Last October, I travelled to Barbados to attend the annual Food and Rum Festival. Sounds like a dream right? The beautiful island of Barbados is often referred to as the culinary capital of the Caribbean because of its diverse restaurant scene. Barbados is also known for producing one of the finest rum in the world…and the strongest rum cocktails! Here’s my guide to the best things to do to experience the Caribbean island at its best!
Barbados is the most easterly island in the Caribbean island chain, located above South America and northeast of Venezuela. It’s an independent country since 1966, part of the Commonwealth; it’s the birthplace of pop superstar Rihanna; and a hugely popular holiday destination (particularly for Brits).
Just north of the equator, the climate of the island is warm and moderately tropical, making it a great spot to catch some winter sun. As you can imagine, Barbados is a fantastic holiday destination with white sandy beaches, crystal blue waters, fantastic places to surf, botanical gardens and natural caves.
Barbados has a rich cultural identity. “Bajan” traditions have been birthed from the West African and British cultures: whilst the majority of the population is of African descent, the island was a British colony for over 300 years and so English influence remains evident.
The architectural tradition of Barbados also reflects this: colonial architecture remains evident today in Georgian, Victorian and Jacobean buildings (albeit adapted for the Caribbean climate with the addition of gable roofs and open verandas).
Every year, in August, the Caribbean island celebrates its Carnival Day, with music bands playing and women dancing parading down the streets of Barbados wearing elaborate costumes.
During my trip, I met chefs and restaurateurs and talked a lot about food in Barbados.
In the past, Barbados’ economy was dependent upon sugar, rum and molasses production, whereas today the economy is based around light industry and tourism. Food production on the island is limited and, sadly, Barbados today relies heavily on imports.
Thankfully, there is also a movement to protect the heritage of Bajan food. The mission of Slow Food Barbados is to raise the awareness of the nutritional, economic, environmental and cultural benefits of eating locally sourced foods.
Barbados Food and Festival
On my first evening on the island, I headed to Oistins for the launch party of Barbados Food and Rum Festival. The fishing town on the south coast of the island is mostly known for one thing: Friday Night Fish Fry!
The flying fish is one of Barbados national symbols, a foot-long fish that can ‘fly’ over water up to 200ft. The Bajans have mastered the skill of de-boning and shallow frying them in soft breadcrumbs with traditional seasoning. The fried fish is often served with Bajan Macaroni Pie or it is used as a filling for the Bajan Fish Cutters sandwich.
The Barbados Food and Rum Festival is a yearly event that aims to bring the island’s top chefs and mixologists together for four days, creating extraordinary to celebrate Bajan cuisine and beverages.
Other events of the Barbados Food and Rum Festival include: Taste of the Exotic, a signature rum event where local award-winning chefs prepare unique dishes to complement hand-crafted rum cocktails. Gourmet Safari Dinner Series which takes place at various restaurants across the island. And Taste the Spirits of Polo on Sunday afternoon, spent watching a game of polo while drinking world-class cocktails and eating canapés prepared by Barbados’ acclaimed restaurants.
Coco Hill Forest
On the second day of the trip, I travelled from the west to the south-east coast for a tour of Coco Hill Forest, a 53 acre rain forest with bamboo groves, royal palms, tree ferns and several endemic flora native to Barbados.
I met Mahmood Patel, the owner of this land where coconuts, bananas, coffee, cocoa, pineapples grow, as well as numerous tropical fruit trees, herbs, spices and medicinals.
Walking through the forest guided by Mamu was certainly one of the highlights of my trip. There are daily walks available by appointment only, and I highly recommend booking one when you visit Barbados. It was inspiring to hear Mamu talk about his mission to preserve and secure food in Barbados.
Using a farm-to-table concept, Mahmood focuses on permaculture, organic and vertical farming, to grow much of the food used at his restaurant Mamu’s Café without disturbing the forest.
After the tour, we were treated to a lunch cooked with the farm’s produce by chef Jason Howard. Barbadian born and Vincentian by descent, Jason specialises in modern Caribbean cuisine using local ingredients and French techniques gained while working under Hélène Darroze at her two Michelin-starred restaurant in London.
It was a unique experience to taste the dishes prepared by Jason using ingredients from Coco Hill Forest.
Bajan Walking Food Tour
Bridgetown is the capital of Barbados and on day three I joined a Bridgetown Food Tour to taste the city’s best dishes. The tour is organised by Lickrish Food Tours, a leading company offer wonderfully exciting, informative and belly-fulfilling cultural tours, encouraging guests to not only learn the history of Barbados, but to eat their way through it!
Claudette Levi-Farnum walks you through the bustling capital, Bridgetown and take you on a culinary expedition to famous street food hot spots, to try pudding and souse, a Saturday delicacy in Barbados along with much more.
We started our tour in Independence Square, making six stops for mouth-watering finds such as BBQ pig tails, sugar cakes and last but not least, a Bajan fish cutter (or flying fish sandwich).
Street food is a large part of Bajan culture and whether served in a china plate or banana leaf you’ll be blown away by the unique tastes, flavours and spices. Possibly the best thing I tasted on the whole tour was the deep-fried cod fritters with tamarind sauce from a street food vendor on Tudor Street.
