Upon my slow descent into Barbados, I’m filled with anticipation for the month ahead. My rental is situated in Saint James Parish, 5mi (8km) from the capital Bridgetown. On arrival, I’m keen to connect with the local community, an anchor to keep me from all-inclusive this and all-inclusive that. To do that, my landlord recommends I join a local running group. It isn’t my usual idea of an island holiday activity, but I feel open to something new. I’d never heard of the Hash House Harriers before, and it just so happens they are hosting a run and dinner this afternoon. I dig out my running shoes and make my way to nearby St Thomas parish in time for their Christmas soirée.
The Hash House Harriers (or Hash for short) is an international, social running club. Members affectionately call it “a drinking club with a running problem” because when you’ve completed the set course, ranging from 3mi (5km) to 6mi (10km), a small bar is waiting for you at the end. The concept dates back to British civil servants in 1938 Malaysia who were seeking a way to work off a hangover. Something tells me the Brits didn’t have melodic calypso tunes, an ice cream van, and a well-stocked bar waiting for them at the end like I do.
The Christmas feast is a sumptuous affair. All the Caribbean classics are presented in potluck style on a Christmas-themed tablecloth. Fish cakes, macaroni pie, grilled potatoes, and coleslaw are on offer, as well as cou-cou (made from corn meal and okra), a Bajan (Barbadian) specialty. What surprises me most about the group – made up predominately of locals – is their warmth and blithe acceptance of newcomers. My new Hasher friend Sam offers an abundance of insider tips, and I appreciate that getting to know the locals will make my time on the island even more memorable.
On the easternmost point of the Caribbean chain, Barbados has a population just shy of 300,000, and the locals speak a Bajan dialect of English. There is little information about the Arawaks, the indigenous people of the island, but today, Barbados is predominately (94%) home to Afro-Caribs. After three centuries of colonization by the British, Barbados gained full independence in 1966 and transitioned to a republic at the end of 2021.
Barbados is home to thriving fishing and agriculture industries, but a deeper look into the economy revealed that tourism makes up 40% of GDP and employs 30% of its workforce. This news should influence any visitor to make conscious choices about the power of their dollar – particularly if considering an all-inclusive trip, where the majority of spend could be leaked out to foreign interests through various stakeholders. I got a first-hand look at this on a quick trip to Carlisle Bay, where beach club wristbands were currency and offshore conglomerates were cashing in.
With the goal of supporting the local community, I set out to find activities that didn’t involve a beach club or resort. Not to say I don’t enjoy the beach, quite the contrary. There are more than 80 stunning beaches in Barbados and to describe the color of each requires the thickest of thesauri. I was thrilled to learn that there are no private beaches in Barbados, and all allow for public access.
For this activity, I rented a board from Ride the Tide (they also run surf lessons) and by the time I’d paddled out, I’d already sighted a few turtles. Surfing alongside them was an experience I will never forget.
Nothing screamed Christmas more to me than Mariah Carey tunes, sequins, and a pink wig. The hour-long show starts at 9pm, but you can also dine at Ragamuffins before it starts. Expect high energy and multiple costume changes.
Bajans are crazy for cricket – it’s like a pseudo religion. During a match, local fans lead the cheer with calypso musicians helping to stir up the crowd. I bought fish cakes, a Banks beer, and a sorrel-flavored icy pole to eat during the game at Kensington Oval, thanks to Sam’s wise suggestions.
There are more than 1,500 local rum bars scattered throughout the island – they serve as a place for locals to gather and socialize. If you hear a loud SLAP, that’s just a friendly game of dominoes (almost as popular as cricket). A small bottle of rum should cost approx. US $10 / BBD $21 and while the locals wouldn’t dare mix it with soda, you can buy that too. I visited one in Bathsheba, 10mi (17km) from Bridgetown by local bus. The bus ride back was a little blurrier, I assure you.
The island’s best sourdough loaves and croissants come from Cliff Bakery. On Sundays, you can find its mobile van at Holders House organic farmer’s market – but go early, they sell out fast. If I close my eyes, I can still hear the crackling, crispy outer crust from that first bite. While you’re in the area, peruse the local handicrafts nearby – Barbados has a thriving pottery scene.
In Christ Church, 5.5mi (9km) from Bridgetown, outdoor films are accompanied by a warm breeze and swaying palms. Wednesday to Sunday nights, simply tune your radio to the drive-in station, tilt back your seats, and watch the big screen.
Cruising on a catamaran is a gloriously relaxing way to see the island. Before I booked my tour, I sought out an operator that’s managed by local entrepreneurs. Having a jovial dance with the crew at the end was a massive highlight.
There are plenty of volunteering opportunities in Barbados, such as tree planting or joining a local beach clean-up. There are also two animal sanctuaries, Ocean Acre or Ark Animal Welfare, that welcome volunteer dog walkers or marketing and maintenance experts who can lend a hand.
A running group might not be for everyone, but that doesn’t mean you should miss out on the spectacular scenery. The local hiking group is free, but donations are welcome.
Caribbean food is much more than conch fritters and jerk chicken – it's as varied as the region itself, combining local produce, spices, and seafood with influences from around the world.
Which islands are the safest to visit in the Caribbean? Find out about crime, pickpocketing and travel scams before you go on vacation.
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