The House is the latest hotel on Barbados to ooze style. But, says Alex Wade, there's also a wilder side of this island to explore
The four "ambassadors" were unable to conceal their surprise. Dressed all in white, and with a brief to cater for the guests' needs "with charm and discretion", they momentarily flickered with doubt, making me fear that I was the wrong sort of guest for The House, one of the most exclusive hotels in Barbados. The contrast between my bruised face, complete with black eye sustained in an amateur boxing match six days earlier, and the chic elegance of The House was a little too stark. I felt like an unruly interloper soon to be ushered from sight.
But the booking was correct. I was on the west coast of Barbados to chill out, after a gruelling fight at the York Hall in Bethnal Green, east London. The plan was to recover and write an account of the fight for a book due out next year. Where better to do so than The House, lauded as one of the Caribbean's best hotels and newly reopened after refurbishment?
"Okay, cool," said Andre, one of the hotel's "ambassadors", as I explained how I had acquired the black eye. "We have another boxer staying here, a super-heavyweight from the States. You should meet him." As it happened, our paths did not cross and, aside from this mild and unsurprising interrogation, not once was the eye mentioned. Better still, The House lived up to its billing. If you want to relax and forget the woes of work - or, indeed, boxing - this is the place.
The hotel is set plum on the beach at Paynes Bay, 20 minutes from Bridgetown, the capital, and 40 minutes from Grantley Adams international airport. The vibe is minimalist, with just 34 rooms and an adults-only policy. As the hotel's manager, Trinidadian Gina-Lee Johnson, says: "It's cool and laid-back here, yet neat, too. It's a place for people who have worked 12- to 14-hour-days six days a week for months, who are searching for tranquillity. They want to be looked after, but don't want people hovering over them. The ambassadors get the blend just right."
I was allocated two ambassadors upon arrival and, initially, blanched at the notion of such attentiveness. And yet, as Andre and Diliah took turns, on the hour, to bring me ice water, cold towels and ice cream as I lay on the beach - all part of the service - I began to understand what Gina-Lee meant. Service was never fussy, and always warm. Before long I had forgotten all about boxing in Bethnal Green.
Dinner at Daphne's Barbados, next door to The House, created the prospect of a routine that was too good to be true. Daphne's is the sister restaurant to Daphne's of Chelsea and has long been a favourite of celebrities, socialites and royalty. Guests of The House receive priority bookings and should not be put off by the prospect of just a little too much glitz. As Gina-Lee said: "There's no pressure about how to dress here, you just be yourself." The mix of Italian and local cuisine at Daphne's is superb, the ambience breathtakingly cool, and it's so close to the sea that the gentle waters seem to lap at the terrace. What better way to spend a week than lazing on the beach by day, and eating here by night?
The trouble, though, is that some of us aren't built for prolonged chilling out. As I took my umpteenth swim in the placid sea and contemplated the prospect of lying in the sun for the rest of the day, my every need tended to by Andre or Diliah, I suddenly felt an unmistakable twinge of incipient boredom. So I asked Andre about hiring a 4x4. Within minutes the paperwork was done and a Suzuki Vitara was waiting for me outside.
A glance at the map showed an intensification of contours in an area called Scotland, in north-east Barbados. Place-names betray the island's colonial heritage. Claimed for Britain in 1625 by Captain John Powell, Barbados, more than any other Caribbean island, enjoys or suffers from, the "Little England" tag. British rule was unbroken for almost 350 years until the island gained independence in 1966. It is now a stable democracy with a 98 per cent literacy rate. Many early settlers were Scottish, hence the name given to the lush highlands straddling the parishes of St Andrew and St Thomas. It is an intriguing region, threaded with steep and bone-crunching roads that rumble through forests into sleepy agricultural villages. They attract many visitors.
As I stopped at a vantage point over the east coast, I could see the white water of an Atlantic swell - not the benign Caribbean Sea of the west coast but a sea that could be surfed. Sure enough, at a break called the Soup Bowl, off Bathsheba, around 10 surfers were riding six- to eight-foot waves breaking over a reef. It looked a little serious and two Bajan surfers confirmed that the Soup Bowl was only for experts. "Head down the coast to Surfers' Point," one of them drawled. "Find Zed Layson's place. There are some easy waves there."
Next day I set off in search of the improbably named local hero, Zed Layson, who had once competed on equal terms with former surfing world champion Kelly Slater. Now 33, he runs a surf school on the south-east coast. Like many Bajans, his accent is an appealing mix of West Indian, Irish and West Country. "Every day, I count my blessings," Zed said. "We've got breaks that suit experts, intermediates and beginners, in warm water under clear blue skies. What could be better?" It was impossible not to agree with him as I forsook all pretence of writing up the fight in favour of three days of surfing.There could be no better place to surf, but as I talked with Zed, a white Bajan, an uneasy spectre began to hover in my mind. If Barbados was once "Little England", what had become of its plantation houses? What of the legacy of centuries of slavery?
I contacted a local travel operator, Julia Baird, who has lived in Barbados for seven years. We visited St Lucy in the north, barely on the tourist map, and strangely desolate for all its sun-drenched beauty, as well as the commercial hub of the south coast and much of the interior. Everywhere we went, Bajans were welcoming. Drivers would stop to let people cross or another car pull out. We saw chattel houses, wooden structures built for plantation workers, now pretty and gentrified, as if slavery had never occurred. And, at Sunbury House, still a working plantation and open to the public, tourists sat in the grounds and ate lunch, an image that sat uneasily with the artefacts of wealth, privilege and oppression within.
Driving past a ramshackle, windswept plantation house near Ragged Point on the east coast, Julia's son-in-law, Damien, pointed at a near-derelict outhouse. "That's where the slaves lived," he said. An hour later, we were sitting in the comfortable chairs of Villa Nova, once the centre of a 109-acre sugar plantation and now a luxury hotel. Villa Nova was the winter residence of Sir Anthony Eden - British prime minister from 1955 to 1957 - and has been the scene of many a Vogue fashion shoot. It was unquestionably elegant, aristocratic, and a million miles from the dub houses of Bridgetown; for a minute or two, colonial Britain seemed alive and well. But, in Barbados, it isn't. Its legacy is there but the local population has embraced the British, who make up the vast bulk of visitors.
That evening, Julia took me to the Restaurant at Southsea, in St Lawrence Gap. Like Daphne's, it's right on the beach. Its cuisine was exquisite and the atmosphere indicative not of colonialism but the kind of multi-cultural idyll that can sometimes seem no more than a chimera. I reflected on a week spent surfing, taking it easy and discovering the nooks and crannies of a beguiling, hospitable island. As I left The House, Andre said: "That black eye has just about gone. We must have done you some good."