- While I spent six months living in Barbados, and have much to go on about, I’ll attempt to provide you with the quickest rundown of what to know and what to do!
What to Expect
Do expect to be immersed into a truly Caribbean lifestyle (pronounced kAr-ib-EE-an, not cah-rib-ean; like the pirates, not the cruise line) in all aspects. That includes jumping on island time, even when island time is inconvenient. Be prepared to sit back and wait, it took me about three months to learn enjoy it, so here is a word to the wise: don’t anticipate quick or American-level-pseudo-polite service from most local joints. Be prepared to relish in the uniqueness of the experience, and the freedom of merely passing time while people-watching.
Unlike other popular vacation destinations in the Caribbean, you should NOT intend to spend your entire trip at your hotel/on your most accessible beach. With the exception of a few of the most elegant and expensive resorts, most Barbadian vacation accommodations allow for relatively safe and easy access to the less-than-toursity areas. It really would be a shame to spend your Bajan (casual synonym to “Barbadian;” roughly rhymes with “cajun”) vacation never experiencing true Bim (“Barbados” slang).
Anticipate some crazy fresh fish at crazy low prices, cheap high quality rum (Mount Gay Eclipse is the standard, and will set you back about 5-10BBD a drink with mixer- thats 2.50-5USD).
If you’re awful at math or missed that calculation 1 USD=2BBD. Even better: you can use your USD essentially exclusively for the duration of your stay (sorry non-American readers!) Though many more commercialized businesses will exchange at $1.98-$1 for credit card purchases and rarely cash, you can be sure that strictly US currency will get you through your vacation without any hassle. (paper money is accepted, US coins are not, and you should not expect to get US change if you’re spending US dollars. It is nice to have some Bajan currency though, since walking around flashing a wallet full of US $20 bills in not recommended. Also, Bajan currency uses $2 bills and $1 coins, but no $1 bill.)
Most places that expect tips include them in the bill as a “service charge.” This is not entirely true though, and when you do tip additionally, 10-15% would be satisfactory. I, having sent myself through college on tip money, am strongly in favor of tipping everyone all the time. My boyfriend hates it, and insists it is not the way. Barbados has a strange tipping culture, since so much of the economy is based on tourism, many of the more touristy options will be more expensive and tips will be expected. Though, if a service charge is not included, you should not feel obligated to tip. (In America, at a restaurant, barring any other special circumstances, you are obligated to tip. I will fight that with my last breath!)
A slight tangent: At some point on your trip, you’re likely to be told something you do not understand either due to an especially heavy accent or new-to-you vocabulary. Be gracious and politely ask your server, bartender or ZR driver (we’ll get there) to repeat for you. They’ll probably say it the same exact way and you’ll still be confused, but don’t get flustered; it’s all part of the experience.
A complete tangent: Don’t wear camouflage. It’s illegal.
Transportation & Accommodation Location
No matter where you stay along the west and south coasts, you will have easy access to the bus routes, running north and south along the west coast, and east and west along the south coast. All routes converge in Bridgetown (aka “Town” or “B-Town.”) Though the “official” publicly run busses do service the same routes, you’ll likely spend the majority of your time on privately run (yellow) busses or, most commonly, ZR‘s (pronounced zed-are, their namesake being the “ZR” license plate prefix). All these options are 1USD a ride, and will get you as far from town or to town as you could reasonably want to travel in a likely cramped, almost certainly loud public transport vehicle. It’s borderline required that you have at least one ZR ride to get the Bajan experience. (Note, you can almost always get a reasonable amount change back on ZR’s or yellow busses but never on blue busses, don’t get on anything with over $10 US looking for change, though…$5 is reasonable)
Hired cars (i.e. rental cars) are fairly expensive and below standard “cars” in the states or Europe. If you are unfamiliar, as was I, a mini-moke is a tiny automobile with no doors and a soft, removable roof. It will require a bit of flexibility to get in and out of, and will provide you with some newfound appreciation for doors. Though, I must admit, it is quite a fun way to get around the little island (166.5 sq mi).
