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Barbados -- or B'dos, as the locals abbreviate the name -- was a British territory until 1966 and remains greatly influenced by the United Kingdom. Brits on holiday make up the largest number of visitors to the island. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road, and afternoon tea is a respected ritual. Anglican churches are the anchor of all 11 parishes, although, in recent years, more evangelical churches have become the choice of many Bajuns.
But those of all nationalities will feel at ease there. The Bajuns are open, friendly people, proud to share their home with visitors. There's little crime and a general sense of safety and well-being.
The easternmost of the Caribbean islands, Barbados is technically in the Atlantic Ocean. An excursion to Bathsheba on the rugged eastern shore leaves no doubt about the vast forces of the Atlantic, unchecked for nearly 3,000 miles between there and the coast of Cape Verde, Africa. Some say the freshest air on the planet blows there. The surf looks gentle, but don't be fooled -- the undertow is something to be wary of, even for the best swimmers.
Despite heavy development along the western and southern coasts, the rest of the island is full of sweeping natural vistas, from rippling fields of sugar cane in the interior to the Atlantic surf pounding against the cliffs at the island's northernmost tip. The island rewards independent exploration; rent a car or hire a driver to see its unspoiled side.
Though today the sugarcane fields speak more to the island's past than its present (tourism, not agriculture, now drives the Barbadian economy), visitors can still experience the island's heritage at a number of plantation houses and rum distilleries. If you'd rather skip the history lesson, there are plenty of places to just get away from it all, from Bridgetown's duty-free department stores to the soft, white beaches of the south coast.
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Other Southern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Antigua • Aruba • Barbados • Bequia • Bonaire • Curacao • Dominica • Grenada • Guadeloupe • Martinique • Nevis • Port of Spain (Trinidad) • San Juan • St. Barts • St. Kitts • St. Lucia • St. Vincent
Try anything with Mount Gay Rum. That's the local label, the oldest existing rum distillery in the world, and Bajuns are quite proud of it. A basic Rum Punch or Rum Runner is served at every restaurant and bar on the island. The local beer is Banks. Tours of the brewery and Mount Gay distillery are fun times.
Islanders are quite proud of their local, family-owned pottery business, Earthworks. Although the studio itself, located mid-island, requires a taxi or shore excursion to visit, it is worth your time. In addition to watching the potters at work and finding a functional clay treasure of your own, you can browse the work of artists in other mediums at the adjacent studio. (Edgehill Heights, St. Thomas Parish; closed Sundays)
If you don't make it to the Earthworks Studio, look for a selection at several gift shops around the island, including any of the Best of Barbados boutiques and the Cave Shepherd department store in Bridgetown.
Another great little gift for those back home is a bag of Barbados brown sugar. It's harvested and processed right on the island. A cute canvas bag tied in red ribbon holds about 1.5 cups and costs just a few dollars. These, too, are found in several gift shops, including the Best of Barbados.
English is the official language of Barbados, and everyone speaks it. The locals have their own dialect, but you'll have no trouble understanding conversations.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the Barbadian dollar. Check the most current exchange rates at www.xe.com or www.oanda.com. American bills (but not coins) are commonly accepted, though you may get change in local currency. ATM's are plentiful in Bridgetown, the capital city, and in other smaller towns throughout the island.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at the Bridgetown Cruise Terminal, about a mile west of downtown Bridgetown.
The cruise terminal has the usual duty-free shopping options, complete with jewelry, clothing, souvenirs and crafts. There's also a tourist information desk and a telecommunications center with phone, Internet and postal services.
About two blocks down the road are the bright pink shops of Pelican Village (Princess Alice Highway), housing artisan boutiques, a working cigar factory and a few restaurants. It's closed on Sundays.
The Bridgetown Public Fish Market is just across the street. No, you'll not be buying fish to bring back to the ship, but it's an energetic place to watch while local chefs and heads of household haggle and bargain over the freshest catch.
The route from the cruise terminal into downtown traverses through a lovely park with a stone seawall, a great place to just relax and get some fresh air off the boat without getting into the commotion of downtown.
On Foot: The capital city of Bridgetown is a one-mile stroll from the cruise port, and its downtown area is pedestrian-friendly.
By Taxi: Cabs line up outside the port terminal. You can arrange informal driving tours of the island with a cab driver, giving you a local's insight without having to do your own driving. Negotiate the rate before you start, and be sure you know which currency is being quoted.
By Rental Car: Stoutes Car Rental (246-416-4456) offers free drop-off and pick-up from the cruise terminal. Remember that Bajans, like the Brits, drive on the left. If you choose to rent a vehicle, consider the fun Kia Mini Moke found all over the island. Note that these have no doors and a small trunk, but they're a lot of fun for a day.
