Discover why Brits’ love affair with Barbados continues

The Caribbean island is having one of its busiest ever years - and there’s new product galore

Edwin has offered me a rum punch before it’s even 10am. I’m learning this is standard practice for the Caribbean island of Barbados, where the cocktail appears to be drunk in much the same capacity as the British drink tea.

We’re driving the circumference of the island with local tour company Island Safaris, tucked into the back of a 4x4 all-terrain Jeep with Edwin at the helm. He’s as cheery as they come, referring to rain as “liquid sunshine” and native, black-bellied sheep as “tropical reindeer”, and pointing out key sights with distinct pride.

We drive the island anti-clockwise, leaving from our base on the south coast and heading east to Bottom Bay, a wide beach with rolling waves. It’s then on to the sleepy fishing village of Bathsheba, home to the iconic mushroom-shaped Three Boys’ Rock, before driving along the Ermy Bourne Highway, known popularly as the East Coast Road, which was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1966.

We visit Morgan Lewis Windmill, the oldest surviving example of a cane mill in the Caribbean; little-known Little Bay in the parish of Saint Lucy, where waves seem to simultaneously crash against craggy rocks and pool peacefully in lagoons; and Holetown, the first town on the island, where English settlers came ashore in a small lagoon known as The Hole in 1627.

Finally, we make our way back down the star-studded west coast, stopping at Rihanna Drive, where the multi-platinum singer grew up, before heading onto Sandy Lane, where she and other stars such as Simon Cowell own condos, and you’ll find the island’s premier address, Sandy Lane Hotel.

In with the new

The tour gives us a comprehensive, 360-degree view of the island – and it’s clear a lot has changed. The pandemic hit Barbados hard – the island shut down for several months during

the peak and only lifted its curfew measures last month – but Bajans have used their downtime wisely. Large investments have been made to existing product and there are several new hotels and restaurants on the scene.

On the west coast, The House by Elegant Hotels – a chic, 34-key, adult-only property that was bought by Marriott International in 2019 – has renovated its food and beverage offering, making room for a fresh dining space and a full-service kitchen where daily champagne breakfasts come as standard. 

A new hotel that recently broke ground in Carlisle Bay near Bridgetown is expected be a new Hyatt Hotels property under its all-inclusive, family-friendly Ziva brand. The project is costing a reported $175 million and will be the island’s first new-build hotel in more than a decade, featuring guest rooms, condos and an overwater restaurant.

Foodie favourites

The world-famous Cliff Restaurant closed during the pandemic and was bought by British-born Barbadian resident and fintech entrepreneur Michael Kent. The property underwent a huge renovation and, under the leadership of celebrated Italian chef Antonio Mellino, whose restaurant Quattro Passi on the Amalfi Coast holds two Michelin stars, has reopened to critical acclaim. The site now offers restaurant Quattro Passi at the Cliff and a bistro-style sibling, QP Bistro.

Not to be outdone, The Cliff Restaurant’s former executive chef Paul Owens has set up his own venture, oceanfront Paul Owens at The Beach House, which serves the chef’s signature dishes as well as a weekly Bajan Sunday lunch. 

Beachside bolthole Sea Shed also continues to make a name for itself in exclusive Mullins Bay. Opened in 2019, the trendy restaurant offers chilled house music, fairy lights and fire torches, and a moreish menu of coconut-crusted catch of the day, grilled chilli lime jumbo shrimp and lobster and truffle mac and cheese. 

But the newest kid on the block is The Local & Co, an excellent farm-to-table dining experience in the island’s northernmost town, Speightstown. The restaurant is housed in an old public building and features a sun-bleached deck that opens out onto an idyllic stretch of sand.

And it’s not just the Platinum Coast making a splash. The south coast – already known for the fishing village of Oistins and its Friday fish fry, and upmarket restaurants such as Champers – is benefiting from a number of new developments, not least O2 Beach Club & Spa, which reopened at the end of last year.

Formerly Ocean Two Resort & Residences, the property has been rebranded and repositioned as an upmarket all-inclusive hotel.

The resort features a new adult-only building housing 42 Luxury Collection suites, which have views of the Caribbean Sea and offer a host of additional inclusions such as a bottle of champagne on arrival, daily pre-stocked mini bar, personalised concierge service and spa credit.

