Easy Caribbean winter sun: Barbados destination guide

Barbados. You just have to say the word and you’ve said it all. Long-established as a ‘paradise’ destination, the charms of this Caribbean Island are obvious. But how does it stack up as a winter sun destination with kids in tow? Pretty well, we say. Here’s the full Trunki Files view.

Why go?

First up, travel. Barbados ranks unexpectedly highly on the ‘easy to get to’ scale. The island is served by daily scheduled flights from London Gatwick with BA (twice daily) and Virgin (once daily). Plus there are bi-weekly flights from Manchester with Virgin, and winter charters from regional airports with Thomson. We flew with Virgin from Gatwick and found flight times to be convenient: a nice 10.30am departure on the way out avoided a hideously early start, with time for breakfast at the airport. On the return, the flight left Barbados at 5.45pm, allowing the kids to have a movie and their dinner before settling down for the night (the 6am arrival in Gatwick was less nice). Incidentally, BA’s flight times are almost identical.

The flight itself takes 8 and a half hours on the way out and about an hour less on the way back – not much worse than New York and a lot shorter than Indian Ocean destinations like Mauritius or the Maldives. Unlike certain other Caribbean destinations such as Grenada and St. Kitts, you don’t have to touchdown anywhere en route to Barbados, making it one of the fastest islands to get to – a huge plus with wriggling children and frazzled parents. (Flying to Barbados is actually only 2.5 hours longer than Egypt and is considerably more comfortable, as you get long-haul planes with semi-decent seat-pitch, catering and in-flight entertainment, as opposed to the short haul planes with none of the above).

A further advantage is that Barbados is small and it doesn’t take long to get anywhere on the island – so your transfer from the airport is unlikely to add much agony to the journey. Many of the family hotels, including the one we stayed at, are located along the South Coast of the island, near the airport. Our transfer took just 15 minutes and cost USD 20 in a taxi. Compared to St. Lucia, where the transfer from the airport in the south to the main resort area in the north is 1.5 hours, arriving in Barbados was a breeze.

The time difference in Barbados is relatively kind on kids – just four hours in winter (reverting to 5 hours when we move onto BST in Spring). We certainly found it a lot easier adjusting to this than we did in Mexico last year, where the difference is 6 hours. Early mornings for the first few days are inevitable, but by day 3 the kids were lasting until 6.30am (by which time the sun was blazing and we were ready to get up and bagsy the best loungers on the beach).

Did I mention the weather already? In winter, it’s about perfect. Days rarely top 30 degrees, making it great for the beach but never too hot; and nights rarely dip below about 24 degrees, allowing for wonderful evenings dining outside, enjoying the sea breezes. Rain is possible – we had one fairly wet day; but it’s still warm and there’s plenty to do off the beach (see below). Our other trips to the Caribbean have been in May and the climate is noticeably different – much hotter, more humid and altogether less pleasant.

The final thing to say about Barbados is that it is very ‘established’ as a tourist destination and therefore has an abundance of attractions to keep even beach-o-phobes busy. The colonial connection makes the history particularly interesting for Brits and the Barbados National Trust has done a great job at preserving it all. There’s a cricket museum, plantation houses, botanical gardens, submarine tours and opportunities to swim with turtles. Restaurants are abundant and high quality. The countryside is pleasant. And if beaches are your thing, you are indeed in paradise.

Where to stay

I would highly recommend choosing somewhere that has self-catering facilities. Barbados is extremely expensive and eating out quickly racks up. Kids, especially jet-lagged ones, invariably just want a bowl of pasta in the evening and don’t want to wait up till 7pm for restaurants to open. So save yourself the money AND tantrums and just cook something. Equally as important is being able to fix breakfast when the kids wake up – a bowl of cereal and a cup of tea at 5.30am on your first morning goes a long way to family harmony.

We stayed at the Bougainvillea Beach Resort, near St. Lawrence Gap on the South Coast, because it had the right set-up: one bedroom suites with kitchen and lounger area, plus huge balconies for dining and lazing. I have reviewed the hotel separately here but, suffice to say, I did not regret my choice. It worked perfectly for us and I can highly recommend it to other families, with both young and older kids.

Another hotel to consider is Turtle Beach (along the beach from the Bougainvillea), a quality resort run by the reputable Elegant Resorts group. There are no kitchens in the rooms but the all-inclusive nature of the place negates the need for them, plus there are one-bedroom suites offering a bit more space. I had a walk around and it was nicely kept with a smart pool area and plush beach loungers; however, it lacked the intimacy of the Bougainvillea.

On the West Coast, things get very pricey in winter. A good value option (for Barbados) that gets rave reviews on TripAdvisor is Beach View. The quality of the accommodation looks very high and you get a proper apartment with one or two bedrooms and a kitchen. My concern here is crossing the road to get to the beach – seemed too much hassle and potentially dangerous with little kids. But with older children it could work.

