riches condensed into a patch of land that’s merely 21 miles (34 kilometers) long and 14 miles (23 kilometers) wide. To get to the heart of Barbados and experience the culture, you need to taste the local flavors, explore the offbeat paths and partake in timeworn customs, all of which weave together a patchwork of distinct history and sense of place unlike anything else in the Lesser Antilles. The castle-sized resorts and world-class beaches will always be a calling card, but Barbados offers so much more for those with adventurous spirits and palates.
For such a young island in terms of its geological formation from the Atlantic Ocean, Barbados teems with activities both aquatic and on land. It may not boast the same striking mountains and rainforests as some other Caribbean regions more known for hiking, but Barbados is much more than surfing and swimming. One of the island’s biggest surprises is Harrison’s Cave, a subterranean wonder world for the fearless thrill-seeker. Tucked away in the center of the island, a far cry from the frenzied tourist districts, the caves are a relatively recent discovery, having only been documented and explored in the 1970’s. Now some 40 years later, visitors are invited to descend into a dark landscape of mystery and intrigue via tramway, cart or on foot. The best way to experience the caves is on an Eco Adventure, a hands-on, immersive approach that takes adventurers deep into tunnels, through cave pools and on hands and knees through unnervingly narrow passageways. You’ll get muddy, soaking wet and most likely scared, especially during the parts where you’re essentially spelunking through darkness with nothing but the flashlight on your helmet. But it’s well worth the thrill ride, as Harrison’s Cave offers an extraordinary dive into Barbadian history from a geological perspective. There’s nothing else like it on the island, or really anywhere else in the Caribbean for that matter. To experience such a trek is really quite a feat of strength and will, so it’s something to be proud of, and the photos your tour guide will take along the way will serve as enduring memories of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A little closer to the surface of the Earth, a company called Hike Grill & Chill takes outdoors enthusiasts on leisurely strolls through some of the island’s most beautiful vistas. Each hike starts off at the company’s hillside headquarters on the east side of Barbados, a section of the island that’s much quieter and less developed than the west coast. Setting off in groups, it’s the ideal atmosphere for a trek along the rugged coastline and through lush vegetation. Along the way, you’ll spot cows grazing, passion fruit groves, goats and the occasional mongoose scurrying across the path. While hilly, Barbados’ lack of mountains make it optimal terrain for novice hikers or those just looking for a more comfortable physical activity. Especially when you cap off each hike with an impressive, chef-prepared cookout consisting of fresh vegetables, fish, chicken, bread, beer, wine and more.
Of course, you’d be remiss in coming to Barbados and spending all your time on the island interior. Its beaches, after all, are world-renowned for good reason. But beyond the surfing, the fishing and the snorkeling, the island offers other incredible ways to interact with the sea. Atlantis Submarines takes visitors to a whole new vantage point, off the shores of Bridgetown and past shipwrecks 150-feet below the surface. The excursion lasts about 40 minutes, narrated by an informative guide, and windows run all around the submarine, providing prime views from every angle. Altogether, it’s a unique, transportive way to explore a region of the world typically only seen in Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Nicknamed the “Culinary Capital of the Caribbean,” Barbados’ food scene is much more multifaceted than ritzy restaurants — though there are plenty of those, too. Rather, the island’s culinary culture is a deeper, more holistic ecosystem that connects local farms, family-run businesses, street food, hospitality and a thriving tourism industry, all with influences from as far as Britain, Indian and Canada. For an island as small as it is, Barbados really goes big with its local cuisine.
Get to the root of it all with a tour of a local farm, like PEG Farm and Nature Reserve, a vast, expansive of biodynamic property perched on the craggy cliffs of Barbados’ east coast. Founded by native Barbadian Paul Bourne in 2013, PEG Farm represented an opportunity to fill a void on the island and provide locals with nutritious, wholesome produce and meats. The best way to experience it — and taste it — is with a tour of the grounds, up the hills and through the valleys and along the cliffs. You’ll mingle with cows, chickens and pigs, then marvel at fruitful fields bursting with tomatoes, okra, cucumber, sweet potatoes and much more. At tour’s end, it doesn’t get any fresher than lunch prepared in the farm kitchen, eaten on a deck overlooking the crops. If you’re lucky, the dish du jour will be cou-cou, Barbados’ signature dish and a type of polenta and okra porridge typically accompanied by flying fish.
From local ingredients and customs comes a flourishing community of street food, neighborhood cafes and markets. An essential experience is an evening spent at Oistins Fish Fry (pictured above), a quintessential pastime in one of the island’s south coast fishing towns. Much more than a mere restaurant, Oistins consists of several vendors lined up around a central stage with live music and dancing. Everything from flying fish and tuna, to swordfish and marlin is on deck, served either grilled or fried and accompanied by popular sides like macaroni pie and rice and peas. Convene on picnic-style communal tables, wash it all down with a local Banks beer, drink in the calypso tunes and peruse local arts and crafts on display when you’re done. For the best experience, visit on a Friday night for an action-packed evening of dining and dancing.
