Barbados in November, island of paradise, does what it says on the tin.
Hot sunny days, pleasantly cool nights with tropical rain showers while you sleep. Vibrant, rugged, noisy, energetic, full of happiness, British colonial roots with a culture increasingly influenced by the US. Why would you not want to experience such a celebration of life by sealing yourself inside a compound disguised as a beach resort?
Many do just that. Maybe if you have small kids, you’ll feel its safer for them, or is it ultimately safer for you? Every local we met was genuine and helpful, without being pushy and without being asked. When we did ask, help or directions were given warmly, no payment necessary; in fact the predominant question was: are you having a good time?
Why would you want to come to this island, this place, if not to experience what it’s like to live here as a local?
Let’s face it; the attraction of a US resort holiday is that it’s the same wherever you go in the world. Nods to those with children; gotcha. Ditto the elderly and infirm. Shame on fit couples. Fortunately, the planet is not a carbon copy of a beach resort, and long may it be so.
A little-known fact; all Barbados beaches are open to the public and must have public access lanes. Including the ones fronted by resorts with high walls right up to the shoreline.
We chose to stay at Villa Mia, on Thornbury Road in Oistins (pronounced Oi-stins), a lively community south of Bridgetown, and little more about our accommodation further on in this review. Oistins main claim to fame is its fish fry; a village-in-a-village comprising food stalls, performance spaces and trinket sellers that’s alive with music and dance on weekend nights, but is open all week too. It’s a destination. All fish provided by the open market next door, caught by local fishermen who drop their catch off at its pier.
You can feed turtles from the pier, so it’s good for kids. They can get up close and see wildlife as it is. Turtles are ubiquitous on the west coast and we actually surfed with them in Freights Bay, a half-mile south of Enterprise Beach, where their feeding grounds are. They show a disregard for humans and Ruth was lucky enough to have one pop up for air within touching distance while she was paddling out for her next shred.
Oistins is characterised by a cacophony of life lived at 11; Colonel Boogie air-horns, pounding reggae day and night, locals holding up traffic while they chat to their friends and ocean-going aircraft bringing more holidaymakers to Grantley Adams International only 10 miles away. The fabulous beaches; Miami for families, Enterprise for good swimmers and those who like a bit of shade.
The beaches & waters on the west side of the island are safe and warm. On the south, its windier with higher waves; great for kite surfing and less busy, more so on the east coast where the waves are bigger, the seas more exposed to the Atlantic Ocean and hardly a soul to be seen.
On the day we went to Silver Sands, a couple of miles south of Oistins, we were two of six people on the beach, not counting the pair of kite surfers. Rips are present on any ocean-facing beach, but they are mild here compared to Australia or South Africa, so it’s still safe to play in the sea.
After a few hours roasting in the sun, the resort at the other end of the beach welcomed us for drinks even though we weren’t guests.
Villa Mia was our home for two weeks. We found it on Holiday Lettings and chose it on proximity to beaches and the vibe of Oistins. A collection of 6 studio apartments with balcony, I believe there are two larger apartments as well. We researched carefully before we arrived, and after living there, we know we made the right choice. There are thousands of apartments to choose from, all over the island, prices are competitive and what makes the difference is the personal service from Mia and Mike that’s there if you need it and not if you don’t.
Each night after a long day touring the island, sunning on beaches, exploring Bridgetown or swimming in caves, lunch at the Plantation House, we would sit on the balcony of Number 4 with beer and wine reading our books and chatting about tomorrow’s sortie. The nights were cool, but warm enough not to need a cardi when outside. The apartment had ceiling fans, which were enough to keep things cool inside as I’m not a great fan (sic) of ice-cold aircon units in bedrooms.
In the evenings, the growl of bus engines, air-horns (from the ZR drivers touting for passengers), boom box reggae (from the same ZR drivers) competed with tree frogs, crickets, songbirds and a background choir of barking dogs reminding us we were truly in the Caribbean, where life never stops; it only pauses for breath. Back home in Edinburgh writing this review, I miss it all already. I want to go back soon.