Lickrish also offers an evening food tour of St. Lawrence Gap, a 1.3 km stretch of road in the parish of Christ Church, famous for its fine restaurants and lively nightlife. Our tour, amongst other things, treated us to: amazing rum sours, fish cakes and pumpkin fritters at Castaways; a Riri cocktail and coucou (a traditional side dish of cornmeal and okra) at Primo Bar; Pudding and Souse (pickled pork and steamed sweet potato) at Cocktail Kitchen, a bar and restaurant by renowned chef Damian Leach; a taste of The Brewhouse craft beers (my favourite was the Sam Lord’s Smoked Porter); ; burgers and macaroni pies from The Gap’s best street food truck.
Welcome to PEG Farm and Nature Reserve combines biodynamic farming, free range animals, educational programs, a farm shop and garden-to-table café with stunning scenery in the north of Barbados.
Like Coco Hill Forest, PEG farms follows a Slow Food approach to grow high quality produce on the island, in order to increase consumption of local food and decrease dependancy on imports.
They do this with holistic and biodynamic management practices to restore soil damaged by centuries of sugarcane plantation.
Their tours provide an exceptional opportunity to discover PEG’s sustainable farm, while immersing yourself in the natural beauty of Barbados.
Sunday Picnic in Bathsheba
Using fresh vegetables from PEG farm, Rhea Gilkes, executive chef of Fusion Rooftop in Holetown, cooked for us a wonderful lunch of local specialities, which we enjoyed at a picnic in Bathsheba beach. Bathsheba on the rugged east coast has beautiful sandy beaches and is a popular surfing spot, loved by tourists and Bajans who have seaside cottages there where they spend the weekend.
Rhea is regarded as a Barbados food hero as she continues to elevate her passion for sustainable and healthy cuisine as a member of the Barbados Slow Food group. She has a contagious passion for working with organic farmers to use the freshest local produce, which she uses in her kitchen at Fusion.
I tried a Bajan delicacy: breadfruit, roasted and served with a variety of toppings. The rest of the lunch was prepared with fresh and delicious produce like the tastiest avocado, pickled cucumbers, a bean salad and homemade spicy chutney.
Drink Coffee at Wyndhams
My last day in Barbados involved an inspiring visit to Wyndhams Coffee Roastery in Christ Church, a family-owned coffee brand focused on quality grade, in-season specialty beans roasted in small batches. I met with Dominic (co-founder with his wife Mandy Wyndham-Gittens) for a tour of the roastery.
Wyndhams offer coffee workshops that range in different topics such as brewing, cupping, or roasting demonstrations.
We spent some time chatting about coffee and food on the island of Barbados. I tasted different coffee blends (Wyndhams “Surf series” is inspired by Dom’s love of surfing) and single origins, and also a cask-aged rum barrel coffee made in collaboration with Nicholas Abbey rum distillery.
Visit a Rum Distillery
A tour of a rum distillery is a must-do of any trip to Barbados. I recommend St Nicholas Abbey in the parish of St. Peter. It was built in 1658 and is one of only three genuine Jacobean mansions in the Western Hemisphere. You can visit the steam mill and rum distiller, which are now in full operation and are used to produce St. Nicholas Abbey Rum.
Where To Stay
I stayed at Tamarind Hotel by Elegant Resorts, located in Paynes Bay, on the west coast of Barbados. This slow-paced, comfortable hotel is perfect for families with children or elderly couples.
For younger travellers, I would recommend the hotel next to Tamarind, Treasure Beach. While it is owned by the same company, Treasure Beach has a more modern, boutique feel, with a lively cocktail bar by the pool and an adults-only policy.
For a chic stay in one of the most beautiful parts of Barbados, I have been recommended Lone Star Hotel, a beachfront boutique hotel overlooking Alleynes Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. I also received a strong recommendation to stay at Eco Lifestyle and Lodge, in the south of the island. I’ve heard their café is one of the best places to eat on the island. I didn’t have time to visit, so I will have to wait and confirm on my next visit!
Ocean Spray Apartments offers bright, spacious apartments with full kitchen overlooking the ocean on the island’s south side.Ocean Spray is home to one of the best spots in Barbados to learn to surf: Surfer’s Point, and the nearby South Point and Freight’s Bay. Whilst I didn’t stay at one of the apartments, I can highly recommend their restaurant Mamu’s Café where I had breakfast one morning, prepared with produce grown at Coco Hill farm.
I landed in Barbados following a 8-hour flight from London Gatwick (both Virgin Atlantic and British Airways have daily direct flights). The time difference between the UK and Barbados is only four hours, so I wasn’t too jet-lagged when I arrived.
Queues at Grantley Adams International Airport passport controls are really long, so I highly recommend pre-booking a VIP fast track service: you will be picked up as soon as you disembark the aircraft, escorted through a faster queue, assisted at baggage reclaim and accompanied all the way to your taxi.
Whilst Barbados isn’t very large, you will need a car in order to get around. Taxis are moderately priced, but I would still recommend hiring a car to explore the island.
Barbados uses two currencies, both the US dollar and Barbadian dollars. US dollars are accepted everywhere and commonly used by tourists. Perhaps for this reason, Barbados is not a cheap destination: eating out, shopping and outdoor activities can get quite expensive.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Visit Barbados on this trip. All views are my own.