Island Revival: Barbados has a new Head of State – and a new lease of life

26 Aug 2022 | Updated on: 27 Sep 2022 |By Lauren Romano

It’s only the size of the Isle of Wight yet packs so much charm that 40 per cent of tourists are return visitors. As Barbados continues its journey as an independent Republic, there’s a celebratory mood

When Prime Minister Mia Mottley swept to power in 2018 with the largest majority in Barbadian history, she decided to set about cutting the country’s lingering colonial ties. For the first time since declaring independence from the UK in 1966, Barbados announced that it would be changing its Head of State from HM the Queen to the island’s governor-general, Dame Sandra Mason, who was sworn into office in November 2021. Change was in the air beyond parliamentary buildings, too. After a year that decimated the tourism industry – which accounts for around 40 per cent of GDP in Barbados – travellers began to return. Many of them were regulars who come back season after season, and it’s not difficult to see why.

The sun-drenched, sugar-cane studded speck of an island might only be small – it takes just an hour to drive the length of the country – but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in personality. Barbados has a big heart: one that beats to the rhythm of calypso beats. As the birthplace of rum, life is savoured slowly, much like the syrupy smooth liquor served at the island’s cluster of convivial cocktail shacks.

Temperatures here flit between the mid-20s and low-30s all year round, and a constant breeze blows thanks to the trade winds, one of the lengthiest uninterrupted passages of wind on the planet, carrying Saharan dust to Barbados’ coral shores. And then there are the beaches. More than 80 of them, which ring the coastline in a stencil of rose-tinged, alabaster sand.

According to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation, Barbados is the most revisited island in the West Indies, with as many as 40 per cent of visitors returning. Hardly surprising given the fact that many of the country’s hotels have a knack for delivering that elusive home-from-home familiarity. None more so than Coral Reef Club.

There’s an easy, understated glamour to the place, situated in Saint James on the western reaches of the island. Run by the O’Haras for more than 50 years (Budge and Cynthia O’Hara came on honeymoon here in 1952 and never left), the family are the ultimate hosts and continue to welcome guests to their villa for cocktails every Monday night, as they have done since 1960.

Charming, old-school hospitality aside, it’s the serene setting that keeps guests coming back. Ensconced in 12 acres of lush tropical gardens, where hummingbirds dart between boughs, and overlooking a sparkling bay, Coral Reef Club exudes a sense of tranquillity. There are 88 rooms, cottages and villas dotted about, decked out with tactile wicker furniture, canopy beds, coral stone walls and a calming palette of white, cream and pops of blue that echo the sapphire seas.

To make the most of the panoramic views, book one of the Plantation Suites, which come with an open sun deck and plunge pool. At Coral Reef Club, the sounds of calypso, reggae and jazz surf on the breeze nightly from the open-air bar. The hotel’s Thursday evening barbecues are particularly legendary – think freshly-caught fish lining the racks, served with a side of limbo dancing.

Shake off your sore head (and back) the next morning with a gentle stroll through the bountiful tropical grounds. Bougainvillea, frangipani and mahogany trees line the way to the sea, where you can seek shade under the spindly, spaghetti-like fronds of casuarina that fringe the beach. You won’t be able to resist the crystal clear waters for long, and there’s a whole host of water sports to help while away the hours, from kayaking to paddle boarding and snorkelling.

Keen divers can head in search of the subterranean shipwrecks scattered up and down the west coast (the bioluminescent water makes for perfect night diving), while anyone interested in conservation can sign up to volunteer at the Barbados Sea Turtle Project next door. Outside the hotel grounds, there are bustling markets, 17th-century plantation houses, and underground caverns dripping with stalactites to explore.

You could pay a visit to St Nicholas Abbey, a Jacobean-style mansion turned rum distillery, or play a round of golf at the Royal Westmoreland championship course nearby. Or you could just stay put at Coral Reef Club and unwind at the spa, complete with an outdoor hydro pool and shaded cabanas for post-treatment relaxation.

The winds of change might be stirring in Barbados but some things remain the same. The country has always known how to enjoy itself and make visitors feel at home. If in doubt, say yes to that rum punch, and you’ll ease into the spirit of island life in no time at all.

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