A day in Barbados: tasting the island life

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Barbados, one of the West Indies’ most visited islands, was the second stop on my Norwegian cruise of the eastern Caribbean. And since I’d never been there before, the challenge was how to spend a day in Barbados and see as much as possible. I could have taken one of the ship’s excursions, to places like Harrison’s Cave. But those can be pricey. I chose option two: get a few people together, hire a cab and for $20 U.S. apiece, let the driver show you his island.

As we sailed in to Bridgetown, the island’s capital, the port looked more industrial than pretty. So it was a relief to see the scenery improve as we drove up the “left” coast, an area that has become a favourite haunt of well-to-do northerners. Here, a road once lined with nothing but white sand beaches is now chock-a-block with white luxury condos selling for millions of dollars. And where there aren’t condos, there are signs announcing new condo developments soon to be built.

Barbados condo

Having seen the glitzy side of Barbados, we next got a taste of the historic side. Just down the road was a shady grove sheltering St. James’, the island’s oldest church, dating back to the 1600s. We arrived just after Sunday service, and while looking around we were graciously welcomed by the female pastor — one of 12 on the island, she told us.

Barbados church

The original St. James’ church burned down, but was replaced with the solid-looking building that stands today. A few pieces of the old building are still left, however, including this holy water font, dated 1684.

Barbados baptismal font
Next, a glimpse of the real Barbados. The taxi climbed some steep roads, past farm fields and settlements filled with small wooden houses, painted in the usual bright Caribbean colours. Brown cows looked on from lush-looking green fields.

Barbados house

And then we were at the Heights, a lookout point that’s a major stop on all the island tours. From there you can see all the way to the sea coast. It was raining a bit as we arrived, so the view we got was a misty one. A bit disappointing, and I wasn’t any more impressed to see a man letting tourists pet a small monkey cooped up in a tiny cage. (I have to admit, the monkey seemed to like it.)

Barbados house

Now we were on our way down the hill, and driving through urban neighbourhoods. The driver turned down a narrow street and stopped in front of an ordinary-looking house. “You guys know Rhianna?,” he asked. “This is where she grew up.”

And then we drove on, for a stop at Copacabana Beach, a popular hangout 15 minutes from Bridgetown. The beach wasn’t overcrowded, even on a Sunday afternoon. However, the water wasn’t as warm as you might expect — it took me a while to wade in.

Barbados beach

Then it was back to the cruise port, but I didn’t want this to be the end of my day in Barbados. So I walked up the road to see the centre of Bridgetown. Barbados was once a thriving port, and an important part of the British empire in the Caribbean. That history is still evident in the old town; in fact, historic Bridgetown and the nearby British garrison are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I found the main streets lined with elegant buuildings and prosperous-looking shops, including a classy-looking department store. And since this was the Caribbean, I found branches of three of the five major Canadian banks. It should have been a busy scene, but since this was Sunday afternoon, the streets were almost empty.

Barbados downtown

Around the corner, I found a grand-looking complex that resembled a church; I learned later it was the Barbados Parliament. Across the street, a tiny, wedge-shaped building proclaiming itself the Old City Bar led to a neighourhood that was a lot less grand.

Barbados Parliament

Final thoughts: I was impressed with downtown Bridgetown, especially compared with some of the other cities I’ve seen in the Caribbean and Latin America. As for the island itself, I don’t know whether I’ll hurry back. I’ve seen prettier beaches (though to be fair, a friend visited a beautiful one on the island). And while I left without getting a taste of the famed Bajian rum, I can get a bottle back home. I think I’ll be satisfied with a day in Barbados, at least for now.

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Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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