My best recommendation is to find the cheapest shortest rental you can, and commute via ZR or bus for the majority of your trip. In mid-April 2016 I was able to find a mini-moke for 300BBD for 3 days, visitor’s license as well as delivery/pickup included. We paid cash upfront, and left the car at our rental house, with the key locked in the trunk, to be picked up by the hire company after we’d finished the rental. It was honestly the absolute easiest car rental experience of my life. Do a bit of research online, and call to negotiate the best price. Expect to pay somewhere around $100USD a day if you don’t come across a super deal or do any negotiating.
Where to stay:
Having a six-month plan when arriving in Barbados allowed me the option to find a lease instead of hotels and AirBnB’s. That leaves me with a sparsity of information for you on the topic. Though, I’ve found in my minimal searches that AirBnB rates are not very appealing relative to other possibilities in hotels with better accommodations. All the same, I can recommend a few areas based on your tourism-style.
Anyone looking for easy access to relatively large swimmable beaches should find themselves most content on the south coast. There are plenty of tourist focused shops and restaurants spread along the south coast from Bridgetown to Oistins. Hotels located within or near to The Gap will place you close to all the best nightlife Bim has to offer vacationers, as well as a fair selections of dining options that run the gamut from food carts to fine dining. If you do find yourself in the gap at night and hungry for something less-than-healthy, go for a Gap Burger. You can follow the scent to the guys flipping some legitimately delicious patties in front of Old Jammin’. While you’re there, stop in for some 2-for-1 Mount Gay Eclipse and mixer (Rum-ginger with a dash of bitters is my personal favorite) and kick back to listen to the live music on Saturday nights, or get on the dance floor to some modern rhythms.
For a slightly more luxurious and quiet beach vacation you may consider the West Coast. You will likely most enjoy a west coast stay in Holetown, the area most known for the Limegrove mall. There a handful of options to enjoy the nearby beaches an adequate selection of restaurants. Though equally beautiful to the south coast, and having some spectacular sunsets, staying on the west coast will suit vacationers seeking little more than a Piña Colada on the beach and some elegant dinners overlooking the ocean at sunset. There is a bit of nightlife to be found, such as at the Red Door nightclub, but do expect to be on the bottle-service and businessmen vibe rather than a very authentic island feel. This is also the area to stay if you’re looking for a nice day at Louis Vuitton and Cartier and an afternoon on the beach.
Do you really just want to get the hell away from everything that doesn’t swim, crawl or surf? The east coast is the place for you. Though relatively difficult to access, if you’re looking for sweeping views of the ocean from atop cliffs, some laid back peace and quiet, or perhaps some killer (really, I would die) surf, you can’t get much better than the East Coast. DO NOT plan a trip to the east coast and expect to travel to town or very much at all unless you’re prepared to spend a decent amount of your time driving, and even more of it asking for directions. It’s doable, but not recommended. The east coast is your best bet to see some nature and get a so often overdue break from the business and stresses of life.
Speaking of asking for directions:
You will need to, and when you do, anticipate the person you are asking (if they are walking the direction you are driving) to ask for a lift after. If you are uncomfortable with providing a short lift (totally acceptable, but you’ll still fell guilty) then don’t ask someone who is clearly walking somewhere.
Expect to be given more directions than you can reasonably remember, and be comfortable with things like “the big rock” as landmarks. Useful sidenote: a “gap” is an intersecting road/street. If you are told “turn at the fourth gap on the left,” start counting the intersecting roads you cross.
Do you think Google Maps is your solution? Think again. Evidence for that:
Did we get there? Yes. Did we drive around a cow, wait for sheep to cross and end up at the back, fenced off “entrance” to our destination? Yes, yes and yes.
You can use it for walking to nearby restaurants or shops, but please, don’t try to navigate the north or east of the island without having a conversation with someone who knows where you’re headed.
My Best Suggestions
Half-day catamaran cruises along the west coast, all drinks included! I would take Tiami cruises weekly if possible. They are always fan-freaking-tastic! Unlimited drinks, breakfast muffins or banana bread (dear lord, eat the banana bread), full Bajan lunch, sea turtles, sunbathing, reef snorkeling, entertaining crew. Just do it. It’s great.
