The glare of sunlight from the runway; the cicadas' chorus after nightfall; a wave that was bigger than my mother; strangers who called themselves family. The memories of my first visit to Barbados are patchy. I was four years old, with an eye for detail but no mind for sequence or logic. I returned with more of an impressionistic patchwork of isolated moments than a continuous narrative of a six-week trip. I remember arriving, but not leaving; the scent of my grandmother but not her face; the sun but not the heat.
The beauty of the island was not obvious to me then. Like everything else at that time, I presumed it existed solely for my benefit. And while I would return several times before this visit, this summer was the first opportunity I had had to fully appreciate it as a holiday destination.
Before, whenever I headed to Barbados, I would be on the same plane as my fellow travellers but going to a completely different destination. They were en route to days of carefree sun and surf tied together with a string of beaches and some inconvenient patches of land in between. For me it was always the other way around. I was not so much leaving my humdrum routines behind as simply swapping them for some new ones.
It was not a time for sunbeds and fancy cocktails but soap operas and family outings. Two weeks of visiting aunties who would remark on how much weight I had put on, only then to strain the legs of their dining tables with enough food for an army and insist that I eat it all. Taking my grandmother to church, playing ball with my cousins and inexplicably disappearing to smoke, drink and worse was how I would fill my days.
Once, while staying at my aunt's in St Phillip, where you can sit on the veranda and feel the splash of the sea spray, the last day of my holiday had arrived before I realised that I had yet to let the warm waves of the Caribbean lap at my feet.
Far from resenting this, I loved it for what it was - a chance to spend time with close relatives I rarely see. This time, staying in a hotel, I was keen to see what it also wasn't.
There are few better times to do this than Crop Over, which is basically an exercise in the marketing of history. It's an annual event that has its roots in the sweat of slavery and has borne fruit in the seaside frolics of the tourist industry. A mix, as is so much of Barbados, of the European and the African - the harvest festival meets the yam festivals of West Africa.
Crop Over, as its name suggests, began as a commemoration of the delivery of the last canes when the crops were collected. With the intense period of work over, the plantation labourers would decorate their animals and carts with flowers and ribbons before driving them to the mills. The following day the plantation owners would throw a party for the workers and their families, complete with roasted pig, corn pone, sweet bread, rice and salt fish. And then came the burning of Mr Harding. Not the notorious, vicious plantation owner as some once presumed. But the incarnation of the hard times that would come once the crop was over.
The mechanisation of agriculture put the festival to rest. Human toil was largely, but not exclusively, replaced by huge tractors - a process that contributed to my parents' migration to England. But in the early 1970s the spirit of Crop Over was revived by the tourist industry to provide a focus for the summer season. Its success has been staggering in more ways than one.
It's primary purpose of drawing in visitors, has been served. What was principally a winter holiday destination has now added summer to provide two peak seasons. Its skill, however, is that it has managed to attract tourists without alienating the local population. The revamped, repackaged and relatively recently revived Crop Over remains a distinctly Caribbean event. Starting slowly in early July and gaining pace through the month until, by early August, the island is awash with street parades, open-air concerts, variety shows, steel bands and calypso and soca and ending in "Kadoomant" with the Pic-O-De-Crop declaring the crowning of the calypso king or queen.
While it would be unfair to compare it with the fervour of carnival in nearby Trinidad, Crop Over nonetheless does mark out its own cultural territory. For that month or so, there is a particular event, somewhere, most days, that could not take place anywhere else but on this tiny blob of earth, cast out on its own to the east of the Caribbean sea. Crooners taking over an entire street for a particularly boisterous bout of outdoor karaoke; the sound of steel bands floating over the shore-lined roads; the souse-sellers and mauby-makers (pickled pork and a bitter drink both common on the island) hawking their wares to the sound of revivalist church music in the middle of the day. Individually, they are intriguing; together they are unique.
But Crop Over is only a starting point for enjoying the island rather than an end in itself - a musical, lyrical, culinary and atmospheric backdrop to the island and an enjoyable route map into everything else it has to offer. The established sights, like Harrison's caves, a cavern full of brightly-coloured stalagmites and stalactites, or the brilliantly curated and user-friendly museum, are worth a look whenever you are there. A Friday or Saturday night at Oistins, where you can swig the local Banks beer to the sizzling of flying fish and chicken in the frier at most times of the year. Those looking for a slightly more boisterous scene should try the chaos of Baxter's Road, while the clubbers will always have Lawrence Gap.
As a fairly regular visitor but a once-only tourist, some of my fellow holiday-makers' habits strike me as distinctly odd. One of the biggest mistakes tourists seem to make when they get to Barbados is to confine themselves to the area immediately around their hotel and the capital Bridgetown. There are two problems with this. First, beyond a good bookshop (Cloisters), some interesting colonial architecture and a few banks, there is not an awful lot to do or see in Bridgetown. With its neo-Gothic parliament buildings and the Caribbean sea lapping at the foot of the first statue of Nelson ever erected it is definitely worth a visit. And there is an excellent museum nearby which manages to strike the balance between informative and interesting until you get to the Victorian silverware. But with overpriced restaurants and run-of-the-mill shops, half a day is more than enough unless you are looking to buy something specific.
Second, a little imagination makes the dawn dash for the sunbeds completely unnecessary. It is strange to see scores of sunbathers crammed on to a small stretch of beach outside their hotels when you know that five minutes up the road there is a larger, prettier one that is completely empty.
