Barbados for Kids

Donna Yawching finds much to be pleased about when she takes her children on holiday in Barbados

From Signal station to beach to nature reserve, Barbados is educational and fun for children

Okay, so when you were single, you stayed at Sandals. Barefoot in the sand, rum punches at sunset, tropical moonlight silvering the whispering palms. That’s what you thought vacations were all about.

Then you had children, and everything changed. Romantic dinners gave way to fast-food joints; sand suddenly became something that gets everywhere it shouldn’t. Car trips are now an ordeal of strategically-placed plastic buckets; and as for moonlight — well, who has the energy to even think about the moon, once the little darlings are tucked into bed?

For anyone contending with a couple of kids, vacations are generally an exercise in stress. Airport stress, airplane stress, hotel and restaurant stress as ashtrays crash to the floor and silverware flies through the air like Cruise missiles. No wonder so many parents opt for a simple cabin at a local lake or seaside, or else choose the frenetic pace of Disneyland in the hope of wearing their offspring out completely. Rum punches at sunset? What a decadent, absolutely pre-parental idea!

Wait. Stop. Distance yourself from this way of thinking. It is possible to have a vacation where the whining is kept to a minimum, without subjecting yourself to an overdose of theme parks and waterslides; a place where kids can have a great time, and the rum punches are still within easy reach. Think no further than Barbados.

Barbados is a tourist destination that has traditionally been perceived as up-market, expensive, and essentially geared toward adults. This is not necessarily untrue, but it is a perception that the Barbados Tourism Authority (BTA) is eager to go beyond. Says the BTA’s Linda Christian-Clarke: “We would very much like families to come and discover what Barbados has to offer.”

What sounded like a good idea to me, so armed with my two young sons (Darien, 9, and Gareth, 6) I sallied forth. And discovered.

I discovered that — as long as your VISA card is reasonably robust — Barbados has no shortage of ways to intrigue and entertain its younger visitors. Bajans long ago recognised the importance (and financial rewards) of keeping its visitors — about one million a year — happy, and they now have it down to a T. What’s more, they’ve noticed that kids usually come with adults (however reluctantly) attached, so most of their attractions somehow manage to appeal to both ends of the scale.

With a Canadian friend, Sheila, and her 12-year-old son Adam, we set out to explore Barbados from every angle — including that of getting lost about a million times between breakfast and lunch. Never underestimate the complexity of this little island’s road system, or the inadequacy of its signage. But don’t let that worry you unduly either: after all, it is a little island, and you’re never really very far from anywhere.

Certainly, you’re never very far from a Chefette, and since mealtimes on the road are of crucial importance, this is useful to know. Anyone who’s had to deal with their offspring’s reaction to a flying-fish sandwich will give thanks for this local fast-food chain that has managed to force McDonald’s, believe it or not, out of the Bajan market. Its food (pizza, burgers, chicken nuggets, shakes) is generically acceptable to any child on planet earth, service is smooth and efficient, and some outlets feature a small jungle gym playspace. There is even a section, the Barbecue Barn, which serves adult food: steaks, chicken, fish — with wine! Mark those Chefette locations on your map before starting off, you won’t regret it.

Just touring around the Barbadian countryside can be a source of entertainment for young and old alike. For the most part gentle and rolling, the landscape is dotted with remnants of old stone windmills (and what child, or adult, can resist the romance of a windmill?): testaments to the time when sugar cane was king. The most significant of these is the Morgan Lewis Mill, overlooking the rugged north-east coastline. The largest and only complete sugar mill in the Caribbean, the Morgan Lewis Mill offers education as well as entertainment, with its interesting display of period photos and artifacts. Recent restoration work means that the huge wooden sails (over 100-foot span) will actually be turning in the breeze in 1999.

Another quite palatable dose of history can be had from the old signal stations, high on their lonely hills. Built in the early 1800s, the network of six stations constituted, in that pre-Internet era, a crucial system of communication. Using flags or semaphore, the signalmen relayed information about arriving ships — enemy or otherwise — from one station to another until it reached Bridgetown, the capital. Two of the six stations (Grenade Hall in the north and Gun Hill in the south) have been painstakingly restored, and are worth visiting if only for their splendid panoramic views over the surrounding countryside. These are places guaranteed to spark the adventure-loving imagination of any child.

Real-life adventure is what you’ll find on Barbados’s dramatic north-east coast, where the mighty Atlantic crashes against the cliffs with almost frightening fervour. Even the most blasé pre-adolescent will be impressed by the massive limestone mushrooms sprouting off the Bathsheba shoreline, and the blowholes spouting like whales near Little Bay. Swimming on this coast is fraught with danger, except in those areas where offshore rock formations create sheltered bathtubs and backwashes: best to save the sunscreen and towels for the tranquil beaches of the west.

At Barbados’s northernmost point, you’ll find the Animal Flower Cave, with its ocean-fed pools that were once home to colonies of large sea anemones (animal flowers). Though most of these flowers are gone, and the remaining ones rather small, the cave itself is exciting, with its sea-level openings in the cliff face allowing virtually eye-to-eye contact with the angry breakers pounding a few feet away. At high tide, some of the caves are flooded — a familiar predicament for the hero of countless adventure stories.

