THE smiles say it all.
Brits love Barbados and the island paradise is delighted to be welcoming us back.
And the greeting couldn’t have been more friendly when I boarded the inaugural Aer Lingus flight from Manchester to the Caribbean favourite as restrictions were lifted.
The company’s first direct, non-stop flight was the perfect opportunity for me to find out just what we’d been missing all these months.
On this sun-drenched island, you can swim with turtles in Carlisle Bay, take a catamaran trip along the calmer west coast while sipping rum punch, or simply flop onto a sunbed and soak up the sea views.
As we set off on our tour of the island’s rugged east coast in a 4×4, our driver tooted his horn — the Barbadian way of saying hello to strangers, who grin and wave back.
We were on our way to the sleepy village of Bathsheba with a white sand beach that’s dotted with dramatic rock formations against which the Atlantic waves break in cascades of foam.
This country has some of the best beaches on the planet, and a tropical climate that means you’re guaranteed sunshine no matter what time of year you visit.
Better still, everything’s within a short driving distance, so it won’t take you long to tick off all the highlights before you’re back on the beach sipping fruity cocktails.
Just 15 minutes up the road from Bathsheba is the Morgan Lewis Windmill, the only intact sugar mill on the island dating from 1747, now a fascinating museum.
Further inland, you’ll find Harrison’s Cave, a maze of stalactites and stalagmites with an eco adventure playground where kids can pile into an underground tram.
Or there’s St Nicholas Abbey, which, it turns out, has nothing to do with monks.
The 17th century building is one of only three Jacobean mansions left standing in the world, and houses one of just two rum factories left on the island — there used to be ten.
Here we learned all about the history of rum, which was invented by a Barbados plantation owner more than 350 years ago.
My extensive tasting research means I can confirm they have used the centuries since wisely, refining it so carefully it is now the island’s second biggest export and worth around £35million to the economy.
If you really want to get stuck into sampling, though, the Rum Vault, a small tasting room tucked away in the Colony Club by Marriott, is a shrine to the stuff.
COVID: All arrivals must show proof of a negative PCR test, taken within three days of arrival and should upload it to their customs form.
Fully vaccinated arrivals don’t need to quarantine, but those who have only had one or no doses of the vaccine will need to isolate in an approved hotel or villa and take a second PCR test five days after arrival.
UK rules mean that you need to take a lateral flow test on day two of return.
GETTING THERE: Aer Lingus flies direct from Manchester with economy fares from £209 each way.
STAYING THERE: A Deluxe Studio at Bougainvillea Beach Resort costs from £73.77 per night on a room-only basis.
For more info, see bougainvilleabarbados.com.
OUT & ABOUT: A Signature Tram Tour around Harrison’s Cave costs from £41.87pp.
A Rum Experience at St Nicholas Abbey costs from £54.70pp for a tour with a tasting session.
We sipped on dark and spicy rums from their 150-bottle collection while learning about each one from the in-house expert, Corey Sobers, a relative of the greatest cricketing all-rounder of all time, Gary Sobers.
There are plenty of high-class restaurants to soak up all the hard stuff too.
On the west of the island, sample supberbly fresh sushi while drinking in the views at the Fusion Rooftop in Holetown.
And in Bridgetown on the south of the island, try Champers with its candlelit terrace overlooking the ocean or enjoy more stunning sunset views alongside Caribbean curries and seafood pasta at the rather randomly named Tapas.
Oistins is famous for its Friday night Fish Fry in the Bay Gardens where locals and tourists alike gorge on freshly cooked seafood from the many vendors serving up grilled or fried specialities.
We were ideally placed to experience it with a stay at the nearby Bougainvillea Resort, a relaxed all-suite property right on two gorgeous white sand beaches.
The recently renovated, all-inclusive Sands resort was our home for the rest of the trip.
Also on the south of the island, it too has a huge swimming pool overlooking a sandy stretch of beach.
Inside, the rooms were modern with colourful decor and spacious balconies looking out over the pool.
Barbados really does have so much more to offer than just endless beaches, but with a rum punch in hand and glorious heat, you would be forgiven for spending the whole week lying on your sunlounger.
Champ made it par-fect
YOU can never tell who you will bump into – even 4,000 miles from home, in a restaurant you have never set foot in before.
In my case it was Ian Woosnam.
And seeing the former world No 1 golfer at the Paul Owens At The Beach House restaurant in Barbados was a far cry from our previous meeting a few weeks earlier – at Ilkley in Yorkshire!
Woosie approached me with a booming cry of: “What the hell are you doing here? You’re not stalking me are you?”
I’ve interviewed Woosnam many times in my 23 years as The Sun’s golf correspondent.
He mentioned he had just been playing the world-famous Sandy Lane course a few miles from here.
“You should play it,” he suggested, before calling the club and booking me in.
So add an unexpected round at one of the courses on any keen golfer’s bucket list to the many delights enjoyed on this unforgettable trip to Barbados.