A first-timer’s guide to Barbados

It’s my first evening, on my first trip to Barbados. As I’d imagined for months, I’m drinking a local Mount Gay Rum cocktail, overlooking a white sandy beach and an aquamarine Caribbean Sea. There are kids swimming in the lagoon, then a series of whitewater waves reeling down on coral reef 100 yards out to sea.

The view from Castaways in Barbados. Photo: Courtesy of Ed Fargasun

“There’s a great wave out there; that’s where I learned to surf,” says a boardshorted man next to me who had followed my gaze. He introduced himself as Kris Whitton, the owner of Castaways, the bar and grill we are sitting at in St. Lawrence Gap. “But there’s waves every day on Barbados — here in the south, but especially on the east coast and, on bigger swells, on the west coast too.”

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Whitton, it turns out, should know. He was one of Barbados’ top junior surfers and surfs most days he can. Over the rum and delicious plate of local flying fish, he draws a map of surf spots and Barbados must-sees. In 20 minutes he has given me a first-timer’s five-day itinerary that would have taken weeks of internet research.

With the right info, these empty beaches can be found. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Barbados

The next morning, with the beer-coaster-turned-treasure-map in my pocket, I head a few miles up the coast from St. Lawrence to a surf break called Bannons at Drill Hall Beach. This week it is hosting Barbados’ biggest-ever professional surfing comp, the Barbados Pro. It is a World Qualifying Series event that has drawn the best young surfers from all around the world.

“Barbados is amazing — so cruise-y and fun,” says Australian competitor Mikey Wright, another first-timer to Barbados. A few months earlier he had been competing with the world’s best at the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, as well as supporting his brother, Owen, and his sister, current world champion Tyler.

“We’ve been staying around the corner at the Hilton, surfing and diving out the front, hitting the pool and driving over to the east coast to surf on lay days. I have to keep reminding myself I’m here for the comp and not for a holiday.”

Mikey Wright surfing in the Barbados Pro. Photo: Courtesy of World Surf League

That drive to the east coast, I find out the next day, takes only takes 45 minutes. The whole of Barbados covers 166 square miles and every coast is accessible in no time. The east coast, buffeted by constant trade winds and open to Atlantic Ocean swells, is a wild, untouched antidote to the resorts and sandy beaches on the leeward side of Barbados.

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For surfers, though, it has Barbados’ crown jewel: a wave known as Soup Bowls, located near the village of Bathsheba. Kelly Slater has called it one of his favorite waves, and the grinding break has been featured in countless surf films. It can hold huge waves that break hard and perfect over a shallow reef.

Bathsheba, on the east coast of Barbados. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Barbados

However, when I turn up it is head high, fun and playful. Opposite the break, I rent a board for $20 from a local called Terry and wax up. “If it wasn’t for the competition, there would probably be no one surfing,” says Terry. “Crowds aren’t a problem in Barbados.”

Still, there are only 10 people out and plenty of waves to go around. After a couple of hours and a score of fun waves, I return the board and receive a cold Banks beer out of the icebox from Terry as reward.

If you want to stay on the east coast, The Round House is the most well-known accommodation, perched just above Soup Bowls. Guest houses Sea-U and Santosha, however, are a short walk to the surf and offer a perfect relaxed surf break on the most relaxed coast of a very relaxed island.

Local surfers at Soup Bowls. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Barbados

Still, a trip to Barbados wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the famed west coast. In the winter months these waters can provide some of the best waves on the island, with expert-only waves like Tropicana, Sandy Lane and Ignorance roaring to life. Now, though, it’s tranquil, so after a French-fusion lunch at the Cliff Beach Club I cruise past the famous colonial homestead of the Sandy Lane Hotel, now the epi-celebrity-center of the island, walk through historic Holetown and then head to the very north of the island.

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Here I take a tour of St. Nicholas Abbey, a 350-year-old plantation house where rum is still made in the traditional way, and buy a bottle of their award-winning 12-year-old rum to bring home as a memento.

Rum tasting at St. Nicholas Abbey. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Barbados

The last few days become a whirlwind as I attempt to tick off Whitton’s checklist. I take in the fish fry at Oistins Bay Gardens, where various vendors grill swordfish, marlin or mahi-mahi, then plate ’em up, with a beer, for around $15. I catch some live music at the Old Jamm Inn at St. Lawrence, dive the wrecks of Pebbles Beach, SUP at Mullins Beach, eat a fish cuttie from Cuz’s Fish Shack and watch some cricket at Bridgetown’s famous Kensington Oval.

On my last afternoon, I return to Castaways and have a surf out the front with Whitton. After a few fun waves on our own, we return to shore, where he fixes me one of his legendary rum punches for the road.

If you need any more information on Barbados check out www.visitbarbados.org

SUPing Barbados style. Photo: Courtesy of Visit Barbados