Isolated in the Atlantic Ocean, 100 miles (161 km) due east of St. Lucia, Barbados stands apart from its neighbors in the Lesser Antilles archipelago, the chain of islands that stretches in a graceful arc from the Virgin Islands to Trinidad. It's a sophisticated tropical island with a rich history, lodgings to suit every taste and pocketbook, and plenty to pique your interest both day and night.
Geologically, most of the Lesser Antilles are the peaks of a volcanic mountain range, whereas Barbados is the top of a single, relatively flat protuberance of coral and limestone—historically, the source of building blocks for many a plantation manor. Some of those "great houses," in fact, have been carefully restored. Two are open to visitors.
Bridgetown, both capital city and commercial center, is on the southwest coast of pear-shape Barbados. Most of the nearly 300,000 Bajans (Bay-juns, derived from the British pronunciation of Barbadian) live and work in and around Bridgetown, elsewhere in St. Michael Parish, or along the idyllic west coast or busy south coast. Others reside in tiny villages that dot the interior landscape. Broad sandy beaches, craggy cliffs, and numerous coves make up the coastline; the interior is consumed by forested hills and gullies and acre upon acre of sugarcane.
Without question, Barbados is the "most British" island in the Caribbean. In contrast to the turbulent colonial past experienced by neighboring islands, including repeated conflicts between France and Britain for dominance and control, British rule in Barbados carried on uninterrupted for 340 years—from the first established British settlement in 1627 until independence was granted in 1966. That's not to say, of course, that there weren't significant struggles in Barbados, as elsewhere in the Caribbean, between 17th- and 18th-century British landowners and their African-born slaves and other indentured servants.
With that unfortunate period of slavery relegated to the history books, the British influence on Barbados remains strong today in local manners, attitudes, customs, and politics—tempered, of course, by the characteristically warm nature and Caribbean style of the Bajan people. In keeping with British-born traditions, many Bajans worship at the Anglican church, afternoon tea is a ritual, cricket is the national pastime (a passion, most admit), dressing for dinner is a firmly entrenched tradition, and patrons at some bars are as likely to order a Pimm's Cup or a shandy as a rum and Coke. And yet, Barbados is hardly stuffy—this is still the Caribbean, after all.
Tourist facilities are concentrated on the west coast in St. James and St. Peter parishes (appropriately dubbed the “Platinum Coast”) and on the south coast in Christ Church Parish. Traveling north along the west coast from Bridgetown, the capital city, to historic Holetown, the site of the first British settlement, and continuing to the city of Speightstown, you can find posh beachfront resorts, luxurious private villas, and fine restaurants enveloped by tropical gardens and lush foliage. The trendier, more commercial south coast offers competitively priced hotels and beach resorts, and the St. Lawrence Gap area is known for its restaurants and nightlife. The relatively wide-open spaces along the southeast coast are proving ripe for development, and some wonderful inns and hotels already take advantage of those intoxicatingly beautiful ocean vistas. For their own vacations, though, Bajans escape to the rugged east coast, where the Atlantic surf pounds the dramatic shoreline with unrelenting force.
Barbadians (Bajans) are a warm, friendly, and hospitable people who are genuinely proud of their country and culture. Although tourism is the island's number one industry, the island has a sophisticated business community and stable government; so life here doesn't skip a beat once passengers return to the ship. Barbados is the most "British" island in the Caribbean. Afternoon tea is a ritual, and cricket is the national sport. The atmosphere, though, is hardly stuffy. This is still the Caribbean, after all. Beaches along the island's south and west coasts are picture-perfect, and all are available to cruise passengers. On the rugged east coast, the Atlantic Ocean attracts world-class surfers. Rolling hills and valleys dominate the northeast, while the interior of the island is covered by acres of sugarcane and dotted with small villages. Historic plantations, a stalactite-studded cave, a wildlife preserve, rum distilleries, and tropical gardens are among the island's attractions. Bridgetown is the capital city, and its downtown shops and historic sites are a short walk or taxi ride from the pier.