This is much better weather,” Molly, my eight-year-old, declares as we step onto the tarmac in Bridgetown, Barbados, and feel the heat of 31°C on our pale Toronto faces. Who wouldn’t agree? For the next five days, my husband, Patrick, our three kids (Hayley, 14, Riley, 12, and Molly) and I will be soaking up the sun, surf and sights of this Caribbean nation.
But I’ve got another agenda as well. I’m hoping that a fun and relaxing holiday will help bring my daughters closer together. A six-year age gap, standard sibling squabbles and the interruptions of texting, phoning and real-life socializing leave little time for my two girls to enjoy being together. And time is running out: Soon there will be part-time jobs, boyfriends and university. How do I know? I am six years younger than my sister, Sandy. And when I see how Molly so admires Hayley, thrives on her approval, I see something of myself.
So I am hoping that time away in beautiful Barbados will help my daughters enjoy being together. Certainly the climate, the beaches and the laid-back vibe of the island create the right atmosphere, but we’re also going to do fun, off-beat things together and see if shared experience is key to sisterly love.
“I’m just going to go join Molly,” says Hayley as she heads into the warm turquoise water off Almond Village Beach Resort.
“See?” says Patrick. “They’re bonding already. Barbados is working magic.”
But I’m not convinced. We are in the unfamiliar, (but lovely) grounds of this sprawling, all-inclusive ocean resort with different routines and 395 rooms filled with strangers with foreign accents. Sticking with Molly under the guise of playing/supervising is Hayley’s way of feeling socially comfortable. And Molly is happy to be her sister’s familiar turf.
I played that role myself as a preteen at extended family gatherings. My sister would sidle up to me for a little gossip to keep occupied. I enjoyed the bumped-up status of having her talk with me as she would with her friends. So I’m curious to see how long Hayley chooses to hang with her sister. First stop is Harrison’s Cave.
On the 40-plus-minute tour through this natural wonder, Hayley is awestruck, videotaping the dripping stalagmites and stalactites. Meanwhile, Molly whines that her stomach is rumbling and asks how much longer we’ll be here. Perhaps a quick snack will even things out before we go to Hunte’s Garden.
I’m a little worried that a garden stroll won’t have much kid or teen appeal. But I’m wrong — thanks in large part to Anthony Hunte, the visionary gardener who turned a gully into a paradise of local flowers, plants and trees, as well as little sitting nooks. He welcomes us with fruit punch (and his famous rum punch) and takes us on a stroll through the grounds. Hayley takes remarkably good pictures of his orchids while Molly busies herself with another Flora — a little dog by that name. By the time we get to lunch at the landmark Roundhouse restaurant, the girls are happily chatting about their experiences.
There’s initial resistance again for another sightseeing tour. “I don’t want to go on a drive!” Molly is arguing with me as we’re about to board an open-air Land Rover and do a 4½- hour trek through the 11 parishes that make up Barbados.
“But you have no choice,” I tell her, firmly but quietly. She glares at me.
“Come on, Molly,” Hayley cajoles. “It’ll be fun!” Molly throws me another sideways glance and gets into the Land Rover. I mouth “thank you” to Hayley and wonder what inspired this helpful move.
But once we get moving, no more help is required. The wind keeps us cool as our driver, Charles, and his assistant, Kerwin, take us on a bumpy ride. The trip is broken up with bits of history, jokes, points of interest, and breaks for snacks, exploring or holding a green monkey. For once, my children don’t bicker — they smile, point out cool stuff and share coconut water. It’s a lovely day.
It turns into a lovely night at the Plantation Garden Theatre for a Barbadian buffet dinner and the Bajan Roots & Rhythms show. After watching stilt-walkers, fire-eaters and limbo-dancers, my girls take to the dance floor and then drag me out to join them.
The next morning, as we drive to our horseback- riding session, the girls rehash the limbo contest from the night before, laughing about how silly the men looked. But soon we’re all focused on horses as the ranch owner, Roli Roachford, hands us our helmets and starts to get us saddled up. Hayley, who has been taking riding lessons for a few years now, is happily in her element and offers bits of advice to Molly, who soaks it all in. “I want to take horseback-riding lessons too,” she tells me quietly.
We’re all impressed to find out that these are rescue horses — saved by Roachford, a mom of three, from abusive situations or impending death. She rehabilitates the horses and uses them for her work with local disabled children. “Kids get such confidence from riding a horse,” Roachford says. My own kids seem to be getting a huge laugh out of watching my awkward posture up and down the rocky terrain.
