“I think we’re lost.”
We’re driving aimlessly in Barbados, in search of Cherry Tree Hill – a lookout with spellbinding scenery. Our van has taken a wrong turn somewhere, as we blindly trust a weak mobile signal and Google maps.
By some miracle, we stumble upon it. The road, shrouded by a canopy of mahogany trees, falls away and opens onto a clearing, revealing a lush landscape, swaying palm trees and a swirling cerulean sea. Perched 850 feet (260 metres) above sea level, I can see boats bobbing in the waves and a shoreline fringed with white sand. I start snapping “scenery porn” to post on social media.
“The views here are disgusting,” I write in the caption.
This is my second visit to Barbados, but my first time off a resort. Instead of the usual all-inclusive hotel, I’ve rented a seaside cottage in Fitts Village – a tiny fishing town on the island’s west coast. Booking this place was a gamble: The sleepy community is made up of houses, churches, public beaches and one supermarket, clustered along Highway 1. Will this keep us entertained for two weeks?
But as I soon learn, you can have fun in Barbados without a swim-up bar. The island is mostly safe, the roads are decent, people are friendly and, above all, the food is incredible. In the era of Airbnb, you can rent a humble abode here for as little as $150 a night or a luxury villa with an infinity pool for $900 a night. Whether you hire a taxi or rental car, driving the entire island in a day is doable, even allowing for exploring countless attractions and experiences along the way.
Arriving in Fitts Village from the airport, our host Debbie leads us into a rustic wooden cottage surrounded by flowering foliage. From the sprawling veranda, I can hear the surf pounding against the shoreline and see blue sea and sky peeking through the greenery. Inside, a bottle of homemade rum punch awaits.
“The beach is just down the street,” she says. “You can also snorkel on the reef in front of the house and swim with turtles.”
The beach is on our hit list, but after a five-hour flight with our eight-month-old baby, we’re eager to explore. After Cherry Tree Hill, we take a leisurely walk and picnic in Farley Hill National Park – a leafy spot set among the ruins of a historic mansion with spectacular views down to the Atlantic. Another lazy day is spent at Bathsheba, a lively beach town on the rugged east coast. Sitting in the golden sand with bare feet and a fizzy drink, I watch the surfers brave the wild waves and photograph the beach’s iconic mushroom-shaped boulder.
One muggy afternoon, we take a tour of St. Nicholas Abbey – a heritage mansion from 1658 that now functions as a museum and rum distillery. Our guide leads us around the estate and gardens, offering a colourful history lesson spanning 350 years, and then into the rum tasting room. Feeling tipsy after a few samples, I retreat to the breezy terrace and listen to a jovial man bang away on a steel-pan drum.
But, beyond the gorgeous scenery is another worthy reason to leave the resort in Barbados: the food. Away from the all-inclusives, it’s a smorgasbord of Bajan dishes melding African, Indian and British culinary traditions: everything from rice and peas to rotis and curries to the national dish – flying fish and coucou (made with cornmeal).
While the island is blessed with many ritzy restaurants, some of the tastiest meals can be found in street stalls and roadside shacks. De Clay Oven in Paynes Bay lures me back two nights in a row for their grilled plantain and rum-infused pork pizza. Outside Jordans Supermarket, I munch on Bajan fishcakes from a pop-up vendor, even though I just devoured a shrimp-stuffed roti for lunch. It’s a lot of eating with our hands, so one starry night we dine on seafood pasta at Il Tempio – a beachfront restaurant in Fitts Village that the late Luciano Pavarotti proclaimed “the best Italian food in Barbados.”
Because a tiny dictator with an early bedtime calls the shots, we don’t make it to the famed Oistins Friday Night Fish Fry. Debbie recommends the Paynes Bay Fish Market instead. “They sell fish fresh off the boat, often to the hotels and restaurants. No one really knows their hours – you might have to wait for someone to show up.”
I get lucky – the fishmonger is in and has an array of scaly catches on melting ice. Watching him clean a flying fish, my belly rumbles in anticipation of barbecuing back at the cottage.
With so much eating, donning a bathing suit feels torturous. But it’s minus-20 in Toronto, so we trot two minutes down the road to lounge on a long stretch of sugar-white sand. The baby slumbers in the shade while we take turns swimming in the crystal-clear waters and snorkelling over the coral reef. Except for a lone local eating his lunch, the beach is deserted. The solitude is soothing – almost as much as Debbie’s rum punch, chilling in the cooler. Watching my husband swoosh our giggling baby in the waves, my heart swells with gratitude. We rolled the dice on this DIY holiday, but it paid off.
Fitts Village is located on the tranquil west coast of Barbados, approximately 20 minutes by car from Bridgetown. The powder-white beaches and colourful coral reefs are the daytime draws, but night brings other thrills, like karaoke at Wendy’s Snack Bar or magical dining at the Cliff Restaurant – often called one of the world’s best restaurants.
Boredom isn’t an option in Barbados, with no shortage of excursions including Harrison’s Cave, Lickrish Food Tours, a catamaran cruise to swim with turtles and snorkelling over shipwrecks. The Barbados National Trust also hosts free nature walks, some by moonlight. A rum tasting and tour is a must. Barbados is considered the birthplace of rum and Mount Gay Distilleries (established 1703) is believed to be the oldest rum distiller in the world.
WHERE TO STAY
Reputable websites such as Airbnb, VRBO and TripAdvisor offer a range of self-catering accommodations at varying price points. Before booking, read the reviews and ask questions about the house rules, amenities and location.
Set on a resort? For luxury properties closer to Fitts Village, Treasure Beach ($650/night and up) and Crystal Cove ($890/night and up) are excellent options.