The Blue Seas, Rugged Hills, and Colorful Locals of Barbados

The heat of the day has subsided. The sailboats that sit in Carlisle Bay slowly become floating silhouettes. A breeze blows offshore across the water as it turns orange.

We have a pile of thick, fresh tuna steaks that were just cooked (as rare as possible) and batch of Sriracha mayo. We’re sitting on this old concrete wall 2 feet above the fine powdery sand. There’s distant music coming from scratchy speakers across the parking lot.

Carlisle Bay on the South Coast, blues for days. Photo: Courtesy of @TarikB75

“Jes befar de sun drop, it mek a green flash. Brighta den any camera. You wait. You see it.”

My six-year-old son, who has managed to combine his two favorite things in the world – mac and cheese on top of pizza, is listening.

We’d turned down the beach chair, or the cold coconuts, or the weed he could have sold us. We had our dinner packed and just wanted to watch the sunset. I’m wondering if he’s going to come on with a harder sell now after this bit of irrelevant wisdom.

But Chris doesn’t pursue any further.

After so many years of coming to Barbados, I should have known this. When Bajans, short for Barbadians, offer to sell you something – dinner, jewelry, flying fish fillets, sugarcane or a beach umbrella, they don’t hassle you. They respect it. Barbadians are overwhelmingly friendly, respectful people.

Sunset at Pebbles. Watch for the blue flash just as it disappears. Photo: Jon Coen

And just then, the last of the sun slips into the Caribbean Sea with a flash of green.

Of all the sunsets I have seen in my life, I had never noticed that. My son notices it too. 

We finished our dinner and jumped into the water to catch a few miniscule waves at twilight. I push my son into a wave on my board and he gets to his feet.

Somehow these tiny waves following a picnic dinner were everything in the world, a reason I always return to this little coral jewel, sitting alone in the Atlantic, east of the other Windward Islands.

Dominos gets serious around Oistins. Photo: Jon Coen

On the way to the garbage can as we clean up dinner, my son thanks Chris for his hospitality. He gets a fist bump and Chris takes the trash to the can with his own.

Barbados is a relatively small Caribbean Island of 167 square miles and under 300,000 people. Most of the interior is farmland and the shoreline can be divided into three defined coasts. The South Coast is anything south of the port city of Bridgetown. It has a high concentration of guest houses, restaurants, a “boardwalk” and bustling beaches. While it’s loaded with visitors from Canada, the U.S. and Europe, it would be unfair to simply call it a tourist area, as much of the local population lives and works here as well.

The rugged East Coast of Barbados. Photo: Courtesy of @TarikB75

The East Coast is more rugged terrain of beaches separated by rocks and crags with amazing vistas and constant trade winds and trade swell. It’s Barbados’ most rural land.

The West is the leeward side of the island with usually calm and cerulean blue seas, known as the “platinum” coast, home to the more high-end resorts. But even here, local life thrives. Sprawling five-star resorts are flanked by simple wooden homes of bright colors with a goat in the yard.

There are no “private beaches,” meaning that locals are free to hang out even in front of the snazziest hotel. Instead of fenced off all-inclusive resorts, visitors and locals enjoy it together. This is perhaps something that makes Barbados so special. While there are areas that are over-the-top touristy, it’s easy to avoid them and get out to explore.

The West Coast needs a good north swell to get good, but you could happen on some moments like this. Photo: Courtesy of @@TarikB75

Barbados isn’t cheap. Even locals with highly successful businesses have a hard time buying a home near where they work. Most everything is imported and heavily taxed. This isn’t Central America.

On the flipside, all the roads are paved, you can drink the water and the toilets all flush. It’s a generally safe country with a friendly, well-educated population that still has a very rootsy feel.

Public buses run all over the country and there are smaller vans running on a less formal schedule as well as taxis. Renting a vehicle and buying gas are pricey, but generally worth it.

Accommodations run a wide range from luxury villas to basic vacation rentals that can be secured through Airbnb or VRBO. The South Coast has the most options. It’s also a convenient place to base your trip, with any adventure on the island just an hour or less away.

This is referred to as a fish cutter from the Cuzman at Pebbles, on Carlisle Bay. You dream of it for months afterwards. Photo: Jon Coen

Half the fun of this island is roaming around and eating. The Bajan culinary experience ranges from world-class dining to a ton of delicious street-food offerings. The food overall is indicative of this part of the Caribbean, a mix of creole, Indian, and what we’d think of as American “soul food.”

