The Caribbeans in 70 days: Part Seven

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Not a little weary (and still on the mend from the Boiling Lake hike), somewhat stressed about his senior editor’s reaction to the expenses on the company credit card, and content to be returning to his on/off affair with London, this writer is psychologically ready to fly back home. But to miss out Barbados, probably the best known island in the Caribbeans would be criminal.

The east coast, where Bathsheba lies, and the west coast of Saint James are completely opposite environments. The former, weathering the Atlantic Ocean, is a hard place (still by Caribbean standards of course), the shoreline broken up by cliffs and rock debris. The colours here tend more towards paler pastels: the skies are of a touch colder shade of blue, the sands an off-white and the large banana plantations a lighter strain of green. The weather is not necessarily poorer, but certainly more even with the strong breeze and the tendency for greater cloud cover. Bathsheba is a pretty country town defined by the large wooden houses and their gardens or ample estates, and the whitewash homes that are distinctively Caribbean in style. Bathsheba is also noted for its surfing, both by the islanders and by international athletes alike. The subject of surfing lessons seems to be an impromptu thing in the low season, having to find some local contacts rather than finding a school or shop, but on the other hand this only means that you will be training with the experts on surfing the Bathsheba crests. Dining is less limited, but again restaurants can be closed during the entire low season for renovations. If you get the chance, check out the High Rock Café; the owner and his Birmingham girlfriend will probably offer you a meal, even if the establishment is supposedly closed for flood repairs.

Saint James is certainly no Bridgetown but is certainly a close cousin to the populous, historic city. The sun shines down on the long stretches of smooth, golden beaches and well tended lawns and parks. Mansions would be the more accurate way of describing much of the architecture here, considering many of the big hotels along the coastal stretch. So what unites these halves together, with Bridgetown and the island? Firstly, there is a very strong English connection that lends itself to a kind of romanticism about the sceptered isle – Bathsheba reminds one of the southern/ south-eastern coast, while the buildings of the urban west and general culture have a definite influence, to the point that the local name for Saint James is ‘little England’. Secondly it is the Bajan people who universally seem to have an innate sense of how to have fun and see the brighter side of life – I was told that there is nothing the Bajans love more than an excuse to laugh, something which was very evident throughout my trip. Without wanting to denigrate all the wonderful and welcoming people I have had the fortune of meeting throughout this trip, the Bajan people are probably the happiest of all.

For its scenic routes, homes and grasslands and its charming people Barbados, the most recognised of all the islands, definitely deserves its fame.

Sea-U Guest House

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The Sea-U Guest House is the perfect little hideaway in Barbados, a hilltop residence found just after the turn into a little country lane somewhere near the Bathsheba beaches. And as I lie in the quintessential hammock strung between two palms, with the forest and pounding waves sloping below and the white patio over a small rise above, I am treated to one last summation of the very best that the Caribbeans has to offer. Staying at this colonialstyle house of just nine rooms, away from telephones, televisions and computers it seems as if the spirit of the calmer, more placid past has been captured and renewed here. In fact, listening to the decade-length history of the guesthouse, that is precisely what happened.

Uschi Wetzels, a former travel writer much like myself, after deciding to live on Barbados discovered by a happy accident the overgrown ruins of a plantation house; she was inspired, as anyone would be, to purchase the property and start a small hotel while sitting in a mildewed chair on its back porch. Having cleared away enough of the forest growth to demolish the skeletal edifice, it was rebuilt upon the lines of some early sketches she made (Uschi draws inspiration from, among other places, Santa Barbara and Florida). Uschi, a pragmatic woman whose only regret is the German coffee she left behind in her homeland, loves to have an easy laugh over breakfast while relating all the little anecdotes of running Sea-U and life in Bathsheba that really brings everything to life in a way that you might not have noticed before.

In the low season, when I mainly share the guesthouse with bright young couples, it is surprising to hear Ushci recreate the spring season atmosphere, when all the guests will gather at a communal table for the mirth of meals in the company of friends. She relates to me the lives and habits of her staff, at least one of whom helped to build the house, and over the years have been forged into a tight-knit group as much a family in itself. The Bajan jolliness has been intensified so that it is really a kind of amicable relationship that you will find with each. Uschi is essentially the worldly adventurer who has found that one, special place that makes one settle down permanently, away from the hectic grayness of modern life, and has poured all of her spirit (and her own fine-tuned understanding of what travellers and guests want from a guesthouse) into this treasure.

The pleasure of staying here is to simply enjoy being here for its own sake – to lie in that low lying hammock amidst the palms and bathe in the soft light descending through the clouds and into the clearings between the trees; relax on the bench overlooking the descending forest and the waves rallying back and forth in the beyond; sit at the bar (currently being laid with a new mahogany surface) and sip on a freshly cut coconut. Or lie on one’s soft bed in the spacious, dark hued rooms which contrast so neatly with the exterior. Each room is outfitted with its own basic kitchenette of fridge (when deciding on what to put in the rooms, Uschi reasoned that she ‘would want somewhere to put my melon and my white wine’) and has a warmth of atmosphere despite (or rather because) of the lack of gadgets and the period style. The breakfast, seemingly catering for the explorer and the active, is quite light and simple; however, in the evenings you will be treated to some traditional Caribbean food, prepared in large earthenware pots. Staying at the Sea-U guesthouse is a wonderful experience, and perhaps among one of the most truly authentic Caribbean experiences that you are likely to find both on Barbados and in the entire region.