Anyone staying for a week or more would do well to hire a car for at least a couple of days for reconnaissance purposes. Not for the adventure - it is really not that sort of island - but because there are so many beautiful places to laze around it would be a shame to limit yourself to just one.
On an island as small as Barbados you can drive all the way around it at a fairly leisurely pace in a day - stopping off for a good lunch on the way. Hiring a car on the island is cheap and your fellow drivers are sane, even if the narrow roads occasionally demand either patience, caution or the kind of personal daring on a scale not conducive to a relaxing getaway.
With wheels and the help of a halfway decent map and guidebook, you can make your way to parts of the island which, even in high season, you can either have to yourself or share with a handful of canny tourists and the occasional Bajan. Some, such as Foul Bay in St Phillip, which offers a vast sandy expanse framed by craggy rocks, are not signposted but are not difficult to find either - to locals they are not a hidden treasure but one more part of the island's banal beauty. Others, like the whispy shores of Bathsheba, and the rocky pools of Cattlewash, are simply undervalued.
Once you've got your bearings, ditch the car and take a bus. True it's slower and less comfortable but its also less stressful, reliable and, unlike driving, forces an interaction with the island and its people that you are not going to get otherwise.
Similarly, the propensity for sedentary behaviour - it is after all a holiday - often leaves people eating and drinking where they happen to be sleeping. This is a pity because the best food on the island is rarely in the hotels. If it's a quick snack you're after, try Chefette - one of the lesser known delights of Barbados is that it has so far kept McDonald's at bay - which does a delicious chicken and potato roti and buffet salad. If you fancy something more upmarket, head up to Holetown or stop off on the road from Bridgetown to St Phillip where there are plenty of excellent, if quite pricey, restaurants further up the coast road.
Patronise any of these as a regular holidaymaker and you will feel the joyful sin of paying for something you cannot afford but will never regret. Visit them with the knowledge that your family is only a bus ride away and you will feel nothing but the stupidity of being a gullible tourist. Tell them you have paid £40 for a meal and they will gasp with disapproval. Not because they could not afford it, but because, in the words of the Goodness Gracious Me matriarch: "[They] could make it at home for nothing."
Only then, when you hide your day's conspicuous consumption and tacky tourist habits from the rest of your aunts, uncles and cousins, do you know that you have crossed the line from family visit to personal vacation. Both are wonderful. But each is as different from the other as you could possibly get on an island so small all its residents fit into one phone book.
Beyond the beach
Chris Tindall Soaking up the sun on a beach, sipping a rum cocktail and feeling pretty pleased is par for the course in Barbados. However, before sunstroke or a hangover threaten, try any of these alternatives to the sun, sand and sea routine.
Barbados is literally made of coral, making for excellent diving - there are 10 divable sunken wrecks and sea horses and frog fish regularly on view. Diving is good all year round.
The Wet Shop offers four regularly scheduled dives daily and a wide variety of dive sites. They also feature PADI courses for those new to scuba diving.
Prices start from $45 for one dive, (up to 10 dives available) and PADI courses start at $375.
The Wet Shop, Cavans Lane, Careenage, Bridgetown, Barbados. Tel: 1 (246) 348 377, email: [email protected].
The Barbados Golf Club, located between the airport and the St Lawrence Gap resort, was the island's first 18-hole course re-opened last year, after a 30-year break. Next year, it hosts the PGA Seniors Tour. Three more courses.
Barbados Golf Club, Durants, Christchurch. Tel: 1 (246) 428 - 8463, email: [email protected]. Green fee (18 holes): from $79.
Tall Ships Cruises offers five-hour trips daily for all ages. Three stops give passengers the chance to snorkel at a shallow shipwreck and a reef, and to go swimming with turtles. Floating mattresses and snorkel equipment are provided and the cost includes all drinks and a buffet lunch.
Tall Ships Cruises, The Shallow Draught Harbour, Bridgetown Port, Bridgetown. Tel: 1 (246) 430 0900, email: [email protected]. Cost: $65.
Flying fish are the national emblem of Barbados, and they are also found in the restaurants, along with kingfish, snapper and sea eggs. Among the smartest restaurants are: Lone Star, Emerald Palm and La Maison; and for the traveller on a budget, there's the Chefette fast food chain. Eating out in Barbados is not generally cheap, but buffets are good value. Try Sam Lord's Atlantis Hotel in Bathsheba.
For further information, see islandconnoisseur.com.
Barbados' night life starts in St Lawrence Gap (or "The Gap" as it is known locally), a 1.3km stretch of road in Christchurch. There is always some form of entertainment taking place, no matter what day of the week, and very often it is live, often calypso, soca and reggae bands. Street parties, karaoke and live bands are the norm at The Whistling Frog's party nights', whereas Time Out offers some of the best jazz around. The two main nightclubs, Reggae Lounge and After Dark cater to all tastes (reggae, calypso, R&B, live music and DJs).
For further information, see barbados.org/nightlf.htm
Way to go
Getting there: Exsus Travel (020-7292 5050 exsus.com) offers seven nights' B&B at Colony Club, for £1,806pp, two sharing , including return flights from Gatwick and transfers. Scheduled carriers from the UK are BA (0845 7733377, britishairways.com), Virgin (01293 747747, virgin.com/atlantic) and BWIA (020-8577 1100, bwee.com). BA has a special price of £393.50 return if booked before the end of November. Country code: 001 809. Flight time: 8 hours. Time difference: -4 hours. £1 = $2.86 Barbados dollars.