By Lena Katz
In which Caribbean vacation destination can you spot Prince Harry playing polo, Robin Thicke and Smoky Robinson headlining a jazz festival, and Serena Williams strolling with her beau, all within the same few weeks? Only one island has this much cross-cultural, all-ages, Town & Country-flavored celeb cache: Barbados, the sophisticated, sunny haven of the East Indies.
Due to its British colonial heritage, Barbados has a posh flair even in its beach resorts: Luxury “Platinum Coast” hotels like Sandy Lane and the Fairmont Royal Pavilion are built on the stately grounds of former sugar plantations. Other sugar plantations still are in operation — a mere 50, down from 800+ in the heyday, but you’ll still see the fields and the occasional processing facility if you explore the island. Barbados also definitely evinces a major UK influence in the athletic pursuits. National crazes include cricket and polo. But the way locals “wind” in the dance clubs, or the hectic, happy vibe at Oistin’s fish fry on a Friday night … that’s authentic island-style, no polo shirts please.
For families escaping from cold climates for a beach vacation, the ocean activities here are a swatch of pure paradise. You can fish, kayak, ride in a glass-bottom boat or surf. Beginner surfers learn the basics on the calm Caribbean side, while experienced surfers prefer the bigger waves at Bathsheba on the Atlantic coast. For the ultimate beach vacation experience, head out for a day of snorkeling and sunbathing on a catamaran. Adventures range from quick two-hour excursions to full-day charters, and catamarans can accommodate anywhere from six to 100 or more people.
On my most recent Caribbean vacation here I was lucky enough to be a guest on Tiami Luxury Catamarans. The highlight of the five-hour excursion was definitely snorkeling with sea turtles. Tiami spends a nice leisurely stretch of time anchored with the turtles, giving all guests a chance to jump overboard and meet them. The funny yet graceful creatures with their wizened, beaky-cute faces are not at all shy. They get literally less than arm’s length from swimmers (though you’re not supposed to pet them, no matter how tempted you may be).
Trying to stay out of the sun for a day? Tour a historic plantation like Sunbury Plantation House, or visit one of Barbados’ famous rum distilleries. Mt. Gay is locally recommended as having the best visitor experience. (Note: A rum tasting could be argued as just as much of a “cultural” pursuit as a historic plantation tour — rum was invented on Barbados and has always played a major part in local industry.)
Though the island has a reputation for luxury, it actually has a number of independently owned properties, many of which are all-inclusive resorts, offering great value and local flavor. Probably the favorite locally owned mini-chain is Almond Resorts (which also has properties in St. Lucia). Almond Beach Village is the budget-friendly family standby; Almond Casuarina is a newer and more expensive beach vacation property. Almond Beach Club is an adults-only all-inclusive resort. The Elegant Hotels group manages Crystal Cove and Turtle Beach, both of which are on the high-end as far as all-inclusive resorts. For a more budget-friendly Caribbean vacation, you could try the Silver Point Hotel, newly opened on the south coast.
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Lena Katz is the author of SUN: California and SIP: California, part of the Travel Temptations series published by Globe Pequot Press.