Beautiful In Barbados

Island getaway: The easternmost outpost in the Caribbean offers visitors a tradition of hospitality, a decidedly British air and a gorgeous tropical landscape

September 17, 2000|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

The Sandy Lane Resort Hotel in Barbados has always been a celebrity kind of place.

Elton John, Mick Jagger and Kevin Costner have stayed there. Aristotle Onassis strolled among the palm trees with Maria Callas. Members of British royalty have been guests there.

The luxury hotel - known for its imposing white coral, private balconies and lush gardens overlooking the Caribbean Sea - has been a refuge for big spenders and tourists on a fling since opening in 1961.

My husband and I got as close as the security fence. It's not that the place is guarded, only that it's undergoing a makeover its owners believe will make it not just one of the world's 100 best hotels but one of the 10 best.

When it reopens, perhaps as early as this winter, Sandy Lane will be another of the many attractions that draw sun-seekers to Barbados, a Caribbean destination that, curiously, is often overlooked by Americans.

The former British colony, sometimes known as "England of the tropics," is the most easterly of the Caribbean islands, and U.S. tourists are usually in the minority here.

Located less than 300 miles from the coast of Venezuela, Barbados may seem too far away for some Americans who prefer their vacations at closer islands like the Bahamas or Bermuda.

But Barbados, with its divergent landscapes, friendly residents and decidedly British air, has much to recommend it. And the distance is not such a problem.

We started out before daybreak from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, flew a commuter plane to New York and then headed south for a comfortable four-hour ride. By 2:30 p.m., we were presenting our passports at Grantley Adams International Airport in Barbados - and soon afterward we were sipping a cool drink at our hotel's outdoor bar.

Later, strolling along Platinum Coast beach, it was hard to miss the construction going on at Sandy Lane. The Irish investors who bought the resort several years ago razed the old hotel and are building a new one - similar in concept to the original Palladian-style architecture, they say, only better.

Much better, if price is any indication. When Sandy Lane reopens, it will command prices upward of $1,000 a night. If that's a bit beyond your budget, don't worry - Barbados offers a variety of accommodations with more reasonable prices.

Visitors can opt for the gentle Caribbean side of the island or the more rugged Atlantic Ocean coast, where fierce waves break along boulder-strewn stretches of beach.

We settled into Treasure Beach Hotel, a 29-suite neighbor of Sandy Lane's, on the Caribbean side. We picked the beachfront resort, where sunsets are glorious and horseback riders often meander across the sandy beach, because of its small size - and because of its food.

The hotel's kitchen is considered one of the best on the island. Chef Jeffrey Hyland, who often strolls through the alfresco dining room greeting patrons, recently won the Caribbean Chef of the Year award. He indulges his guests with such dinner entrees as pan-seared swordfish with citrus sauce and spicy prawns with mango salsa.

We also were charmed by the helpful hotel staff, including the bartender who helped us get into the island rhythm with a rum punch after we arrived and the pleasant gardeners who didn't mind answering questions about the colorful foliage on the property.

Every Tuesday, general manager Trevor Ramsay entertains hotel guests with a poolside cocktail party, and it was amid the canapes and chatter that we realized we were a novelty as Americans.

My husband and I were the Yanks. Our "unusual" American accents seemed to amuse the mostly British tourists we met at the hotel and, for that matter, throughout the island of 265,000 Barbadian residents, or Bajans, as they call themselves. SUBHED HERE: British influences

Barbados is a manageable size for touring. The triangular-shaped island is about 14 miles from east to west and 21 miles from north to south. It is divided into 11 parishes, each with its own towns and villages. While most people live on the busy south and northwest coasts and areas around the capital, Bridgetown, others make their homes in secluded communities tucked amid rolling hills and lush fields of sugarcane.

Because of its extreme easterly location, the island rarely gets hit by hurricanes, residents say. That's always a plus if you're traveling during this time of year.

Even though the island nation gained its independence in 1966, British influences are everywhere, from the statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square in Bridgetown to residents' devotion to cricket and polo. In Barbados, afternoon tea is a ritual, and English is spoken everywhere.

Motorists drive on the left, and traffic roundabouts, or go-rounds, are common. Many adventuresome visitors zip around the island in rental "mini mokes," cars about the size of golf carts. But there are several other ways to see the island - by helicopter, by boat or by a guided tour, which is what we decided to do.

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