Indicative of Barbados’ past as a British colony (the island established independence in 1966), the island is still rich with foods brought over by England. This includes roti, an Indian pastime introduced to Barbados by way of British colonies. Found throughout the island at casual roadside eateries and takeout windows, roti is typically a wrap made with a thin, flatbread-like dough bundled together with hearty fillings like curried chicken, goat or chickpeas. Swing by popular spots like the Indian Grill or the Roti Hut for some of the best iterations.
The island’s pastries and bakeries are staples in their own right. Barbados is filled with cozy pastry and bread shops, too, each one brimming with fragrant items like salt bread, a savory delicacy often used for sandwiches; sweet bread, a coconut-sweetened pastry with a crumbly, cookie-like body; and Christmas cake, a rum-soaked fruitcake-like delicacy studded with cherries, raisins and prunes.
Then of course there are the full-service restaurants, which run the gamut from casual, family-run establishments to chef-driven sensations on par with the world’s finest. For the latter, make a reservations at Tides, an immaculate restaurant set against a beachside backdrop in Holetown. Here, contemporary and crafty dishes like foie gras with gingerbread soil and salt-baked beetroot with rapeseed vinaigrette kick off a memorable meal of eclectic cuisine. Dishes change seasonally, with a particular bent towards pairing local flavors with international influences, resulting in combinations like passion-fruit splashed flying fish with coriander dressing; roasted chicken with plantains and jerk-infused jus; marinated prawns with sweet potato mash; and seared scallops with black truffle butter and butternut squash risotto.
When it comes to scenic settings, it doesn’t get much more beautiful than The Cliff (pictured above). Perched along the shores of Barbados’ west coast, the multi-story restaurant puts guests directly above a pristine beach, where they can spot fish swimming only a few feet away from their dinner plate. The ambience is striking, especially on the lengthy outdoor patio, bedecked with elegant, nautical paraphernalia reminiscent of a tropical fairy tale. Dishes are equally as elegant, with snails enriched by chive cream sauce, mahi mahi filets served with mushroom duxelle and shrimp swimming in Thai green curry-coconut sauce with coriander rice and fried basil.
For a real show-stopper of a brunch, snag a coveted seat at Sandy Lane, the cream of the crop when it comes to local resorts. The manor-like property features an aptly dazzling spread of savory and sweet dishes for brunch; everything from sushi and whole-roasted pig to samosas, luscious salads, chicken and red velvet cake are all represented, encouraging regular plate refills.
If there’s one thing people know about Barbados, it’s that this is the land of rum. And Rihanna, but that’s another story. Rum isn’t just popular here; it was born here. Long a hotbed for sugar and molasses cultivation, Barbadians quickly caught on to the possibilities of fermented molasses, paving the way for a new industry entirely. The fact that Barbados’ temperate, sunny climate not only begets a highly hospitable environment for sugar to thrive, but it results in a delicious product that can be configured into an endless array of dishes and drinks. Nowadays, the proof is in the pudding at world-famous locales like Mount Gay Rum Distillery, while distillation history is on full display at places like St. Nicholas Abbey Distillery. Icons like the latter harken to the island’s colonial history, as well as the earliest days of rum production. Take a tour of the abbey and enjoy some rum punch, a Barbadian staple, while perusing the gift shop.
A more modern day celebration of the spirit can be experienced at the Barbados Food & Rum Festival, a multi-day spree that takes place annually in November. While many cities and countries feature food festivals of their own, this is the rare destination that puts rum in the spotlight as well. The festival, which consists of several different events in various locations on the island, brings together some of the world’s best chefs (Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Tom Aikens, to name a couple) and beverage professionals to showcase the island’s native spirit and its symbiotic relationship with food. From a food and cocktail tasting event held in a Concorde jet hangar to a beachy shindig in the sand with live musical performances, it’s a festival that keeps things upbeat and casual as a means of celebrating Barbados’ storied spirit.
Naturally, being such an iconic beach destination lined with high-end resorts, Barbados isn’t lacking in top-tier hotels. In addition to the aforementioned Sandy Lane, a ritzy resort with four golf courses and regulars like Rihanna, numerous and distinct properties can be found throughout the island.
Colony Club (pictured above) is one such destination. Located in Saint James, the expansive property consists of a few elongated two-story buildings spread across the grounds, connected together by long, winding swimming pools. Tropical trees and shrubs provide tranquility and exoticism, and some first-floor rooms even have direct access into pools leading right up to the patio. As an apt welcome, each guest gets a complimentary glass of rum punch upon checking in, which really sets the pace for a warm, relaxed visit. The beach is not to be missed, either, what with its soft-white sand and warm water that stretches out to two large wooden docks that are great for sun-bathing on or diving off of.
Just up the street from Colony Club is Cobblers Cove, an art deco-like property with a lustrous pink motif and enough trees in the courtyard to fill a rainforest. The on-site Camelot Restaurant also makes this a dining destination in and of itself, presided over by chef Jason Joseph. The rooms here are decked out more like standalone beach cottages, each one spacious, bright and colorful. Suites add oceanfront balconies and prime, breezy views.
Altogether, Barbados is that rare gem of a place with a simultaneous penchant for the past, the present and its future, celebrating its unique collection of adventure, food and hospitality, and showcasing it to the world.