Alongside enhanced product, access to Barbados has also significantly improved. British Airways offers flights from Gatwick and Heathrow while Virgin Atlantic has routes out of Heathrow and Manchester. Aer Lingus began flights from Manchester to Barbados for the first time in October and Virgin’s first Edinburgh to Barbados service started in December.

Bajan spirit

But despite recent advancements, and evident from Edwin’s love of rum punch, Barbados is still the same at heart. From the brightly coloured houses that cover the island to the inquisitive green monkeys that swing through the trees, the island’s charm is unfailingly infectious.

Advise clients to head to St Nicholas Abbey, one of the oldest sugar estates on the island, which dates back to the 1630s. The plantation’s original boundaries are still intact and it spans more than 400 acres of sugar cane fields, mahogany forests and manicured gardens. The estate’s mansion, which was built by Colonel Benjamin Berringer in 1658, is one of only three remaining Jacobean mansions in the Western Hemisphere and can be wandered at leisure or as part of a guided tour.

Visitors can also take a steam train ride on a section of the island’s original railway to nearby Cherry Tree Hill – which, with up to 18 miles of visibility, offers the most commanding view of Barbados – or sample the estate’s single cask, small-batch rum.

Active clients and those with kids should also head to Harrison’s Cave, situated in the middle of the island in the parish of Saint Thomas.

The site is home to an extensive network of underground caverns, which were formed due to the porous nature of the island’s coral-limestone rock (the majority of islands in the Caribbean are, by contrast, volcanic).

Visitors can take a tram ride into the cave and marvel at hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites set amid trickling steams and emerald pools.

Harrison’s Cave has big plans to expand and is currently undergoing construction work to add a zip line, aviary, slide, challenge course and bridge, among other things.

No trip to Barbados would be complete without taking to the water, so book clients a boat trip where they can frolic with resident turtles and snorkel the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea.

Local company Cool Runnings provides lunch and sunset cruises aboard a fleet of catamarans, which can either be privately chartered or booked as part of a wider group. The company also offers a luxury catamaran product, Cool Runnings IV, which sails from the marina resort of Port Ferdinand on the island’s northwest coast.

Barbados has long been popular with the UK market but it’s clear new product and improved access is paying off: the island is having one of its busiest ever years.

Those who have travelled to Barbados before will be happy to find the island’s beloved Bajan spirit remains, and those who haven’t may well be enticed by all that is new to find. As the Covid-cloud clears, the sun is shining in Barbados once again, which can only mean one thing. Rum punch, anyone?

Book it: Caribtours offers seven nights’ all-inclusive at O2 Beach Club & Spa from £3,125 per person, based on two adults sharing a new Luxury Ocean View Junior Suite in June. Includes return flights with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow and private transfers.

Where to stay

Sandy Lane: Arguably the Caribbean’s most famous hotel, Sandy Lane stands proud on the shores of the Platinum Coast with an enviable list of past guests ranging from Vera Wang to Hugh Grant.

Originally built in 1961 on the site of an old sugar plantation, today the property has 113 rooms and suites, a five-bedroom private villa, four dining destinations, a Romanesque spa and three golf courses – one of which hosted the 2006 World Golf Championships.

Cobblers Cove: A treasure trove of tropical gardens and secluded corners, this bubblegum-pink country house hotel in Speightstown is the only Relais & Châteaux property in the island.

The intimate hotel features 40 suites decorated with considered Caribbean charm, including two suites in the original Great House, which boast private rooftop terraces and plunge pools overlooking the shimmering bay.

Coral Reef Club: Clients keen to experience a dose of old-school Caribbean luxury need look no further than Coral Reef Club. Sat among 12 acres of exotic gardens flowering with bougainvillea and frangipani, this family-owned property offers 88 colonial-style rooms and cottages, a beachside restaurant and a tranquil spa.

All rooms have a terrace or balcony, while Plantation Suites and Luxury Cottage Suites feature a private plunge pool.

Ask the expert Hannah Swift, country manager, Caribbean, Virgin Atlantic

“Despite the devastating effects the pandemic had on Barbados, tourism here is thriving once again.

Hotels, restaurants and attractions took advantage of the down time by doing upgrades, renovations, improving menus and more. Investments have been made in sustainable technologies and in training staff. For example, one hotel chain used the pandemic to train its staff in other languages such as Spanish.

There are new luxury restaurants popping up all over the island, and new hotels launching and the major renovations of others, so Barbados is definitely ready for luxury clientele. The beaches have also improved, with facilities including showers and and free Wi-Fi.”

Erica Rich