Drop a regular Caribbean traveler blindfolded onto an island and they will know which one they are on. Each has its own distinctive traits and atmosphere. Barbados has a gentler landscape than the raging Windwards (Dominica and Grenada among them) and a slightly balmier climate, with some 3,000 hours of sunshine each year.
The island is entirely coral-based, giving it more of the Caribbean’s white sand and lustrous blue sea. And the Bajans are extremely welcoming – gracious and polite, even a mite reserved (for the Caribbean, that is). The island has always had a special place in sun-seekers’ hearts. So how did this come about?
Thanks in part to its uninterrupted 340-year connection with the British Empire, and currently, the Commonwealth, Barbados became a natural choice for English-speaking travelers. The advent of leisure travel in the 20th century – a trend that started with the banana boats to Jamaica – saw the likes of JP Morgan, William Randolph Hearst, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn making the trek to the island.
Beach hotels began to appear on the now famous west coast in the 1960s and island regulars built their villas, many of which were decorated by stage designer Oliver Messel. A winter social whirl began. Visitors would stay a month or two, avoiding the cold weather.
The island was renowned among the horse-racing set (the sport continues here and the island has its own Gold Cup). They were followed by the jet set. Barbados was so popular with British holiday-makers that until 2003 Concorde flew directly to it. It made the Atlantic crossing in four hours, arriving before it leftLondon. There is now a Concorde on display at the airport.
In the 1980s, as package tourism arrived, Barbados was quick to respond and less expensive hotels began to appear along the south coast. The two coasts still retain their distinctive feel: the south coast easy, upbeat and unpretentious, the west more mannered and glitzy.
Meanwhile, in the 1990s Barbados discovered fine dining. According to one chef, in the early days, salmon would arrive “deep-frozen, with the elasticity of a cricket bat.” Nowadays, fish comes packed for sous-vide cooking, and local fishermen phone in their catch on their cell phones.
The villas took a new turn too, as visitors fell in love with the island and invested. Properties started to appear on estates, each of which has a specialty. Royal Westmoreland centers on a golf course, Port St Charles and, more recently, Port Ferdinand on their marinas, and Sugar Hill on tennis. Apes Hill was built around a polo pitch (of which there are an improbable four on an island of just 21 by 14 miles).
All this is to say that Barbados has a breadth of appeal few islands can match, and not just for wealthy clientele, but also for travelers with more restricted budgets.
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The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas
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