Rum Punch and some off-roading! Book an Island Safari day trip on their “Adventure Safari” option if you are looking for the low-effort way to view a great deal of the island. (Really, who wants to do tons of planning and driving on vacation?) They’ll pick you up and feed you plenty of rum punch along the route jumping from scenic lookout points to historical monuments. Even having already spent months living in Bim by the time I took my Island Safari tour, it was a truly unique and fun way to see new sights, and revisit others with the added benefit of a mic’d tour guide! P.S. if you are on a time crunch, they offer land an sea tours also, which should provide you something similar to the Tiami cruise (though I cannot speak from experience on this one).
Though it is only practically accessible using a hired car, a visit to the North Coast’s Animal Flower Cave will be well worth the effort. Some of the best clifftop views of the island can be caught from the site of the caves. For 20BBD a person you’ll get a guide to take you and your group down the fairly steep stairway into the cave, which is mostly open along the northern side, allowing for tremendous views of the ocean as wave crash against the rocks and cave wall. You get a good bit of information about the so-called “animal flowers,” the Venus Fly Traps of the sea, as well as breaks for great photo ops silhouetted by the Atlantic sea!
Full disclosure, I’ve never been. Though, nearly everyone else I knew in Bim had been multiple times (I was sick one time, had different plans another, etc.). I have heard all good things if you are in search of a fun beach day/night with enough to do to entertain kids and adults for a full day, since there are beach toys and inflatable rafts galore. From what I’m told there’s an entrance fee that is essentially a gift card that can be used at the bar for drinks or food at relatively reasonable prices.
Off the Beaten Path
EarthWorks is an awesome place to find local handmade gifts to take back for friends and family. It’s also a great little stop off for lunch overlooking the south-west from a hilltop. They have a well stocked gift shop in addition to the pottery that made them famous. For a relaxing afternoon stop that shouldn’t get too expensive, EarthWorks is a great idea! It’s a good idea to plan your EarthWorks visit while/if you have a car!
For a relaxing hour or two in a shockingly tranquil garden, head to the barely remote Hunte’s Garden: a well maintained and beautifully winding garden with many spots to cop a squat and get lost in the beauty surrounding you. Before heading out, pass through the gift shop/patio to check out some unique artwork and enjoy a glass of homemade lemonade!
An absolute MUST DO in my opinion, is a night at Oistins! The most popular (and most crowded) night is Friday. That is hands down the best night to catch all the local vibes and vendors. At this point, I prefer to go on Saturdays, when it is less crowded and the lines are often nonexistent. My upper-middle-aged mother, who I took on a Friday, was fairly disillusioned with the hour wait in line prior to ordering. Ordering and picking up at the ‘counter’ tends to be the easiest way to get your food, though if you’d prefer to catch a spot and wait for a server (who you should tip) to get to you, that’s also an option, and one which requires significantly less standing.
Don’t get schemed by the street-facing food vendors/restaurants. (They’re more like food stands that will bring your food to you or some very laid back restaurants. When you go, you’ll get it.) The outward facing stands will try and encourage you to eat at their locations. Politely decline, and head into the middle of it all, directly behind the stage, where you should see a sign for Chillin ‘n Grillin (they have half decent WiFi)…this is my personal favorite. They offer some delicious swordfish and tend to have more sides options than the others, though either of the two immediately adjacent offer similarly enticing options. (My apologies, their names were never relevant…Honestly, I only know Chillin ‘n Grillin because their WiFi is saved on my phone. They do, though, have a prominent sign.) I recommend getting your alcohol from the rum shop (bar) in front of C’nG. I would get a mini flask of Mount Gay Eclipse and bottle of mixer for around 14BBD. Make sure to ask for Ice and cups! That was always the perfect amount for 2 to split. P.S. “Dolphin” is Mahi-Mahi (aka Dorado). Marlin is marlin, and is the most common fish you’ll find on the island.
