One sunny Saturday in the middle of the island of Barbados, in the eastern Caribbean, among former sugar cane plantations, I found myself eating fried sea cat in the yard of a rum shop called De Thirsty Lizard in the village of Bridgefield.
Remixed versions of Rihanna songs and reggae bounced across the gravel courtyard as locals streamed in wearing stylish, spend-the-whole-Saturday-out outfits, with brightly-patterned shirts and dresses, tilted fedoras and mirrored sunglasses. Denise Alleyne, 39, and Racquel Jordan, 45, two locals who had brought me to the Lizard, encouraged me to try the sea cat — the Barbadian word for octopus — which was served in a basket like French fries and amazingly tender.
As the yard filled up and some people started dancing, waitresses hauled ice buckets to the wobbly hightops full of young people, who grabbed the ice cubes with tongs and plunked them into glasses half-full of Barbadian Mount Gay rum. “When people come to Barbados and they ask what’s the best thing to do, this is the best thing to do,” said Ms. Alleyne.
You could say there are two ways to visit Barbados, the easternmost island in the Caribbean. One is by booking a resort on the west coast of the island, hiring a car to drop you off at reception, settling into a chaise longue in the sand and fading away into vacation mode. This method, should you choose it, can be fantastic. The beaches are almost invariably beautiful, with the leaning palms you see in screen savers curving up and out over cerulean waters. Everyone speaks English, the currency is pegged two-to-one to the U.S. dollar, the sunshine is pretty much constant, and the rum punch-fish sandwich-sunset combination would please just about anyone.
So it’s no surprise that tourism arrivals on the island have returned to prepandemic levels this winter, with 60,000 visitors arriving in December.
But independent travelers may feel that they miss something visiting Barbados in this way. For one, you’re yoked to this part of the island’s painful traffic, a crawling stream of cars inching north-south along too tight a road for too many resorts, frustrating even a quick dash to the supermarket and making roadside walking a hairy proposition.
You also end up with a peculiar view of the island: The majority of the people you’re likely to see will be white (often British) tourists, being waited on by Black locals. Most of all you miss the experience of sitting at a hightop table in the backyard of a rum shop with friendly Barbadians (who refer to themselves as Bajans), discussing culture, politics and change, and noshing on octopus. You miss exploring Barbados’s soul.
“The prepackaged Barbados is part of Barbados too, but it’s not the way most local people experience the country,” said Kristina Hinds, a professor who heads the department of government, sociology, social work and psychology at the Barbados campus of the University of the West Indies. “Get out of the hotel, take the bus, go to the rum shops, go to the fish market. That’s how you get a real feel for Barbados.”
Now is a particularly fascinating time to visit Barbados. For one, there’s the Rihanna effect: The country’s most famous homegrown star, who revealed her second pregnancy while ascending to the heights of Phoenix’s State Farm Stadium during the Super Bowl half time show this year, has given Barbados new visibility and cachet.
And on Nov. 30, 2021, at the same event where Rihanna was formally named a national hero of the country, Barbados declared itself a republic. The act removed the British monarch as the head of state of Barbados — even though it was a ceremonial role.
“It doesn’t effect how the country has been governed, but some people think of removing that ceremonial position as the last step in the independence project,” Ms. Hinds said.
She added that it was no coincidence that the move finally occurred amid the Black Lives Matter movement and under the watch of the country’s first female prime minister, Mia Mottley, who is Black.
And so today, after three centuries of British rule, change is afoot in Barbados, and the fresh energy is palpable, even to tourists like me.
Road trip to the heart
The best way to dive into the heart of Barbados is to get up early on a Saturday and head to the interior.
During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Barbados had a plantation economy driven largely by sugar. During that time white landowners became extraordinarily rich, thanks to the labor of enslaved people brought over from Africa.
Today, driving the roads of the Barbadian countryside, signs of that past are everywhere. The ruins of old sugar mills dot the horizon like the water towers of small-town America, identifying the former ownership of the surrounding area. Much of the countryside is still devoted to sugar cane: six-foot tall green and yellow stalks planted so tightly along the sides of the road that they whip the car’s passenger-side rearview mirror as you drive, like the floppy ribbons of a carwash.
The roads are still scattershot in their organization, because they are largely defined not by topological features like rivers or hills but by old property lines. They intersect and then fork, curve and then abruptly end, making driving perhaps the greatest safety challenge a visitor will face on the island. GPS is a very good friend to have in Barbados.
Setting out just after sunrise on Saturday, you can drive out to the center of the island, about a half-hour from the coasts, where the Brighton Farmer’s Market unfolds on a bluff overlooking the green fields of a former plantation, starting at 6:30 a.m. This is the place where locals come to sell their wares. You’ll find fresh coffee and breakfast pastries to fuel you as you peruse the dozens of tents selling jewelry, woodwork, textiles and even the omnipresent rum punch.
Nothing is cheap: Barbados is relatively expensive, thanks to a deep dependence on imports and the supply-chain disruptions of the pandemic, so you’ll want to bring more cash than you think you might need. The market is a great opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with a local, as most are open and friendly and ready to chat. Within moments of our meeting, Jean Date, who was born in Britain, but moved to Barbados nearly 50 years ago and now sells fabric creations at the market, had told me about everything — from the island’s hot new sports craze, road tennis, to its sustainability issues.
“Because we import so much, the last two years have led us to think more about food security,” she said, before adding, as I finally, reluctantly walked away, “You’ve got to see a road tennis competition!”
I didn’t make it far before Christian Paul, a vendor, snagged me and insisted I try his Elixir Rum Punch, which soon drew a handful of nearby vendors and veered into a lively discussion about where I should go for the best karaoke on the island, which they called “mandatory.”
