Barbados

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Called "England of the tropics," Barbados is steeped in colonial history. Even though it's been independent for four-plus decades, Barbados remains part of the Commonwealth.

It's a special island in so many ways: We boast a very low crime rate; clean, crystal blue and aqua water; white and pink-white beaches; an ideal climate; a location outside the path of most hurricanes; and a wonderful balance of "laid back" with plenty of excitement if you want to get out of your hammock. Here's more:

Bajans: Barbadians refer to themselves as "Bajans." When you're here, you'll undoubtedly hear some colorful Bajan slang. For example, to say that an arrogant person will someday be cut down the size, Bajans say, "Today's rooster is tomorrow's feather duster."

Location: The eastern most Caribbean island, Barbados is at 13.10 N, 59.32 W, just southeast of the Caribbean Island chain (Caribbean map courtesy DefinitiveCaribbean; Barbados map is from WorldAtlas.com.)

Climate: Tropical, normally 27 °C (80°F) to 30°C (86°F). The island is constantly cooled by the gentle northeast trade winds blowing off the Atlantic Ocean.

Time Zone: U.S. East Coast time, although there's no Daylight Savings Time in Barbados and so during the summer Barbados is behind the East Coast of the US by one hour.

Language: English

Literacy: 99.7%

Nationality: Barbadian

Population: approx. 275,000

Size: 430 sq km (14 x 11 miles, or 166 sq miles)

Coastline: 97 km

Roadways: 1,600km

Highest Point: Mount Hillaby (336m / 1,100 feet)

Capital: Bridgetown, St. Michael

Currency: The Barbadian Dollar BBD

($1.00US = $2.00BBD) US dollars are accepted everywhere on the island, as are all major credit cards.

Food and Beverage Tax: 15% Value Added Tax

Religion: Protestant 67% / Roman Catholic 4% / None 17% / Other 12% (one of the oldest synagogues in the western hemisphere is located in Barbados)

Ethnic Groups: Black 90% / White 4% / Asian and mixed 6%

Independence: November 30, 1966, from the UK

Electricity: 110 Volts, 50Hz AC

Country Area Code: 246, dialed just like a number in the US

Legal System: English Common Law

Industries: Tourism / Sugar / Light Manufacturing

Airports: 1 (Grantley Adams International Airport)

Water: Barbados' water is naturally filtered through limestone and as such is very clean and safe to drink out of the tap.

Driving: Barbadians drive on the left-hand side of the road. For $5 US you can get a local driver's license; the car rental agency you use will help you with this.

Dress: Daytime dress is casual, tropical travel beach attire. For women, summery skirts/dresses/slacks and sandals are great for evenings out. Men usually wear a collared sports shirt and slacks at night. It's casual but not as casual as beaches in the States; the more- conservative British influence is seen in dress here. Note on dress: It is illegal to wear camouflage clothing or carry camouflage accessories in Barbados.

United Nations Fact: Barbados is one of the freest black nations in the world. It also boasts the most-repeat visitors of all the Caribbean islands (34% of Barbados' visitors have been here before).

Limestone: The limestone-coral (left) gives our beaches their sugar-white sand. Barbados is often referred to as 'the gem of the Caribbean'. It is also affectionately known as 'Bim'.

Rainy season: The summer months (June to October) are our rainy season, caused by tropical waves and hurricanes off the west coast of Africa that travel over the Atlantic Ocean towards the Caribbean and North America. These storms usually pass well north of Barbados. Our last hurricane was in 1958. Rainfalls come in short bouts due to the higher temperatures at this time of year.

It is thought that Amerindians (Arawaks followed by Caribs) inhabited the island as early as 1600 B.C.

Portuguese explorer Pedro a Campos stopped on the island en route to Brazil in 1536 and named the island Los Barbados – "the bearded ones" - perhaps after the island's fig trees, whose roots resemble beards.

By 1625 the Caribs had vanished and Captain John Powell landed. Two years later, John's brother Henry Powell came to the island with 80 settlers and ten slaves, establishing the island's first European settlement on the west coast near what is now Holetown.

The settlers cleared the land for tobacco and cotton crops; however, these proved to be unprofitable, so sugar cane was selected as an alternative.

The sugar industry prospered, and the 'landed gentry' from England flocked to Barbados hoping to make their fortunes. They lived extravagantly, as is evident in the many 'great houses' across the island, many of which are open for public viewing today.

African slaves took the place of European indentured workers, drastically decreasing the white population of the island.

In 1816, a slave named Bussa led the island's first slavery uprising. Today, Bussa is a national hero, and the Emancipation Statue proudly bears his name.

The slave trade continued until 1834, when the Emancipation Act was passed, introducing a four-year apprenticeship period until the complete abolition of slavery in 1838.

Barbados remained a British colony until 1961, when the island was granted internal autonomy. On November 30th, 1966, led by premier Errol Barrow, Barbados became an independent nation.

Today, the country maintains ties to the British monarch through the Governor General, and is a member of the commonwealth.

Tourism dates back to the 1700s, when George Washington visited the island with his brother-in-law who suffered from tuberculosis.

It wasn't until the 1950s and '60s that visitors from Canada and the United Kingdom started transforming tourism into a major industry. Today, the island's economy is a healthy mix of tourism, financial services, sugar, and light industry.

