This was no ordinary day – it had started with a bumpy time-travelling trip, traversing secret underground tunnels and deep sea diving (see Barbados: Laid-back Little England Part I). Settling down to a tasty Bajan lunch of battered flying fish, spicy chicken and rice at the oldest rum factory in the world, with yet another rum punch in my hand, I was beginning to wonder if any of it was actually real.
Journey to the centre of the earth
Escaping the midday heat, we journey into the island's centre for a descent into its dark heart at Harrison's Cave – a vast system of subterranean caverns adorned with intricate calcitic formations. Climbing into the foothills, the landscape is oddly reminiscent of the British countryside in high summer, possibly as the land here has been heavily cultivated for sugar production for more than 300 years. But as rolling pastures give way to rocky crags and deep gullies, I start to see the Barbados I had imagined – wreathed in creeping vines and exotic plants, a heaving blanket of tropical foliage and tall trees.
Having visited coastal caves by boat and ducked into partially obscured holes to explore caverns on foot, a concrete car park leading to the visitor centre is an inauspicious start to my tour of Barbados' top sightseeing attraction. I keep an open mind and try to banish thoughts of Thorpe Park as we pile into a lift and descend to a theme park-style tramway that will take us into the caves.
But as we move into the thinly-illuminated gloom for a 40-minute tour, I am not disappointed – this is undoubtedly the most stunning cave system I have ever encountered, formed from the island's eroded coral bedrock over tens of thousands of years. Underground streams and cataracts rush through caverns dripping with stalactites and stalagmites, amphitheatres of limestone rise up into huge domes, and deep inside, la pièce de resistance, a high waterfall of pure coral-filtered water said to have health-enhancing benefits – the fountain of eternal youth. As it rushes from a high crevice into a deep pool, I cup my hands under the cascade, splash my face, and drink a little – just in case.
Before a third of the cave network was developed for tourist exploration, people entered them through the much more atmospheric Welchman Hall Gully, a tropical valley created when part of the caves collapsed. It offers a snapshot of Barbados before the sugar invasion stripped its natural flora and the area has a number of hiking trails that are ideal for nature enthusiasts.
It seems we are on a mission to view the island from every conceivable angle as we head off for our next adventure – zipping through the jungle canopy on a series of high wires in the manner of modern Tarzans. Strung across the verdant Jack-in-the-Box Gully, Aerial Trek Zipline Adventures have built a series of seven wooden platforms around the jungle canopy up to 100 feet above the ground. After the obligatory safety briefing and equipment check, we ascend the ladders and swing into action, one-by-one attaching ourselves to cables and flying over the tropical treetops from platform-to-platform. Though we don't see any monkeys, it's an exhilarating experience that brings out the ape in all of us. It's reasonably priced too at roughly £26 per session.
Adrenalin still running high, the group piles into a fleet of 4x4 vehicles to traverse Barbados' terrain away from the main road network. Our jolly driver warns us that we are in for the ride of our lives as he hands round plastic cups of 'Jungle Juice' – no prizes for guessing its ingredients. I drink mine quickly for fear I will end up with soggy clothes as well as a foggy brain. It doesn't take long to see that offroading is immense fun as our driver launches the vehicle at the landscape. We speed along undulating tracks, cut through former plantations, fly over hillcrests and take the bumps on the nose, all the while being flung about like ragdolls.
The jeeps race each other. I hold on tight, praying the thing doesn't topple over. And it doesn't. We are delivered safely back to our hotel 30 minutes later, hair a little wilder, dust in our eyes, but grinning from ear-to-ear. A normal safari with Adventureland Barbados costs around £50 for a five-hour island tour that includes plenty of hair-raising offroading to some stunning vantage points, through rugged terrain, tropical forests and to the lesser-explored east coast around the Atlantic-pounded surfer town of Bathsheba.
Time to lime
I had never heard the term 'liming' before exploring Barbados and when someone said 'let's go lime' I was slightly concerned that it was something akin to twerking. Thankfully not – it actually means hanging out with friends, enjoying food and drink, and not doing very much at all really. I like liming, but for the Bajans it's an official pastime, and Harbour Lights is a great place to do it. One of Barbados' most famous nightspots, it's positioned on a patch of beach behind Carlisle Bay, just five minutes from the centre of Bridgetown and offers barbecue food, as well as live music, dancing and cocktails.
On the night we visit, the pied piper of our trip, local pop star Mikey, once again treats us to his brand of Bajan hypnosis – a performance of his sweet soca single 'Enjoy Meh Life'. By now well attuned to the island's party spirit, our group joins the dance, sauntering across the sand in synchronized lines, raising their hands in appreciation and whining with the locals. As it gets later, the club fills up and showgirls adorned with sheaths of bright plumes circle the floor pouring punch from bottles straight into revellers mouths. The atmosphere is relaxed and carefree and everyone is clearly having a good lime.