On the subject of caves, Harrison’s Cave at the centre of Barbados is a an absolute must. More than 500,000 years old and about 160 feet deep, these interconnecting caverns are a marvel of stalactites, stalagmites, and dazzling white flowstones. An electric tram takes you into the underworld, winding along beside an eerily Stygian stream, and stopping at a subterranean waterfall. Expect squeals, and frantic grabbing at your hand, when the attendant momentarily switches off the lights and redefines the meaning of black.

Not all of Barbados’s natural attractions have to do with cliffs and caves: the eco-bug has bitten this Caribbean island, as it has many others. Conservation is a growing concern, as several wildlife and botanical projects demonstrate. While most youngsters would find the Flower Forest and Welchman Hall Gully (both devoted to exotic greenery) of limited interest, no child could possibly resist the charming Barbados Wildlife Reserve. This unique project combines serious research with a visitor-friendly animal reserve, where a number of disparate but compatible species co-exist in a pleasant mahogany forest.

Wandering through this little reconstituted Garden of Eden, where startlingly pink flamingoes probe for food through a blanket of equally startling green waterlilies, where gentle brocket deer dream in the underbrush, and monkeys catapult through the treetops, it is easy to forget that these animals are indeed wild, and NOT domesticated pets. Six-year-old Gareth almost discovered this the hard way, when he rushed off to investigate a newborn monkey, incurring Mama monkey’s unmistakeable hostility, and again when he decided to pat the cute little otter who was rolling playfully in the sand (we grabbed him away just in time). We finally managed to impress upon him that the only pettable inhabitants were the chunky land tortoises stumping along every pathway, too slow and too stoic to evade his advances.

Other species to be seen at the reserve include a couple of caiman (alligators), pelicans, macaws, and a (caged) giant python. In a nearby orchidarium, an endangered species of Cuban iguana is part of a breeding programme, and the Primate Research Centre carries out valuable research programmes on the Green Monkeys that are ubiquitous in Barbados (and which, for the record, are not really green).

Other conservation projects in Barbados are somewhat more specialised. The Ayshford Rare Species Farm could be considered Brer Fox’s wet dream, with its 83 species of . . . chickens! Set on a rolling hilltop not far from Harrison’s Cave, this miniature city of individually-fenced roosting-houses offers an eye-opening glimpse of how many shapes, sizes and colours the humble chicken can come in: from the cocky little white bantam to the exotic Black Sumatra, a Japanese gamebird whose overlong feathers sweep the ground. A selection of truly strange-looking pigeons, as well as macaws, lovebirds and noisy cockatrices round off the collection, and if none of these intrigue your young critics, the large pen of ostriches and emus surely will.

At the south end of the island, another big eco-project is underway, at the Graeme Hall Swamp. Here, big tarpon are being encouraged to inhabit the quiet waters, through regular feeding, and herons, egrets and a number of migratory species will find sanctuary in the surrounding woodlands. Extensive boardwalks along the lagoon’s edge will allow intriguing nature-walks into the swamp, nearby vales will be used to farm shrimp for re-stocking the ponds, and two walk-through aviaries will offer permanent displays of regional Caribbean birds. The project is expected to open to the public in 1999.

Displays of a different kind can be found at two places that most kids would much rather avoid: the museum and the art gallery. While the Barbados Gallery of Art does offer periodic Saturday art fairs, as well as summer camp activities during August, and will happily organise a child-friendly guide for small groups if given a few days’ notice, the honest truth is that the Barbados Museum is likely to prove by far the more entertaining of the two.

Small and well laid out, the museum is housed in a former British military prison, itself an impressive example of Caribbean Georgian architecture. The museum staff has put significant effort into creating a (low-tech) interactive kid’s gallery, with exhibits at child’s-eye level, and objects that can be handled, played with, taken apart, whatever. Period costumes are there to be tried on, a pottery wheel offers insight into a timeless art, traditional toys are not sacrosanct. Signage is clear and concise, with an easy-to-use catalogue offering additional information.

Even the adult section of the museum proves intriguing to most youngsters: the natural history display with its birds, fish and small animals, the rooms recreated in period colonial style, the bare prison cell where military miscreants languished on a spartan diet that is listed on its wall (meat only for the long-term prisoners!). In summertime, the museum’s two-week day camp is very popular: during the academic year, more than 5,000 schoolchildren pass through its doors.

Forget museums, you can hear your kids saying with scorn, what is there to do? Where’s the fun stuff? This is the point at which you start trying to remember if you paid your last credit card bill, because while indeed there is enough fun stuff to make their vacation unforgettable, most of these activities do not come cheap. Once you’re prepared to bite the economic bullet, however, you can experience Barbados from literally every perspective: above, below, and on the surface.