The capital of Barbados is a busy commercial city set on Carlisle Bay, the island's only natural harbor.

It's short on must-see sights but worth a few hours' time. Architecturally it's a mixture of modern and colonial. Side streets lead off into residential neighborhoods. And the area is dotted with rum shops and chattel houses.

True to the island's British heritage, there are monumental obelisks, gothic parliament buildings, and a large Anglican cathedral.

More surprising perhaps is Bridgetown's distinctive 19th-century synagogue; the first synagogue on this site was built in the 1600s, when Barbados had a Jewish population of more than 300.

Bridgetown's outdoor attractions include the Careenage, a finger-like inlet lined with recreational boats that cuts into the heart of the city; and Queen's Park, which has good picnicking lawns and a huge old baodab tree for shade.

Military history buffs should head to the Barbados Garrison, the 17th-century base of the British Windward and Leeward Island Command. It has a Museum, fortifications, brigs and cannons a-plenty. The Barbados Museum has engaging exhibits, and for a quick immersion in the island's history you couldn't do better than to spend an hour or two here. Above, the Parliament building.

Just 14 x 21 miles large, Barbados offers dramatically varying topography and landscapes.

With 70 square miles of platinum beaches, explore the entire coastline. Here's a capsule summary of what you'll find:

The north coast – The north coast boasts dramatic cliffs and a sea far too rough for swimming. Distance from our capital city of Bridgetown and rough terrain mean the north coast is very lightly habited. Visit the dramatic cliffs and appreciate the beauty of nature and the force of the sea.

The east coast - The Bathsheba area is a surfer's haven, with our famous "Soup Bowl" of tremendous Atlantic Ocean waves.

Bathsheba is picturesque little fishing village that becomes a hive of activity several times a year when the surf contests come to town.

Known for its big and powerful waves blown in by our ever-present trade winds, Bathsheba still manages to offer something to everyone, as little pools in the reefs make for enjoyable investigating. Restaurants and hotels are in the area - and Smokey's shop, too - will serve you an ice cold Banks beer when you get thirsty.

The southeast coast – The southern end of the east coast, where The Crane development sits, features calmer waters than the east coast and longer beaches that are good for swimming and body surfing.

Crane Beach was originally a harbour and is considered by many to be one of the island's most beautiful beaches. Except for The Crane resort, this is a very quiet area of the island.

The west coast – Along with the south coast, the west is where visitors to the island tend to find overnight accommodations. The west coast has very little breeze and has the calmest waters - this is the Caribbean Sea.

Snorkeling is fabulous along the west coast (try Fitts Village, Paynes Bay, and Folkstone Marine Reserve), where you'll see soft corals, gorgonians, and colorful sponges. Look for the shipwrecks in Carlisle Bay, which lie at good snorkeling depths.

In fact, Carlisle Bay deserves a special mention – and even though it's considered a "west coast" beach, it's just north of the Hilton, very near us. Walk its two miles of dazzling white sandy beach and then swim in the calm crystal clear water. It's no wonder this was voted the number-one beach in the Caribbean in 2003.

The south coast – St. Lawrence Beach Apartments have provided an indepth guide on the South Coast Read More

When natives leave the island for any length of time, they start craving their beloved Bajan food.

What's the draw? Flying fish, cou-cou with peas and rice, sweet potato pie, pawpaw pie, yam pie, macaroni pie, corn pie, banana fritters, and pumpkin fritters.

For dessert, we love our bread pudding, sweet coconut bread, and delish locally made Bico ice cream. (When President Bill Clinton visited Barbados, he couldn't get enough Bico mango ice cream.

Flying fish is a silvery blue fish seven to nine inches long and able to leap from the water and glide through the air up to 75 feet (to escape predators) and plentiful in Barbados from December through June.

Flying fish are seasoned and marinated for several hours in a blend of minced onions, garlic, herbs, goat pepper, sea salt and lime juice. The traditional preparation is either fried or steamed.

Cou-cou is a cornmeal and okra pudding, a relative of a basic foodstuff of Africa called "foo-foo". Not a low-cal selection in sight … but, as a Bajan might say, "No worries, mon."

When the singer Rihanna comes home to Barbados, her first stop is Chefette, the "McDonald's" of Barbados, to get a roti. (in fact, McDonald's had a store here but it didn't make it; Bajans are fiercely loyal to their yummy rotis). Photo right is of Rhianna at home in Barbados, working up a roti appetite.

Of Indian origin, roti consists of flatbread, similar to a tortilla, with a spicy meat and/or potato and curry mixture inside. It makes up in flavor what it may lack in beauty (left).

Second to rotis are conkies - made of cornmeal, coconut, pumpkin and spices, mixed to a thick consistency and steamed in young banana leaves.

You can get rotis and conkies at Chefette, local joints, and beach bars. Don't leave Barbados without trying them – I warn you, though: they're addictive and you, too, will develop a craving for our flavorful local chow.

To drink?

But of course: rum, the stuff of pirates and exotic legends.

"Rumbullion" was probably invented by the British; its origins are shrouded in mystery because it was an illicit beverage at the time.

Made from sugar cane, Barbados is home to the earliest rum production recorded – by Mount Gay, which has been producing its famous rum in the same facility in Barbados since 1703.