“I was born and raised on a beach named after my family. It’s called Burke’s beach.”
It was a Saturday in early February, the first of the month, and I was listening to the first professional surfer of Barbados tell me his life story. I was eager to learn more—not only because his upbringing sounded like a whimsical Caribbean fairytale (or, rather, Blue Crush for the turquoise-water set)—but because the longer we chatted, the longer I could delay our actual plans that beautiful Bajan morning: Learning how to surf.
Thankfully, my instructor, the irrepressibly charming Alan Burke, came from a surfing dynasty. There would always be more to the story, if the story was set upon the island’s mythical waves—his wisdom imparted with the occasional injection of Bajan Creole, which made the tale all the more fanciful (since I couldn’t understand parts of it). Burke’s eldest son, Josh, happened to be a professional surfer as well, in fact.
“He’s breaking new ground for Bajan surfers,” Burke told me, with more than a hint of fatherly pride.
Thankfully, his infectious enthusiasm—for waves and those who dare to ride them—isn’t just limited to the talent of his offspring. Despite my professed inability to master the art of standing on a surf board in open ocean (much less riding it to shore), Burke was confident I would be catching waves by lunchtime. He has a 100% success rate, he reminded me.
Which, of course, made me all the more nervous that I would ruin his immaculate surfing school stats. Though he now runs Burkie’s Surf School, there weren’t any formal surfing lessons for Burke to sign up for while he was growing up on the island.
But a chance encounter, and subsequent friendship, with Bill Thomson—also known as the “father of competitive surfing”— changed the course of Burke’s life forever. See how the term ‘Caribbean fairytale’ isn’t too far off?
A Welsh transplant, Thomson arrived in Barbados in the late 1960s and immediately adopted the island as his home—and Burke as his newfound family. Thomson was Burke’s mentor, his “surf dad” so to speak—which makes his son part of the third generation of this Bajan surf dynasty.
That the father of competitive surfing would have settled down in Barbados isn’t surprising to Burke. The Caribbean nation is a favorite destination amongst many of the sport’s premiere names and faces.
“Kelly Slater loves it here too,” I was told in a whisper. Best to keep that hush-hush, however.
Though Barbados is (rightfully) renowned for a variety of superlatives amongst its tropical neighbors—as the island that “perfected” rum and, in my opinion, also perfected the fish fry, not to mention as the homeland of Rihanna—less is known about its identity as a surfing capital.
Not just a surfing capital, however, but rather the surfing capital of its surrounding environments in the Caribbean.
Not unlike Manhattan real estate, the reason for, and value of, this surfer’s paradise all comes down to one thing: Location, location, location.
If you look at a map of the Caribbean, all of the other islands stay relatively within the dotted that arches south from the West Indies to the Grenadines, providing shelter from the Bahamas down to Grenada. Barbados, alternately, appears to be jutting out to sea, and totally exposed.
So, while the waves on other islands waves are inconsistent—for example, Dominica blocks the northwest swells from reaching nearby Martinique, another contender for surf capital of the Caribbean—the surf in Barbados never lacks for excitement.
“We get waves from Africa and Brazil and the Caribbean,” Burke explained. “Because we are so exposed, we get waves from every angle. Anything that’s creating any sort of pressure in the Atlantic: Barbados gets that swell. The swells that we get that come from hurricanes—generally that flows off the coast of Africa.”
Thankfully, the waves I was facing that morning weren’t the dominion of only daredevils or professionals. We were along the coast of Batts Rock Bay in Bridgetown, a part of the island where the waves are known to be gentler—and the beach, crucially, within walking distance of La Cabane, a chic outdoor tiki bar that effortlessly embodies the aesthetic (but not the pretension) of the Surf Lodge in Montauk.
But, first things first. Back to the lesson. I’d taken a lesson before—in the frigid waters of early fall in Rhode Island, my cousins and I leaping in and out of the water in our wetsuits like seals, racing for the shore when we inevitably fell off our boards. Or, in my particular circumstance: after I’d failed to get upright on the board in the first place. Needless to say, I didn’t catch a single wave.