Barbados Helicopters offers a tour that most kids will consider the thrill of a lifetime (while paranoid parents measure the increasing distance between cockpit and coastline, and count the new grey hairs even as they sprout). Lasting 20 or 30 minutes, the precarious plexiglass bubble (well, that’s how it felt to me!) tilts high above the island’s hills and dales, whirring close to the rugged profile of Chalky Mount before buzzing back down the coast. Far below, toy fishing boats bob on blue silk, and Lego Technic cars shuttle around busily. Don’t worry if you miss most of it due to having only one eye half-open: your offspring will later regale you with every single detail.

Then there’s the Atlantis experience, for anyone who’s ever envied Jacques Cousteau. Operating the world’s first passenger submarine fleet, Atlantis allows close-up viewing of deep coral reefs and shipwrecks. The 65-foot vessel is lined with portholes, and as it descends (to a depth of about 130 ft.) exterior lights illuminate the colours of the coral. Colourful reef fish drift past, going about their business with no regard for the large metal intruder in their midst, nor for the strange species gaping at them through the portholes. The tour lasts approximately 50 minutes.

If you don’t much care for the thought of full fathom five of water above your head, Atlantis also offers Seatrec, a glorified glass-bottom boat that stays on the surface, but whose glass-walled viewing cabin is about six feet below. This brings advantages and disadvantages: it allows you to go topside at any time (impossible on a submarine!) if you’re seasick or claustrophobic, but on the other hand, the reef is much further away, making the viewing experience less intimate. The actual Seatrec tour is also much shorter than the advertised hour (or even 50 minutes), when one takes into account the shuttle trip to the boarding site, and the wait while the submarine passengers (on the same shuttle) transfer to and from their vessel. Seatrec may appeal to parents with younger children, but for my money, the sub’s the thing.

On a less high-tech scale, it should be noted that many regular glass-bottom boats also operate in Barbados’s west-coast waters, and a number of yachts offer customised cruising. The big party boats such as the Bajan Queen and the Jolly Roger are not really recommended for children.

Prefer an activity where God’s good earth is firmly below your feet? Highland Outdoor Tours is just what you’re looking for. Based in the rugged Scotland District, Highland offers you the opportunity to hike, cycle, horseback ride, or (perfect for children) be pulled around the countryside in a kind of tractor-drawn bus. The tour takes you across cow-strewn meadows, through canefields, past old slave quarters, and into a deep green gully. The tractor tour visits a dairy farm, and trundles through a working quarry-yard, before returning full circle to base. The walking, cycling and horseback tours can, if you’re energetic, lead you all the way down to the coast for a boisterous picnic on the beach.

A couple of Barbados attractions do not fit easily into any particular category: the Rum Factory and Heritage Park is one of these. Set on the site of the old Foursquare sugar plantation, the Park incorporates a state-of-the-art rum distillery into a centuries-old sugar factory, offering a tour that gives intriguing insights into each. If you’ve ever had a passion to learn all about molasses, this is the place.

Much of the period equipment — the cane hoist, the water tower, the pan-boiler — remains to dominate the park’s aesthetic; the old foundry, with its beautiful coral-block walls and high arched windows overlooking the canefields, has been rehabilitated into an art gallery that exhibits local and regional talent. A small amphitheatre at the foot of the towering cane hoist offers performing space to folk musicians and dancers, and adjoining a sculpture garden made up of sugar factory artifacts — cog wheels and cane knives, spur gears and grinding mills — a play park and petting zoo guarantee that younger visitors are kept happily entertained.

Perhaps the most esoteric of all the island’s attractions, however, is a sculpture garden of a completely different sort: Dr Lance Bannister’s utterly unique Iron Gardens. Set surprisingly close to the heart of Bridgetown, this private exhibition is definitely one of a kind. At 75, Dr Bannister is a spry, still-practising paediatrician, whose hobby is creating large mobile sculptures out of used car parts. Scattered around his garden, his creations must be seen to be believed: skeletal figures made of ball joints and bumpers, suspension arms and carburettors, steering rods and shock absorbers. A giant butterfly flutters hydraulic wings, a horse and jockey strain toward the finishing line. The physiological accuracy of each sculpture is amazing, until you recall that physiology is Bannister’s business.

The Iron Gardens is a delight for children because, interspersed with the humans and horses, Bannister has created a series of strange and wonderful rides: things that spin and swing and tilt. A ferris wheel made of bus parts and bedsprings, a whirling dragon with flappable wings. You won’t be able to tear your youngsters away, without at least a promise of ice cream.

Yes, indeed — you can easily spend your entire vacation in Barbados rushing around from one enthralling activity to another, but when all’s said and done, don’t forget the beach. White sand, crystal waters, balmy breezes — isn’t that why you came in the first place? For those days when you really don’t feel like stirring beyond the bounds of your hotel, don’t forget that quite a few of the resorts offer special activities that get the little darlings off your hands for several hours. Arts and crafts, games, tours, sports, kite-flying and treasure hunts are all organised and executed by specially trained staff, at minimal prices (or, often, for free).

And you, meanwhile, head directly to your hammock. What’s that? A sprinkle of fresh nutmeg on your rum punch? No doubt about it: this is the life!