It was in 1976 when travel agent Joyeuce King first visited Barbados. On her way to Trinidad for the annual Carnival festival, her flight was canceled, so she and her friend decided to take a detour to the little-known, most easterly island in the Caribbean. When she arrived in Barbados, her first thought was, "I feel like I've been here before." That's because, as Travel Agent also discovered during a recent trip there, the island makes any American traveler feel at home.
We don't mean there's a Starbucks and McDonald's on every corner. Rather, it is the people, their genuine kindness and hospitality that makes you feel like you belong, that makes you feel like you aren't a tourist at all, but rather one of their own.
More than 30 years later, King, a Caribbean specialist with Tzell Travel in New York, a Signature Travel Network member, has sent thousands of clients to Barbados and plans to retire there someday.
But the fact that King found out about Barbados by accident says a lot about how little known it was back then and still is now. You won't see any TV ads with catchy jingles enticing you to visit nor hear any radio spots urging you to come, which is why Americans haven't quite caught on yet.
But with an aggressive Barbados Tourism Authority marketing campaign aimed at North Americans, and perhaps with a little help from Travel Agent that can change very soon.
"We believe that the travel agent community represents the primary focus of the Barbados business thrust in building top-of-mind awareness for the destination," says Richard Williams, vice president/North America for the Barbados Tourism Authority. "We are working harder to make our travel partners aware of the qualities of Barbados and for them to understand those many unique features, which set the destination apart from its competition and which add exceptional value to the destination experience." AgentAdvice
Where to Stay
There are so many great properties in Barbados and you can find a complete listing at the Barbados Tourism Authority's website (www.barbados.org). These are the properties we had the privilege of visiting.
During our stay at Almond Beach Village (www.almondresorts.com/Resorts/AlmondVillage), it was at full occupancy, so we were unable to see any rooms except ours, #7426, a Superior Deluxe Beachfront room that offered a spacious balcony with great views of both the ocean and the pool. Almond Beach Village has a total of 400 rooms in 10 room categories and it is a great fit for families. There are several adults-only swimming pools on the property, as well as a nightclub on the second floor that is open until 2 a.m., so it may be desirable for younger couples, too. However, when we visited in February, it appeared as though the property was occupied overwhelmingly by families, and children were already splashing away in the pool by 9 a.m. So, if your clients are looking for a quiet setting, perhaps this isn't the place for them.
Almond took over the property in 1994. The last major refurbishments were done about two years ago when a fifth floor was added. But expect that to change. During Almond Beach Village's annual Super Bowl celebration, known as Big Game Week, General Manager Chris Forbes told Travel Agent that plans are in place to add about four treatment rooms to the resort's spa. Almond Beach Village offers a 10 percent commission. Agents should call Julie Boyce, reservations manager, at 246-422-4900, ext. 5813.
Almond Resorts plans to launch its new 289-room Almond Casuarina Beach Resort (www.almondresorts.com/Resorts/AlmondCasuarina) in the spring. Situated on Dover Beach on the south coast of the island, the resort is undergoing a $30 million expansion and a complete refurbishing of the existing property.
The family-oriented, all-inclusive property will offer dining at three gourmet restaurants, four bars serving premium brand drinks, three swimming pools, a fitness center, tennis courts, golf, a range of free water sports and a fully equipped Kids' Club with amenities to suit all age groups from newborn to 16 years old and up. Spa services will also be offered, payable locally.
There will be six categories of rooms, ranging from standard rooms to two-bedroom suites. Guests staying at Almond Casuarina Beach are also invited to experience the other two Almond Resorts in Barbados, Almond Beach Village and Almond Beach Club, which accept guests over 16 years of age. Complimentary shuttle service between the resorts is available. Agents can book this property by calling Scott Bulger, reservations manager, at 800-4ALMOND. Agents can also book online at www.almondresorts.com.
The quietness was eerie when we visited Sandy Lane (www.sandylane.com), about 20 minutes from Almond Beach Village. It serves as the perfect contrast to Almond Beach Village. Whereas Almond was made up of mostly families, Sandy Lane caters to upscale couples.
