Low-key Barbados - avoiding the celebs

Sunday Times
Published: 3rd September 2006

Pearly light shimmers off the early-morning ocean as a swimmer breaks the water, tearing a surface as still, tense and silver as mercury. Back on shore, life has a less subtle, more primary palette: a breakfast of orange guavas and fresh cherry juice watched by an inquisitive yellow-eyed blackbird and a tiny bananaquit, hovering over white and pink hibiscus.

It's a vivid, intoxicating mix - exactly what you'd expect from an island that is rarely out of the paparazzi spotlight. For the past couple of years, I've been increasingly curious about Barbados. Why is it impossible to pick up a paper without a mention of which famous person stayed where? Just what is it about the place that keeps it in the news? It seems to be the most fashionable winter destination - even the Russians are coming here now.

In particular, I wondered why people talked about the "west coast" as if really there were no other coast in Barbados worth talking about. It turns out that the west coast is expensive, smart, glittering with fine restaurants. This is the Caribbean served on silver platters. Don't expect miles of white beaches and laughing inhabitants - this is poised, elegant and respectful.

It's beautiful, of course, because somehow nobody can take white sand and make it too white, or package clear water in a Tiffany box, or wrap the sunset into a silk scarf for a wealthy wife to wear. Nature here remains raw, gorgeous, tropical, far more tastefully opulent than the marble corridors of Sandy Lane.

In our west-coast hotel, the Fairmont Royal Pavilion, each room was right on the ocean, so we stepped from our terrace over a tiny wall into sand so soft you felt you might disappear, and a minute later you were plunging into water that had a particular ability to remove all anxieties, like clothes no longer needed. My friend was recovering from her mother's death last autumn, and the suicide of a good friend, and needed all the restorative warm, clear Caribbean water and glorious sunsets she could get. The first few days, she hardly noticed her surroundings, but bit by bit Barbados worked its magic. The poet Horace said those who travel or depart change only their skies, not their condition, but I'm not so sure.

There was plenty to notice. All day long there was the whisper and twitter of birds, as if passing on some riveting gossiping, and at dusk the cry of the tree frogs, which jump over your path, startling you as the trees are silhouetted dark against the sky. In the Fairmont's tropical gardens, purple morning-glory clambered over a fountain with the head of a lion spitting water, and a "bearded fig tree" flamboyantly extended its roots - the trees are said to have given Barbados its name, Los Barbudos, Portuguese for bearded ones.

Eating on the hotel's Palm Terrace, backed by the echoes of the ocean, the trees so particularly green and lush, I began to understand why many British visitors turn up here on the west coast, stay in one of the fine hotels, decide they want the holiday to last longer, maybe a lifetime, and end up buying somewhere. It's not an adventurous choice. Here they drive on the left and have dog shows and a Glyndebourne-style opera season, as well as polo, horseracing and plenty of cricket. It is an idealised 1950s Britain transported to a lavish tropical island, and what is wrong with that? No wonder Tony Blair comes here to escape 21st-century Britain, staying at Cliff Richard's house high on Sugar Hill, guarded by stone greyhounds.

The problem might be the other British, American and Russian residents of the "Platinum Coast". The business-class and first-class seats are full on the plane out there, yet some in economy are empty. We went for lunch at the Sandy Lane hotel, which has helped brand Barbados as a luxurious resort. In the plush marble foyer, a middle-aged American man sat on a pink-seated chair, as if on a throne, and puffed cigar smoke into the atmosphere while his wife hovered nearby, her eyes full of panic.

It is an awful irony that if you become extremely rich you tend to spend time with other rich, spoilt people, whereas those in the local youth hostel are probably far more fun.

We also ate at The Cliff, the most revered and expensive restaurant on the island, set in an amphitheatre of terraces overlooking a cove, the waves crashing against the floodlit rocks below. It was pompous and overpriced. Far better was the Lone Star restaurant, right by the sand, with flaming brands at night, and mirrors propped up here and there to reflect the ocean, so nothing was quite as it seemed. Not that that was cheap, either. The west coast is not somewhere to economise.

On the fourth day, my friend still sad, we were sunbathing on a diving platform when a huge Rastafarian popped up by our side, suggesting that we join a boat trip to swim with turtles and dive down to a shipwreck.

"Yes!" I said.

"No," said my friend.

"Come on," I said. She smiled slowly, opening up to the possibility of a new adventure. "Well, maybe." The Rastafarian abandoned us, but the boat eventually arrived, speeding us past great mansions cascading down to the ocean. We swam beside friendly hawksbill turtles that seemed happy to have us as companions, and later explored an old shipwreck's rusting metal skeleton - one Barbados visitor who had chosen to set up permanent home in the sun-licked, cobalt ocean.

