Barbados

Cut-price chic

Published in The Sunday Telegraph 2005

I am, at heart, a Sandy Lane girl. There’s nothing like a spot of luxurious, over-the-top resort glamour to put a spring in the step at this time of year.

Alas, I don’t have a Sandy Lane budget. Seven nights’ b&b costs at least £2,983 per person in high season. Add meals, drinks and spa treatments, and that figure leaps to well over £3,500.

So I wondered – if I were to stay at a cheaper hotel and spend some of what I saved on glitzy extras of my own devising (a trip to the Sandy Lane spa, say, and meals out at the most fashionable restaurants), could I have an equally glamorous time for half the price?

My first stop was the Kuoni brochure. I knew that if my plan were to work, I would have to give up all thought of staying on the island’s expensive west coast and look for somewhere on the south coast. When old hands complain that “Barbados is ruined”, they use this part of the island to illustrate their point, brimming, as it is, with inexpensive restaurants, lively bars and cheap hotels.

It’s also home to most of the island’s all-inclusive properties and clearly an all-inclusive wasn’t going to work for my purposes.

Then, to my delight, I found that Kuoni was offering a small selection of hotels that could also be booked on a b&b basis. Two of these were four-star properties and appeared to fit the bill perfectly. The prices were right, too: a week’s b&b at either cost just over £1,000, and both offered rooms with kitchenettes, so I could save money by making the odd meal, leaving me more to spend on upping the glamour quotient. Kuoni booked a couple of nights for me at each hotel.

First up was the four-star Amaryllis Beach Resort, just south of Bridgetown. This 150-room hotel, according to the Kuoni brochure, offered a choice of swimming pools, a “truly lovely” beach, lots of watersports, a main restaurant with alfresco dining and a beach bar, a chattel house plaza with shops, more bars, a beauty salon, a gym, and “just about every convenience you may need on holiday”.

The convenience I need most on arrival – a welcome cocktail, which at Sandy Lane is garnished with fresh flowers and proffered on a silver salver – was not on offer.

Instead, I was brusquely handed a buff envelope that was supposed to contain a voucher for beach towels (it didn’t and when I returned to reception to collect it, the queue was so long I gave up) and my room card. My door wouldn’t open. “No problem,” said the bellboy, giving it a mighty shove. “It just sticks a bit.”

An initial inspection of my deluxe oceanfront suite revealed that while it was definitely oceanfront, with a good-sized balcony overlooking the beach, it was hardly deluxe.

The bathroom was only big enough for the lavatory and the bath so the basin lurked in a corner just outside, next to the wardrobe. There was a safe but to use it, I needed a special swipe card, available from reception at $5 a day.

The sitting room was large and airy, with tiled floor and wide-screen TV and a kitchenette at one end; the bedroom was a good size, too, but it smelt unpleasant. Pushing open the plastic sash window, I noticed that the curtains were thin and unlined, and there were no blinds – which would make it impossible to sleep once the sun came up.

But the worst thing – the very worst thing for a Sandy Lane girl like me – was the fact that the bathroom products were housed in wall-mounted plastic dispensers. What? No little bottles of shower gel and shampoo; no packets of finely milled soap to unwrap?

There were no tissues, cotton wool, shower caps or sewing kits, either, though, to be fair, I later discovered that all these omissions were apparently out of concern for the planet. All the same, surely four-star guests deserve a bathrobe?

Supper consisted of cheese and crackers and a miniature bottle of rum from the hotel’s poorly stocked convenience store, which I ate on my balcony as the tree frogs struck up their shrill lullaby to a gentle backbeat of sea on sand. If I closed my eyes, I could easily be on the west coast…but then I returned to my smelly room, past the washbasin in the hallway, and the spell was broken.

The following morning, I set off bright and early for Sandy Lane.

I had an appointment for a massage at 11am but I was hoping to spend an hour or so at the hotel’s glorious freeform pool first.

