Bridgetown - It’s party time in Barbados, which marks 50 years of independence on 30 November.
On this day in 1966, the sun finally set on 300 years of British rule when the Caribbean island that made Britain rich in the age of slavery was finally free to make its own way in the world.
Bajans got the party off to an early start in January (50barbados.com), with a packed calendar of events, from sports tournaments to pageants and art exhibitions. The grand finale will be a “Golden Anniversary Spectacular Mega Concert”, held at the Garrison Savannah on Independence Day, where local superstar Rihanna will surely top the bill.
Since independence, Barbados has built its prosperity largely on tourism, establishing itself as a favourite Caribbean destination among Brits. The island has enjoyed a natural boost, too, from its location 93 miles east of the main Caribbean chain, which puts it just outside the hurricane zone, extending the holiday season into late summer and autumn more reliably than at some of its neighbours.
The main attraction of this small island, just 20 miles long by 14 miles wide, is its beaches, from the powder sands of the calm west coast to the sea-pummelled shores of the east, and some of the best quality resorts and restaurants in the region have sprung up around them. But there is a smattering of other attractions, giving good reason to leave the beach for a while, and the generally flat terrain and good road and public transport network makes it quick and easy to get around.
Unsurprisingly, Barbados’s strongest attraction is its colonial history. The landscape is scattered with sugar mills and plantation houses and the island’s major annual celebration, Crop Over, in July and August, is rooted in the traditions of slave times. The top historic sight is the old quarter of the capital, Bridgetown, and its military garrison. Named a world heritage site by Unesco in 2012, it is home to some of the finest examples of Caribbean Georgian architecture, dating from when the island was the centre of operations for Britain’s expansion into the Americas.
Raise a glass
Rum flows through the Caribbean’s veins and a trip to a distillery is a favourite off-beach pursuit. But in Barbados they’ve gone one better with a crawl of the pick of the island’s thousands of rum shops, the Caribbean answer to the pub.
On the four-hour Strictly Bajan Rum Shop Tour (bajanrumshop.com; B$200/R1 300), organised by the Bajan Association of Rum Shops, guests line their stomachs with dishes such as Chicken Foot Souse as they knock back tots of the local liquor – Mount Gay is the big name here. Visiting parts of the island that few tours reach, guests are sure to get the local vibe, imbibing not only rum but the historic and cultural significance of the spirit, while also learning a bit of Bajan lingo.
Barbados is working hard to attract more yachties to its shores. As well as hosting the first regatta of the Caribbean sailing season, Barbados has boosted the number of inshore competitions and finales for transatlantic crossings, including a rally from the Canary Islands (cornellsailing.com).
Deals with partners such as Virgin Atlantic and the freight company Geest now enable sailors and their boats to get to the island at more affordable rates and the number of public berths has increased to 90, some 40 of which were recently added to the Careenage at Bridgetown. It’s also possible to drop anchor in Carlisle Bay for free. Meanwhile, the private marina of Port Ferdinand (portferdinand.com), just north of Speightstown on the east coast, opened in 2014 with 46 plush apartments, all with their own berths, and there are plans to add a hotel in the near future.
Ride a solar-powered tram around the bowels of Barbados at Harrison’s Cave (harrisonscave.com; B$30). Deep beneath the Central Highlands lies one of the island’s more unusual attractions, a stream cave system, first discovered in 1795, though only excavated around 200 years later. The mile-long network of caverns, carved by water out of the limestone rock over the millennia, contains deep pools, streams, cascades and some eye-popping formations of stalactites and stalagmites that would challenge the imagination of the most creative sculptor.
Live the high life
The Cliff Beach Club (thecliffbeachclub.com) is the latest haunt of the jet set. This relaxed alternative to the formal dining room at the island’s top restaurant, The Cliff, recently opened, similarly perched above the sea and open to the elements.
If you’ve nothing to wear to a dinner date there, Limegrove (limegrove.com), a luxury shopping mall in Holetown, is the place to pick a little number off the rails at Gucci, Louis Vuitton or Hugo Boss. If you crave a champagne lifestyle but you’re on a lemonade budget, it’s still possible to imagine living the high life by slipping into one of the leather seats on a decommissioned Concorde at the museum dedicated to the supersonic jet (barbadosconcorde.com; B$20), which flew to the island until 2003.
Where to stay
The hottest news on the accommodation scene comes from The Sandpiper (sandpiperbarbados.com). The plush, 52-room, boutique hotel in Holetown has opened three luxurious suites in a new beach house on the shorefront. All have open terraces with wet bars and unobstructed views of the ocean. Prices start at £860 per night. Holidays at The Sandpiper start at £2 015pp, based on two sharing, with Elegant Resorts (elegantresorts.co.uk), including return flights, transfers and half-board.
Sugar Bay (sugarbaybarbados.com) opened earlier this year, a tasteful refurbishment of the former Amaryllis Beach Resort. The 138-suite, all-inclusive, four-star hotel at Hastings has swapped a brash colour scheme for natural tones and added a sushi restaurant, swim-up bar, kids’ club and crèche, tea lounge, spa – and pub. Tropical Sky (tropicalsky.co.uk) is offering seven nights’ all-inclusive from £1 299pp, including return flights.
The four-star Waves Hotel & Spa (eleganthotels.com) opened on the east coast this summer, a new 80-room all-inclusive resort focusing on wellness. Sunshine.co.uk is offering seven nights’ all-inclusive from £1,518pp, including return flights.
And watch out for the opening of refurbished The Sands Resort in early 2017, a contemporary all-inclusive, family friendly property on the south coast.
Hotels aren’t the only option on Barbados. Two new villa collections have joined the self-catering scene. Hammerton Barbados (hammertonbarbados.com), offers more than 100 villas and apartments on the west coast, from £1 120 to £22 820 per week. The Villa Collection (thevillacollection.co.uk) features some of the island’s top-end properties, from £960 to £64 000 per week. For guest houses and homestays, check out the tourist board website (visitbarbados.org).