Forget about Disney. Grab the kids and head to this Caribbean gem where your family will make toes-in-the-sand memories. Here are eight reasons why to choose Barbados for your next family vacation.
"Welcome to Barbados, sir. It's a pleasure to have you." Raymond Jones is wearing a smart black suit and holding a sign with my name on it at the arrivals gate of Grantley Adams International Airport. He's a representative of Platinum Services, a local concierge firm named for the island's pristine west coast and it's his job to whisk my family through customs and immigrations.
"The airport can get pretty crazy at times," he says as we walk towards baggage claim. "On a Saturday you can wait up to two hours." But fortunately we don't have to. I've booked us a beachfront suite at the Fairmont Royal Pavilion, one of 24 brand new rooms that among other luxurious amenities, includes a fast track through customs and VIP airport transfers to the resort. A few minutes later a porter whose nametag reads 'Muscles' grabs our bags and escorts us through an area where our passports are stamped, then to a taxi stand where our van awaits. The whole experience takes about 15 minutes total.
"That was fast, Daddy," says my seven-year-old son, Jackson, who along with his four-year-old brother, Tyler, is secure in a car seat and enjoying the sunset view of sage palms and spice trees. My wife, Joy, and I haven't even stepped foot on the island's white-sand beaches and our family vacation to Barbados has already begun.
We take one step inside the Fairmont Royal Pavilion and our assumptions are immediately confirmed: Thanks to a multimillion-dollar renovation that was completed in December 2017, the Platinum Coast resort has solidified its reputation as one of the island's most luxurious. We're offered cold, lavender scented facecloths then handed two glasses of Moet Chandon champagne. The kids are thrilled too: They get turtle-shaped shortbread cookies and sip on tropical fruit punch in an open-air lobby where we can hear tree frogs chirping.
"Would you care to see your suite?" asks Peter Maynard, one of four personal butlers who serve guests staying at the Fairmont's new beachfront suites. It's an extravagant perk that we take advantage of right away. After he shows us our handsome suite featuring paintings commissioned by local artists, modern push button showers and huge outdoor living areas with direct access to the beach, he stays to unpack our bags as we head to dinner at Taboras, the resort's al fresco poolside restaurant.
That night, we dine on Flying Fish and Cou Cou — the national dish of Barbados made with mashed okra and cornmeal — Joy dances with the boys to live saxophone music under a moonlit sky and we return to our room, where our clothes have been hung with aplomb in brand new wooden closets. Even the boys' stuffed animals await their hugs, placed purposely on their very own bed adjacent to the Caribbean Sea.
My family and I live in Bermuda so we're no strangers to beautiful beaches, but when we awake to blue skies and bluer seas, our gaze falls on the seductive slice of sand located directly in front of our room. In no time I'm digging holes and building castles with my kids as my wife enjoys some well deserved down time under a shady umbrella. A beach attendant brings a bucket of toys for the boys, which is just enough to hold their attention until they realize the floating swim platform about 100 yards away.
Naturally we hop in the sea and make a beeline for the deck. A dozen cannonballs later we return to shore and begin our search for treasures. After all, the Royal Pavilion boasts a ½-mile-long beach that's dotted with bits of coral, colorful sea glass and shells of all kinds. Buckets full, we return to the suite where we grab lunch on our private 250-square-feet deck — blackened mahi mahi tacos for us, hotdogs and French fries for them — then continue to enjoy life under the Caribbean sun.
"I'm here to please, not to tease," says Benjamin, the self-proclaimed moving store who greets us as we finish up our meal. The Bajan salesman is wearing a knit cap and carrying a briefcase filled with stringed beads. The boys choose their favorites — a white coral necklace for Jackson and a tri-colored "reggae bracelet" for Tyler — then he suggests we hop in the pool for the rest of the day. We happily oblige.
With 60 miles of unspoiled coastline, Barbados is a boater's dream, which is why I'm pleased to learn from my butler that he's booked my family on a private sunset cruise of the island's calm Caribbean coast. Courtesy of Seaduced Luxury Charters, the bespoke cruise includes a picnic dinner, so he's knocked on my door to see what we'd like to eat onboard later that day. We choose an array of sushi made with fresh tuna and avocado and request that a tray of fruit and chicken nuggets be prepared for the kids.
After another full day on the beach, we're picked up at the resort by a 29-foot powerboat and greeted by captain Sebastian and its first mate Luke, who the boys can't resist calling Luke Skywalker. With a powerful Mercury 350HP engine on the back, the boat buzzes up the coast for a picture-perfect glimpse of the island's high-end hotels, restaurants and residences. We marvel at the super yachts docked at Port Ferdinand then anchor nearby to snorkel with sea turtles. It's a magical first for my kids surpassed only by the white-knuckle ride on an inflatable raft towed behind the boat, which immediately follows.
Back onboard we cruise south and anchor just off swanky Sandy Lane, a world famous resort popular with celebrities. "Would you like a glass of Minuty?" asks Luke, as he pops a bottle of cold rosé. My family sits around a cozy foredeck table, dines on our butler-prepared meal and watches the warm sun dip into the sea. "We'll take two," says my wife happily.
