There’s nothing better than arriving in a hot country and feeling that first waft of warm, balmy air on your skin and the eye-watering brightness of the sun. Nothing else sums up the Caribbean for me than that moment after the plane doors are cranked open and you hover on the top step in delight.
The minute we touched down in Barbados, I wasn’t disappointed. It had been a while since I had visited this island and even longer since I had lived here for a year – almost 15 years ago. Returning en famille, with my two boys and a husband, whose parents were Bajans themselves, would be interesting and I suspected a very different experience to the one I had when I was younger.
But I wasn’t complaining, we were staying at the very chi chi Royal Westmoreland. It’s based north just out of the glare that is the glitzy West Coast strip in St James, where the likes of the grand dame hotel Sandy Lane sits. Unlike all of the other five star resorts, RWM is based inland rather than on the beach front. We discovered that it was only a five minute drive to get to the RWM beach club, which is based on nearby Mullins beach, so it wasn’t a problem. We hired a car for our stay, but if a lazy holiday is what you have in mind there’s no need to as there’s a frequent shuttle that takes guests back and forth.
The rambling estate of Royal Westmoreland is set in 750 acres, based around a Robert Trent Jones Jnr championship golf course. Accommodation ranges from one bedroom apartments to seven bedroom uber luxe villas, and which so far have drawn in a sporting celebrity crowd like Wayne Rooney, Andrew Flintoff and Joe Calzaghe, who all own properties here. Within the next few years, another 18-hole course is set to open, along with 150 more villas, all with price tags in the millions of pounds.
Our villa was cool and airy with an upside-down design. The open-plan living area and kitchen was based upstairs, with an adjoining terrace to make the most of the sea breeze. Downstairs were the bedrooms, all blissfully air conditioned and with colonial-style interiors. Pale ceramic floors and taupe soft furnishings blended with a vague Asian design twist – with iron-work art and local touches, such as motifs of the much-loved native Green Monkey dotted around.
After a few days of getting acclimatised – read: mornings on the beach, taking advantage of the sumptuous padded day beds and stark white parasols. Afternoons were spent dipping in and out of either our own private pool or, more often at the larger, infinity pool nearby. The boys spent afternoons tee-ing off on what turned out to be a welcoming and child-friendly golf course. Each villa is given a golf buggy to explore the estate (there are various casual eateries and different pools that guests can use) and whizzing around in this seemed half the fun for the kids.
We then got an itch to explore and show the kids that there’s more to their grandparents’ homeland than luxe villas and pool service. Driving north to the charmingly named Animal Flower Cave, we turned our noses up at using the tourist map and decided instead to ‘follow the coast road’. Of course, we got lost and only then remembered that nothing is that straightforward (least of all the roads) in the tropics. The Animal Flower Cave is on the north tip of the island in the parish of St Lucy. You climb down into what looks like an underground cave via a vertigo-inducing ladder to find yourself in hidden coves with the waves crashing around you and with stunning views across the sea. The kids loved the thrill of it, especially looking in the rock pools for the sea anemones after which the caves are named.
Onwards to the East Coast. It’s my favourite part of the island, because of its dramatic seascape and rugged hills with towering windswept palm trees. I was relieved that it hadn’t changed at all over the years. Much of this side of the island is barren and blissfully unspoilt. Being on the Atlantic coast, beaches such as Bathsheba and the Soup Bowl are a surfers’ paradise with their high rollers, laid back beach shacks and casual B&Bs.
The Crane Hotel, further south, was originally the first ever hotel in Barbados having opened in 1887 for prosperous merchants visiting the island’s plantations. It is one of Barbados’s best-loved spots, especially among locals, due to its historic architecture and stunning beach which it is perched high over. Since my last visit the Crane has been reborn into The Crane Village offering guests the option of staying in the original revamped Crane Hotel, or newly built suites (thecrane.com). There’s now a shopping parade and a selection of restaurants, too, with the Zen sushi restaurant giving the West Coast eateries a run for their money with its rave reviews. It’s a dramatic change and perhaps an indication that the East Coast may not stay untouched forever.
Driving back on the West Coast road we pass the many establishments that have long been associated with the glamorous, jetset image of the island. Daphne’s and The Cliff are still the best restaurants for fine dining. Sandy Lane, The House and the exquisite Fairmont Royal Pavilion are among the most luxe places you can stay in the world. But where once you could sigh with pleasure by glimpsing the shimmering aquamarine sea from the road, those views are now obscured by more and more imposing looking buildings, which is a shame.
Overall I was thrilled to find that the charm of Barbados is still there. New offerings – such as The Great House on Turtle Beach, a chic colonial villa for hire (think: Ralph Lauren linens, a piano room and bespoke cookery courses), is offering tourists a different, more subtle experience that seems a world away from the in-your-face West Coast (thegreathousebarbados.com). While new restaurants, such as Tapas (tapasbarbados.com) on the South Coast’s new Boardwalk, has an inventive and exciting menu more frequently seen in London’s Soho.
Arriving back at Royal Westmoreland it’s easy to see why they would chose to be out of the limelight. It’s a bonus to do things differently here, to be under the radar and a little laid back. After all, that’s what a true chill-out holiday is all about – being made to feel special – and I was glad to see you can still find that experience on the island.
A version of this article was written by me for British Airways’ High Life magazine, see bahighlife.com