The following morning I find myself in an aircraft hanger staring up at one of man's greatest engineering marvels – a concorde decommissioned by British Airways back in 2003. This little tropical island is not the first place you would expect to find one of the seven original sonic aircraft. In a destination famed for its superior sun, sea and sand, the indoor Concorde Experience is not the first place you would think of visiting either. It's the perfect venue for a mass meet and greet, though, and we spend the morning strolling around stands, talking to representatives from local visitor attractions and resorts, and gathering brochures, pamphlets and branded pens.
Wet and wild
Less than 24 hours later and we return to the scene of last night's revelry in Carlisle Bay. This enormous concave of talc-like sand stretches from Bridgetown in the north to the huge Hilton hotel in the south and the turquoise waters of the bay harbour several sunken wrecks that make it a favourite site for scuba divers. The Boatyard is a great spot for aqua-based activities and there's tasty food and drinks available from the colourful shack.
The pier sports a rope swing and dive platform, and if you prefer shooting along the surface of the sea to gracefully bobbing amid the waves, then this is the place to give jet-skiing a go. Several of our group haggle for a half-hour slot priced at between £20-29 as I stroll off to find my own stretch of beach. A five-minute walk later and I have the sand to myself, serenely swimming in the crystalline water, and watching the jet-skis zoom around a rusting hulk stranded on the horizon.
Taking in the stunning coastal scenery is one of Barbados' simple pleasures, and for the locals, liming at a rum shack is most certainly another. I pop into one along the roadside to meet some natives and am immediately offered a chair and a friendly chat that begins with the opener 'Are you Bajan?' We all begin to laugh – it's fairly plain I'm not. Bajans, mostly men, are relaxing with bottles of rum, putting the world to rights and lingering over chess. But I can't stay for long – our evening Jammin Catamaran Cruise beckons and our departure has been pushed forward due to choppy seas.
Gliding out from Bridgetown's harbour and our 60-foot catamaran cuts through the sea like a giant manta ray, heading towards the languid waters of the chic west coast where there's a chance we can snorkel with sea turtles. In true Bajan style, I'm immediately offered the obligatory rum punch and take a back seat to watch the world go by, secretly wondering if it's wise to drink and dive.
Once we are safely moored in around 40 feet of water in Sandy Lane Bay, along the island's so-called Platinum Coast, the crew dive in with some morsels to coax the turtles towards the boat. We are within sight of the island's most exclusive resort – Sandy Lane Golf and Spa – which boasts a raft of uber-famous former guests including Oprah Winfrey, Elton John and Simon Cowell. I'm told this is a popular place for celebrity spotting, but I must confess I'm much more interested in the area's marine life than lifestyles of the rich and famous.
As the turtles begin to take the bait, a gaggle of gurgling snorkelers bob about ungainly in the water trying to snatch a glimpse. The turtles are undeterred by the proliferation of legs dangling above their feeding ground, ignoring the melee and nonchalantly grazing on the grub – these are the serene buddhas of the sea.
As I swim around the back of the boat in search of further sightings, I get more than I bargained for. Jerking about just above the seabed is the unmistakable silhouette of a seven-foot shark. I float above it, unsure at first, eyeing its shape and behaviour, deciding whether it is dangerous or not. But it's a harmless nurse shark, fairly rare in these parts and known to come into shore to feed in the early evenings.
I climb back onto the catamaran and announce to general disbelief that I have seen a shark. I've scuba-dived many times and have spied rays, turtles, octopi and barracuda to name a few, but this is an experience to cross off my bucket list. I'm slightly dismayed when the crew insist it must have been a tarpon fish, though I later realise that, with a catamaran crammed with travel agents, they are not keen to publicise the presence of sharks, no matter how benign.
Best of the west
For our final round of hotel inspections we are whisked off to the west coast to see a selection of relaxed but upmarket resorts. Clustered along the coastline around Holetown and Payne's Bay, every resort we see has its own idyllic cove and the sea is clear, calm and warm – perfect for swimming. Although not as lively as the south around St Lawrence Gap and Oistins, the west has swanky restaurants like Daphne's, designer shopping malls such as the Limegrove Lifestyle Centre, and a smattering of historic sights in the former colonial settlements of Holetown and Speightstown. We stop to eat at the friendly all-inclusive Mango Bay hotel, right next to Holetown, and I enjoy the best buffet lunch I've had in years, including jerk chicken straight from the barbecue grill.
Having fallen in love with the place, I'm a little excited to learn that my favourite resort of all – the Coral Reef Club – has been frequented by writers and artists over the decades: the late great Harold Pinter and Agatha Christy among them. I decide that with a long enough sojourn, these beautiful plantation-style sea-front villas – with beachy, sun-bleached interiors – would be just the type of environment in which to start my first novel. Perhaps I will call it 'A Zombie in Paradise' – on the ability of beautiful places to gently bring a jaded soul back to life!
My experience of Barbados is almost hypnotic – it chips away at your hardened exterior like a persistent parrotfish until the stresses of life seem almost comical, and you finally give in to the island's care-free ways. As our Bajan pied piper sings, 'This is how I enjoy meh life!' Hear, hear.
For more insight on Barbados, check out my upcoming blogs featuring the best hotels, sights and activities encountered on our trip.