'Did you see the baby turtles, dear?’ a lady asks my eight-year old daughter Nancy as she dusts the pale sherbet sand from her damp knees. ‘The eggs hatched yesterday afternoon and a whole crowd of us gathered to watch while these tiny little things flip-flopped their way down to the water. It was just beautiful.’ Unfortunately, we’re fresh off the plane from London and missed this Barbadian phenomenon by mere hours.
‘And did you know that, once the baby turtles reach the sea, they won’t come out again for 25 years?’ she continues. ‘And when they do, they’ll come back to this beach, where they were born, to lay their own eggs.’ ‘Wow,’ says Nancy, beaming. After kangaroos and chocolate biscuits, turtles are her favourite things. ‘I’m going to come back and live here when I’m 25,’ she announces. We’ve been in Barbados for less than four hours and already the island is proving to be a hit.
Maybe she gets it from me. I love Barbados. To me, it’s the coolest and the most laid-back of the Caribbean islands. The dusty, candy-coloured chattel houses and the vast fields of waving sugar cane, destined for the rum factory, all traced by a pearly white coastline and a sea the colour of cheap blue cocktails, Barbados really is a picture-book paradise.
There’s more to the island than beaches. Barbados is home to Garrison Savannah, one of the oldest racetracks in the Americas and famous for hosting the annual Sandy Lane Gold Cup in March. One morning, we take a slow drive through sleepy villages lined with chattel houses, past sugar-cane plantations and baize-green cricket pitches, right up to the Scotland district in the very north of the island. Here we meet Sade Roachford, whose stables cater for all levels of riders.
Nancy has been riding since she was four and decides that she could easily hack through the forest. I, on the other hand, have had next to no riding experience and am extremely nervous around horses. Nancy and Sade take the lead on their ponies, while my gentle nag stops for a tropical snack every four yards. We trip-trap through the forest, scanning the woods for the indigenous green monkeys, ducking under palm trees and through the ‘hairy’ bearded fig trees the island is named after.
We spend our final morning with Nancy lolling about in the surf, still searching for turtles, while I relax on a lounger in a last-ditch attempt to soak up as much Caribbean warmth as I can to get me through the dark, winter months. And like a turtle returning to her beach, Nancy insists she will be back. When she’s 25, of course.
For Nancy, the highlight of the hotel is the Flying Fish kids’ club. It’s her first time at a club and I’m worried that she might not like it enough for me to legitimately kick back on the beach with a rum punch and the latest Dan Brown. But I needn’t worry. She flip-flops down to the clubroom like a baby turtle to the sea and makes a clutch of new friends immediately.
Alongside a host of toys, arts and crafts and video games, the club offers a full activity programme, including cooking lessons, scavenger huts, calypso dancing and movie nights.
For children aged 10 to 16, the hotel has a new Bajan Family Adventure Camp, which allows kids to explore more of the island with a range of off-site activities such as horseriding, a submarine trip and swimming with turtles. While parents are welcome to come along, it’s a great opportunity for them to gain some independence, albeit under the watchful eye of the club’s chaperones.
Thanks to a touch of jet lag (there’s a four-and-a-half-hour time difference), we’re both up with the lark most mornings. Watching as the fat sun heaves itself over the steely blue horizon, we pad hand-in-hand along the beach scanning the soft, rippled sand for freshly laid turtle eggs.
Nancy is now obsessed with finding the little critters, so we book a boat trip on Cool Runnings, a huge white catamaran crewed by a team of handsome boys, all of whom take Nancy under their wing. An hour into the sail, the captain drops anchor and we peer over the edge to see a pair of dark shadows twisting in the navy waters. ‘Right, Nancy, are you coming in to swim with me and the turtles?’ asks Chad, one of the crew. We put on our life jackets, grab our snorkels and masks and throw ourselves into the crystal waters.
Nancy has only just learned to swim and has never snorkelled before, but Chad makes sure she feels safe. Within moments she’s squealing through the snorkel as she strokes the shell of the wild hawksbill turtle that’s paddling beneath her. Growing in confidence, she follows the turtle as he pirouettes around us and hand-feeds him a bread roll from Chad.
Barbados is renowned for attracting a celebrity crowd (a crack team of A-listers decamp here each Christmas), but it’s not as exclusive as you might think. The hotels range from budget clapboard B&Bs right up to the über-luxe Sandy Lane, and most places cater for families.
We’re staying at the aptly named Turtle Beach hotel, an all-suite, all-inclusive resort close to St Lawrence Gap on the south-west coast of the island. At first, Nancy is bewildered by my generosity. Chocolate-covered waffles topped with Fruit Loops for breakfast? Of course, poppet. Why not? Yet another Shirley Temple kids’ cocktail complete with a cherry and a pink umbrella? Go on then, my angel. Fill your boots. Thankfully, the novelty of all-inclusive wears off before she bursts, but we want for nothing.
Breakfast is a swathe of fresh tropical fruit, warm coconut buns, as well as the traditional breakfast feast now expected of international hotels. Lunches are a buffet of local specialities – fried flying fish with plantain or creole jambalaya – and kid-friendly staples such as a build-your-own wrap station, salad bars and hot, salty fries. If you get peckish later, they lay on afternoon tea with fresh crab sandwiches and homemade cakes, while in the evenings there is a choice of three à la carte restaurants.