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Isle of smiles; Travel.

THIS is the season when the Caribbean comes into its own. Who can resist squeaky clean silver sand, swaying palms and the sun's warm caress? And Barbados, a very British island, adds extra ingredients - rum, fresh fish and very smiley Bajans. No filter required

Why now?

The weather in Barbados is impeccable at this time of year - daytime temperatures range between 28 and 32C. The breeze is gentle at best and the sea has the translucence and calm that dreams are made of.

Meanwhile it has never been so easy to get there from the UK, with Virgin Atlantic laying on its first ever direct flights from Heathrow - to go with its existing Gatwick and Manchester services - and Thomas Cook adding new flights from Manchester.

Which coast?

The island is basically triangular in shape. The southern base is where the airport and the big city - Bridgetown - are located, and where the biggest and the most inexpensive sea-facing hotels are to be found, along with fast food outlets and mall shopping.

The western shore, aka the Platinum Coast, is the most sheltered and exclusive of the three.

Many of the beautiful beaches are dominated by millionaire mansions and by elegant, select hotels such as Sandpiper and Sandy Lane, where the celebs hang out.

Meanwhile the east coast is Atlantic-facing and wild, good for surfing and for getting an insight into what Barbados used to be like, but not a place to base your stay.

Bright lights

Once you have soaked up enough sun to recharge those depleted winter batteries, it'll be time to explore.

Bridgetown, the main town, gathers around a boat-jammed creek crossed by the eponymous bridge. At the north end of the bridge is a web of narrow shopping streets which get very crowded when the cruise ships are in.

To the south are the government offices and a line of remarkable "chattel houses" - pastelpainted wooden shacks designed, well before Ikea's day, to be flatpacked and moved to whichever plantation needed labourers.

Here too is the long Brownes beach, well provided with beach bars and also gratifyingly clean, given that it is so close to passing ships and to downtown.

Barbados's only other significant population centre is Speightstown, also known as Little Bristol. It's basically just an overgrown village in the north but one which has preserved its old-time feel - particularly by being far removed from all the cruise ship activity.

Hey sugar

Many visitors to Barbados never leave the beaches but there's good stuff inland for when the skin needs a rest from the sun.

The island's original wealth came from sugar cane plantations, some of which still exist. If you've got your own transport, head out to St Nicholas Abbey, up towards the north.

Despite the name this is nothing to do with religion - it is a terribly British planter's mansion dating back to 1658, surrounded by mahogany trees, and complete with sash windows and fireplaces.

The portrait of a previous owner, Benedict Cumberbatch's seventh great-grandfather, is on the wall and the current owners run a rum distillery here. Slightly easier to reach - bus number 5 runs to the entrance - is Hunte's Gardens, a magical flower and tree-filled grove pHtr hu presided over by the rather eccentric Anthony Hunte, with his dog Marble and cat Flora, plus tribes of visiting monkeys. See huntesgardensbarbados.com.

Big splash

This is an island made for watersports. Surfing on the east coast at Bathsheba, catamaran cruises and undersea submarines out of Bridgetown, and then all the individual beaches have their own providers.

The east coast has the calmest waters. One of the best beaches is Mullins Beach, up north towards Speightstown. Public buses run frequently from Bridgetown and cost 75p. Here for PS110 for half an hour you can learn to flyboard - stand on a powered board and rise th to fr fo fl up out of the water. Or try the stand-up paddleboarding at only PS22 for two hours. There is a good chance, with the right conditions, of being able to paddle out to spot turtles and then even swim with them. See surfsupbarbados.com.

Night life

Almost as soon as the sun has put in its final curtain call, the night air is filled with the sound of elves hammering on crystal - the mating call of tiny tree frogs.

Eating out in Barbados is good, but pricey, especially if you head up the Platinum Coast to restaurants such as the Lone Star or Cin Cin By The Sea, where celebrities are regularly spotted.

Here a plate of soy-glazed barracuda will set you back PS32, and overall you're unlikely to spend less than PS75 a head. However there are plenty of much less expensive roadside stalls for local food - notably rice and peas, chicken and rice, macaroni pie, fish and chips, and even pigtails - at a much more affordable PS2-PS10.

The most fun, and best value, of all the local dining experiences is the Oistins Fish Fry on Friday evenings, and to a lesser extent on Saturdays. It is right next to the fish market at Oistins on the south coast. Thousands of visitors and locals queue for huge portions, around PS11, of grilled mahi-mahi and kingfish, super-fresh and succulent.

Afterwards, join the party crowd and feel your bones bounce with the reggae beats at two distinctive dance arenas.

Don't be shy to try one of the island's 1,100 rum shops - ramshackle bars usually located very close to church. On Sunday mornings Bajan couples head out early, dressed in their best, and return home later with the spirit very much in them.

Package prices

Barbados has accommodation at all prices. You can find a week's holiday in the Time Out hotel, room only, for as little as PS825, including flights.

The hotel is in the vibrant St Lawrence Gap area, across the road from the beautiful Dover Beach, and is ideal for groups and young travellers. See virginholidays.co.uk.

To go more upmarket, try the five-star Sandpiper Inn, sandpiperbarbados.com, on the exclusive Platinum Coast, just north of the Sandy Lane. Overnight prices start at around PS373 for a double, including breakfast. For lots of other options, info and tips, see visitbarbados.org.

CAPTION(S):

CANE SUPREME: Sugar plantation

SPANNING HISTORY: Bridgetown is capital

A RUM PAST: St Nicholas Abbey

WAVE HELLO: Surf beach at Bathsheba

RETRO FEEL: Ship free Speightstown

ONE TO CATCH: Oistins Fish Fry

CALM OF THE PALM: Slumber on sands of silver, dip in seas of blue
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The People (London, England)
Geographic Code:5BARB
Date:Jan 21, 2018
Words:1084
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