Winter Break in Barbados

The easternmost Caribbean island of Barbados, located just 250 miles northeast of Trinidad & Tobago, landed back on my winter getaway map after the havoc of the 2017 hurricane season left it unscathed. You do need a passport to visit this island nation which boasts warm sunny weather year-round and a dry season from January to June. A British colony since 1627, Barbados achieved independence in 1966, allowing it to be an independent state within the Commonwealth Nations.

As a lifelong disciple of Bermuda, I had only been to Barbados once before, on my high school spring break with my parents. I had some fond memories of it and of the house we had rented and of visiting Crane Beach. I remember celebrating the golden sunsets and the sunburn I got from playing lacrosse on the front lawn with my best friend, Joanna.

So I booked a mother-daughter trip on the direct Jet blue flight, determined to surf and explore the island with our 15 year-old daughter, Audrey, for her high school winter break. We landed in this tropical oasis on February 20, 2018, affectionately termed “the rock” in reference to it’s coral core and volcanic creation and were welcomed by gentle trade winds and vibrant colors.

Upon disembarking the plane in Barbados, the similarities to Bermuda began assaulting my senses: the fragrant mix of coral caves, frangipani trees, and farmlife; the harrowing feel of those roundabouts; the sound of the public buses revving at every stop and the warm lilting yet formal accents of its people; the comforting sight of churches and colorful houses in every parish; and the tastes of rum, mixing with freshly caught mahi-mahi and truly fresh fruit. That island colonial feel that is such a part of Bermuda is still noticeable in Barbados, with familiar British influences everywhere I turned.

We rented an Isuzu D-Max pick up truck the color of the ocean, from the only car rental spot at the airport, Drive-a-Matic, and drove off to our hotel in Christ Church Parish. I think I put the wipers on 15 times in that 15 min drive, in my attempt to get used to driving a car where I sat on the right hand side to drive on the left hand side of the road. I was so nervous that I was frantic, especially at those tricky and ubiquitous roundabouts.

We somehow navigated safely along those crazy narrow bumpy roads to get to our hotel, Ocean Two, positioned at the edge of Dover Beach, a short walk to the hopping nightlife of St. Lawrence Gap.

We settled in and got a fantastic room overlooking the ocean, and an empty wave, with it’s own kitchen and large balcony. IMG_1861We went to the rooftop to watch the sun drop into the horizon and it was truly magnificent.

I then attempted to watch the Olympics, because I wanted to see Lindsey Vonn race, but was met with futility. My frustration was met with Barbadian (Bajan) balm and all the air was taken out of my sails. Perhaps the welcoming rum punch and the humid sea salty air contributed, but whatever it was, it was wonderful and I was glad for it.

The next day Audrey and I woke up and met the kind driver from Calabaza Sailing charters in our lobby. He drove us to Bridgetown to board a beautiful spacious catamaran for a five hour lunch cruise. The staff was stellar, captained by Danny who was extremely funny and helpful and assisted by Chris and Cody, who filled us with local knowledge, like how to play cricket, and served us non-stop delicious food and drinks. It was most certainly the royal treatment. There are plenty of other tours you can take but this one caps the number of guests at 12 so it is an intimate and personal experience that made it exceed our expectations.

The snorkeling, which included all gear, was wonderful and had us hovering over shipwrecks, which were close enough to the surface to make for easy picture-taking, and we loved seeing the sea turtles, tropical fish and even starfish. We anchored at Sandy Lane beach for a while to take in the stunning west coast scenery there. Audrey hopped on a jet ski for a thrilling ride when one pulled up alongside the boat.IMG_1952

We made it back to our hotel salty, relaxed and much more in island mode than we’d been before the cruise. I meandered next door to pick up the two surf boards I’d arranged with Barry’s Surf School and met a cool monkey named Lucky there, then took a board out at sunset, alone.

It was a fire wire 9’1 and as I sat astride it staring at one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen, a rainbow appeared to my right, then a large sea turtle popped it’s head out of the water to my immediate left and I honestly sat in awe at this paradise I had found myself in. Then behind me some local Bajans were short boarding and whooping it up as they carved and glided, at one with the wave. The water was so warm, so perfect, then the sky filled with puffy pink and blue clouds and I felt as if I’d just gone to heaven. I wasn’t catching many waves, but I was too taken with my new surroundings to care.