A great option for a relaxed and reasonably priced full service restaurant, Just Grillin’ has two locations: one on the south coast and one on the west coast. You can get damn good fish sandwiches or platters with some equally delicious rum punch, without breaking the bank. If you’re looking for a nice lunch spot, I’d recommend Just Grillin’ over most midday options. The food is fairly similar to Oistins though, so if you’re picking between one or the other decide based on ambiance. If you want to be more low-key but have good quality food and simple full service, or you’re looking to go before 7pm, go to JG. If you want to be immersed in the culture, including the potential annoyances and wait, head for Oistins!
Happy Hour? Sports Bar? South 7’s got you. 5-7 happy hour provides a decent selection at rock bottom prices. The food is good, but nothing to blog about. If you absolutely need to catch a game or want to start the night early, South 7 is good for either. I personally enjoy it because the happy hour drink list gives me an often much-needed break from rum-gingers.
Though infrequently my first choice, Lights is a good place to enjoy happy hour 2-for-1’s or a dinner show. There’s an age limit for non-show nights (16), typically a cover, and different nights will have different events, so check ahead of time! I found the dinner show a bit like the episode of Mad Men when Don visits the Hawaiian island resort. Take that however you will. Everyone I was with loved it. The show includes dinner and unlimited drinks, including my favorite beach cocktail: Piña Coladas! They’ll also shuttle you from your hotel, so that’s a big plus!
Cin Cin is a great option for an elegant evening on the south coast, so long as you’re prepared to shell out for the high life. Located in the St. Lawrence Gap, a night a Cin Cin will be well followed by a few drinks at a neighboring bar or club. Having taken my mother to Cin Cin for her birthday, I can easily rave about their perfectly done scallops and awesome birthday presentation for the chocolate-heaven of a desert we’d ordered. Our table came available about 10-15 minutes after our reservation, though the waiting lounge is far from miserable. The outer deck, where we were seated was small but great for just the two of us to have an evening looking out over the water.
AMBIANCE! Go to Apsara for the ambiance of delicately designed Indian ornaments and a beautiful sunset. Sit on the patio for the sound of waves crashing on the rocks during your meal. The service is always great without being overly present, and the food is simple but good. I usually am left wanting a bit more spice and herbs for it being Indian food, but it is certainly not underwhelming. Really though, the ambiance is the main attraction. Apsara is definitely not as highfalutin (or expensive) as Cin Cin, which makes it significantly more accessible for a quickly planned nice evening.
While in Bim I highly recommend eating a true Bajan Lunch. Typically a Sunday affair, Brown Sugar serves lunch throughout the week as well, at a slightly discounted price. Though not the cheapest option at 69BBD/person, Sunday at Brown Sugar has live steel pan entertainment and an awesome ambiance and your meal includes a punch or rum punch. The buffet is awesome, and includes most lunch favorites, but changes depending on the day. Cou Cou and Steamed Fish, the national dish (news to me) is available Wednesday and Friday only.
The Deck Restaurant at the Coconut Court Hotel is another nice Sunday Lunch option! Though the buffet is more limited than Brown Sugar’s, it is just as tasty and offers an oceanfront view that allows you to take a walk on the beach after filling up!
Hands down, the best roti I had. They serve other non-roti items, but who cares? Their roti are bomb! Think of roti as a west-indian curry burrito. They’re delicious. If you want a slightly thinner “skin” (the equivalent of a tortilla to a burrito), go for Dhal Puri, which has pea powder between it’s flaky layers. If you’re like me, and would prefer a thicker chewy skin, go Paratha. You get to choose what goes in it with an assortment of meat and vegetable options and a sauce to top it off (I’m a fan of the tamarind and the carnival sauces).
You should eat at Barbados’ local fast food chain, Chefette, at least one time. They’re rather prevalent and look like the Caribbean McDonald’s that they are. I go for the potato roti with some pepper sauce. The pizza is decent. The maple almond ice cream is killer. (I’m biased since I love ice cream.) Chefette is the cheapest food option you’ll find.
Enjoy! Feel free to comment with questions!