By Bus: The bus terminal is about two blocks from the cruise terminal, just behind the Pelican Village. From there you can hop a bus to Holetown, Bathsheba, St. Lawrence Gap and elsewhere on the island all for the same price. Note that you must have exact change or purchase tokens in advance at the terminal. Barbados has two bus systems -- the blue government-owned and -operated buses and the bright yellow "reggae" buses, which are known for playing loud music and not always paying attention to maximum capacity signs. The good news is that both systems are known to run on time.
Watch Out For
Manchineel trees, found on many Barbados beaches, are beautiful and leafy green, appearing to be a great place to escape from the sun or the occasional rain shower. Don't do it. The leaves and fruit are both toxic and can create a serious rash on your skin. Most of the trees in public areas are marked with warning signs or red X's painted on the trunks.
Also, note that, in Barbados, honking car horns do not convey a negative message as they do in many parts of the world. The Bajuns tap their horns dozens of times a day in greeting to other drivers, whether or not they are acquainted. It's just the friendly way of life there.
Banks Brewery is the island brew, and a tour of the plant shows off just how far this little brewery has grown in about 50 years. Tastings and souvenir shopping are the best. (Collymore Rock Road, Wildey, St. Michael; open Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
George Washington's House is the only place outside the U.S. where the first president ever visited. The house is perfectly restored with period antiques and is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage site. (Bush Hill, The Garrison, St. Michael; open Monday to Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
The Jolly Roger Pirate Cruise is a four-hour pirate-themed cruise that features a sail down the west coast, snorkeling and swimming with sea turtles, a BBQ buffet lunch and an open bar. You'll even get to "walk the plank" and take a few rope-swing jumps from the ship. Plus, you'll get picked up and dropped off right outside of the cruise port. Tip: Mention Cruise Critic for a 10 percent discount.
Harrison's Cave is one of the premiere show caves in the Caribbean. A major expansion in 2010 included a visitor's center and interpretive center. It's a great place to see green monkeys and the bearded fig trees from which Barbados gets its name. (St. Thomas; 246-417-3700; open daily 8:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.)
In Chattel Village, Holetown, a dozen or more brightly painted little houses, reflecting the style of portable plantation homes, are home to gift shops and restaurants offering everything from Cuban cigars and home decor to resortwear. The village is located directly on the bus route for those coming from Bridgetown.
At Mount Gay Rum Distillery, learn the history of rum on the island, learn how to mix various cocktails, and have some lunch when it's all over. (Brandons, St. Michael; open Monday to Friday 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., seasonally on Saturdays)
Been There, Done That
North Point, St. Lucy Parish, is the most northern point on the island. Get great photos of whales at Little Bay, near Animal Flower Cave. Rent a car, or hire a driver.
Cherry Tree Hill, St. Andrew Parish, is the second-highest point on the island, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and a valley nicknamed "Scotland" for its rolling green hills.
At Farley Hill National Park, St. Peter Parish, see ruins of a great manor house and views of the Scotland district from pagoda. (open daily 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Arbib Heritage and Nature Trails Eco Adventures offers lush views of the island's interior on walks that visit towns and gullies. Walks take place on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and reservations are required. (St. Peter; 246-426-2421)
Afternoon tea at the Taboras Restaurant in the Fairmont Royal Pavilion, St. James Parish, is served daily between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. (246-422-5555)
Best Beach for a Half-Day Visit: Gently curving Brandon's Beach, also known as Weiser's Beach (Weiser is a popular beach bar), is visible from your cruise ship; it fronts the Caribbean.
Best Beaches for Beach Bums: At Payne's Beach, there are plenty of beach cafes, bars and places to rent snorkeling equipment and going parasailing. On the southern part of the east coast, Crane Beach -- with its cliffs, dunes and pink sand -- has received accolades as one of the Caribbean's prettiest beaches. It's a great place for body-surfing. Worthing Beach on the south coast is also convenient to the cruise ship, and it's a perfect swimming beach.
Best Secluded Beaches: Tons! The most romantic beach is actually a collection of them, five miles long. They're strung along the east (Atlantic) coast between Belle Plain and Bathsheba. The surf is too rough for swimming, however. For romance and easy surf, check out the stretch in Holetown between Sandy Lane and Payne's Beach. On the island's south side, Harrismith Beach and Bottom Bay (both in St. Phillip Parish) have beautiful cliff sides, palms and caves; take a picnic. Batts Rock (St. Michael Parish) is also a great secluded beach that doesn't get a lot of traffic.
