Photos by Mike Small
Bottom Bay is one of our favourite beaches on the island. No matter where we are staying, we always visit it at least once or twice on every trip. When showing friends and family round our island “highlights” it is always high on the list and never disappoints. We often stay in the area around Bottom Bay, and when we do, it is where we exercise every morning. 12 lengths of the beach is about 2km and takes us just under half an hour to walk.
Bottom Bay is often listed as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It has it all in terms of iconic Caribbean beach characteristics. Wild breakers, rolling onto a small, palm-lined crescent of soft, golden sand nestling between rugged coral cliffs. It even has a cave. It’s not tranquil in the classic sense of the word, it’s difficult to hold a conversation above the sound of crashing waves and palm fronds rattling in the stiff Atlantic breeze, but it is utterly mesmerising. A few windswept moments spent gazing out to sea, where the rollers meet the reef, will blow away the most stubborn of cobwebs and sooth the most agitated of souls.
How to get there
Bottom Bay is on the East Coast of Barbados in Saint Philip, just north of Sam Lord’s Castle. Take a right from Highway 5 down Bottom Bay Road after Wellhouse and before Bayley’s Primary School and AJ’s Pool and Bar. At the end of the road is a small car park from which some steep stone steps lead down to the beach.
Bottom Bay is a natural and unspoiled beach. There are no “facilities” as such. If you fancy staying for a while, take a picnic. In tourist season, there are usually a couple of local guys around who will rent you rent a rickety sunbed. For few dollars, they’ll knock you up a homemade rum cocktail served in a coconut shell, spectacularly harvested and cracked open, especially for you, by a barefoot climb up a palm tree, and single swipe from a machete. You also can buy little trinkets and hand-made jewellery from a seller at the top of the steps.
Although the locals venture out beyond the surf, strong tides and a heavy swell mean it’s not safe to swim at Bottom Bay. It’s not unusual to encounter jellyfish in the waters of the East Coast too. They tend to be small and, while they will give a nasty sting, are not particularly dangerous. It’s just a case of being aware and careful but not too terrified to go near the water!
There is a small settlement that sits just above Bottom Bay called Applehall. A couple of luxury homes sit right on the cliff edge, and just behind them is a newish development of small villas, most of which have swimming pools. Most of them are privately owned, but many are available for holiday lets. There are very few bars or restaurants in the area other than a few local rum shacks. At the top of Bottom Bay road, Lendees, a BBQ takeaway, serves fish, chicken, or pork ribs with chips on Friday and Saturday evenings.
The Time of Covid
Bottom Bay is quieter than ever during the Time of Covid. There are no trinket sellers or sunbeds to rent, and no sign of the tree-climbing mixologists. Even after just a few months, there is a sense that the beach is being reclaimed by nature. A lone male monkey seems to have made the gully his personal domain. The steps are becoming overgrown and slippery. Lizards stop and watch as you make your way down, seeming surprised to see you. Beach creepers are sending sneaky tendrils out across the path so that in a few more months, if you didn’t know it was there you might not find it. There seem to be more crabs than usual scuttling over the sand and uncharacteristically bold flocks of shorebirds will barely acknowledge your presence.
Unlike may of the other beaches in Barbados, I’ve not been able to unearth any particular history on Bottom Bay and how it got its name. I can only assume that it is called after its location, and the fact that it is positioned at the bottom of a cliff, but then again, so are many other beaches in the area. However, I did learn from a man we met in the car park one day, that Bottom Bay was the place you went when you wanted to blow away the memories of past lovers.
Even at the height of the tourist season, Bottom Bay is never busy. Early mornings will see one or two locals taking their daily exercise there, and a couple of fishermen gathering bait for a day’s fishing elsewhere. A steady stream of visitors, Bajans and tourists, drop in from time to time throughout the day. Most, climb down the steps to the beach, take in the view and then move on.
We met Derk one morning, when he arrived on the beach with a couple of young men to go free diving for conch (pronounced conk). Derk, and one of the others, carried big logs adorned with plastic containers to convert them into flotation devices. Derk was wearing a worn wet suit, which he stuffed with chunks of polystyrene for added buoyancy. The other two men (one of whom was really just a boy) were wearing only shorts and t-shirts. All three had masks and snorkels.
We went over to chat to Derk and find out what they were doing. He was friendly and garrulous. Slim and muscular, with a wide smile that revealed more than a few missing teeth, it was hard to gauge his age. The other two divers eyed the ocean nervously, barely acknowledging our existence.
In just the few moments, as they prepared to head out to sea, we learned that Derk had been a fisherman, like his father before him, since he was a boy. He had supported his wife and family through fishing, for 30 years. Today, he was looking for conch to sell to a local Chinese restaurant. The idea was that they would swim out a few hundred metres and allow the currents to carry them further down the coast to Sam Lord’s Castle, diving as they went.
The other two were clearly anxious to get going. They waded into the surf and Derk hurried after them. He shouted back to us that he had a beautiful conch shell he could clean up and sell to us if we met him at 8 o’clock the following morning. We shouted back that we would be there, and he was gone.
We watched for a while as they swam further and further out until they were just tiny figures bobbing in the waves. From time to time they disappeared behind the heavy swell. The boy without the log seemed to be floating further and further away from the other two. I was terrified for them but had to assume that they knew what they were doing. The term “hand-dived” when applied to seafood, suddenly took on a whole new meaning for me! Conch, as a rare and expensive delicacy costing anything between $25 and $30 per pound, suddenly seemed hugely under-priced, relative to the risks that were taken in its acquisition.
We had turned to leave and were heading towards the steps when we heard shouting and turned around. The men seemed to be drifting back towards the shore. Derk was aiming for our beach and looked as though he was just going to make it. The other two were moving further south and out of sight around the jagged coral cliffs. Something seemed to have made them abandon their plan. We walked back down to where Derk had reached the beach and was striding towards us with his log balanced on his shoulder.
He explained that the waves were too big and the currents too strong. They knew when it was necessary to respect the sea and had decided to give up. Besides, the water was so murky that they couldn’t see the bottom and it was unlikely that they would be able to find any conch. I asked about the other two and he reassured me that they were deliberately heading further down so that they would not have has far to walk when they came ashore. By the time we parted at the top of the steps we had arranged to meet him back at the clifftop at 11am to collect the conch shell and its meat, hand prepared by Derk himself. Somehow, we had also signed up for a charity walk in a couple of weeks’ time!
Needless to say, a Bajan 11am stretched out to almost midday. We’ve learned to allow an hour beyond a given meeting time before it is acceptable not to wait any longer. It was the hottest time of day and there was no shade on the cliff top. We were sweltering. We couldn’t go home as we would have felt awful if he had turned up with the goods to find that we had given up and gone. Especially as he had not found any more conch that day. He arrived about 10 to 12 on a pushbike. The shell was majestic, and the meat looked and smelled fresh. He gave us our entry forms for the walk and told us to find him on the day to get our numbers. We left him pumping his bicycle tyres up for his journey back home.
I made conch fritters for dinner that night. Chunks of meat coated in a seasoned batter and deep fried with a lime and chilli mayonnaise for dipping. They looked good but in all honesty were extremely chewy. Imagine the rubberiest squid you have ever eaten and double its rubberiness. I’m fairly sure conch would fall into that category of food where you burn off more calories eating it than it contains. Maybe it was my cooking? I’ll have to try it in a restaurant next time I see it on the menu just to be sure!