Highlights? Well, many to mention, but surfing with turtles while Wayne from Ride the Tide was shouting over the noise of the waves for me to stand up on the board was definitely one.
Much the same was our guide Jay, up at North Point, where we swam in caves hollowed out by millions of years of erosion of seawater. He was a perfect example of local knowledge and a man I could’ve become friends with had we been able to stay longer.
Finally, the busses. Yes, transportation was a highlight. There are 3 grades of public bus transport on Barbados;
• Government-regulated hard seated Blue busses mainly used by the elderly as they’re easy to get on and off and the bus passes for over 60’s are free.
• Yellow busses. Smaller that the Blues; not sure what their USP is. We were on one once and it was … well, a bus.
• ZR busses, private enterprise, licenced (not regulated) lower spec than taxis, based on the Toyota Hi-Ace platform. Key accessories were Colonel Boogie air-horns and loud music systems blasting out Reggae or Hip-hop and usually both.
The name ZR comes from the registration plates they have, and we used them to get around, a lot, despite dire warnings from Mia about safety. ZR drivers ‘pinch’ passengers from the more regulated Blue and Yellow busses using their horns, and sometimes the ‘conductor’ would leap into the pavement to grab us for a lift. There are hundreds of them, and the road between Oistins and Bridgetown seems like Monaco during the Grand Prix as they all drive at speeds beyond design limits, and brake just as hard.
On one journey back to Oistins, our driver was no more than 2 feet behind another ZR at 70km/hr when he knew the one in front would randomly stop for pick-ups and drop-offs. His reactions on the steering wheel and brakes were impressive and almost as fast as my bowels.
Seating capacity in ZR’s is limited only by the shape of the bodywork. No standing is allowed or possible. I counted 16 headrests, 2 fold-up jump-seats and during another journey from Bridgetown Bus Terminal (Constitution River), there were 23 passengers crammed in, including 2 infants.
But don’t think the Blue busses are any better; they’re just bigger. And passengers can stand. Its BJ$2 to go anywhere, for any length of journey, on any of the busses.
Our one full day visit to Speightstown, was 2 days before leaving to go home. We caught the Blue bus at Oistins in the morning and had a fairly sedate, if bumpy, ride north for 70 minutes. On the way home, we sat in the bus shelter on the main street, waiting to catch the bus back to the south. After no more than a few minutes, a woman came out of her home from across the street to ask if we were waiting on the bus. Then she told us the bus doesn’t come through the town, so we had to walk 1 km to the bus station where we were dropped off earlier in the day.
The bus station in Speightstown looks like a bus station should look like; people waiting at stands, some small shops selling papers and drinks, lots of school kids milling about. But no busses. We stood at the Oistins stand for 30 minutes and not one bus appeared on any of the stands. Across the street, yellow and blue busses were disgorging passengers COMING to Speightstown, but none were driving into the station to on-board passengers LEAVING Speightstown.
What about schedules and timetables? No such beasts exist in Barbados, because all the locals know when the busses come and where they are going, so what use is a schedule? People wait at bus stops, but as a tourist, you’ll have to ask a local if a bus will actually come and if it does, is it going your way.
Oistins was the end of the line, but we were on a ‘top road’ bus that serviced all the communities inland from the bigger towns, so it took a while; more than 2 hours. The driver must’ve driven ZR’s in his spare time because he was an absolute maniac. On that journey we discovered how important these services are for the locals. We never saw a cage full of chickens being lugged on-board, but we did discover that the east side of Bridgetown is a financial and technology hub with all the modern malls and buildings housing the global consulting firms, and the busses are the only way for workers to get to and from their communities to work.
Finally, that night, we got to sit on our balcony at Villa Mia and watch the Barbadian world go by with a beer at hand, and all was well again.
Take my advice. Go there. You’ll love it.
Ruth & Brian, Edinburgh, Scotland