Bajuns love their buffets, especially for lunch. You'll often find a selection of rice dishes, macaroni pie and vegetables, usually a little over-cooked or mushy for many tastes. A good Bajun buffet will always include a couple of kinds of chicken and seafood, too. A flying fish sandwich is a must while visiting the island, and most lunch spots will offer one on the menu. One thing you won't find often is a hamburger or red meat. The Bajuns just don't like it much.
The Waterfront Café is Bridgetown's best-known restaurant. On the waterfront at the Careenage, it serves everything from flying fish to mushroom pasta. Live entertainment, usually jazz, fills the stage on Friday and Saturday nights. (246-427-0093; open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m.)
The Tides Restaurant offers elegant waterfront dining along Barbados' Platinum Coast. Try the steamed flying fish Creole or the marinated sashimi salmon salad, or surprise yourself with the catch of the day. The sticky pudding for dessert is a reflection of the region's British heritage. Vegetarian and children's menus are available in the high season. (Balmore House, Holetown; 246-432-8356; open daily noon to 2 p.m. and 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., November to May; open for dinner only and closed Sundays from June to October.)
The simple motto at the historic Hotel Atlantis Restaurant is ABC -- All Bajan Cuisine -- and it works. Sample local favorites like pumpkin fritters, steamed fish Creole and breadfruit casserole as you watch the Atlantic surf pounding onto the beach below. Sumptuous lunch buffets are offered on Wednesdays and Sundays. (Bathsheba; 246-433-9445; open daily at 11 a.m.)
At The Fish Pot, located inside the Little Good Harbour Hotel, the open dining room and fresh Caribbean breeze make any meal taste better. The baby clams come with Creole sauce, and the ravioli has a bit of Jim Beam whiskey in the butter sauce. Feeling decadent? Treat yourself to the grilled lobster. It's worth the journey north of Speightstown. You might even want to dress up a little for this dinner out. (Shermans, St. Peter Parish; 246-439-3000; open daily)
Wiggle your toes in the sand at picnic tables on the beach in front of Zaccio's Restaurant and Beach Bar, or enjoy the breeze from an indoor table. Because it's probably the most popular pizza place on the island, reservations are necessary for Friday and Saturday nights. We love the macaroni pie, salads and paninis. Even the barbecued ribs are pretty good there. (Holetown, St. James Parish; 246-432-0134; open daily noon to 10 p.m., sometimes later in high season)
Big Splurge: Barbados' most luxurious resort is Sandy Lane, on the island's Platinum Coast. A chauffeured limo brings you from the airport to a Palladian-style mansion on the beach, where amenities include multiple golf courses, a world-class spa and four restaurants. Reserve a room with a balcony for the best sunsets on the island. (St. James; 246-444-2000)
Middle of the Road: Located within the Garrison Historic District, the Island Inn is a lovely little 24-room property within two blocks of the beach at Carlisle Bay. Parts of this building date to 1804, when it was a rum storage facility. The rooms are modern, the pool quiet but refreshing, and dining a family-style affair. (St. Michael; 246-436-6393)
On a Shoestring: Discovery Bay has a great location in Holetown, as well as good, clean rooms. Meal plans are available to help keep costs down. The beach is the highlight of the property. (Holetown, St. James; 246-432-1301)
Staying in Touch
There's Internet service at the port. (Look for signs to the Telephone Center.) You can also try the JAS Internet Café. (Broad Street Mall, Bridgetown; 246-431-0127)
Best for Families: Get up-close and personal with Barbados' friendly sea turtles. Kids will enjoy feeding and snorkeling near these gentle giants. At least a half-dozen versions of this excursion are available, combined with kayaking, swimming or sailing.
Best for Active Travelers: Take a canopy tour of Barbados, via zip line, for a bit of an adrenaline rush. The Aerial Trek Zipline is located in the Central Highlands, includes eight platforms and zips more than 100 feet in the air. It's also a great opportunity to see green monkeys.
Best for Historic Highlights: To learn about Barbados' rich history, consider a highlights tour, which will likely consist of trips to the UNESCO World Heritage Site and the George Washington House, the St. James Parish Church and Sunbury Plantation House.
Best for Golf Nuts: Play a round on the links at Sandy Lane, one of the Caribbean's top golf courses. Experience this 6,600-yard, par-72 course with the help of a cart and a caddie.
For More Information
On the Web: Barbados Tourism Authority, 800-221-9831
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Barbados
IndependentTraveler.com: Caribbean Travel Guide
--Updated by Diana Lambdin Meyer, Cruise Critic contributor