I relayed this information to Burke, attempting to manage expectations (his and mine)—but he wasn’t hearing it.
“The sweet spot of the surf board is in the middle,” he repeated to me, while I struggled with doing my push-ups off the board. “You want to hit the wave straight on.” Burke was undiscouraged by my self-professed lack of balance or upper-body strength. Stop saying you won’t catch the wave: Don’t worry about it, you will.
Yet, rather than feeling pressured by Burke’s insistence of my skills and natural ability (both heretofore unbeknownst to me), I started to adapt his mindset. Of course, I’ll catch a wave. Probably on my first try. Why not? Why wouldn’t I?
Surfing, like most things in life, is all about confidence. Which is why it makes perfect sense the sport would thrive in Barbados—all Rihanna references aside. That casual self-conviction and charm can be seen throughout the island—not least at Oistins Fish Fry the night before, where I witnessed septuagenarians with more swagger and presence than I’ve ever hoped to bring to any aspect of my life.
“You just can’t be timid,” Burke explained. “You pop right up. You hit it straight on like it’s no big deal. Don’t overthink it and don’t doubt yourself.”
I caught a wave on my very first try. And once I’d felt the sensation of being above the water for the very first time (instead of underneath both the water and my board), the hardest part was over. And the best was yet to come—the celebrations, of course, beginning with a drink at La Cabane.
The post-surf scene is decidedly quirky and laid back: Servers walk around in shirts that read “Don’t suck” (the back states “Skip the Straw”). The beach bar was opened in 2018 by an entrepreneur known as Papa Jules, the co-creator of Mahiki Rum and former mastermind behind the royal-favorite Mahiki nightclub in London. (Yes, Prince Harry has been known to pay his respects at the outdoor bar when in town.)
Also known to pay his respects? The Bajan legend himself, Alan Burke, who laughingly reminisced with Papa Jules about a previous outing. “We drank the restaurant out of vodka,” they explained. Slim chance of that happening here, however. Though, when in Barbados, always order the rum. And also order The Cobbler cocktail at La Cabane—the red wine floater is shockingly refreshing. Just trust us. (And order banana flambé for dessert) And if you can’t book your flight to the island at this very moment for happy hour, we recommend Le Cabane’s soundtrack for a tropical fix.
I’m happy to report that the rest of my evening was spent celebrating my morning victories over board and sea. After some more rum and a catamaran cruise, it was back to the House Barbados, to regale the always-indulgent (and hysterical) staff with tales of my great success.. That’s the best thing about catching your first wave: You’re free to toast to that single accomplishment for the rest of your foreseeable future. (Or at the very least, until you catch your return flight home)
After all, I didn’t just catch a wave anywhere in the world—I caught one in the best break east of Fiji. The surf along the east coast of Barbados is often compared to iconic breaks around the globe, and to Fiji in particular, though their waves are caused by different cold fronts within the ocean.
Another difference between the islands is the surf culture itself: Barbados is more laid back and less crowded with hyper-competitive tourists—perfect for beginners looking for expert guides to help them stand up on a wave. Also perfect for dedicated surfers looking to meet some local legends and enjoy riding serious waves on near-empty beaches. Bonus: Your instructor might even dispense some life advice along the way.
“Every single positive thing that’s happened in my life I can connect it back to surfing,” said Burke. “This sport made my life and it still continues to give me the life I’m living today”
Where you’re seeking existential wisdom, or the tools for developing a new (very aquatic) life skill, there’s never been a better time to book your flight to Barbados, as JetBlue announced just last month that they are now offering year-round weekly flights from Newark.
The newfound flexibility of departure date will certainly come in handy for travelers looking to escape their hectic routine, if only for a long weekend. And there’s no bad time to visit.
“When is the best time to visit Barbados?’ I asked Burke, right before we said our farewells.
“Every single day of the year.”