“OK, c’mon kids! This is not optional!” A wiry young man on the beach staff at the Sea Breeze hotel is rounding up all the kids on the beach for some games. My three join the crowd. Hayley and Molly pair up for a water-balloon toss and laughingly cheat their way to the last two pairs standing — and then lose. The kids are happier here at this smaller but stunning resort — the food, the service and the set up all seem better and easier to navigate. The trade winds keep us all cool as Riley wins the lime-and-spoon race.
They are still talking about it later at dinner at Oistins — a handful of BBQ huts and picnic tables where vendors cook up fresh fish from the adjacent market. Then, full of grilled mahi-mahi and flying fish, my girls stroll over to some jewellery vendors in search of treasures to give their friends. Hayley guides Molly toward the better deals, and they discuss which bracelet would suit which friend.
We are all good and tired when we settle into our spacious two-bedroom suite. I’m pleased to think that, so far, more has united my daughters than has divided them. And tomorrow we will all be — quite literally — in the same boat.
It’s the Tiami Catamaran Cruise, to be more precise, and we climb aboard just before 10 a.m. Initially, my kids sit tightly together on a bench along the side, just under the awning. But as we breeze along, they relax, then move around with the other tourists before making their way to the front of the vessel to marvel at the jewel-blue of the ocean. By the time we stop to snorkel along a coral reef, the kids are in their comfort zone.
“Mom! Mom! Did you see that little blue fish?”
“Mom! Over here! There’s a shipwreck!”
“Can I have the underwater camera?”
But the day’s most memorable event comes on our next stop when we snorkel with (or, more accurately, over) some sea turtles. This renders my offspring speechless — not a bad thing.
Dinner at Sea Breeze’s Mermaid Restaurant is another bountiful Barbadian buffet, and my kids eagerly tuck in — but between bites, I see a lot of long faces. “Do we really have to leave tomorrow?” Molly asks sadly. Later, I tuck Molly into her bunk and she asks, “Why can’t we just move here?” When I remind her about work, our home, our silly cats, it’s clear she’s not looking for any kind of reality. “Everyone has been so nice to me,” she says sleepily. “Even Hayley.”
I think about this as Patrick and I enjoy a quiet cocktail on the Mermaid’s deck. The kids have all been well behaved — not perfect, but noticeably happier with each other. Especially my girls. It must be some combination of breaking out of our day-to-day routine, getting away to this paradise, and just having fun together — no phone calls, emails or the usual distractions of home.
Next day comes too soon. Showered, dressed and nearly packed, I’m speeding around the suite, locating clothes and iPods, packing stuff, when I notice Molly hasn’t even taken off her bathing suit from this morning’s last ocean swim. She’s slumped in an armchair, playing with her DS. I feel like I’m going to blow a gasket. “What are you doing?!?” I demand angrily. “Get ready!” Molly promptly bursts into tears and each one is like gasoline on my building fury. But before I explode, Hayley quietly says, “Come on, Molly. Let’s find all your stuff.”
Without a word, Molly hops off the chair and dashes along behind her sister, and I wonder, “Wow, what was that?” Maybe this trip has brought them just a little closer after all. And maybe it’s time to give my sister a call.
Bonding with Barbados
Thanks to the Barbados Tourism Authority, we got to try a range of family-friendly places and activities. Here’s what we learned.
The all-inclusive resort If you go this route, check your choice carefully. What you see online is not always a reflection of reality. On the plus side, having all your meals and drinks covered is a simplifying no-brainer — especially with kids. But the tendency to stay on your resort and not check out this amazing island just seems wrong.
One more thing: Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. We liked Almond Beach Village (almondresorts.com) in St. Peter just fine, but it was so big and busy that, at one point, Molly got lost (it was just a few minutes, but it freaked her out). Sea Breeze (sea-breeze.com) in Christ Church was smaller, but the beach was beautifully clean and the shore had awesome waves. Getting pop or ice cream was simple — just one place to go. Plus, fewer guests meant we got to know the pleasant staff quickly. And our generous two-bedroom apartment rocked!
Activities All-inclusives like Almond Beach and Sea Breeze have all kinds of activities, so that’s a great way to spend at least part of the day. But it’s worth getting off-site to try something else and see some of this island paradise. We all enjoyed horseback riding at Jah Works (funbarbados.com/tours) and tourist sites like Harrison’s Cave (harrisonscave.com) and Hunte’s Garden. But my kids’ hands-down favourites were the Island Safari tour by Land Rover (islandsafari.bb) and the Tiami Catamaran Cruise (funbarbados.com/tours).