I decided to seek the sun after Northern Ireland’s coldest winter in 40 years. Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco beckoned, but after I watched the violent news headlines from North Africa, Tenerife became favourite.
Then again, friends told me that even that far south they had encountered disappointingly cloudy days.
The Caribbean is a long-haul, eight hours of air travel from London but it offers guaranteed winter, spring and autumn sunshine, old world charm and a laid-back style of living. Barbados, in particular, only 21 miles long and 14 miles wide, has a unique quality of island life.
The busy road from Bridgetown up the west coast passes by posh condominiums and hotels but also old Barbadian homes, whose owners have resisted the millions of dollars on offer to uproot and go elsewhere on the island. In the decade since I last visited Barbados, the standard of living and quality of homes has changed for the better, yet refreshingly, the island has not given way to wholesale redevelopment nor lost its character for the sake of tourist revenue.
It is also safe and relatively crime-free in comparison to some other corners of the West Indies — notably Jamaica and Trinidad. Barbadians still adhere to old-style, close-knit family values. There’s a church around almost every corner and, more surprisingly in today’s secular world, most are still packed with worshippers.
Family upbringing plays a part. Every child must attend school and wear a uniform. The good behaviour of the hundreds of children whom I witnessed waiting at Bridgetown bus station for their transport home in their brightly-coloured uniforms spoke volumes for the island’s stability.
Barbados has a population a sixth that of Northern Ireland’s. The climate — a balmy 27 to 30 degrees centigrade throughout our long winter months — ensures it can more than survive without the sugar-cane fields which once provided all its wealth.
The island attracts half a million tourists annually, more than a third from the UK and Ireland. That one of the west coast beaches is called Paradise is no overstatement. The white coral sand, the azure Caribbean lapping the coves, bays overhung with coconut trees, the luxurious hotels built on the water’s edge — all combine to create an idyllic glossy magazine image which is not false.
I stayed at two west coast hotels, Treasure Beach and Crystal Cove, each with direct access to a stunning stretch of sand and breath-taking sunsets over the Caribbean. There is an exclusivity about holidaying along this coast yet none of the beaches on Barbados are private and all must have public access. In practice, the hotels are rarely bothered by outsiders other than by the occasional hawker of cheap jewellery.
The south coast is livelier. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the fishing village of Oistin, particularly at weekends. The whole of Barbados seems to descend on Oistin by bus and taxi to feast on the island’s specialities of flying fish or macaroni pie washed down with Bank’s beer and rum punches.
Reggae music booms over the old fish market, where women in long aprons, spend their evenings cleaning and filleting that
day’s catch and the eating, drinking and revelling continues until the early hours.
There are two ways to see Barbados — by land or sea. For all its compactness, the scenery and lifestyle changes every few miles. The island is divided into parishes such as the swish St James on the west coast, where celebrities such as Cilla Black, Sir Cliff Richard, Simon Cowell and Roman Abramovich have their holiday homes or luxury yachts.
If you want to enjoy a rum punch or two along the way, an island safari is much more fun and far more relaxing, informative and convenient than a hired car.
My Barbadian odyssey ended on the scenic but more isolated east coast, where Atlantic waves crash onto the rocky basalt shoreline. The beaches may be fewer but they are spectacular, none more so than at The Crane, one of the most exclusive resorts on the island.
Standing on a headland, a hundred feet above the beach, The Crane is one of the most ambitious 21st century tourist developments in the West Indies. This iconic landmark reminded me of Sun City in Africa with its lavish studios, apartments and penthouses.
No cricket-lover could visit Barbados without a pilgrimage to the Kennington Oval, the home of the game in the West Indies. Worrell, Weekes and Walcott, the great West Indian cricketers of my boyhood, are now the names on the island’s roundabouts. A statue of another West Indian cricketing legend, Sir Garfield Sobers, stands outside the white-walled Oval today.
