Sitting smugly by itself 100 miles east of the windward islands, Barbados has all the attributes of a tropical beach playground. Its west coast boasts miles of white, sun-bleached beaches gently lapped by the Caribbean. Splendid resorts line this tranquil shore offering their patrons every amenityrum punches and fine cuisine, golf courses and tennis courts, air conditioning and CNN.
You could sit all day on a chaise lounge shaded by a striped beach umbrellawatching children play in the sand, listening to the drone of the jet skis, and sipping fruity drinks prepared with exquisite Mount Gay rum. But then starts an itching, as your tickled by curiosity. . . to see what's on the other side.
Barbados' east coast is the yin to the west coast's yang. It is here where Atlantic waves first kiss the land of the Western Hemisphere. The wind is constant, while hotels and restaurants are few. There are jagged cliffs and mushroom-shaped rock formations. Surfers congregate here to ride some of the best waves in the Caribbean.
To get there, rent a car or a mini-moke (an open-roofed dune buggy popular in Barbados). Remembering to drive on the left as you leave the developed west coast, travel through miles and miles of waving sugar cane, the raison d'etre for Barbados. The British first settled here in 1627, and quickly set about planting sugar cane and importing slaves from Africa to work the fields. While tourism is now the major breadwinner for Barbados, sugar is still an important contributor to the local economy.
Often along the road, you pass by doll-like houses in pastel shades resting on foundations of cracked concrete or crushed coral. These unique structures are chattel houses, the Barbadian (or Bajan) version of the mobile home. When slavery ended in 1834, the former slaves were given their houses (but not the land under them), which they moved from place to place depending on where they found work.
In the parish of St. Thomas, stop to take a short walk through Welchman Hall Gully. This gorge is filled with lush vegetation, including stands of bamboo and shrubs of flowering hibiscus and red ginger lilies. If you look closely, you might spot a few monkeys climbing the gorge's walls. The gully was once part of an immense cave system before its roof collapsed, leaving this oasis open to the sky.
Back in your vehicle, continue driving northeast through the area called the Scotland District, which has rolling hills that reveal views of the Atlantic. In the town of Bathsheba, you get terrific views of the east coast in all its wild splendor. Stop here at the Bonito Bar & Restaurant where you can indulge in a Bajan buffet lunch prepared by Enid Worrell and her family. Watch the waves from the second-floor terrace as you eat your way through a platter full of spicy chicken, grilled kingfish, and mixed vegetables, ending with delectable homemade coconut ice cream and pound cake.
Worth a stop nearby is Andromeda Gardens. Here you'll stroll through an eye-popping collection of tropical plants, including red-orange heliconia, purple bougainvillea, and towering green ferns. The late Iris Bannochie started developing this garden overlooking the sea in 1954, which she willed to the Barbados National Trust.
On another day, take a hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding excursion with Highland Outdoor Tours. This company, owned by Bajan farmer and polo champion, Philip Atwell, aims to give clients a view of Barbados they can't get from a resort. The tours include Turner Hall Woods, the only forest in Barbados that was never cut down by settlers, Mount Hillaby, at 1,100 feet the highest point on the island, and Long Pond Beach on the Atlantic.
If you take the hiking tour, you're likely to be led by Andrew Hope, a Bajan Rastafarian with an encyclopedic knowledge of island plants. "My grant taught me all about the medicines," he says, as he points out the christophene his grandmother used for reducing high blood pressure. Ginger root will cure a stomachache, and guava leaf placed on cuts prevents infection.
As you walk through fields, woods, and small villages, Andrew collects flowers for the female guests. The resulting bouquet of heliconia, ginger lily, and other aromatic blossoms rivals anything found at the florist.
Andrew points to a building overgrown with vines. "That's where I went to school, all grades in one classroom. I met my wife there when we were five. We were meant for each other."
An hour into the walk, Andrew climbs a palm for a coconut so that guests can have a sweet drink. He weaves bookmarks from palm leavesanother souvenir. From a vine with small white flowers, he gathers pods that he opens up and clips on to guests' earlobes.
"What's that plant called?" you ask.
"The earring plant," he replies.
A worm-like animal with a thousand legs crosses the path in front of you.
"A millipede," says Andrew. "Their bite doesn't hurt, but you have to be careful that one doesn't fall off a shelf into your tea kettle. Millipede tea is deadly."
As you walk the final steps to the top of Mount Hillerby, you ponder how nature has the power to heal and to harm. From this "peak," you can see rolling green hills dotted with brown cattle and a misty view of the blue Atlantic.
If you've signed up for the full-day tour, you'll walk down the other side to the sea where a Bajan barbecue awaits. On the half-day hike, you walk back to Philip's farm for a guava drink and a skewer of Bajan beef.
Later, back at your posh Caribbean-side hotel, you will attempt to rid your sneakers of the mud accumulated during your backcountry walk. Don't worry, they'll be clean again someday. However, you'll never forget your walk on the wild side of Barbados.
If You Go
American Airlines and BWIA have daily flights to Barbados from the east coast.
Where to Stay
There are more hotels on Barbados than any other Caribbean island. For a good swimming beach and close proximity to the most restaurants and shopping, choose a hotel on the west or south coasts.
Highland Outdoor Tours (809-438-8069, fax 809-438-8070) offers day-long and half-day hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking excursions. Full-day tours include a three-course lunch on the beach. All tours include transportation to and from your hotel. Rates for hiking trips are $50 (full-day) and $25 (half). Horseback trips are $100 and $50, and mountain biking tours are $75 and $38.
The Barbados National Trust conducts free hikes every Sunday morning. For the starting point and time, look for the listing in the Sunseeker newspaper available in local stores and hotels.
For more information on Barbados, contact the Barbados Tourism Authority at 800-221-9831 or 212-986-9516.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication