Isabel Conway braves PCR tests and enforced COVID quarantine to enjoy Barbados and the Coral Reef Club.
So near and yet so far. Beyond the lush gardens framed by gently waving palms, the sparkling azure sea beckons. Refreshed after our long haul flight from Europe I’m reaching for my beach towel, struggling into a too-tight swimsuit that bears the brunt of long months of COVID pandemic lockdowns and their calorific consequences. Suddenly I remember something. This glorious stretch of tantalizing beach is a no-go zone for now.
Arrival on the Caribbean paradise island of Barbados from high-risk countries – we’ve jetted in on the inaugural British Airways flight from London Heathrow – entailed tough but necessary protocols designed to ensure the safety of the local population and visitors. We were confined to hotel properties for more than 24 hours, awaiting post-arrival PCR test results, in addition to an obligatory first test taken in our countries of origin within 72 hours of departure.
Now for the good news. Our period of detention – sorry restricted movements – was endured at one of the island’s top addresses Coral Reef Club, a five-star resort set in 12 acres of grounds along the calm west coast of Barbados. Swopping winter in the northern hemisphere, my lodgings are a plantation suite villa with a large terrace leading to its own private plunge pool, gold star service from the main hotel building and permission to roam the glorious gardens. Oh yes, and I could also dine and watch spectacular sunsets from the large open-air restaurant. Over lunch of highly addictive prawn tacos washed down with chilled white wine I receive the welcome news that a separate sun terrace set back from the beach has been reserved but we must stay away from other sun worshippers and out of the sea.
Dropped at the dead of night at our Caribbean playground, we were welcomed with cool drinks by smiling staff excited to welcome guests back after being closed down for the past seven months due to the pandemic. They next fitted us with unremovable wristbands allowing hotel workers to identify quarantining guests and ensure that we didn’t stray beyond the beautifully landscaped grounds. Almost two days after arrival, cooling off in my hidden rocky plunge pool, sipping a cocktail amid technicoloured shrubbery I was calculating the de-stress benefits of quarantine, awaiting the results of that second COVID test. Nature abounded, from butterflies, flitting among giant peacock flowers and Hibiscus to a glimpse of a green monkey and stars of the night, whistling frogs serenading us from the trees.
Breakfast at the elegant family-run boutique Coral Reef Club included classic British and US fare, platters of exotic fruits and delicious Cajun coated flying fish, which is a local favourite. Dinner ran the gambit of classic French cuisine, Creole specialities, locally caught shellfish and superbly artistic deserts. Another memorable breakfast dish, lobster eggs benedict was a treat at the former plantation mansion, Cobblers Cove, further north along the coast, before setting off for a day at sea. From large family-sized villas with their wooden balustrading, fretwork and shutters to luxury balconied apartments the Coral Reef Club is among Barbados top addresses, pleasantly laid back and friendly, presided over by affable owner Patrick O’Hara, his mother and other family members who have Irish origins, welcoming visitors as if they were private house guests.
The award-winning getaway has a lovely spa, hidden deep in its grounds, several swimming pools and a library. The long beachfront and coral reefs, just steps away, are the perennial attraction, together with an impressive on-site range of water sport activities and nearby Holetown, a colourful mix of rum shacks, cafes, art galleries and local life.
Pear-shaped Barbados is so far east to be spared by hurricanes except in unusual years. Here we have a tale of two coasts. Receiving the all clear, we made the most of our six-day visit, exploring by catamaran and cabin cruiser powdery white sands and glowing coral reefs on the Caribbean west and south sides where more than 50 species of fish occupy the reefs and 4 types of turtle are easily spotted. Most visitor accommodation is centred on the west and south sides of the island. Rugged Northern and Eastern coasts are pounded by the Atlantic Ocean, challenging for even the most experienced surfers.
Barbados authentic rural interior, easily reached by rental car or bus from the Coral Reef Club, features undulating hills of sugar cane, windmills, grazing sheep and scattered villages of sherbet coloured tin-roofed bungalows with a colonial-era villa, many churches and even more rum shacks dotting hillsides. You can hire a car as most of the roads are well maintained and driving is unhurried. You can also take a Bajan bus tour, which we did – a throwback to the school buses of the past – to visit out of the way beaches, local rum shacks in remote hamlets. Cheap blue and yellow public buses marked ‘out of the city’ and ‘to the city’ are frequent and great fun.
Aboard one which I caught at the stop right outside the Coral Reef Club up to Speightstown to see the old fish market had blaring ghetto blasters featuring reggae, a few hip hop dance turns and snatches of hits from Rhianna, Barbados’ most famous daughter.
Just 34 km long and 23 km wide. Known as the culinary capital of the Caribbean, Barbados counts a mix of African, Portuguese, Indian, Creole and British influences in its cuisine. The place to be on Fridays is Oistins south of Bridgetown for the Fish Fry, grazing at stalls, liming (hanging out )and talking to locals experiencing an authentic taste of Barbados BBQd kingfish and other favourites. This is where locals and tourists alike gather for delicious food and one hell of a Caribbean street party! Elsewhere, St Lawrence Gap is another great spot to dance the night away. A hub for reggae bars, calypso clubs and home to some of the best restaurants in the Caribbean.
The island has 1,500 rum shacks so you’re never far away from one. My favourite was Aunty bar, run by Lucille a feisty senior citizen and boxer Nigel Benn’s auntie displaying photos and yellowed press cuttings in her ‘shebeen’ to prove that. A visit to Mount Gay Distillery is another favourite excursion that tells the story behind Barbados finest spirit and how over 300 years the world’s reputedly oldest rum was crafted. In the 2006 movie “Casino Royale,” the first drink ordered by James Bond was a Mount Gay rum with soda. (Author Ian Fleming preferred Appleton dark rum.) It is also a key ingredient in Stirling punch, named for famed yachtsman Harold Stirling Vanderbilt.
The story of the former British colony, how for more than a century Barbados served as the Royal African Company’s slave-trading hub for the entire Americas, is also interwoven with sugar, a history lesson about greed, opportunism, power and prosperity. I spent a morning exploring the capital Bridgetown. This UNESCO World Heritage site is filled with fascinating historic landmarks and a walking tour around the town with a guide takes in attractions like Parliament Buildings, Charles Fort and Queen’s Park in this ‘Little England’ that also boasts a mini version of Big Ben, not far from the bustling street stalls and ordinary life away from ritzy beachside resorts.
But that’s Barbados strength with its down to earth core and a welcome that will be warm and genuine whether you opt for an exclusive bolt hole, an all in affordable mid-range hotel holiday or live like the locals thanks to Air B & B. Now that the digital nomads have discovered Barbados in strength the place is buzzing with new vigour too adding to a great ethnic mix in a truly captivating Caribbean paradise.
Tell me more about the Coral Reef Club, Barbados
Coral Reef Club,.St. James, BB24017
Barbados, West Indies
T: +1 (246) 422 2372
Rooms from €364 per night.
For information on what to see and do on the island see Visit Barbados
Isabel travelled to Barbados with British Airways from LHR. Virgin Atlantic also flies to Barbados from LHR and Manchester Aer Lingus will operate its new Manchester to Barbados route three times weekly from October 2021.