Traveller's guide: Barbados

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White sands and turquoise waters are just the start. This Caribbean island has much more to dazzle visitors, with forests, caves and historic landmarks, says Kate Simon

So, you thought Barbados was just a fly-and-flop destination? True, its white sands have been attracting sun-seekers for decades, but the addition of Bridgetown and its historic Garrison to the list of Unesco World Heritage Sites in June has confirmed that there is more to this Caribbean island than a sunny spot in which to stretch out on a steamer chair.

The harbour in Barbados's capital has been cited by Unesco as an "outstanding example of British colonial architecture", recognition of the historic global importance of this little island in the Caribbean. The initial response from the Barbados Tourism Authority (020-7299 7175; visitbarbados.org) has been to publish a map of the area that once bustled with the business of sugar and slavery; it is available through tourist information centres and some hotels.

The hotel Cobblers Cove (001 246 422 2291; cobblerscove.com), itself a historic property with links to the plantation era, has promised to launch a series of heritage tours for guests later this year.

With the right encouragement, there's certainly plenty of history for visitors to uncover across Barbados, from plantation houses and sugar mills to exotic gardens and the conserved remnants of virgin jungle. To find them, the best source of information, apart from the tourist board, is the Barbados National Trust (001 246 426 2421; trust.funbarbados.com), which cares for many of the island's precious landmarks and landscapes. (If you belong to the NT in the UK, pack your membership card for reciprocal benefits.)

There's a lively cultural scene to explore too, with a calendar of festivals that culminates in the annual carnival of Crop Over in July and August (cropoverbarbados.com). An autumn highlight is the Barbados Food & Wine and Rum Festival, this year from 16 to 19 November, with rum tastings, cookery demonstrations and Bajan fiestas (foodwinerum.com). And, although the Concorde service ended in 2003, you can now board one of the supersonic jets at the Barbados Concorde Experience (001 246 420 7738; barbadosconcorde.com; admission B$40/£14).

Yet for many, Barbados is still about the beach and the mega-rich still come and go from the smooth sands of the west coast, lodging at Sandy Lane (001 246 444 2000; sandylane.com), Barbados's top hotel, or their private villas at Royal Westmoreland, Apes Hill Club and Sugar Hill. For the package holidaymakers with less cash to splash, the south coast, around St Lawrence Gap, is the place to bag an all-inclusive bargain. And a growing number follow the locals to the rugged east coast. It's a place of wild beauty, buffeted by the Atlantic, with an authentic island feel, and, for surfers, world-class waves.

This easternmost island in the Lesser Antilles chain hasn't suffered the same problems with hurricanes as other Caribbean destinations. The storms appear to swing north about 100 miles before they reach Barbados's shores. (The last direct hit was 1955.) However, year-round appeal hasn't stopped a pricing structure that is organised according to the perceived Caribbean low (summer and early autumn), shoulder (late spring and late autumn) and peak-season (December to May) periods, school holidays being particularly expensive. The difference in cost can be striking. For example, a seven-night all-inclusive holiday at the recently refurbished Savannah Beach, with return flights and transfers, starts at £999 per person in October, as opposed to £1,569 per person at Christmas with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk). Pick your moment in the sun with care to make your money go a little bit further.

Head on down

Hang up your sunhat and head underground to Harrison's Cave (001 246 417 3700; harrisonscave.com; B$40/£13), pictured, in the central highlands. This stream cave system – first documented in 1795 but not excavated until the 1970s – meanders for a mile through the coral limestone rock on which Barbados is built. Let a solar-powered tram speed you through tunnels and caverns, stopping for closer inspection of the pools, streams, cascades and waterfalls. Highlights include the Great Hall, a huge cave decorated with some quite spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, and the Rotunda Room, with its creamy-coloured formations.

Boards, fins and clubs

Barbados's best-known break is the Soup Bowl, near Bathsheba on the east coast. Also on the east coast, Ragged Point and Parlors are popular while, to the south, Silver Sands has its fans. To the west and north, Maycocks, Sandy Lane, Tropicana and Duppies are top spots. Barbados Surf Trips (001 246 262 1099; surfbarbados.com), Burkie's Surf School (001 246 428 7915; surfbarbados.net) and Zed's Surfing Adventures (001 246 428 7873; zedssurftravel.com) arrange everything from lessons to beach hotels.

