If you’re planning a trip to Barbuda over the next few weeks, prepare for some serious flirting.
Mating season for the tiny isle’s famously amorous frigatebirds starts around September and the groups of posturing males puffing out their throats into a bright red balloon, quivering their vast wings and drumming their beaks to draw passing females’ attention, make for a spectacular display.
Antigua’s lesser-visited sister is home to the second largest nesting area outside the Galapagos. The aptly named magnificent frigatebirds are locally dubbed “man o’ war” for their habit of mugging other birds mid-flight for their freshly caught fish.
September marks five years since the 62-square-mile island was devastated by Hurricane Irma, thrusting this unassuming place onto the front pages of newspapers worldwide.
Today, the birds, like Barbudans themselves, have largely recovered and visitors are heartened to discover a slew of intriguing attractions that go way beyond the legendary pink sand beach.
This low-lying coral isle is 30 miles northeast of Antigua and accessible by ferry, plane or helicopter charter. Loved for its laidback whimsical charm, it offers an ambience of stepping back in time amid an unspoilt landscape where fallow deer, wild boars and donkeys still roam free.
A word of warning though. While wildlife is aplenty, accommodation is rather more sparse.
There’s a reason why tourism bosses, in launching an official promo for Barbuda earlier this year, invited vacationers to come — just not all at once.
Those wishing to spend longer than a day here are advised to book well in advance, bearing in mind some places close entirely for the rainy months before reopening in November.
The luxurious Barbuda Belle boutique hotel comprises eight suites and a penthouse set across a deserted 15-mile beach. There are also the Barbuda Cottages, an eco-friendly hideaway of rustic wooden properties on stilts, the recently built Historic Dulcina Apartments aimed at travellers on a budget, plus a smattering of small guesthouses.
Many people who flock here to enjoy a unique brush with nature opt for camping. If sleeping under sweat-inducing polyester is not for you, step it up a notch at the Frangipani glamping site, a remote getaway where you can sleep in a queen-size bed in a wooden cabana complete with outdoor kitchen and shower.
Across the island, some houses still bear the scars of Mother Nature’s wrath and cellphone signal remains spotty in certain parts, but homes and infrastructure have predominantly been restored.
On top of that, Barbuda has also been undergoing something of a construction boom with a number of heavyweight foreign investors currently ploughing dollars into high-end resorts aimed at attracting well-heeled visitors and part-time residents.
Some of the developments have not been without controversy. Many Barbudans feel they pose a threat not just to the environment but to their long tradition of practising communal land ownership. Others welcome the arrival of an economic injection and new employment opportunities.
One of the most interesting projects is headed by Hollywood actor Robert De Niro and Australian billionaire James Packer. The duo is set to transform the derelict K Club — where Princess Diana holidayed months before her death — into a Nobu resort.
As food aficionados know, the Goodfellas star co-founded the successful Nobu chain, which now boasts 50 restaurants across the globe — including in Barbuda.
Don’t expect the glitz of its US counterparts here, however; this Nobu is toes-in-the-sand Barbuda style. The eatery, which opened in 2021, is a delightful blend of organic tones, latticework and understated elegance, complemented by a broad range of Japanese dishes, sake, wine and cocktails.
The location is worth a sojourn for the beach alone. Named after its most revered visitor, the crescent-shaped Princess Diana Beach at several miles long offers ultra-seclusion and seasonal pink sands.
To experience true local culture, eating at any one of Barbuda’s small diners is an experience not to be missed.
At Wa’omoni in Codrington, Jackie Beazer cooks up an array of traditional dishes including venison and conch burgers, plus belt-busting cakes and puddings.
Claudette Beazer, whose cookshop is conveniently located near the fisheries complex on the outskirts of the town, is known for her delicious home cooking. Some residents also open their homes to diners wanting a real taste of Barbuda.
While choices for breakfast and lunch are abundant, dinner options — save for informal grills and bar snacks — can be elusive off-season.
Uncle Roddy’s on Coral Group Bay is one of the most popular restaurants on account of its pretty venue, splendid beachfront spot and variety of Caribbean and international fare.
While Barbuda may lack the high-energy activities and nightlife of its regional neighbours, it’s an eco-tourism haven — a draw for surfers, hikers, birdwatchers and boaters alike.
Lagoons, creeks, mangrove swamps and mud flats make for a variety of habitats for waterfowl, and dozens of species of birds have been recorded here.
Locals have a deep reverence for the natural world; many Barbudans can identify dozens of plants suited for bush tea alone.
Residents will testify to balmy days spent picking sea grapes, fishing and exploring caves — and it’s easy to find someone willing to show you the latter. Those closest to Codrington are found at Two Foot Bay. In addition to bats, crabs, iguanas and tropicbirds that frequent the caves, one — Indian Cave — even boasts petroglyphs left behind by the island’s First Peoples.
Other well recommended sights include snorkelling at the marine reserve of Palaster Reef, where you won’t be rewarded just with vibrant fish and the odd sea turtle but old shipwrecks too.
Whatever the future holds for this tranquil outpost that time once forgot and appears to be catching up on, there is no accounting for the indomitable spirit of the Barbudan people, displayed so valiantly in Irma’s aftermath.
Guests are always warmly welcomed and quickly become like family. One more reason perhaps why Princess Diana famously said Barbuda was the only place on earth she could find peace.