Whether it was the turtles or the stoned Rastafarian or the dazzling tropical fish, by the next day my friend had begun to cheer up, and we decided to investigate other parts of the island. "The west coast is very spruced up because of the tourists," our driver told us.

"But the north and east are natural. We all like the east coast best - you get a lovely breeze there, actually." The Barbadians, or "Bajans", use "lovely" and "actually" nearly as much as my mother. "The east coast is where we all go on holiday."

We headed north along the coast, past the Sugar Hill estate, to Six Men's Bay, a fishing village where women in headscarves and aprons deftly filleted flying fish. A lady in a pink T-shirt with a straw hat sporting a pink flower sat on a wall by a church, resting her weight on her umbrella. "Churches for the women, rum shops for the men," remarked the driver. At last we were beginning to see snapshots, glimpses, of the old Barbados.

Next we travelled east, across the island, through banana and sugar plantations and fields of papaya, by grey-stone parish churches and grand plantation houses, and by pastel wooden chattel cottages, built on rubble so they could be moved. We saw a shape dash over the road. "Look at that monkey," said the driver. "Did you see it?" "Yes!" we both cried. It was final proof, as if more were needed, that we were now most definitely in a tropical country.

Up in the mountains, on a terrace of Naniki restaurant, we ate salt bread and seared flying fish with Creole sauce as a breeze cooled our necks. The epic view took in the hazy hills of "Scotland", leading down to the eastern Atlantic coast, where froths of waves crash down on wide, empty beaches. Here you can find the surfers' heaven of Bathsheba and the dishevelled, romantic Atlantis hotel, with its windswept lunch terrace. This is where I'd stay if I returned, a perfect writer's retreat.

We drove away from the windy and rugged east coast, up a hill, to the magnificent gothic St John's Parish Church, where a man was gilding the altar screen as two little sparrows flew up and perched on the cross, one on each side of Christ. From its churchyard, we looked back down at the misty, craggy coast as an ice-cream van and its nostalgic tune shimmered below us. We seemed to be in another time.

From then on, we truly relaxed. Sunday was a risqué black drag act - one song's refrain was "You can always use my butt" - at Holetown's Ragamuffin's restaurant, a ramshackle old chattel house. Its porch was the perfect spot to hang out in the heat, while the street outside filled with locals as well as guests, and broke out into a spontaneous party.

But if we wanted to let our hair down, it had to be a Friday in the livelier south of the island. More specifically, it had to be the fishing village of Oistins. Bob Marley serenaded us as we sat by the ocean and fish arrived at our table, grilled or fried in nearby beach shacks. Later, we stood in the doorway of a rum shop and watched dancing Bajan couples; one stately elderly gent tenderly held the back of a vast woman dressed in red as they moved to As Time Goes By. It seemed we were glimpsing Barbados in all its quiet dignity.

In the last few days, we changed hotels - moving to the small, friendly Sandpiper - but stayed on the west coast. By the very last evening, my friend was so relaxed she had no desire to stop drinking champagne and laughing. It was a transformation. Now I was the one who wanted to get to bed. "But listen to the tree frogs," she said with a beatific smile. She was much, much better. Horace was definitely wrong. 

Need to Know

Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of Caribtours.

Tour operators: Caribtours (020 7751 0660, www.caribtours.co.uk) has a week in an ocean-front deluxe room at the Fairmont Royal Pavilion from £1,377pp, B&B, including flights to Barbados with British Airways or Virgin Atlantic, private transfers and airport-lounge access on departure from Gatwick. A week in a garden room at the Sandpiper starts at £1,386pp, B&B, with flights, transfers and lounge access as above. UK regional connections from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle are free of charge.

Alternatively, try Complete Caribbean (01423 531031, www.completecaribbean.co.uk), Harlequin Holidays (01708 850300, www.harlequinholidays.com), Elegant Resorts (01244 897999, www.elegantresorts.co.uk) or Carrier (0161 491 7620, www.carrier.co.uk).

Getting around: as the island is relatively small (about 15 miles by 18 miles), taxis are the best option for getting around. They can be hired per journey for about 75p per mile or booked for the day or half-day for sightseeing tours (from £9 per hour). Local buses are regular and cheap (40p per ride), but as most services fan out from the capital, Bridgetown, they aren't great for travelling from your hotel to restaurants or beaches.

You can also hire a car; from £50 per day with local companies such as Corbins Car Rentals (00 1-246 427 9531, www.corbinscars.com) or Direct Car Rentals (246 420 6372, www.barbadoscars.com).

Further information: call the Barbados Tourism Authority in London on 020 7636 9448, or visit www.visitbarbados.co.uk