Further east than its Caribbean cousins, Americans seeking a tropical-weather escape sometimes overlook Barbados. But it?s just this extra distance, along with a stable government, that makes Barbados worth a second look, especially for the work-weary. Yes, all Caribbean islands offer warm weather and a chilled-out atmosphere, clean seas and lots of air- and ocean-borne animal life, but there are unique touches to the Barbados experience that set it apart from its island neighbors.
For workaholics, Barbados offers enough Internet connectivity and big-city business and office services to keep a corporation or a one-man enterprise running remotely. Workplace laggards can also find a place in the sun ? or a shady seat at a bar ? without exerting too much energy. With 285,000 people spread out on 166 square miles, it?s possible to feel lonely and congested on Barbados within 15 minutes of driving.
During a press trip sponsored by the Barbados Tourism Authority and Mango Bay Resort, a small group of journalists got a peek into how Barbados, which has taken a measurable tourism hit from the weakened U.S. economy, compares against closer, more popular island destinations. Included was a visit to one of many annual music and cultural events on the island: The 2012 Barbados Reggae Festival. Island hoppers will note that roads in Barbados, especially the highways, are better maintained than on other islands. Like Europe, driving is on the left and cars have the steering wheel on the right. Don?t bother renting a car if you?re not used to such driving conditions since many side streets are narrow and winding.
Staying connected to work is usually no problem, except on the most remote parts of the island. Free and paid Wi-Fi Internet hotspots and computer cafes are readily available and there?s a local effort to promote free Wi-Fi nationwide. Be aware, however, that cellphone roaming charges, especially for the data connections that drive smartphone apps, are rather stiff. For example, an AT&T Wireless text message, which popped up upon arrival in Barbados, warned that an international rate of $19.97 per megabyte would be charged if I switched on the data-roaming setting on my phone. I chose to leave it off, instead making use of available Wi-Fi to download email and surf the Web. For low-cost international phone calls, use an Internet telephony service such as Skype, Google Voice or Whistle, all of which let you make voice or video calls over a Wi-Fi connection instead of using your phone provider?s data service.
Back up important data before you travel if you don?t want your business to sink along with the laptop you just dropped into the pool. Cloud services like Google Drive, Box, SugarSync or Windows SkyDrive let you store files online so you can access them anywhere you can find an Internet-connected device.
Bridgetown, the island?s largest city and the capital, is as urban as any midsize city, offering all the shopping and business services a traveling worker might need, including FedEx pickup locations and rentable conference and meeting spaces. U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere and the conversion rate couldn?t be simpler: two Barbados dollars for each U.S. dollar. Taxi services are readily available, but if you research the local bus timetables ahead of time, it?s possible to get around via low-cost mass transit to many of the island?s tourist attractions.
Bridgetown dining runs the gamut from high-end, fashionable waterside eateries to sidewalk food vendors with portable grills to Chefette ?broasted? chicken, a local fast-food chain that competes with KFC. On Fridays, a trip to Oistins Bay Garden offers the chance to engage in a huge fish fry with hundreds of locals and tourists.
At Mango Bay Resort, an all-inclusive 76-room property, free Wi-Fi service was available in all areas, including the rooms and the oceanfront, where sunbathing iPad and Kindle users could be spotted. The rooms offered usable work areas, but wired Internet connections weren?t available and in some cases you had to hunt for an available AC outlet. The resort, located in Holetown, a tourist-laden neighborhood of upscale shopping, drinking establishments and restaurants, also has a 24-hour guest lounge with a PC with free Internet access and a printer. All rooms have
coffeemakers, irons and ironing boards and safes wide enough to accommodate a midsize laptop, cameras and other gadgets. Also included in a stay at Mango Bay Resort is a catamaran cruise, which includes snorkeling and a chance to swim with sea turtles, who proved to be polite and used to the daily arrival of tourists bearing fish.
Smaller is better when it comes to traveling with gadgets. A small point-and-shoot camera will catch the whale poking its head out of the water while your catamaran neighbor is futzing with a sophisticated SLR. If your cellphone has a five-megapixel-or-better camera, use it, but turn off any services that automatically upload photos to the Web. Purchasing an inexpensive underwater digital camera is good for snapping what you might see while snorkeling.
It?s hard to imagine that Hunte?s Gardens, located in St. Joseph, about a 20-minute ride from Holetown, started from a garbage-strewn gully, but that?s indeed what it was before owner Anthony Hunte, a noted horticulturist, got to the property. After attacking the pile with elbow grease and a hefty investment, the leafy, lush multilevel garden is now full of surprises, including buzzing hummingbirds and almost-hidden pieces of art. The garden and Hunte?s home, built from an ancient stable, are almost as impressive as the low-key, friendly demeanor of Mr. Hunte, who is often on site. ?I want people to experience the way we live,? he said, as he delivered a tray of rum punches to the visiting journalists. ?You walk in here and the dog is there.? And indeed it was: A small pup sitting in the middle of a beautiful living room seemed oblivious to the chatty journalists nearby.
If you dine at the Waterside Restaurant, don?t be shocked if you think you hear the baritone voice of actor James Earl Jones ? it?s just owner Peter Odle, who seems to relish the chance to engage with guests, but leaves no doubt to employees as to who?s boss. The restaurant, an upscale establishment, is built up against the beach, which provides a constant supply of white noise for those who sample head chef Michael Hinds? culinary expertise. Odle, who has held top positions at the Barbados Tourism Authority and Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, also owns Mango Bay Resort and Island Inn, a 24-room property that mixes old and new construction inside the seemingly indestructible shell of an 1804-vintage rum storage building. While Wi-Fi is available here as well, it doesn?t seep into some of the rooms because the walls are too thick.
A visit to St. Nicholas Abbey, one of the oldest-surviving plantation great houses in Barbados, reflects how comfortable life was for its owners ? and how rough it was for those who toiled in the hot sun in the 400-acre sugarcane fields. One of the youngest items in the house is the Gentleman?s Chair, a 1936 vintage mahogany contraption that puts today?s high-tech couch-potato recliners to shame. Aside from armrests that swivel out so the user can slip in from the side, the chair?s wooden footrests, backrest and lap table ? complete with an electric lamp ? can be adjusted to suit the user?s dimensions and the chair is built on wheels so that it can be moved?even when occupied.
In the less touristy areas of the island, shell- , bead- or monkey-toting entrepreneurs can be spotted at bus stops or near stores. Our experiences were generally pleasant ? no one was pushy or aggressive. In Barbados, like any other tourist destination, it pays to be smart: Crime exists everywhere, even in paradise. It?s wise to scope out local neighborhoods by day before exploring them at night and nighttime walks on dark beaches aren?t advised.
The 2012 Reggae Festival, held in multiple locations including Kensington Oval, one of the world?s most famous cricket grounds, and Farley Hill National Park, one of the more scenic destinations on the island, is a colorful and energizing experience. The crowds came well dressed and stayed late but weren?t rowdy, a welcome relief from some stateside events. The music was well balanced from Vintage Reggae and Bajan Reggae nights at Kensington Oval, Reggae Beach at Brandon?s Beach and the finale, Reggae on the Hill, at Farley Hill.
So why Barbados? The answer seems to be stability: All the services a traveling worker would need are there. One tip for Americans: slow down. Things are rarely as urgent as they seem. A little patience goes a long way and arrogance will only slow things down. For more information, please visit the Barbados Tourism Authority at www.visitbarbados.org.