They love chicken, and fresh fish is everywhere, most notably flying fish: relatively small fish that are delicately filleted and fried everywhere you look. Definitely grab a fish cutter from the Cuz Man at Pebbles Beach (between the Radisson and the Hilton). Restaurants that serve anything other than traditional Bajan food are expensive, as the consumer absorbs the heavy value-added tax.

When the trade winds die in Bathsheba, it can be truly magical. Photo: Courtesy of @TarikB75

The surf has always been a draw, although surfers only make up a small part of locals and visitors. The smallish scene can be refreshing, compared to Puerto Rico or Hawaii. Barbados’ bread and butter is easterly trade swells. The wind on the East Coast is onshore the majority of the time (outside of August-October) but a few select reefs still set up the swell despite the wind.

When that trade swell gets bigger, it wraps into the South Coast with everything from high-performance points to perfect coves for beginners. (Recent years have seen more travelers specifically coming to learn to surf, which has definitely congested a few line ups.) But Barbados gets special when occasional swell arrives from the North Atlantic, really firing up East Coast spots and lighting up those normally dormant reefs on the West that are offshore every day. Kitesurfers also flock to Barbados for the relentless trade winds.in

Barbados has waves essentially on every coast. Photo: Courtesy of @TarikB75

Some of the more experienced surf schools are Zed’s at Surfer’s Point, Barry’s Surf School in Dover and Learn to Surf near Oistins, which generally set up around the breaks at Enterprise.

The few surf shops offer more overpriced beachwear than surf supplies. Bring any gear you will need, ding repair and backup fins, leashes, etc. Don’t expect to find many hard goods. But the above outfits can rent boards for beginners and long/fun boards for experienced surfers who just want to have fun in small South Coast surf.

When it comes time for other activities, Barbados isn’t New Zealand but there’s a new adventure every day. With a little research or an inquiry to a local trekking club you can find a few overland hikes. There’s also an epic walking trail along the Atlantic Coast from Bath Beach to Bathsheba with some cool remote spots that you can’t access by road.

If you’re into angling, there are serious sport fishing operations that run offshore from the marinas in Bridgetown. The other option is to ask around about smaller fishing boats that are moored off the west coast. This is far less technical fishing and can yield a variety of smaller fish with colorful local guides, but will take some asking around by the Millie Ifill Fish Market north of Holetown.

Anglers can check out the sport fishing operations out of Bridgetown or ask around at the beaches north of Holetown for a captain who can take you for some simple nearshore fishing. Photo: Jon Coen

There are a few day trips you’d be smart to add to your itinerary. One of the coolest adventures is into Harrison’s Cave in the central highlands, a 1.5 mile “stream cave” system in all its underground splendor. Tours range from Tram ride ($25) to a three-hour adventure tour ($100) to the Walk-In ($20 and only available the last Saturday of the month). Prices are about half for children.

If you have kids, you won’t want to miss the Barbados Wildlife Reserve ($15 adults; $7.50 children). Be sure to time that excursion at 2 p.m. when the reserve staff puts out food, attracting all of the iguanas, peacocks, brock deer, tortoises and mara (oversized relatives of the guinea pig).

The most interesting diners are the green monkeys, which may visit you in the most suburban of environs all over Barbados as they are not kept in captivity but free to come and go for the day’s meal. The Reserve also has tropical birds and reptiles that are kept in a more traditional zoo-type setting.

Troupes of green monkeys roam freely all over Barbados. You can get up close as they congregate at the Barbados Wildlife Reserve each day for a 2 p.m. feeding. Photo: Jon Coen

Another is Animal Flower Cave on the northeast point of Barbados. You can simply walk around and take in the view of the open Atlantic or descend into a cave system ($12.50) entered down a ladder with a chamber that opens up on a cliff over the Atlantic Ocean.

The chamber is filled with a crystal clear pool that you can swim in. The “animal flower” is a local term for sea anenome. The restaurant on the adjacent cliff is also excellent.

We heart swimming in the Animal Flower Cave. Photo: Courtesy of AnimalFlowerCave.com

Miami Beach, in Enterprise, is worth a visit, either for sun or a swim with other travelers and fun locals. Enjoy the fish cakes and a cold Peanut Punch from the Mr. Delicious, a bus converted into a food concession. And if you just want a day of family fun, goofing off or day drinking, check out one of the many West Coast or Bridgetown beaches that have waterslides, trampolines and rope swings into the ocean.

If you’re just looking for a goofy day of family fun, there are plenty of floating rafts, trampolines and jumps into the Caribbean Sea. Photo: Jon Coen

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!