Barbados Lures Adventurous Travelers
By Brian E. Clark
Around 1 million years ago, the Atlantic tectonic plate dove under its Caribbean counterpart about 1,500 miles southeast of Florida, scraping deep ocean sediments to the surface.
Which is why, at an elevation of around 1,000 feet in a spot called Hackleton’s Cliff, my 22-year-old daughter Maddie and I found brain coral and other bits of reef that were once hundreds of feet below the turquoise waters that spread out far below us.
We were in Barbados, an avocado-shaped island a bit off the beaten path for most Americans, but one that Brits have long been visiting for what they call their holidays. In the distance stretched Bathsheba’s Beach, a popular surfing location on the east side of the island.
Though I rode a longboard when I lived in San Diego a few decades ago, this trip was for scuba diving, sailing and bicycling – all activities that my daughter and I can enjoy together.
We arrived late one Sunday in early December and quickly headed for our lodgings at the Crane, a lush resort with cliff-top pools, a lovely white sand beach far below, and tall palm trees. Located in the southeast quadrant of the island, it’s home to the oldest continuously operating hotel in the Caribbean.
After a good night’s rest in our suite and a flavorsome breakfast overlooking Crane Beach, we headed for the Barbados Blue scuba outfitter in Bridgetown, where we met divemaster Kiera Bloom. A native of Ottawa, Canada, she told us she’s called Barbados home for the past seven years.
We were soon aboard the Blue boat and headed toward our initial dive site, where Bloom outlined the first of our two underwater explorations that morning. Maddie did a giant stride and plopped into the water, and I followed her shortly. Our group of eight soon reconnoitered about 50 feet below the surface, hovering over a wide variety of coral, sea fans, and big barrel sponges.
Then, guided by Bloom, we slowly swam above the reef, where we saw a multitude of colorful fish, plus other marine life, including hawksbill turtles, moray eels, and several stingrays. On our second dive, we spotted an octopus, spider crabs, and lionfish, which have reddish-orange stripes and long, poisonous tendrils on their backs that flutter gracefully in the water.
Unfortunately, lionfish are an invasive species native to the Pacific Ocean and have no predators in the Caribbean. Worse, they are voracious eaters. So one fellow in our group speared a half dozen on our dives, taking them back to his kitchen for use in tacos, ceviche, Romesco stew, or a variety of other dishes. Fortunately, lionfish are tasty. Just be careful with those tendrils.
For lunch, we dined at Tapas on the South Coast and enjoyed a rum drink called mango tango and – hungry from our morning dives – gobbled up some delicious Thai crab cakes, chicken samosas, and ceviche.
Later, it was on to Tiami Catamaran Cruises, where we settled in a huge, doubled-hulled boat for a dinner sailing trip to Carlisle Bay and its marine park. Once there, we snorkeled with a guide who attempted to feed a young turtle. But every time the guide scattered some food, a swirl of blue fish swooped in and snatched the grub away.
The highlight of that outing occurred when we swam back to the catamaran and were escorted by a spotted eagle ray with a wing span of at least five feet that circled underneath us at least half a dozen times. On our return to the marina under full sail, we chowed down on a tasty chicken dinner with rum punch and were enthralled by a blazing red sunset.
The next morning, we climbed into the back of an Adventure Safari 4X4 Jeep for a bouncy tour of the island. Unfortunately, not long into this outing, it began raining buckets and continued much of the day.
For dinner that night, we stayed put at the Crane and dined at D’Onofrio’s Trattoria, an Italian restaurant in the heart of the resort’s village. Maddie chose the spaghetti carbonara, while I had the linguine alla pescatore, served with shrimp, mussels, clams, smoked salmon, calamari, cherry tomatoes, chili flakes, and fresh basil in a delicious white wine sauce. For dessert, we split a big bowl of mango gelato.
When dawn arrived, we were back in the water with Barbados Blue. On our boat, we met Paula, a young attorney from Vancouver, British Columbia, who was taking an advanced open-water scuba course.