Nearby, old Bridgetown goes about its daily life. Much has changed but thankfully for tourists just as much remains the same. Lively and noisy, peaceful and quiet, Barbados offers a holiday to suit virtually every taste. But the biggest bonus of all is the guaranteed warmth of its climate and its people.
It’s a real treasure island
I would value Treasure Beach for its idyllic setting on the beach, the quiet understated luxury of its 35 suites, and for the quality of its cuisine, rated amongst the best on the island.
This is an oasis of calm, the only sound that of the Caribbean gently lapping on the coral beach of Payne’s Bay alongside. Residents are encouraged to leave their work and mobile phones in their rooms. The hotel brochure states: “Since our guests come here to escape they presumably do not expect the gardens and pool terrace to look like an office.”
Treasure Beach is independently owned and managed to a high standard as a boutique hotel, combining landscaped gardens awash with exotic Caribbean colour with the glistening white sandy beach beyond. It lives up to its reputation as a serene hideaway for people “wishing to retreat willingly from the rest of the world.”
The hotel prides itself in offering a relaxing break away from it all and it delivers just that. The Al Fresco restaurant is a highlight, whether for long lingering breakfasts or dinner under the stars. It is certainly my number one choice. Visit treasurebeachhotel.com
A larger but still intimate complex of two storey studios about a mile from Treasure Beach on the same stunning west coast shoreline. This is an all-inclusive hotel. The tariff covers all meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as house wines and all drinks, alcoholic or not.
The 85 rooms look out over manicured tropical gardens with the Caribbean and coral beach alongside. The Crystal Cove is part of the Elegant Hotels group which also owns four other luxury hotels on Barbados.
Buffet dinner by the beach is an attractive alternative to the hotel restaurant by the pool and cave-like cocktail bar where the expert bar tenders serve up colourful concoctions laced with rum or other spirits of your choice.
If you are to stay here, you need to pace yourself as far as food and drink are concerned. Visit eleganthotels.com
Everything about The Crane spells luxury, from the high timber ceilings, handcrafted mahogany furnishings, tropical gardens and pools to the four award-winning restaurants on site and the glass-panelled lift to the beach which sits below the cliff upon which this extraordinary residential resort stands. The Crane apartments, ranging in price from £300,000 to £2m are styled as 19th century grandeur with 21st century convenience. Rooms and suites are lavishly appointed with kitchens, four poster beds, whirlpool baths and outdoor jacuzzis on roof-top apartments and individual infinity swimming pools on ground-floor terraces.
The Crane beach, reached by lift or steps, is a good hundred feet below, an arc of brilliant white coral. Visit thecrane.com
ISLAND JEEP TOUR
The best way to see Barbados is by a six hour jeep tour which picks tourists up from their hotels after breakfast and returns them after a buffet lunch around mid-afternoon.
Johnston, the jeep driver, I rated better than any guide book. He knew his homeland, its history, the geography, and the people and most of all, he imparted his considerable knowledge with a sense of really entertaining humour. The tour begins on the west coast past exclusive St James, where the rich and famous holiday, and then on to the barren but very picturesque north-west coast where the jeep comes into its own on bumpy tracks through rain forest and sugar plantation terrain and along the scenic road. See islandsafari.bb
Operating out of old Bridgetown Harbour, the catamaran offers five hours of gently cruising up and down the west coast, with stops for those who wish to dive overboard and view the marvellous multi-coloured array of fish.
A buffet lunch is provided along with as much rum punch or wine as one can safely consume without falling overboard.
The return to Bridgetown sees all on board making merry and some even dancing to the catamaran’s reggae beat.
MOUNT GAY RUM TOUR
Mount Gay rum, three centuries in the making, is to Barbados what Bushmills is to Northern Ireland.
The distillery at Bridgetown has daily tours and tastings, charting the history of the sugar cane plantations which used to cover 80 per cent of Barbados.
Nowadays, even the sugar cane is imported, as tourism has taken over as the island’s main industry. Visit mountgayrum.com
For more information see visitbarbados.org