We ate at Cocktail Kitchen, in the lively little jewel known as St. Lawrence Gap, because we’d heard he was the best chef on the island. We sat at the bar, and I highly recommend the coconut ceviche and alfredo pasta. The place had an awesome vibe. Then we had the tricky business of driving home in the dark without hitting pedestrians or the curb.

Our second full day in Barbados began with an epic surf session at Freights Bay, thanks to the care and planning of Barry’s Surf School. It’s best to arrange surf packages (which can include airport pick up/drop offs at the airport) in advance of your stay. Christie, Barry’s wife and business partner, is organized, responsive and very easy to work with. I loved the boards, especially the 9’1” Modern, and all were in excellent condition. I will certainly go back to do their five or seven day package next time.

Barry took the greatest care with his surfing students and was a true gentleman in and out of the water. It makes sense that he has a successful business and is highly respected here on the island. He’s a born and raised Bajan with a pretty cool history—his great uncle, Colonial Banfield, helped choose the Barbados flag that flies over the island today!

Barry and his instructor, Andrew provided an easygoing vibe in the water and I felt safe and learned quite a few new things while we were out there catching waves at Freights.

It was also drop dead gorgeous out there, especially when surfers appeared above us on the coral cliff, poising in defiant silhouette, short boards held like shields, before leaping into the churning ocean far below. I will always have that mental picture, but I was too busy catching waves to capture it.

The Sargasso Sea “moss”, as Andrew called it, was clumping up near us while sea turtles seemed to play in the waves like fellow surfers. I was back to Ocean Two in time for lunch with Audrey followed by some beach and shopping time. We especially liked the Dover Market in front of our hotel for local homemade chocolates, groceries, sunscreen and trinkets and the quaint and colorful Chattel House Village where we found colorful handmade jewelry and wooden turtles to buy.

We went by taxi over to the west end of the island to watch the sunset and dine at Sandy Lane Hotel’s L’Acajou restaurant, overlooking the beach. We had made the reservation in advance and arranged to come early for a drink and to watch the sunset. I have always wanted to see what all the fuss was about with this hotel. Why do Tiger Woods, Simon Cowell, and Rihanna like it that much? And well, OK to be honest I was hoping to run into my all time favorite, Mark Wahlberg as he strolled along the beach. And although we didn’t have any celebrity sightings, Audrey gave the place a big thumbs up after our deliciously indulgent meal.

For me, Sandy Lane felt like one giant pink upholstered chair perched on a just-polished marble floor, flanked by century old trees straight off a southern plantation. As my dad puts it so well “the whole place seems so precious, like it doesn’t belong beside a beach.” But there it stands, “a club by virtue of its price”, meticulously maintained, in over the top decadence and luxury.

The trees are what took me—they envelope the entire property and are so magnificent and magical, and so seemingly out of place. Sandy Lane also smells amazing—they must pipe it in somehow.

Our third day included more surfing in the care of Barry’s, this time at the protected break in neighboring Dover Beach. The swell had gotten bigger and I was just shy of brave enough to surf the waves directly out in front of the hotel. Nonetheless, I surfed some fun waves when the sets rolled in at Dover.

Afterwards, Audrey and I drove over to The Crane Resort to re-visit that place I remembered from my youth. It had changed a lot but still had that breathtaking view of the ocean from the cliff and that pool with the columns around it. So I stood by the pool and Audrey took a picture—its hard to resist a good “then and now” moment. IMG_2277

After we ate lunch at L’Azure we drove over to Enterprise Beach to check out Café Luna at Little Arches. What a great spot that is. We got back to our hotel just in time for a quick rainstorm that felt like a mini-vacation from our vacation.

Then we drove over to Oistins Fish Fry, to eat some pretty fabulous fish, hot off the grill with Bajan seasoning, from Pat’s Place, while taking in the atmosphere of live music and a mostly local crowd. Oistins is the most crowded and liveliest on Friday nights, so we chose that night to go. There were so many food stalls to choose from but we’d gotten a good tip from Barry to eat at Pat’s Place so that was where we hunkered down to eat our tuna and mahi-mahi at an open air picnic tables under a tent.

The heady mixture of warm sun, sandy surf, salty sea air and slower pace had begun to work its magic on us, and relaxation arrived, like a long lost relative. We couldn’t fight it even if we tried. The fresh food, especially the fish, were so flavorful and made us feel lighter and healthier while the local Banks beer was refreshing and the rum drinks were delicious. And after all that fresh air and sunshine, we were sleeping long deep sleeps.