“Wendy’s Sports Bar is a good one,” said a man selling wood carvings, as another shot him down: “Bay Lounge! She should go to Bay Lounge if she wants to have a good time.” And that’s how a visitor can go from sampling samosas to singing in the back of the Bay Lounge in a pink house with a pool table and balcony view of the ocean in the town of Cambridge.
Any local will tell you, there’s one thing you must have for lunch in Barbados on a Saturday, and that’s pudding and souse. The “pudding” is a mash of sweet potato, herbs and clove steamed in pig intestines, in the style of Scottish haggis. The souse is the historically undesirable bits of the pig left for enslaved people — tail, ear, cheeks and trotters — pickled in lime juice and chopped up with onion and spicy Scotch bonnet peppers. Combined, the two elements become what could be described as a sweet-and-salty pork ceviche that’s so spicy it almost begs for cold beer.
Perhaps the best place to try it is at the Village Bar at Lemon Arbour, a beloved local restaurant about a half-hour drive through the countryside from the farmer’s market. The restaurant is in a converted home lined in Hennessy advertisements, and with a back porch that looks out onto rolling fields of farmland. The line for food stretches out the door on Saturdays, and the menu is expansive, but most people go for the pudding and souse.
The owner, Ann Leacock, 60, whose children also work at the restaurant, reigns over the scene like a queen floating among her fans as she touches each table, greeting regulars and kissing babies. She clears endless empty green bottles of Deputy beer as she makes conversation with the guests. Today she’s discussing Barbadian sovereignty.
“Being a republic is more about us being able to make decisions now on our own — just as we should be able to,” she says, and explains with disdain the ways in which the country is still tied to the Crown.
She’s interrupted by an older Black man leaning over the bar and shouting, “You still got souse?”
The wild east
Heading farther east from the Village Bar, you’ll reach the island’s wild east coast, which is anchored by the town of Bathsheba. Here there aren’t any lazy palms over still turquoise waters. This is hardcore surfing country. The rough winds from the Atlantic blast this side of the island, spritzing salt water everywhere along the cliffs overlooking rocky beaches and frothy, dark blue water.
Most of this region is sparsely populated, so driving here can feel like wandering through open country, with stunning vistas around every turn, a bit like the east coast of Oahu.
A good rest stop after the drive is the Hillcrest Community Center, which opened last year to provide a venue for small businesses. The star among them is Zemi, a stylish family-owned restaurant named after an Amerindian deity, with a panoramic deck overlooking the tempestuous ocean. The menu ranges from fried goat cheese and microgreens salads to rum-glazed pork belly platters, served by the owners’ daughter Ella.
It’s easy to fall under the spell of the east coast and turn your back on all the traffic on the west side. If you do, a good place to stay is Eco Lifestyle + Lodge, a boutique hotel specializing in environmentally conscious offerings. From the 10 rooms guests can enjoy saltwater pools, a pescatarian restaurant, compostable water bottles, free meditation classes and fresh coconut water from the property’s palm trees.
Seeking local flavors
On another day, you might head north up the western coastal road. Once you pass Holetown, you’ll again enter into a more manageable Barbados, where the traffic is lighter, the resorts are smaller, and more businesses are locally owned. Take Caboose, an old green and blue fishing boat propped up on the side of the road, north of the country’s second-largest city, Speightstown. The owner, Wayne Francois, set it up less than a year ago, but already it’s in the running for the best fish cutter (sandwich) on the island — no small claim.
Speightstown is a good place to pop into a few spots to find local flavors. The Orange Street Grocer serves coffee locals swear by, and across the street the tiny PRC Bakery serves some of the tastiest pastries on the island, from piping hot meat pies to dense and satisfying currant scones. Just down the road is Fisherman’s Pub. Although the service can be gruff and it is often frequented by tourists, it presents one of the best opportunities to sample a wide range of Bajan home cooking. The cafeteria-style service lets you point at what you want, and you might find island specialties like flying fish and cou cou (a cornmeal and okra starch), pork stew or pickled avocado.
Before you end your exploration of Barbados, you’ll counterintuitively want to stop by a place where you’ll find hordes of other tourists — and also hordes of locals: The Friday night fish fry in the town of Oistins, where you’ll come across a group of kiosks selling both raw and cooked seafood.
On Fridays it turns into the hot spot on the island, with bands, karaoke and general merriment. Kids zoom around while parents wait in long lines to order fresh fish that they then watch grill over tall flames from the barbecues between tents. The most popular kiosk these days is Pat’s Place, right on the main road, where deeply seasoned grilled marlin is accompanied by lightly fried slices of breadfruit, macaroni pie and sorrel — hibiscus — soda.
Once you’ve got your fish platter, you can sit down at the communal tables, perhaps with your new friends from the farmer’s market, and enjoy the scene of a friendly, energized Barbados, driving toward independence.
If You Go
To explore Barbados on your own you can rent a car through Avis, Enterprise or Hertz, or by checking out the tourism ministry’s contact list of local agencies. Prices vary by season, starting from about $50 a day before fees. If renting at the last minute during the high season (December to April) there will be limited availability, if any, so book ahead.
Driving can be challenging: Barbadians drive on the left-hand side, the roads often feature roundabouts and hazards like potholes or sheep, and, especially in the rural areas, signage is minimal.
Taxis are prevalent and easily arranged through hotels. Personal drivers can be hired on an hourly basis from several local companies such as RDH Group, for about $75 per hour for up to three passengers.
There is also public transportation, which is generally considered safe. Blue and yellow public buses run across the island, as do privately owned buses and white and maroon vans known locally as ZRs, since the license plates begin with a “Z-R.” They often travel at high speeds down narrow roads, which may make some visitors uncomfortable. Tickets can be purchased on board for around $2.
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