In Barbados for three weeks, she said she was finding a new beach every day for swimming and reading a novel. Soon enough, she said, she’d be returning to winter. Again, we found octopi, turtles, and aquatic creatures to follow and photograph during our two dives that morning.
For lunch, Dominic Hill, our driver on several outings, took us to a local beach eatery – really just a small shack – called “The Famous Cuz Canteen,” which is popular with locals and tourists alike. We sated our appetites with “cutters,” a Bajan (the local word for Barbadian, pronounced Bayjian) sandwich made with local fish and washed down with fruit juice.
We weren’t done with the water, though, and walked a short distance to Set Sail Barbados at the Barbados Cruising Club. Once there, we took a two-hour sailing lesson on a dinghy with Rasheed Greaves. a friendly instructor who gave us tips on improving our tacking and jibing skills.
Our course took us near a flotilla of big sailboats flying Danish flags that had me planning a return to the Caribbean and chartering my own vessel for a weeklong trip. Greaves was an excellent teacher who kept the instructions simple. And our noggins were only clipped by the boom (just slightly) once each while jibing.
That night we dressed up for dinner at The Tides, an upscale seaside restaurant located in Holetown on the island’s west coast. Located in a classic Bajan home built of coral stone and mahogany after WWII, the Tides also featured an art gallery. Waves crashed on the shore just a few feet from where we dined on a crab salad with guacamole, eggplant, chili, and lime dressing, served with plantain chips and pomegranate caviar.
For the main course, we split an abundant seafood platter consisting of Caribbean lobster tail, King scallops, mussels, shrimp, asparagus, garlic and herb butter, hand-cut fries, and Caesar salad. For dessert, we shared a mango and vanilla cheesecake.
On our fourth morning, we joined eBike Island Adventures for a four-hour mountain bike tour with guides Gregory and Roger. The ride began at St. John’s Parish Church, a nearly 400-year-old Gothic-style Anglican Church that looked like it had been plucked out of rural England and set down in the tropics.
We took in the panoramic views of the island’s east coast from the churchyard and were soon pedaling our electric-assist bikes through a field of tall grass that made me feel like I was in Hawaii. Then we arrived at the Hackleton’s Cliff escarpment, where we found the brain coral. Our tour also took us to the environmentally friendly bio-farm, where we communed with a flock of chickens and one wayward duck.
We also rode through the primeval forest of Braggs Hill to Paris Hill and by the Redland Plantation, which has been beautifully restored. Then it was on to some single-track trails with a few downhills and a field where Roger cut us some sweet sugar cane to sample. We all stayed upright on the outing, and our trip ended back at St. John’s Parish Church, where we were rewarded with some, of course, rum punch.
Dinner that evening was at Champer’s, where we ate on an open terrace and listened to the waves of the Caribbean break on the shore. I had a piquant cajun Atlantic salmon dish served with cauliflower and potato puree, roasted garlic, and dill aioli with pepper jelly, while Maddie feasted on a ribeye with roasted potatoes, veggies, tarragon jus, and horseradish cream. For dessert, we had creme brûlée and mango sorbet.
For those who fancy rum, no trip to Barbados would be complete without a tour of the Mount Gay distillery, where our guide told us of the company’s foundation in 1703. Then he walked us through the spirit-making process before treating us to several samples of Mount Gay’s signature rums and schooling us on what they best go with, including coffee.
We swam again that afternoon in the waters off Crane beach. Then, leaving behind the fancy dinners we’d had the two nights before, we visited the fishing village of Oistins, where we dined on grilled mahi mahi from a small stand, listened to lively music, and watched Bajans and visitors alike dance.
On our final morning, we walked the beach once more and then swam in one of the cliffside pools. As a college student, Maddie worked on her tan while I read under the shade of an umbrella. Funny thing, though, we both got burned a wee bit. Since then, the pink has turned brown, soon to be just another memory of our adventurous week in Barbados.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.