Nothing quite beats getting off a transatlantic flight, ripping your clothes off and plunging straight into the sea. That first moment of feeling the warm, damp Caribbean air on your face, and the water washing away the cramped endlessness of the plane journey is sheer bliss.
Barbados is a good place to start if you’re exploring the Caribbean for the first time or taking your first long-haul family holiday. It’s straightforward to get to; it’s highly developed, with some of the best family hotels; and there’s plenty to see.
For my two children, who had never been to the tropics, Barbados was one new experience after another, the first of which was being driven around the island. It’s not very big and the main roads are well signposted, but being driven off-road, however, is a lot more fun, so we booked an Island Safari tour. A zebra-striped jeep picked us up at the hotel, driven by a wise-cracking Bajan named, appropriately, Junior. We pottered gently around the island for a while, passing sleepy villages with serene stone churches, until Junior yelled “Hang on!” and suddenly veered off into a field of rippling sugar cane, the beginning of a rollercoaster ride along dirt tracks, through ditches and later, after a huge storm, giant muddy puddles. The children loved it, whooping and yelling. We stopped at ruined windmills, old plantation houses, interesting trees (early Portuguese settlers named Barbados after the bearded fig) and local points of interest (the bar run by Eddy Grant’s aunt, if you remember the song Electric Avenue).
Beach days at wonderful Cobblers Cove, a very English country house in the tropics, were no great hardship. On a strategically positioned sunlounger, I could watch the children both in the pool and on the beach, as they shuttled between the two with the friends they’d made. Our room had two huge terraces, an elegant living room open to the sea breezes and no TV – heaven.
Nothing was too much trouble. Early one morning, the watersports boys took us to see a colony of wild Hawksbill Turtles just offshore from the hotel. Huge, shadowy figures glided beneath the boat, the occasional turtle head poking out of the water to check us out. I grabbed a mask and snorkel, and jumped in with them, although Lauren and Joel preferred to supervise from the boat. Cobblers has its own resident fisherman, Barker, and keen fishers can go out with him and then eat the fruits of their labour at dinner. The food was exquisite, with a fun and imaginative children’s menu.
As a break from the sun, we visited Ocean Park, an educational aquarium in the south of the island with a mangrove swamp, ray pool, living reef, piranha tank and a shoreline discovery area. There’s also a ‘touch pool’ where you can pick up sorry-looking starfish and conches. As well as the aquarium, there’s a new crazy golf course, an adventure playground and a café that does the best fresh tropical fruit smoothies ever.
A big treat for all of us was the Atlantis submarine – for me, it was the sensation of being in a submarine, and for the children, it was the prospect of viewing Nemo and friends in the deep. We scrambled down the ladder to board and were immediately plunged into a twilight world of dappled blue. Everybody gets a porthole and there are plastic charts on the walls with pictures of the dazzling tropical fish you might spot. The reality is a tiny bit different; the coral here is badly damaged and you need to be close up to observe the really bright creatures. But the dive to 100 feet was undeniably exciting.
Where to stay in Barbados is an important decision. All the famous hotels are here: Treasure Beach, Tamarind Cove, Fairmont Royal Pavilion, Cobblers Cove and, the mother of them all, the celebrity-studded Sandy Lane. In between the hotels, there are vast mansions set in jungly grounds, hidden behind high walls and steel gates.
The south coast is noisier, scruffier and more built up, but is by no means cheap and cheerful – this is still Barbados. Bars keep going all night and ramshackle pubs have tables spilling out on to the sand; shops and art galleries line the narrow roads and it’s fun.
The beaches are different here, too, and the one at Turtle Beach, where we stayed, was particularly lovely, with surf just about manageable for a seven-year-old and miles ?of soft sand on which to run around.
Turtle Beach, a big, busy all-inclusive was a culture shock after the refined atmosphere of Cobblers Cove, but the children loved the two pools – one lagoon-shaped, with a six- or seven-foot high waterfall. Scrambling up this and leaping off filled an entire afternoon. By the end of the week, we’d all begun to master the art of body-boarding in the gentle surf.
On the last day, Virgin’s genius ‘Check in and chill out’ service dispensed completely with airport misery. The Virgin people came to the hotel in the morning, handed out boarding cards, tagged our suitcases and took them away. This enabled us to spend almost another full day on the beach and was the perfect stress-free end to the holiday.
Green note: When flying long- or short-haul, you can offset your ‘carbon footprint’ by making a contribution to an environmental organisation. The flight to Barbados for a family of four costs about £56 to offset. For more information, visit www.climatecare.org
Where to stay
Almond Beach Village Popular family hotel on a lovely beach at the top end of the west coast. All-inclusive, with a huge choice of places to eat, drink and play, including 10 swimming pools. Families are steered towards certain areas of the property, while others are kept for couples. There’s a very good children’s club and a daily schedule of imaginative activities that get children out and about. Adults can eat at the sister hotel, Almond Beach Club, for a change of scene. Visit www.hayesandjarvis.co.uk
- Battaley’s Mews A brand new development on the west coast, near beautiful Mullin’s Beach, it might be the answer if you want more privacy. The three-bedroomed houses have cool stone floors, outdoor Jacuzzis and stylish Balinese furniture. There are lots of Caribbean touches in the architecture, too. Each house has a garden and a central clubhouse will provide babysitters, ready-to-cook meals (try ordering a barbecue), restaurant reservations and so on. There’s a small pool and a children’s club is being built. If you want a day at the beach, you can eat at Mannie’s Restaurant on Mullin’s Beach and charge it to your room. Tel: 001 246 432 8010 or visit www.bacassa.com
- Cobblers Cove Elegant and relaxed boutique hotel on the west coast. Charming service and lots of little touches, such as shortbread, rum punch and a stack of novels and games in the room as a welcome. Very child-friendly with a special arts and crafts room, free watersports and a wonderful children’s menu in the romantic restaurant, which is right by the sea. Two-bedroom suites are perfect for families. For more information, contact Kuoni, tel: 01306 747002 or visit www.kuoni.co.uk
- Sandy Lane Lavish, glitzy and very expensive resort hotel – an enclave for celebrities and the rich. There’s a children’s club, The Treehouse, with a great range of activities, leaving parents free to indulge in the spectacular spa, bask on the beach or laze by the lagoon pool. Food and service are impeccable. For information on packages currently on offer, visit Seasons in Style, tel: 01244 202000 or visit www.seasonsinstyle.co.uk
- Turtle Beach A big 164-room all-inclusive on the south coast, part of the Elegant Hotels group. Rooms are fairly basic but spacious enough and the suites are perfect for families. The hotel has two big pools, a gorgeous beach and lots of organised activities for children. Food is good but don’t expect service to have the finesse of one of the five-star hotels. For all-inclusive packages, contact Caribtours, tel: 020 7751 0660 or visit www.caribtours.co.uk
- Virgin Atlantic: Tel: 0844 209 7777
- British Airways: Tel: 0844 493 0 787
- Barbados Tourism Authority: Tel: 020 7299 7175