Barbados is surrounded by coral reefs that are great for snorkelling and diving; try Eco Dive Barbados (001 246 243 5816; ecodivebarbados.com).

The island also features some of the best championship golf courses in the Caribbean, though some offer non-members restricted access, usually through preferred hotels such as the Colony Club (0800 917 3534; colonyclubhotel.com). It has links to Royal Westmoreland (001 246 422 4653; royalwestmoreland.com).

The Barbados Golf Club (001 246 428 8463; barbadosgolfclub.com) is more relaxed, and accepts direct bookings.

Track back

Take a break from the beach at St Nicholas Abbey (001 246 422 5357; stnicholasabbey.com; B$35/ £11) in the parish of St Peter. It's a beautiful house with elegant gables, fireplaces and chimneys, and it's one of only three Jacobean mansions in the western hemisphere. Another, Drax Hall, is also on the island, though not open to the public.

Barbados is also the site of one of the oldest synagogues in the western hemisphere: the Nidhe Israel (001 246 436 8043; trust.funbarbados.com; B$25/£8), pictured, in Bridgetown, built in 1654 by sugar workers.

Go wild

Barbados's natural beauty isn't confined to its beaches. Though most of the forests were chopped down centuries ago to make space for sugar-cane plantations, there's still plenty to explore, especially in the Scotland district – the ambitious name given to the central highlands by early planters.

For a glimpse of pre-plantation Barbados, visit Welchman Hall Gully (001 246 438 6671; welchmanhallgullybarbados.com; US$12/£7.50), pictured, a tangle of exotic plants and trees that includes the only two endemic plants to have survived the planters' axes: the gully shrub Phyllanthus andersonii and the climber Metastelma barbadense. You might catch sight of a green monkey too – they're generally hounded as a pest on this island but welcomed here. To make a day of it, tack on a trip to nearby Hunte's Garden (001 246 433 3333; huntesgardensbarbados.com; B$30/£9) and the Flower Forest (001 246 433 8152; flowerforestbarbados.com; B$20/£6).

For natural history with thrills and spills, whizz along the zipwire at nearby Jack-in-the-Box Gully with Aerial Trek Zipline Adventures (001 246 433 8966; aerialtrek.com; B$92/£29), a 1,000ft-long ride through the treetop canopy that reaches heights of 100ft above the valley floor.

Stay stylish

Barbados has a good variety of accommodation, from hotels and villas to guest houses and homestays. The latest news on the luxury scene comes from The House (0800 917 3534; thehousebarbados.com; doubles from £316), an adults-only property, pictured, that has just unveiled a new contemporary look.

ITC Classics (01244 355550; itcclassics.co.uk) has a week's B&B at the hotel, for travel completed by 19 Dec for £1,785pp with Gatwick flights and transfers.

Options for self-caterers have expanded with the opening of Santosha (001 246 232 2991; santoshabarbados.com; from US$120/£76 per night), at Windy Hill on the Atlantic coast. The resort's two studios and four one-bedroom suites all benefit from ocean-view balconies. Tropic Breeze (01752 880880; tropicbreeze.co.uk) is offering seven nights here from £880pp, including flights from Gatwick and transfers.

Traveller's guide

Getting there and around

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) compete between Gatwick and Grantley Adams airport in Barbados. Virgin also flies from Manchester.

Charter flights are offered by Thomson Airways (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk) from Gatwick, Birmingham, Newcastle, Manchester, Exeter and Cardiff.

All visitors must pay a departure tax of B$55 (£17); check that it is included in your ticket price, or be ready to pay at the airport when you leave.

A bus departs every 10 minutes from the airport for the capital, Bridgetown, a 45-minute journey, price B$1.50 (50p). This is the flat fare on the public bus network covering the island. ZR Vans, which can be identified by the ZR on the registration plate, operate frequent if unscheduled services around the island, again for a flat B$1.50 per journey.

A week's car rental through global brands such as Avis or Hertz, or through brokers such as Holiday Autos, starts at about £200 per week for a small vehicle.

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