Words by Richard Jones
It was another stunning morning in the Caribbean, and former Olympic windsurfer O’Neal Marshall had a spring in his step. “Barbados, my home!” he proclaimed, while holding his arms in the air like he had just won another competition.
The two of us were out for an early jog along Maxwell Beach, and although I was drenched in sweat and feeling the burn in my legs, the sight of the sun rising above Freights Bay gave me renewed energy.
After spending a week on the island of Barbados, it’s easy to see why Bajans like O’Neal are so full of life. Not only did I get to relax in what is undoubtably one of the most picturesque locations on Earth, I also sampled some of the unique Barbadian experiences that can turn a regular beach holiday into the trip of a lifetime.
Sadly, the island’s tourist industry, on which the locals are so reliant, has been hit hard by the pandemic, but there are green shoots of recovery. For starters, travelling to Barbados is now easier than it has been for a while. Virgin Atlantic are running a new direct flight from Edinburgh, and Aer Lingus have also introduced a new direct service from Manchester to join the existing Virgin schedule.
Meanwhile, the arrival PCR-pending quarantine has also been scrapped for arriving double-jabbed tourists, meaning you now only need to take a ‘fit-to-fly’ PCR 72 hours before departure. There is also talk that the 9pm curfew on the island will soon come to an end.
Getting around Barbados is also very easy. The notoriously fun Reggae Buses are plentiful, while taxis are reasonably priced – Esline from Prestige Tours will happily arrange transportation for your entire stay. After one of their drivers, Julian, picked me up from the Grantley Adams Airport, I was whisked away to what would be my home for the next few days – Sea Breeze Beach House.
The all-inclusive resort in the Christ Church area on the south coast is considered one of the best on the island, and I was lucky enough to wake up every morning with views of the blindingly white sandy beaches and the ‘you have to see it to believe it’ turquoise water.
Sea Breeze has three swimming pools, water sports facilities and a kids’ club, as well as four restaurants and six bars, ranging from the Rum Shop and Tipsy on the Beach where you can sit in your swimwear and flip flops and enjoy a cooling cocktail or Banks beer, or the Aqua Terra clifftop restaurant with its succulent seafood and steaks, the international-focused Cerulean, and Mahogany Lounge, which serves up Barbados cuisine with a twist.
The day after flying in, I was booked in for an in-room Body Harmony massage with Ahfeeyah from Reflections Spa – just the job to cure my aches and pains following my workout with O’Neal.
Sea Breeze’s sister hotel, the newly renovated and very chic O2 Beach Club and Spa is just a 10-minute stroll past Maxwell Beach, and well worth a visit. Although both hotels are ideal for long lazy days on the beach, you are missing out if you don’t experience some of the other island gems.
One of the highlights of my trip was a round of golf at Barbados Golf Club in Durants, where you can hire clubs and a buggy to tackle the not-too-testing par-72 course, designed by legendary architect Ron Kirby.
My playing partner was Dubliner Darragh Everard. He, like a growing number of people, has said goodbye to an unhealthy work-life balance and is now based in Barbados. Thanks to the remote work visa, the Welcome Stamp, he runs his international recruitment company eirkoo.ie from the Caribbean.
Before the round, I also had a good chat with the club’s owner, another Irishman and former tour pro Roddy Carr, who is busy working on a spectacular new golf resort, Apes Hill, opening in 2022.
And later in the week, I met another of the island’s fascinating residents, Mahmood Patel, who owns and runs Coco Hills, an unspoilt area of tranquillity in St Joseph in the centre of Barbados. During a one-hour walk, Mood explained what he is doing with the place – replanting trees, plants, flowers, fruit, vegetables and herbs and creating a holistic environment where visitors can enjoy a calming forest bath.
And the adventure didn’t end there, as I also got in the saddle for mountain bike ride organised by former triathlete Monique Hinds from Bike Caribbean. She showed me around the Hill View area near her stunning home, and after a challenging ride through the dirt paths and sugar cane fields to Gall Hill, we were rewarded with breath-taking views of the east coast from St John’s Parish Church and Cemetery.
Speaking of sugar canes, you can’t visit Barbados without trying some of its most famous produce. There are reportedly 12,000 rum shops scattered across the island, and as I’d already drank an endless supply of punches and sours during the week, I wanted to find out more about the spirit.
The perfect place to do that is the Mount Gay Visitors’ Centre in Bridgetown which runs entertaining tasting sessions as well as tours explaining how Barbados became the birthplace of rum. Meanwhile, if you fancy even more of the drink, over at the Colony Club’s Rum Vault, a resident rum ambassador and chef pair each food course with a cocktail before a tasting flight.
Arguably the island’s most famous tourist hot spot is the Friday night fish fry at Oistins. Although the food is the main draw – I had a delicious piece of fried marlin, with rice, salad and sweet potato – there is also a great atmosphere as the locals (including Rihanna when she returns home) enjoy the live entertainment and wash down their dinner with rum and ice-cold Banks beer.
One thing I did notice at Oistins is that everyone seems to know each other in Barbados. O’Neal is a good example. Partly thanks to his exploits at the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics, he is a bit of a local celebrity, and these days, he makes a living teaching water sports.
He showed me around some of the island’s main surfing spots including South Point and Silver Sands before we drove up to Surfer’s Point for a lesson. After being wiped out and bailing a couple of dozen times, I started to get the hang of it and with O’Neal enthusiastically shouting encouragement, I eventually managed to ride a few of the waves.
“You’re a surfer dude now, Richard!” he said with a smile, as we walked back up the cliff steps with the boards under our arms. I think that might be a stretch at the moment, but as O’Neal implied during our run, everything seems more enjoyable, whether it be running, golfing, biking, or riding the waves, in this Caribbean paradise.
Virgin Holidays offer seven nights at Sea Breeze Beach House by Ocean Hotels in Barbados from £1,685 per person, based on two sharing a Classic Poolside Garden Room on an all-inclusive basis, including direct flights with Virgin Atlantic from Manchester to Bridgetown and transfers. Price based on departures on December 6 and subject to change. Virgin Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected, to book visit virginholidays.co.uk or call 0344 557 3859.
Alternatively, you can now fly direct to Barbados from Manchester three times per week with Aer Lingus from £451 return, while Virgin Atlantic are launching a new direct service to Barbados from Edinburgh, operating twice weekly, from December 5. Fares start from £419 return.