Around the Island: Biking Barbados

by Nikki Scrivener

After seeking out a relaxing vacation on the beaches of Barbados, a traveler is surprised to find herself tackling a difficult task: biking around the entirety of the island.

The Caribbean sun burned into the back of my neck, and a steady stream of sweat flowed onto my green cotton t-shirt that was already soaked through. Unable to continue further, I paused and turned back to admire the view. This was the one consolation – magnificent panoramas of the island landscape. From where I stood, the tired old road, cracked and worn from years of overexposure to the sun, gently snaked its way downhill, past fields of sugarcane and tall swaying palm trees. Along the coastline, churning white waters merged gradually into an expanse of blue Atlantic Ocean. This was the wild eastern coast of Barbados – a loitering pirate ship would not have looked out of place on the horizon.  

This biking odyssey had begun on the flatter landscape of southern Barbados, where I had been sold the idea of “a fun little bike ride around the island” by a friend who had arrived a month prior. Sami had promised it would be a great way to see the island during my first days but had failed to mention that we would be covering 70 miles of cracked, potholed roads with 3000 feet of elevation, in temperatures over 85 degrees Fahrenheit, all on mountain bikes that were not built for such an expedition. 

It was pitch-black when we set off at 5am from the parking lot of the simple one-bedroom apartment I had rented in Freights Bay. My biking companions were seven fellow Brits on extended winter escapes – most were avid bikers. The landscape in the south was flat, making for an easy start, and I was blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. We rode in darkness through neat residential streets lined with simple one and two-story homes. Behind these walls the Bajan locals slept soundly in their beds, unaware of the British bikers whizzing by in the darkness outside. We soon passed the airport, where I had arrived three days earlier with my beaten-up gray suitcase and dreams of a relaxing trip on a tropical island.  

Crane Beach, on the southeast coast of the island, was our first stop of the day and just in time for sunrise. Already firmly ensconced at the back of the pack, I pulled into a space among the seven parked bikes. From a rocky outcrop overlooking the lively blue water, we watched the sun leisurely rise above the distant horizon. Crane Beach is considered one of the most picturesque beaches on the island of Barbados, usually packed with throngs of tourists eager to photograph its purportedly pink sands; however, at this early hour we had it entirely to ourselves. Mother nature seemed happy to have an audience, and we watched as rays of golden yellow sunlight radiated from the top of soft, flocculent clouds, casting a gentle pink glow on everything they touched.

There was no time to linger – we had only been pedaling for nine miles. We rode on, gradually leaving behind the quiet residential neighborhoods of the south, and watched with interest as the landscape grew rugged and wild. We began to climb as the road rose from sea level and wound through the many hills of eastern Barbados. The roadsides were now lined with thick, leafy vegetation that crowded in from both sides and from above. The sun grew stronger. Following each steep, torturous ascent came a terrifying, and potentially hazardous, downhill ride.  There was little more to do but cling tightly to the handlebars and let gravity take hold – bumping and jostling on the hard black saddle, avoiding potholes and deep cracks on the uneven surface of the road – cursing my companions for leaving me behind. I was exhausted, but we were barely a quarter of the way around the island.  

Breathless and alone, I arrived at the summit of a particularly disagreeable hill and was greeted by the wide grin of a young man seated at a fruit stand. The stall was roughly constructed from mismatched slabs of wood and was held together with swatches of red fabric. It was loaded precariously high with young green coconuts and enormous bunches of ripe yellow bananas.

“Coconut?” he called across in greeting, with a hint of amusement in his voice.

The word conjured up sweet, nutty flavors and a reminder that I could have been laying under a palm tree, sipping a cool beverage at this very moment. I gazed down the road at my companions disappearing into the distance.

“Maybe another time,” I mumbled apologetically.

“I’ll be here. I’m Prince!” He called back with a friendly smile. I made a mental note to return, by motorized vehicle, to buy a coconut sometime, then pushed off downhill, my knuckles turning white as I held on for dear life.  

Slowly, the sun traversed the cloudless blue sky, and we pedaled on through the remote eastern parishes of Barbados – St Johns, St Joseph, St Andrew – passing fields of gently swaying sugar cane and brightly colored rum shacks. The idyllic island scenery gave away little of the island’s dark past. At one time, Barbados had been among the largest producers of sugar in the world; British colonizers got rich off the backs of African slaves in grand sugar plantations that were erected from the 1620s onwards. Hundreds of thousands of slaves are believed to have been brought to the island, mostly from west Africa. 

Great mounds of rock rose from the green countryside and pinned us to the coast as we traversed the Ermy Bourne Highway. We cycled beneath giant palm trees lining the beachfront road, past a small church painted in a shocking shade of bubble-gum pink, and watched as rough Atlantic seas crashed against the shore, a reminder that we were in surf territory now. Thanks to its location as the easternmost island in the Caribbean, Barbados is one of the prime islands in the area for surfing. Visitors can choose between the quintessentially calm blue waters of the Caribbean Sea on the west coast or the playground of waves provided by the Atlantic Ocean to the east. 

By late morning we found ourselves at the northern tip of Barbados, in the Parish of Saint Lucy. As rugged and remote as the east, the northern coast is characterized by dark, dramatic cliffs and tiny coves. Due to its lack of white sand beaches, few tourists venture to this part of the island, and it feels even more untouched than the east. Those that do come are often paying a visit to one of the island’s popular tourist attractions, Animal Flower Cave, a sea cave accessed by a stairwell leading down into the rocks from above. The cave contains a natural swimming pool, which is filled by incoming waves and was once home to numerous anemones, known locally as Animal Flowers, whose numbers have dwindled in recent years.

A long winding hill deposited us gently onto the west coast. This is the most developed and touristic part of the island, lined with five star resorts, fancy shopping complexes, restaurants, bars and Rihanna’s $22 million beachfront home. The road was now blissfully smooth – potholes and gaping cracks a distant memory – but for the first time in our journey, we shared the road with a steady stream of noisy traffic. Tranquil turquoise waters cradled idle tourists, cooling their red skin following a morning of roasting in brightly colored sun loungers. We rode through wealthy Speightstown, past trendy cafés serving oat lattes, and homeware stores stocked with expensive, eco-friendly products. Kitsch wooden holiday homes in varying pastel tones lined the waterfront, and we rode on as though through the pages of a travel brochure. 

Our final frontier was the southwest corner of the island, which is home to the nation’s capital, Bridgetown. As we approached the city, we wove between cars and paused at red lights, where a soundtrack of reggae music blared from open windows. We found ourselves in the heart of a modern city, busy with people going about their daily business. Colonial era buildings sat between new glass facades and multi-story parking lots. After Bridgetown came Saint Lawrence Gap, the island’s nightlife capital. At this time of the afternoon, it was eerily deserted; the bars sat closed, waiting for their evening customers to arrive once darkness fell.  

Just as I thought my legs were going to fail me, I began to recognize places I had visited during my first days on the island: the fish market at Oistins, Epic Surf Cafe, Massy Supermarket. We passed Miami Beach, where local families enjoyed barbecues on the sand while children splashed about in the water. Overhead, a Dreamliner prepared to land, ferrying in a new pack of tourists eager to enjoy some relaxation and winter sun. I imagined that few of them would circumnavigate the entire island of Barbados by bike, and as we pulled into Freights Bay ten hours after setting out, I felt a great sense of achievement to be able to say I had.

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