Sandy Lane

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In 1961 former British politician Ronald Tee, who was particularly partial to the island of Barbados, decided to create a five-star luxury hotel with a golf course; and he settled on the site of an old sugar plantation called Sandy Lane

In any traveller’s island-hopping career, Sandy Lane is both physically and symbolically the ultimate destination, for it represents the quintessential Caribbean in terms of both history and splendour. Doubtless many of our readers are familiar with its palatial facade and parklands – part of Sandy Lane’s enduring fame. Perhaps they are familiar with its relatively recent renovations that synergise the traditional munificence of grandeur with the most modern of cutting edge technologies (all the latest gadgets and whatnot that complete our modern demands and expectations) and all the amenities which redefine luxury on a whole new, extraordinary level. After all, Sandy Lane boasts of a returning guest rate of more than 50%, which speaks volumes about its perennial seductiveness despite a famously exclusive price-tag. There is more to it, however, than the prerequisite 5 star luxuries of grand hotels the world over. There is, for starters, the unquestionable pedigree that comes from decades of hosting many of the world’s most discerning travellers, as well as the original St James’ villa owners. Le beau monde – a mixture of blue-blooded Brits, Jockey Club members, industrialists and sundry wealthy business people – has traditionally wintered at Sandy Lane and the hotel has long maintained a club-like atmosphere.

Dining

Jonathon Wright and Dominic Teague, executive chef and executive sous-chef respectively, manage Sandy Lane’s four restaurants that sprawl over the estate. Both Jonathon and Dominic have worked extensively in London’s top establishments in the past, and are intimately familiar with their British-based suppliers of produce. Bajan Blue and L’Acajou are Sandy Lane’s flagship restaurants; the former offers an eclectic fare from the grill – as well as the sashimi bar and pizza ovens – and is described as the more standard option catering to the British traditional taste. Of course, having sampled the exquisite Miso Blackened Cod and supreme sashimi, it is difficult to see how Bajan Blue can be described in any possible way as ‘standard’ – unless one assumes that this is the standard for Sandy Lane.

The pink elegance of L’Acajou, on the first tier of Sandy Lane and overlooking the sea, serves both the buffet breakfast and fine dining. Dominic informs me that in fact Sandy Lane can make almost anything that a guest requests, even if it isn’t on the menu. It is under the candlelight and on the plush armchairs of L’Acajou that I have a little conversation with a couple, property developers in London, off from a cruise to spend a few days at Barbados’ legendary hotel. Quickly the conversation turns to Dominic, who has presided over the kitchens of a number of restaurants the couple has frequented during the great London parties in the hedonistic nineties. It is fascinating to hear, on this Caribbean evening, tales of London during one of its most extravagant decades in recent memory.

The Spa

The Spa is a complex in its own right, boasting a massive range of spa treatments both on cultural and methodological lines. Treatments usually last just an hour but can go as far as taking up a good portion of the day all within the exclusivity of each guest’s own spa room. Each of these rooms, with their own gardens and hydrotherapy pools, is a preserve of calm and quiet dignity.

Cohabiting with the spa are the gymnasium, with all the equipment and electronic gadgets that one can dream of in their ideal work-out session, and the restaurant (although there is the option of dining in one’s private spa room). Check out the meditation room, a surreal experience that almost hypnotises one with its Zen appearance.

Golf

Anyone who has been to Sandy Lane will know that Golf is synonymous with the hotel. The owners have historically been avid golfers and its present owners have determined to create a Sandy Lane golfing class of its own, marrying the hotel’s long burning love affair with the sport to their own passion.

The Country Club course, designed by the renowned Tom Fazio, is scenery of rolling grasslands and gentle hills, beautifully balanced by crystal ponds and fountains. The Old Nine, the original course of Sandy Lane, despite its smaller size, has its own awe of an old school elegance and class. For the truly privileged, and the dedicated golfers, the Green Monkey course is without a doubt one of the most prized, most exclusive courses in the world.

The personal course of Sandy Lane’s owners and crafted (again by Fazio) with all the passion that one finds in the sport, has just one hour of open playing slots each day and guarantees that you will have much of the course to yourself. Which is just as well, for its vast size and powerful landscaping – recovered from an old limestone quarry, itself currently the site of a lake sheltering below a cliff-range – simultaneously make a round of golf here an exploration of a paradisiacal garden.

For the select few that tread upon these grounds Sandy Lane has produced a unique range of Green Monkey golf-wear, unavailable even to other Sandy Lane guests, to proclaim to the world over their privilege. The Country Club is also host to its own restaurant, with food as excellent as anywhere else in Sandy Lane. Here, one can sit after some light sporting activity and have an excellent lunch (I would recommend the grilled Mahi Mahi, tender and rich in flavor), while overlooking the wideranging Country Club course, extending almost all the way to the sea on the horizon.

Farewell

Sandy Lane is my last great splash in a Caribbean voyage that has taken me from the remotest of places to the very pinnacle of high living. Starting from the pale, untouched beaches of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, I have come to end my feature on the pearly shores of Sandy Lane. I would like to thank all the people at Sandy Lane who helped me appreciate the atmosphere of the hotel at its very best. I would also like to credit my parents for narrating to me many a wonderful story from their own recollections of Sandy Lane and Barbados – the kind of stories that belong to another, golden era irretrievably lost to the past. Yet if my brief experience at Sandy Lane is anything to go by, the only things to have changed are the the vintages on the Champagne bottles.