By day four my tribe is ready for some serious adventure, so I rent an SUV from Courtesy Rent-a-Car and drive to the Animal Flower Cave on the island's northern tip. First discovered in 1780, the giant sea cave is estimated to be up to 500,000 years old and depending on the day's sea swells, you can swim in naturally formed tidal pools.
Bathing suits on, we descend down a steep set of stairs leading to the cave entrance. "It's dark in here!" shouts my four-year-old son Tyler, but thanks to a pair of natural openings carved out by the sea, bright shafts of light illuminate the cavernous space. Ever the explorer, Jackson leads the way over smooth coral rocks and I hold Tyler's hand tightly as we follow just behind in ankle deep water. In no time we reach our first tidal pool where our guide shows us why the cave got its name: Just below the surface of the water are dozens of sea anemones, which look like flowers when they open their tentacles.
Fortunately we got an ideal day for a swim, so we head towards another opening leading to a massive pool filled with crystal-clear water. The tidal pool is extremely refreshing and the kids have a blast splashing around.
About forty minutes later we head to terra firma where we grab plates of chicken roti at its cliffside restaurant, then watch the kids run around the ocean-view playground. Back in the car, Tyler's clearly pleased with the day: "Swimming in a cave? Check! Having fun in Barbados? Check!"
Named for an idyllic stretch of powdery white sand along the island's eastern shore, the Platinum Coast is a playground for the rich and famous. It's also where dozens of catamarans set sail from Bridgetown — the capital of Barbados and where our next adventure begins. We've booked a half-day sail with Cool Runnings aboard its 65-foot catamaran and the day starts with a pickup from our hotel and a quick ride to the capital.
A few minutes later we're onboard its pristine Gold Coast yacht and well on our way, but not before anchoring in nearby Carlisle Bay to go snorkeling with sea turtles and stingrays. Once there, Joy and the kids hop in the water and the payoff is immediate: Turtles pop up their heads and Jackson spots a 6-feet-wide stingray right below his feet.
The underwater exploration continues when the boat anchors off a nearby shipwreck called the Bajan Queen, a sunken tugboat where we spot schools of sergeant majors and thriving coral reef. Back onboard the party is just beginning. Sails are hoisted, the kids grab shady seats on the bow and our first mate hands out rum sours for us and fruit punch for the boys.
We slowly sail up the Caribbean coast and eventually drop anchor for lunch. It's a full Bajan spread with fried flying fish, jerk chicken and salads of all kinds. The kids jump in the water for another quick swim and Joy and I toast to yet another blissful day spent on the sea. "I have a very important announcement," says the captain over the loudspeaker. "It's happy hour. That's it." It's 1:30pm and all we have left to do is sail back to shore.
Because of its location in the open ocean, Barbados has two distinct sides: The calm Caribbean coast, where we've spent much of our trip, and the rugged Atlantic coast, where professional surfers flock for its consistently stellar waves. I'm eager to explore the east side of the island, so we hop in the car and drive to a pair of family-friendly attractions near the quiet surf town of Bathsheba.
The first is the Barbados Wildlife Reserve, an open-air nature preserve where deer, turtles, herons, peacocks and green monkeys roam freely among a 4-acre mahogany forest. It's well before the 2 p.m. feeding, when the animals collectively congregate for their main meal of the day, but the boys have fun spotting critters as we amble along the brick pathways.
Next up is St. Nicholas Abbey — one of the island's oldest surviving sugar cane plantations spread across 400 tropical acres. Built in 1658, the Jacobean mansion looks much as it did in the 17th century and the boys wonder aloud where its residents used to keep the TV. After tasting some of its craft rum distilled and bottled onsite, we drive to Bathsheba for a glimpse of its world famous waves.
Joy and I fantasize about putting the boys in surf lessons the next time we're back (Burkie Surf School, taught by former pro Alan Burke, would be a good option) and the kids marvel at the giant mushroom-shaped rock formations along the coast. Having conquered the east end we make a beeline for The Lone Star for dinner, a handsome beachfront restaurant just up the road from our hotel. Its jerk pork with sweet potato and plantain mash is the perfect way to end a perfect day.
Sometimes the only thing better than vacationing with your kids is putting them to bed at night. After all, how else are we parents supposed to recharge and reconnect? Our butler has been raving about one of the island's finest dining experiences all week, so we ask him to make reservations and to arrange for a babysitter. With the boys safely tucked in, we take a taxi to The Cliff and instantly realize why it's consistently rated as one of the world's top restaurants.
Perched on a bluff overlooking the sea, The Cliff is theatrically lit with flaming gas torches and draped in rich shades of red. We drink flights of Four Square rum while seated on brown leather couches in its smoky cigar lounge, then head to its adjacent sister restaurant, The Cliff Beach Club, for dinner.
With decorative spears on the wall and nautical decor throughout, the restaurant looks like its been prepped for a James Bond film. We dine on octopus carpaccio and grilled barracuda, gaze at the stars beyond our table and relive our glorious week.
In fact, our date night is so successful that we do it once more on our final evening — this time at a romantic toes-in-the-sand dinner at the Fairmont Royal Pavilion. Under a private candlelit canopy at a table set for two, we enjoy a three-course meal of tuna tartare, surf and turf and creamy crème brulee served by a waitress whose only job is to attend to us. The whole experience is divine, as is the fact that the boys are fast asleep just a few yards away.