Despite an 88 percent occupancy at the time of our visit, you could hear nothing. Granted, it was fairly early in the morning, but we think it had more to do with Sandy Lane's reputation for attracting the laid-back clients looking for a little shuteye while getting some rays.
Along with Anse Chastanet and its sister property Jade Mountain in St. Lucia, this is perhaps one of the most elegant properties we visited in the Caribbean in a long time. But what makes this resort unique is its golf courses—specifically, the world-renowned Green Monkey. It also offers the Old Nine, an executive nine-hole golf course, and the professional Country Club Golf Course, which hosted the PGA tournament in 2006. The Green Monkey, however, with its waterfalls and cliffs, is by far the most aesthetically rewarding course in all of the Caribbean. The course opened in 2003 but never had an official grand opening. Rumors continue to surface that Tiger Woods, who was married at Sandy Lane (and booked every room during his stay), will be on hand when the course hosts its opening celebration, whose date is still being planned.
What makes it beautiful are the same traits that also make it one of the most difficult courses to play on and also one of the most expensive. Case in point: one round of golf costs between $300 and $400 for guests. In order to dissuade non-guests from playing on the course, they've set the fee at a whopping $4,000 for four players for one round at the hotel or $1,000 per person. We were told that this effort has failed and that, in fact, businessmen often fly a jet into Barbados for one day, play a round at the Green Monkey and then get back in the sky. It's part of a golf-hopping trend that is growing in the Caribbean.
If you have clients playing here, recommend Quintyne "Q" Griffith to be their caddy. As Green Monkey's starter/marshall, he's been employed by Sandy Lane for the past five years and knows the course inside and out, something that was pretty evident from the tour he gave us.
From past visits to the property, Travel Agent knows how hard it is to actually see a suite, since they are rarely vacant. But we got the opportunity to check one out this time around. We saw room #401, a two-bedroom Dolphin Suite. Each of the four available comes with a small bedroom and master bedroom, each equipped with 42-inch plasma TVs. We were most impressed by the balcony, which offers stunning ocean views, and a small sofa for an outdoor nap. Sandy Lane offers a 10 percent commission. Agents should contact Michelle Babb, reservations manager, at [email protected] or 246-444-2001.
Note: As it does every year, Sandy Lane will be conducting some minor upgrades to the property. We were told that this year's improvements, which will include minor construction, might disturb guests because of the noise. So, the property will close from August 31 to October 2.
What To Do
Perhaps Barbados' staple attraction is swimming with the turtles. The island is home to a huge population of hawksbill and leatherback turtles, or to put it quite simply, turtles that are about as big as a small child.
Although most resorts offer turtle excursions at an extra cost, here are some independent companies that are also well known for providing the experience: Cool Runnings Catamaran Sailing Cruises (www.coolrunningsbarbados.com) and Rubaiyat Catamaran Cruises (www.rubaiyatcatamarancruises.com). Book in advance by calling Cool Runnings at 246-436-0911 or Rubaiyat at 246-436-6921.
Coming in at a close second, as far as great Barbados attractions go, is Harrison's Cave (www.harrisonscave.com). This is a crystallized, limestone cavern that is surrounded by clear water and flowing streams. To book your clients a tour of this attraction in advance, call 246-438-6640.
For clients seeking a little bit of history, recommend the George Washington House (www.georgewashingtonbarbados.org), also known as the Bush Hill House. This simple yellow, two-bedroom, colonial-style home was the site of George Washington's stay on the island. In fact, Barbados was the only place Washington ever vacationed outside of the U.S. He stayed at the house for eight weeks and traveled with his older brother Lawrence, who was dying of tuberculosis (it was rumored that the Caribbean breeze in Barbados could heal the illness). With the exception of some old beams in the ceiling, virtually nothing about the house is original. But through the work of the nonprofit group the Bush Hill Tourist Trust, Inc., it serves as the perfect replica. The tour is about 20 minutes long and also includes a 16-minute film about the property's history. Admission is $10. We recommend tour guide David Jones. Call 246-228-5461.