Unfortunately, when I got there I learned that non-residents are not permitted to use the main pool.

But as I was so early, I was invited to use the spa’s private hydrotherapy pool, which I had to myself – though only after I had made full use of the luxurious changing room, stuffed with luxury goodies, fluffy towels and full-sized bottles of shampoo and body lotion (which I resisted sweeping into my bag to take back to the Amaryllis).

After a morning at the spa, I joined some Bajan friends at the Garrison Savannah Racecourse just outside Georgetown. This former army parade ground was where British officers used to race each other and plantation owners more than a century ago. Today, it’s run by the Barbados Turf Club, which organises three seasons of racing a year.

The highlight of the island’s racing calendar is the Sandy Lane Gold Cup in early March, and though the event I attended was lower down the social calendar, the dress code for the clubhouse was still “elegantly formal” and most of the women were wearing strappy summer frocks.

Next up was dinner at Daphne’s, one of the places to be seen in high season.

This bit rather heavily into my budget (my half of the bill came to £48) but it was worth it – the atmosphere in the Balinese-style, beach-front restaurant was buzzy, the tables shone in the candlelight and the food was sublime.

My first day of glamorous add-ons had been a success.

But it also highlighted the shortcomings of the Amaryllis: it was a nice enough resort for the money but the gulf between it and a west-coast five-star hotel was just too great.

Everything was now riding on my next hotel: the Bougainvillea Beach Resort.

Kuoni describes this resort as “a first-class hotel located on a superb beach, offering quality accommodation with the added benefit of self-catering facilities”.

In a former incarnation, it was two timeshare properties and the legacy of this is that every one of its 138 rooms is a good size, with either a kitchen or kitchenette.

My room wasn’t ready so I was given a “welcome drink” voucher, which I swapped for a fruit cocktail at the pool bar while I waited.

From my stool-top vantage point I surveyed the resort: two lagoon pools – one with a swim-up bar – set in tropical landscaped gardens between the open-sided reception hall and the beach; on the beach I could see straw parasols and pristine white sunloungers.

But my hopes for a half-price glamour holiday soared when I saw my room. This time my (huge) “deluxe” one-bedroom suite really was deluxe, with a full kitchen, a large sitting room with a good-sized balcony overlooking the beach. There were fresh orchids in the bathroom – and the safe was free.

The Bougainvillea just kept getting better. The lagoon pools were usually fairly crowded (there was a quieter pool tucked away in another part of the property) but the white-sand beach was large enough to accommodate everyone with ease.

True, I waited in vain for someone to come round with a tray of cold, scented towels – as they do at Sandy Lane – and when I felt like a drink, I had to go and get it myself. On the other hand, it was rather nice to lie on a beach that did not double as a swimwear catwalk.

The resort had two restaurants – one, next to the beach, was fairly casual (and cost around $15 per head), and the other, more formal and open for dinner only (around $50 per head).

 

The latter, lit by dozens of candles flickering in the sea breeze, really was charming and the food was excellent.

Initially, I stuck to my plan of south-coast accommodation, west-coast lifestyle. One day I had lunch at Mannie’s Suga Suga, a trendy beach bar in St Peter, where, for a few dollars, you can rent a sun lounger and raise a flag for service; one evening, I ate at the Thai restaurant at The Crane hotel, on the east coast. And I returned to Sandy Lane once more for cocktails (celeb count: three – two Premiership footballers and a soap star).

But as the week wore on, I found myself spending more and more time at the Bougainvillea, partly because it just wasn’t very relaxing to be continually tearing about the island and partly because the resort had everything I needed, except a decent spa and I’d already had my spa fix.

Had I spent a whole week at the Bougainvillea, it would have cost £1,219 for a b&b package in high season. Add to that £500 for drinks and meals at the resort plus my add-on luxuries, and I would have got my half-price luxury holiday.

I’m still a Sandy Lane girl at heart, but until I win the lot-tery, I’ve found an alternative.