Barbados never appealed to me. I’d pictured it as Surrey-on-Sea, teaming with elderly men in Panama hats, festooned with nouveau riche honeymooners and chock-a-block with aspirational estate agents. Sort of Jamaica with out balls, Cuba without cojones or Martinique minus les glandes reproductive. I’d read of its race courses and yacht clubs, glimpsed Simon Cowell large it at Sandy Bay (which itself sounds like an English B&B) and it all seemed a bit too close to home and just not foreign enough for yours truly.
Still, when the opportunity came to visit the island in the bleak winter months I still jumped at it and, after a splendid BA flight that left cold, rain-swept Gatwick at 1.30pm, we landed in Barbados at 5pm and stepped into all-enveloping Caribbean warmth. And it was goooood.
Whisked to our hotel, the Tamarind, I was given a beautiful room with a balcony overlooking the sea – lapping the shores less than 20 metres away – and by 8pm was sitting down to a marvellous al fresco dinner next to the beach. Food tastes better when eaten outdoors but, when accompanied by the roar of the waves, the smell of the ocean and a warm sea breeze, everything is just peachy. Appropriate, then, that our first chow-down should be a seafood feast featuring a slew of uncommonly succulent scallops followed by rod-caught sea bass all aided and abetted by a wine list to give most London restaurants a run for their money.
The standard of cuisine is above and beyond any resort I have ever encountered. The next night we dined at the exquisite House Hotel (also a part of the Elegant Hotels group that comprise five hotels on the island) that, just a few minutes walk from Tamarind, is a five-star, no-kids-allowed, 35-room haven with Jacuzzis at every juncture. If you’re going to pop the question, or indeed pop a cork, this is the place to do it.
Here we ate a candle-lit dinner of outstanding flame-grilled tuna, king prawn kebabs that were the stuff of legend, and perhaps the finest lobster that has ever passed these lips. On a roll, I thought I’d test the waiter with a request for a bottle of something red and Tuscan (I don’t adhere to the white wine with fish rule) and he emerged with a 2002 Castiglion del Bosco that was remarkable.
Then, if that wasn’t enough, the following night we ate at Daphne’s – again, just a leisurely walk down the beach – a modern Italian restaurant better than any ‘modern Italian’ that I’ve ever been to in Italy.
I plumped for oysters, a selection of seafood tapas and a rib-eye steak. Suddenly, I grasped why this place is de rigueur for the wealthy-at-sea. Unlike many Caribbean haunts, the food here is as good and as varied and as sophisticated as at home but eminently fresher. This island has for decades catered to the moneyed and, as such, accommodates their every need – and it shows.
What also sets Barbados apart from many other Caribbean locations is its people. One never feels unsafe here. The locals are very polite, helpful and friendly. There is no hassle at all. You get more grief in the UK. Like all Caribbeans, Bajans are a mixed bunch. The first indigenous people were Amerindians who arrived here from Venezuela. These were followed by Arawak Indians who were in turn conquered by the Caribs (their name derived from cannibal – a ritual they believed gave them control over their consumed enemies’ qualities) who were then subjugated by the Spanish who carted them off to work in South American gold mines and left the island to rot.
The Portuguese, Pedro a Campos, while en-route to Brazil in 1536, gave the island the name ‘Os Barbados’, which translated means ‘bearded one’. Undeniably, the big move came in 1627, when a British ship carrying ten African slaves and more than 80 British colonists claimed the island in the name of King James I. Subsequently, the English cultivated tobacco and, more importantly, sugar – the cash crop of the day used in a trendy new drink they called “tea” – and imported African slaves to work the fields. The rest, as they, is history.
Of course, added to the mélange were the pirates such as the middle-aged retired British army major and well-to-do plantation owner Stede Bonnet who, in 1717, bought his own pirate ship, settled on the island and went off in search of the craic. A-plundering and a-pillaging he did go.
It’s obvious what attracted such adventurers and settlers. The Caribbean Sea is astonishing. An unbelievably bright turquoise aqua hue, it is so clear, one wonders how it might exist. Seeing the water I felt the uncontrollable urge to sample the scuba and was rewarded with an experience that, so close to the beach, was simply amazing. To add, non-divers among our party were given a one-hour lesson in the Hilton pool by the affable chaps from Dive Barbados Blue and were subsequently introduced to the real experience some ten meters below while the more experienced of us took to the most impressive wrecks – just ten minutes off shore.
And then there was the turtle excursion, whereupon we sailed out to sea, donned our snorkels and were suddenly surrounded by a phalanx of totally brazen sea turtles which we fed by hand. An astonishing, truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, it was worth the journey to the island alone.
That night, we visited the renowned Oistins that’s basically an open-air market area full of rum bars replete with reggae sound systems that kicks ass. Consequently, we filled our boots with the island’s landmark liquor, and off we jolly well went in search of the boogie and found it at The Harbour Lights nightclub. Here, a truly mixed crowd gave it some large till 6am, the ladies wiggling bits most lasses don’t own. The music was a potent mix of ragga, dancehall and US R&B (Bajan gal Rhianna being a huge fave) which worked a treat in said surroundings. Again no one batted an eyelid and we were left to our own devices which is a rare occurrence in the Caribbean.
Thus, when it’s said and done and the fat lady’s sung her song, Barbados is a quite marvellous island that offers all sorts of distractions. Yet, for yours truly, its main attraction has to be that a chap, good lady in hand, might easily venture there for a long, five-day weekend and even before he’s unpacked his luggage, slip into stress-free bliss, then swim, scuba, ride a horse, gamble, play golf and tennis, sail, dive deep in a submarine and return feeling truly satisfied, reinvigorated and replenished.
In my mind, a good holiday consists of arriving without grief, slipping straight into relaxation mode, having a beautiful beach on your doorstep, a fantastic dinner to look forward to every night and, if push comes to shove, a chance to let your hair down in a local hostelry of ill repute. Barbados delivered it all and more. This was most definitely not Surrey-on-Sea.
Tamarind Pool and Garden View rooms from £235 per night with breakfast. The House Garden View Junior Suites from £438 per night including champagne breakfast, 30-minute jet-lag massage and afternoon tea and canapés. All rates subject to availability. To book phone 0800 917 3534; or visit eleganthotels.com. BA flies to Barbados from Gatwick ten times weekly. (0844 493 0787; ba.com); For more info: divebarbadosblue.com and visitbarbados.org