Clients looking to experience the true culture of Barbados have to visit Oistins fish market on the south coast. Here, visitors can experience live music, fish grilled and fried right before your eyes, locals mingling with tourists and an array of tables offering handmade crafts and jewelry. Everything in Barbados is cheap, as the Bajan dollar is twice the value of the U.S. dollar and there is no better example of that than at Oistins. We treated ourselves to a plate of mahi-mahi with a side of rice and beans and a cold bottle of Banks beer, all for $6. In fact, hours of eating, drinking and dancing and gifts for the whole family cost us about $60. "As the years have gone by, the government decided that this would be a great place for tourists to mix with the locals and taste some local food," Joyeuce King says. "Now, it is considered one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean. Barbados still isn't greatly known by Americans, but you can't find one person in Canada or Britain who doesn't know what Oistins fish market is."
The Next Big Wedding Destination?
For one of the best eco-friendly tours money can buy, recommend St. Nicholas Abbey (www.stnicholasabbey.com). This is Barbados' second-oldest sugar plantation and was built between 1650 and 1660.
It was recently sold to a local named Larry Warren in 2006 and the renovations he made to the property have made it a popular tourist attraction. A tour of this facility is about 20 minutes long and then guests are welcomed to self guide themselves for as long as they want.
The tour, which allows guests to go through the St. Nicholas Abbey House and grounds, consists of the main residence, the immediate gardens and lawns, the terrace and outbuilding adjacent to a large tree and courtyard, as well as the viewing of a movie.
In fact, the property is so beautiful that we expect it to become a booming location for weddings. We were told that the property has already hosted about three small weddings but that nuptials there will be limited. However, once enough American romantics catch wind of this destination, we anticipate that to change. After all, it would be tough for Warren, or any businessman for that matter, to turn down what could be a very lucrative opportunity.
Warren also added a separate room next to the original house where guests can sample 10-year-old rum and a variety of sugars all made at the plantation. The rum can be purchased for $60. It comes in a beautiful glass bottle with a choice of about 50 slogans sandblasted onto it. Sugar and molasses can be bought for about $12. We recommend tour guide Heather Stoute. Book a tour for clients by calling 246-422-8725.
Getting Around Town
Travel Agent's biggest surprise when visiting Barbados was how big it felt. For a small island, a guest here can do quite a bit of driving. We don't recommend rentals here unless your client is a seasoned Caribbean driver, as the roads can be quite winding and poorly lit at night.
For clients looking to tour the island, we recommend hooking them up with the Barbados Tourism Authority's personal driver, Winston Holder. Holder also operates his own tour operator business called Winhold Tours, Inc. ([email protected], 246-433-9858). "Moving around the island is recommended for clients anywhere between 21 and 45. This is the age that will move around on the island," says Tzell's King, who at one time sent about 500 clients to Barbados in one year. "I put clients over 45 on the west coast where limited movement is fine."
Where to Eat
We ate at Champers Restaurant (www.champersbarbados.com) and recommend it to clients looking for a romantic dinner with stunning views of the Accra Beach. The dimly lit establishment mostly offers seafood. We had the coconut shrimp and the peanut-crusted barracuda, both of which were delicious. For seafood fans, it doesn't get much better than this. Be sure to recommend clients wash this down with a glass of Pinot Grigio. The food is expensive (the barracuda was about $35), but well worth it and reservations are required. Like most upscale restaurants on the island, Caribbean casual attire, which includes khakis and a buttoned-down, collared shirt, is required. Call 246-434-3463.
If you want the chance of dining with some celebrities, Daphnes (www.daphnesbarbados.com), an Italian restaurant in Paynes Bay, St. James, is the way to go. This is Barbados' number-one restaurant. It is somewhat pricey, though—appetizers alone run anywhere from $35 to $60 and main courses range from $55 to $120. Call 246-432-2731.
As far as resort restaurants go, Sandy Lane offers an array of upscale dining with views of the ocean. They vary from L'Acajou, an intimate restaurant best for romantic dinners, to Bajan Blue, a more casual dining venue offering pizza and sushi.
Almond Beach Village's Italian restaurant, La Smarrita, is also highly recommended. We thought this was the best eatery on the property. Agents should reserve this restaurant for clients ahead of their trip, since we were told it could take as long as three days to get a table. This is also the only restaurant that has a dress code.