Travelling on a plane during a pandemic is a strange experience and not one many would undertake lightly.
But with the days growing shorter, and a bleaker winter than usual expected in our cold corner of northern Europe, you can understand why many are prepared to spend eight hours in an enclosed space with over 300 people to escape to warmer climes.
From Thursday, holidays in the UK and abroad will not be allowed under England’s new lockdown measures. See gov.uk/foreigntravel-advice for country-specific travel advice and for updates to travel restrictions.
I take the inaugural British Airways flight from Heathrow to Bridgetown, Barbados, with the same intention, but also to find out how the Caribbean island is managing the return of tourists from countries that have much higher rates of Covid-19 than it does.
With just 233 cases at the moment and seven deaths on the island, the risk is clearly that travellers will bring the virus with them.
Barbados’ travel pro tocols
But Barbados – long favoured by Brits as a prime destination for winter sun – has a plan. The Government has brought in a set of “travel protocols” for visitors from high or medium-risk countries, such as the UK.
This involves taking a Covid test (known as a PCR test) before departure, quarantining on arrival in government-approved hotels or facilities, and taking another test four to five days after your first. If that comes back negative, you’re free to explore the 166 square mile island, which lies to the east of the Caribbean chain and is shaped, as one local puts it, “like a pork chop.”
Prior to departure, the new entry rules do add a layer of complexity to the trip beyond rummaging for your passport. The first test must be taken within 72 hours of arrival and will set you back close to £200.
Three days later, with a negative test result in hand, I take my seat on the brand-new Airbus 777 and get chatting to a Scottish student from the University of Aberdeen. All his lectures are now online, so he’s swapping the Granite City for the nightlife of Saint Lawrence Gap on Barbados’s southern shore. The young Irish couple beside him have applied for the island’s new $2000 (£1,570) “Welcome Stamp” visa, which allows remote workers to stay for 12 months.
As quarantines go, it’s pretty idyllic
When we land in Bridgetown, my test result and temperature are checked before I’m guided to a waiting taxi and whisked to the west coast to Cobblers Cove hotel. I’m soon sitting on the veranda with a Banks Beer, overlooking lush gardens. As quarantines go, it’s pretty idyllic.
While the beach is off-limits as it’s public, many hotels offer separate pools for those awaiting their second test. I have to dine in a separate area with other travellers who have yet to clear quarantine, but as I tuck into the catch of the day – barracuda served “blackened” with a rub of spices – and take in the pink, yellow and blue sunset, it’s easy to forget my movements are restricted.
If you test positive, you must be assessed by a doctor and can self-isolate in your hotel room if asymptomatic. Travellers who are sick are taken to a government facility to receive free treatment. “We’re very proud that we have no community transmission,” tourism minister Lisa Cummins tells me later in the trip. “The protocols help us to keep you safe and to guarantee that you’re going to enjoy your vacation here with us.”
A historical tour is essential
Fortunately my second test comes back negative, so I do just that and spend a morning walking around the capital, Bridgetown, on a tour of its Unesco-listed centre. Amid such scenic beauty, it’s sobering to reflect on the suffering of the estimated 387,000 African slaves brought to the island by the British, whose toil created the Barbados you see today and whose ancestors make up over 90 per cent of the island’s population.
Barbados was one of Britain’s key colonial outposts from 1625 until its independence in 1966 and, as I amble around its spectacular gothic parliament and past floodlit cricket fields, it’s easy to see the UK’s influence here. Some historians argue that it was the model for exploiting the so-called New World, and locals tell me it was often referred to as “Little England”.
Prime minister Mia Mottley made headlines around the globe in September when she announced plans to remove the Queen as head of state in 2021 and become a republic. But on the ground, locals seem much more preoccupied by the lack of tourists. The country will remain part of the Commonwealth and, after a familiar “Good morning” or “Good afternoon”, many Barbadians – known as Bajans – will tell you about family they have in the UK or their visits to London.
Locals hopeful of tourist’s return
Chatting to locals is not an uncommon experience in Barbados. While the island boasts picture-postcard coloured houses, white-sand beaches, turquoise sea and world-class hotels and restaurants, it’s the warmth of the locals that really sets it apart from other destinations. Tourism makes up nearly a third of the island’s GDP and many are happy to see travellers return, even if it’s in smaller numbers than before.
As I lounge at a beach bar in historic Holetown watching the sun go down, Cash Calderon tells me that he’s hoping for a “lively Christmas”.
“People are hesitant to travel right now, but the first to come will tell their friends it was good and hopefully more will trickle in.”
When to go: Barbados is a year-round destination, but the best time to visit is during dry season – from December to April.
Where to stay: Rooms at Cobblers Cove start from $420 (£325) B&B. cobblerscove.com
What to do:
- The island’s rugged Atlantic coast has a different charm to the more quintessentially Caribbean west coast, with some great rum shops where you can get the low-down on life on the island from Bajans
- A tour of legendary Mount Gay Distillery, the birthplace of rum,
- The vintage No.1 Bajan Bus is a great way to see the island while waving back at locals – the bus used to take them to school.
Where to eat:
- You can try the catch of the day while watching spear fishermen bring in their haul at Tapas, a seafront restaurant in Bridgetown favoured by locals and tourists alike.
- Just along the coast, Champers offers fine dining with a sea view and a cooling breeze in the evenings,
- Barbados’s famous spicy yellow pepper sauce goes particularly well with a fried flying fish “cutter” – a sandwich served in beach cafes and rum shops.
More information from visitbarbados.org