Sure, paradisiacal beaches are the main draw in Barbados. But it's also an immensely fun island with lots more to do than simply lounge around in the sun. Tourist attractions range from catamaran trips and submarine adventures to enchanting underground caverns and tours of the world's oldest rum distillery. In fact there's an endless list of exciting and one-off activities to be enjoyed and they are all served up with the infectious happy-go-lucky attitude that's a marked characteristic of the Bajan people.
The Bajan's bacchanalian attitude to life means a free-flowing supply of rum cocktails wherever you go on the island – rum punch and rum sours in particular. Rum shacks are as plentiful in Barbados as pubs are in Britain. In fact, Barbados claims to be the birthplace of 'liquid gold', but its popularity with sailors and buccaneers meant there were a few colonies in the Caribbean that started producing rum at around the same time. In Cuba, for instance, the production of rum was formalised by royal decree as early as 1539, while the records for rum in Barbados only go back to the 1640s.
At more than 300 years old, Barbados' Mount Gay Rum distillery can at least lay claim to the oldest brand of rum in the world and its modern visitor centre offers fascinating rum-soaked tours ending with tastings at the bar. The method to make rum has been refined over the centuries to produce the light and oaky drink enjoyed today – far from the rough, dark, syrupy versions found elsewhere. A favourite for its smoky taste, Mount Gay's Extra Old rum is matured in oak barrels and tastes like high-quality whiskey.
For a different kind of thrill, taking a 4x4 adventure safari off-road in Barbados' hinterland is another great way to enjoy some time away from the beach. These open-backed pick-up truck style jeeps are tough, and the drivers hurl them at humps and mounds without fear, leaving you bouncing and jumping out of your seat. Unsurprisingly, the ride is spiked with a little rum punch – pre-mixed bottles and plastic cups of the stuff are offered up at the start of the drive, and you had better drink up quickly as it's a pretty wild ride. Along the way, the tour stops at high vantage points amid rolling cane fields so you can soak in the view down to the shoreline and take some photos. It's a really fun way to see the island away from the coastal resorts.
It's an unlikely attraction, but the decommissioning of concorde back in 2003 means these incredible metal birds are now extinct from the skies and your only chance to see one is in a museum. Barbados' Grantley Adams International Airport (BGI) has one on display that's perfect for a rainy day. Anyone interested in aviation will be delighted to see the defunct aircraft housed in an enormous hanger, with accompanying exhibits and displays. You can go inside, walk down the gangway and peer into the pilot's cabin, and there's a dramatic presentation to accompany the experience that includes a convincing sonic boom.
Stripped of much of its natural flora and fauna centuries ago to make way for lucrative sugar plantations, Barbados' interior lacks the lush rainforest that can be found elsewhere in the region. But there are still some remaining tracts of ancient forest that offer a glimpse of times past.
The hidden Welchman Hall Gully, in the centre of the island, escaped the sugar invasion intact, and is now one of the best places to experience Barbados as it once was. Grapefruits are said to have first been discovered in the valley and the area's fascinating coral and limestone geology makes it all the more attractive.
The other-worldly remains of stalactites and stalagmites reveal its former incarnation as part of Harrison's Cave, before the roof collapsed and formed a wide passage open to the sky. Green monkeys lark about in the tall trees that shade the shrub-strewn gully floor and a muddle of vines cascade down the cliffs. Well-kept walkways cut between a flurry of nutmeg and exotic palms, and there's an ornamental section planted more than 200 years ago by the Welsh landowner, thus the name 'Welchman Hall'.
Before the nearby Harrison's Cave was developed for tourists, locals would access the caves through an entrance in the gully that's much more atmospheric than the theme park-style one now used. But the hi-tech visitor centre, glass elevator and chunky jeep-style carts that take you on a tour of Harrison's Cave do lend it an exciting Jurassic Park appeal. Inside, the caves are nothing short of awe-inspiring. Passages formed by thousands upon thousands of years of water flowing through Barbados' coral bedrock and creating crystallised mineral formations – some like dripped candle wax, others like glittering icicles – leading to gothic cathedrals of limestone and underground pools of the purest filtered water.
Indented with more than 60 idyllic sweeps of sand, much of the action in Barbados is based around its exceptional coastline. The crescent-moon bays and cerulean waters of the island's south and west coasts are the settings for myriad watersports and aquatic adventures. Skimmed by a wide slice of creamy sand, the enormous Carlisle Bay is a virtual playground by the sea where you can try everything from beach volleyball and water trampolines to jetskiing and parasailing.
Close to Barbados' capital of Bridgetown, the Boatyard Beach Club is a good spot to enjoy a day of aquatic fun. Centred around a little pier, a day pass gives you access to water inflatables, slides, diving boards and a rope swing, and you can also hire jetskis and organise snorkelling trips. The rusting ship stranded on the horizon is a reminder that the waters of Carlisle Bay conceal a centuries-old collection of shipwrecks that make the place especially popular with scuba divers. Many of the cannons in Barbados' Garrison were retrieved from the seabed, some dating back to the 17th century, and the bay is a designated marine park.
If you fancy heading for the high seas, Bridgetown's harbour is a gateway to a few oceanic experiences that are well worth considering. It's the launch point for dive boats bound for the island's wrecks and offshore reefs, and also has access to a small fleet of converted submarines that offer a unique way to chart the underwater world. Diving down to more than 144 feet, the submarines visit rich coral gardens teeming with tropical marine life. Strange shapes – brain corals and barrel sponges – appear in the blue gloom and schools of jacks suddenly show up announced, peering back at you through the submarine's portholes.
Taking a catamaran cruise along the paradisiacal palm-tufted bays of the west coast is another experience not-to-be-missed. Aside from soaking in the sunshine, the trip offers an all-encompassing perspective of the area's naturally beautiful coastline, which just cannot be seen from land due to the almost unbroken chain of hotels that hug the shore. The catamaran drops anchor in a calm, crystal-clear cove where you can snorkel with sea turtles and other benign creatures of the deep. On the late afternoon cruise you can watch the sun set over the ocean, splashing the water orange and indigo, and gaze up as the sky becomes phosphorescent with stars. The trips include buffet food and drinks too –the little bar is well-stocked with fruity rum punch and local Banks beer.
On an island known for being very easy on the eye, history can sometimes get sidelined. But learning at least a little about Barbados can definitely make your experience more enriching. With a warm and animated guide, the UNESCO Bajan heritage tour aboard the island's vintage yellow open buses is a fun way to get your history fix all in one morning. Taking in UNESCO-listed Bridgetown and its historic garrison, the commentary is fun and informative without being heavy or boring. Among the highlights is a stop at George Washington House and its recently-unearthed underground tunnels that lead down to Carlisle Bay. First US president George Washington stayed at the handsome house when he was a young man in 1751, and the rustic interiors have been restored to resemble that era.
The secret tunnels discovered in the area originate in the garrison and were most likely part of its 18th-century British colonial defences. Accessed via an entrance near George Washington house, the narrow passages are carved through soft coral bedrock, and you can see the remains of ancient reefs and shells fossilized in the walls. The garrison itself has an impressive collection of artefacts, including the rarest collection of 17th century cannons in the world, from the days when Barbados was a hotly-contested colonial prize rather than a hot holiday destination.
Tears of joy
It's sometimes said that Barbados is shaped like a tear drop, but there's nothing at all sad about it. Though the island's ancestors endured the ugly spectre of slavery, today Barbados is brimming with joy and its inhabitants clearly take pride in sharing their country with visitors. Whether it's a historic tour, an underwater safari, a 4x4 adventure or simply games at the beach, the Bajan people will make sure everyone has a good time.