The fourth day was the last one of surfing fun waves with Barry’s, getting familiar with the reef break right out in front. Audrey and I indulged in massages, which they offered on the balcony of our room for total convenience. It was great to listen to the waves during the treatment!

Then we hopped into our truck and drove north, winding our way all the way up to the Barbados Wildlife Reserve, arriving in time for the 2pm feeding. It was magnificent to be surrounded by free-roaming green monkeys, tortoises and peacocks while we just tried to take the whole scene in.

We also saw a Mara (a startling cross between a rabbit and a deer that made me think of Alice in Wonderland) and alligators.

We took the scenic route back to Christ Church parish, by way of the jaw-dropping view from Cherry Tree Hill and then Lewis Morgan Mill, before making our way along the feisty pounding surf of the east coast.

We had plenty of blind steep hairpin turns that took our breath away before and after we reached the truly breathtaking rock formations of Bathsheba. It should made a mandatory part of a visit to the island. We stopped to look north at the top the hill as we wove up and out of Bathsheba and I’m so happy that we did.

We got back to our hotel just in time for sunset, and I can safely say that I had finally mastered the art of driving on the left.

Dinner at Castaway’s was delicious. Sit on the second floor balcony and you will not be disappointed, as it has a great view overlooking the clear shallow green water that laps at the Gap.

Our final day was one of pure relaxation. Audrey sunbathed and swam in the pool while I surfed and swam in the ocean. To each her own. I got waves—clear turquoise waves that crashed over the shallow reef bottom while sea turtles popped their cute heads up while sounds of tinkling steel drums drifted out from shore. I was clad in just a bathing suit and rashguard, a far cry from wetsuit land, and had basically worn the wax off my board, but somehow I had the ocean all to myself, except for an occasional skiff and jetski. It was magical. I took a few breaks, to hydrate with a freshly cut coconut or jump in the pool but mostly I just stayed in the sea.

Lunch was a flying fish wrap with avocado and a Banks beer under the shade of an umbrella on the beach. Nothing better.

We headed to the airport (which also happens to house the Concorde, so you can check that out) at golden hour and enjoyed its glow over the now familiar bumpy Barbados roads…from our now beloved blue truck.

An easy direct JetBlue flight home got us back to JFK late Sunday night, just in time to get back to school Monday morning.

Hotel recommendations: Ocean Two, Little Arches, Sandy Lane, The Crane

Other Hotel Ideas: Maxwell Beach Villas, Turtle Beach, Sapphire Beach condos, Sea Breeze Beach House, Sandpiper, Yellowbird, AirBnB spots in the Freights Bay/Enterprise Beach areas, Coral Reef, Colony Club.

To do: Surfing with Barry’s, Sailing & Snorkeling with Calabaza Sailing Charters, Oistin’s Fish Fry, Cuzz’s fish fry, Karaoke in St. Lawrence Gap, Paddleboarding, Jetsking, Paddlesurfing,

Restaurants & bars: St. Lawrence Gap: Cocktail Kitchen , Castaway’s, Primo, Café Sol, Crave, Cove, Pure Ocean, McBride’s, Sharkeys; Good breakfasts: Happy Days Café in Chattel House Village, Yellow Bird Hotel

South/SouthEast Coast: Café Luna @ Little Arches hotel, Surfer’s Café, L’Azure at The Crane Hotel.

West Coast: The Cliff, The Beach House, The Tides, JuJu’s Beach Bar, Catch 22 at Sunset Point.

Best Local Foods: flying fish cutter, banana & coconut breads, banks beer, rum punch, papaya & pineapple, fresh coconut, fishcakes, mahi-mahi with Bajan seasoning,

Attractions: Barbados Wildlife Reserve, St. Nicholas Abbey, Hunte’s Gardens, Bathsheba (soup bowl surf spot), Harrison’s Cave, Sam Lord’s Castle,  The Concorde Experience at the airport.

A Few Surf Spots: South coast: Freights, South Point, Dover, Carib, Brandon’s

East Coast: Soup bowl, Conset Point, Sand Bank, Round Rock

West Coast: Sandy Lane (I was fortunate enough to see it breaking), Batts Rock

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