What to do

Barbados is a great place to explore and I’d highly recommend hiring a car for a day or two away from the beach. Prices for a small car seem pretty much set at 160 Barbados dollars (£55), plus extras like insurance and a driving permit. Note that they drive on the left in Barbados, which makes things easy for Brits. I also found the driving to be easy and safe – no kamikaze lorries here (although the buses are pretty uncompromising). Here’s a run-down of places to visit with kids:

1) Harrison’s Cave. The number one attraction on the island, Harrison’s Cave is an impressive underground system of stalagmites and stalactites which you access via a tram tour. Although initially tempted (especially by the tram element), we actually opted not to go. The tour lasts an hour and there’s no way out – not good if your toddler decides they are scared or have had enough. Plus at £60 for the family, it’s a very expensive hour. One for next time.

2) Gun Hill signal station. It won’t take you long to look round but the view over the South Coast is panoramic and there are a couple of cannons to climb on; worth a stop but not a destination in its own right.

3) Andromeda Botanical Gardens. A surprise hit with our kids. What could have been a boring schlep round indiscriminate greenery (for children – it’s actually very beautiful) turned into an adventure. There are two self-guided routes through the gardens with letter or number signs corresponding to descriptions of the plants on a guide sheet. Leo loved finding the next sign and we whipped round without a whinge or a moan. Best of all, there’s a lovely café on site serving apple pie and banana bread. Don’t miss it!

4) Speightstown. Probably the most ‘authentic’ destination on the West Coast. We stopped for lunch at the Fisherman’s Pub. Overlooking the water, you go up to the counter and choose your lunch – no waiting (hurray!). Food on offer is tasty local fayre: Leo adored the fishballs and rice and peas, Genevieve the fried chicken and macaroni pie.

5) West Coast beaches. If you’re staying on the South Coast, it’s worth sneaking a peak at one or two of the beaches on the ritzy West Coast. All beaches are public in Barbados meaning no security guards can turf you off – despite the attempts of some of the poshest hotels, such as Sandy Lane, to exude an air of privacy. We went to Gibbes Beach, which is backed by private villas and almost deserted. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t great that day and the waves were ferocious, meaning we didn’t hang around. On a still day, I imagine it’d be idyllic.

5) Oistins Fish Fry. The Friday night Fish Fry at Oistins is a Barbados ‘must-do’. We took the children but it was a bit much as it was only our second night and they were still jet-lagged. Plus we got there at 7pm and the queues for food were already long. Things get going at 6.30pm so my advice would be to get there early and get everyone fed before the tour buses arrive. NB: You don’t actually need to go on a Friday Night to try the cuisine, many of the stalls are open every day. You just don’t quite get the atmosphere.

 6) Concorde. Yes that’s right Corcorde! The supersonic legend is right there in Barbados and best of all, it’s parked in a hanger at the airport. No boring waits in the departure lounge, just check your cases in and wander over. You get to go inside Concorde itself and there are various exhibits and simulators to play with. Plus there’s a nice comfy café area with sofas which are much more comfortable for waiting on than in the airport. Highly recommended and well worth the £20 entry fee.

Things to consider

1) Take food! We packed some pasta, pesto, teabags and bran flakes – enough to get us through the first night and early morning. I cannot stress how good an idea this is – it takes away the whole trauma of waiting for restaurants to open and dealing with starving kids who are out of kilter. It also ended up saving us quite a bit of money as…

2) …even self-catering is not cheap. A litre of milk is £2.50. And for a box of Corn Flakes, you’re looking at £5. Poor Leo never got any of his favourite Salami – at £7 a pack it was well over-budget! That said, choose carefully and buy local ingredients and you’ll be fine, e.g. local bananas rather than imported plums, and so on.

3) When you do eat out, bear in mind this is the Caribbean and service is s…l…o…w.  You have to anticipate when your kids will be hungry and order your food before you get to the point-of-no-return. We found waits of 30mins to an hour to be the norm and got into the habit of pitching up to lunch bang on midday (when the restaurant opened) and getting our order in first.

4) If you are a member of the English National Trust, take your membership card. The Barbados National Trust has a reciprocal agreement which means you get in for free or at a discount. We used my card at Gun Hill and Andromeda gardens.

In conclusion

Barbados makes for a great first long-haul destination with kids. Travel is about as easy as it can be; the weather is great; the beaches are everything you want from the Caribbean – powdery and white; and there’s loads to do (or not to do, depending on your preference). Is it my favourite Caribbean island? Not necessarily. St Lucia is more verdantly beautiful; Grenada quieter; Tobago more vibrant. But as an easy place to spend a week in the middle of the grey British winter, it’s difficult to beat.

Related link:

Bougainvillea Beach Resort, Barbados: accommodation review

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