April 11, 2012
Most visitors to Barbados are lured by the island’s celebrated aquamarine seas and pale gold sands – hardly surprising considering this tiny speck of land is home to some of the best beaches in the region. If you want to sail, snorkel, windsurf, waterski, fish, dive, surf, or simply swim and sunbathe, you’ll be in clover.
But Barbados – all 166 square miles of it – offers far more than what lies around its periphery. To really get a feel for the island, you need to turn away from the beach and head inland…
Barbados’s interior packs a scenic, historical and cultural punch that belies its diminutive size. On an Island Safari adventure, you’ll take to the road in a specially designed 10-seat open-sided vehicle driven by a knowledgeable local guide, who’ll take you to the rugged and less-developed northern and eastern parts of the island, some of which are inaccessible to hire cars and tour buses. Not only that, you’ll come away with a far deeper understanding of Barbados’s past and a real insight into present-day Barbadian life and culture.
The day begins gently, stopping off at a couple of viewpoints including Gun Hill Signal Station and its famous white lion carved from a single piece of coral stone, from where the whole island is visible. But it’s not long before we’re suddenly veering off-road through swaying fields of towering sugar cane waiting to be harvested, bouncing furiously over rocks and potholes on the hilly, rough-hewn track.
Some fields have already been razed and we’re briefly afforded a long perspective of the surrounding landscape – a lush, dewy green as far as the eye can see – but mostly we’re surrounded by grasses easily 12 feet tall, with just the occasional shaft of light falling down through a slow-moving stack of clouds. It’s a weirdly eerie digression. Back on the road, trailers carry the just-cut crop to Andrew’s Sugar Plant. The mighty factory is the largest remaining in operation on the island, and the sweet scent of fresh-cut cane fills the air as we drive past.
In the main, Barbados is a flattish island, but it doesn’t feel like it as we make a snaking descent into the east coast surfing village of Bathsheba. Home of the “Soup Bowl” – the biggest, frothiest wave around and a legendary spot in surfing circles – Bathsheba faces the Atlantic and feels stuck-in-time and isolated; a world away from Barbados’s swish west coast.
The waves here pick up speed over 3,000 uninterrupted miles and pound the shoreline relentlessly, as do refreshing gusts of wind. It’s not safe to swim here; the riptides and currents are far too dangerous, though it’s fine to take a soak in the shallow inshore pools just a few feet from the shoreline. Ask a local to tell you exactly where they are, or just be content with lazing around on the grass and watching the surfers do their thing. There are plenty of picnic tables along the beachside.
Bathsheba village is effectively just one long beach road, dotted with the odd bar, rum shop, guesthouse and craft shop. It’s just about as laid-back as it gets around here, so if you’re looking to get under the skin of an entirely different Barbados, this is where you’ll find it. If you’re neither a surfer nor a tidal pool-paddler, then there are plenty of walks and pretty little churches to explore, but it’s fair to say the locals have honed the act of doing nothing to a very fine art. Listening to the sound of the waves with a glass of Mount Gay Extra Old or watching nightly firefly displays is about as energetic as it gets.
Up on the slopes behind Bathsheba is an area of dense tropical rainforest and woodland known as Joe’s River Forest, brimming with mahogany trees, cabbage palms, bearded fig trees and citrifolia. We head off road again, taking a tire-rutted downward path through a shady canopy of giant branches and fronds – a cooling respite from the heat – and keep our eyes out for green monkeys and hummingbirds. Our guide, Ruel, stops several times so we can take in the natural soundtrack; the distant rush of Joe’s River flowing towards the rivermouth and a cacophony of warbling birds and whistling frogs. This is now the last remaining patch of rainforest in Barbados, but when the early settlers first arrived they were faced with this kind of terrain across the whole island.
Out into bright sunlight, we press on along dusty sun-baked roads leading to the northernmost of Barbados’s 11 parishes, St. Lucy. This is the most rugged, remote and least-visited part of the island. Dry tracks over grassland lead to high, scrubby cliffs with expansive views towards local’s favourite picnic spot Cove Bay and down the empty beaches of the east coast. Rows of palm trees bent into a permanent arc by the fierce Atlantic winds shelter small flocks of Barbadian black-bellied sheep, a domestic breed indigenous to the island and often mistaken for a goat. They grow short coarse hair rather than wool, and are well able to tolerate the tropical heat and humidity.
Up on St. Lucy’s northeastern tip is Little Bay, an otherworldly spot where the pounding surf has eroded the rocks into a series of caves, tunnels and arches. Walk along the vegetation-free clifftops for spectacular views of high-spouting blowholes and waves smashing into the rocks, or make your way down to the beach itself. If you’re brave you can wade out to one of the naturally-formed tidal pools where it’s safe to swim, if you don’t mind the large waves and constant sea spray.
This land-based jeep adventure can be booked with Island Safari Barbados at a cost of US$92.50 for adults and US$60 for children (5 – 12 years; children 4 and under not admitted). The tour lasts about six hours, including drinks and snacks, round-trip transportation from your hotel, and a full traditional island-style lunch buffet at a local resort or plantation house – ours was at the Sugar Cane Club Hotel & Spa.
The tour takes place in comfortable jeeps with side-facing padded seats and seatbelts. Bear in mind that when you go off-road, the ride gets extremely bumpy and is not recommended for those with back or neck complaints. That said, this seemed to be most participants’ favourite part, judging by the shrieks of “Go faster!” from the kids on my tour.
Even though the jeep is covered, don’t forget to slap on the sun cream – you will get burnt without it. For those with limited mobility, there is easy step-up access into the vehicle, but unfortunately wheelchairs cannot be catered for.
Header shot © Barbados Tourism Authority.