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Thursday 8 December 2016

Get reggae for the time of your life

Dee O'Keeffe befriends small birds and green monkeys during her trip to the Caribbean paradise of Barbados - just don't go hugging the trees!

Locals mark the manicheel trees red to warn off tourists
Locals mark the manicheel trees red to warn off tourists
Beach at Almond Beach
dining at Almond Beach
Dee in Barbados
Rodney in Sugar Cane
Sugar Cane Club
Master bedroom in Penthouse
Fruit from the manicheel tree

The manchineel trees' peaceful existence along the Caribbean beaches of Barbados is representative of the way of life on this beautiful island.

Although it is considered to be one of the most dangerous trees in the world, the Barbadians, whose economy largely depends on tourism, leave the trees right where Mother Nature placed them, allowing the ecosystem to tick along with minimal interference.

You are warned on arrival of the dangers involved should you touch the tree or its fallen apple-like fruit (any contact burns layers of skin). The trunks all have a red ring painted around them or a big 'x' and hotel staff comb the beach each morning for any fallen fruit - the rest is up to you.

My first stop on the island was the Almond Beach Resort in Speightstown, located along the north-west coast and the Caribbean Sea. This is perfect for families, groups and indeed solo travellers like myself. In fact, the ultra relaxed vibe at the resort makes meeting people easy. And there are many activities on offer if lounging by one of the six swimming pools or positioning yourself on the white sands of the stunning beach are not for you.

The Almond offer two land tours as well as two boat trips free of charge to its patrons. I opted to do a safari-style exploration of the island's natural habitat, which allows you to get up close with some of the 5,000 or so native, and very adorable, green monkeys and the rather less adorable, but equally abundant, termite mounds, which are offered the same fearful respect as the manchineel tree. Savvy locals regularly spray their homes to avoid any termite roof munching.

The trip also takes in the east coast which, as soon as you spot the ferocious Atlantic waves, reminds you of home. While tourists do holiday along this coast, the currents make bathing more hazardous and the ocean a lot chillier, so they tend to spend just part of their break here.

Back at base at the Almond I also swam with the turtles - getting close enough to touch them. There's plenty of 'paid-for' water sports on offer here too, as well as three restaurants and bars, a supervised kids' club, a resort spa, watersports centre, two tennis courts, a putting green, squash court and fitness centre.

Another organised trip worth considering is Friday night at Oistins, which is basically a street party where locals and tourists get their dance on together. You pay $20 American or $40 local for the coach to bring you to and from. It's a fishing town with lots of good (if packed) restaurants, so plan to dine there too (not included in the price).

grown-ups

After five nights in the Almond, I headed to Sugar Cane Club, a short drive away, up the mountains a wee bit. It's a garden hotel so you forfeit the beach.

However, this special retreat is just for the grown-ups, making it ideal for all kinds of romantic or, simply, quiet getaways. Plus, the two hotels have a relationship so you can visit the beach any time you want (Sugar Cane supply transport) and guests from the Almond can head up the mountains to sample Sugar Cane's highly rated cuisine, which I recommend.

Facilities here are equally impressive and include two pools, two bars, two restaurants, squash courts, mountain bikes, a luxury spa and art gallery.

I stayed in the penthouse - it was so spacious I had trouble figuring out the main door for the first while. My greatest joy here was that while the bedrooms and bathrooms were all behind closed doors, the main living areas and the kitchen were open air - I'm an early riser and as I had my first coffee of the day while reading, little birds would shyly perch on the chair beside me, no doubt waiting for some crumbs should I eat something. While they're not toilet trained they weren't overly messy and it was such a beautiful experience being that close to nature long before the day has started.

Both hotels would be about a four star by Barbados standards (the staff are six stars out of five) and they're a great base from which to explore the rest of the island.

I went on long walks each day, becoming such a familiar figure that hotel staff took to beeping me and waving when they spotted me. Indeed, enthusiastic beeping is part of the culture of Barbados - friendly toots to say hello or warn you that they're approaching as you walk.

Each day I saw the local children head off to school in Speightstown - by the time I doubled back for breakfast at the hotel you'd see them playing football barefoot or sprinting as part of their PE class.

Given some of the protests Irish parents engage in about the placement of fast food outlets close to schools, you might be surprised that in Barbados vendors (selling everything from doughnuts to sweets and fizzy drinks) set up shop at the school gates each day. Nobody's perfect I guess!

Indeed, this Caribbean island is fighting the same food fight we are so worried about in Europe: obesity. Although one badge of honour is that Barbados is one of the few countries in the world where McDonald's failed - it lasted a mere six months in 1996.

You'll also notice a lack of buggies and prams. Any I saw belonged to tourists. Mums and dads carry their babies and toddlers around with them until they can walk and then they've got two feet on the ground and the grown-ups walk at their pace.

One thing you really should do while in Barbados is take the yellow reggae bus, as distinct from the tamer, government funded blue varieties. It's $2 Barbadian or one American no matter where you go. Given our social mores regarding road etiquette and safety, it's only fair to warn you that the yellow buses are lively - apart from the loud music, they speed along the roads - but they're a bit of craic. There were beer stops on one I took back to base camp from Bridgetown, the capital city.

If you're not all inclusive at some fancy resort and are self-catering, it's worth going here to do your food shop as you'll find prices cheaper than in towns like Speightstown (a litre of milk costs $3.30 American). Whatever your circumstances, do pencil in a day in Bridgetown. If it's high-end shopping you're after, then stop off in Holetown. Close to the famous Sandy Lane, it makes sense that the likes of Louis Vuitton and Michael Kors have anchor stores here and visitors can avail of duty free - just bring your passport.

When I was transferring to my second hotel, The Sugar Cane, I sat chatting to some of the girls working in The Almond who I had come to know and they were curious what I made of the place as a whole. I told them the people reminded me a little of us Irish in that they were friendly and shy at the same time. When I got lost in Bridgetown, the man I asked for directions did exactly what most Irish people would do - he walked me to the terminus.

And I also told them that Barbadians have the kindest eyes I've ever come across. I could feel them blush as they registered this, but it's 100pc true.

Travel, accommodation & tips:

◊ Money: Each US dollar equals two local dollars. ◊ Sunbathing: It's illegal to sunbath topless.

◊ Weather: Sunny and open for business all year round. Showers tend to pass quickly.

◊ No hustle: There's no hard sell in Barbados. Refreshing!

◊ The Island: It's 21 miles in length and up to 14 in width. Home to over 280,000 people.

◊ Stay seven nights at fully inclusive Almond Beach Resort with Tropical Sky (tropicalsky.ie, or 01 664 9999) from €1,749pp. Based on May-Jun & Sep-Oct travel with BA or Virgin flights and shared transfers. Stay seven nights at Sugar Cane Club, again with Tropical Sky, from €1,899pp. Based on May-Jun travel with BA or Virgin flights and shared transfers on an all- inclusive basis.

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