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The Rebirth of Barbados

The future of Barbados is here, as a wave of hotels and spas provide new and easy ways to escape.

By Tom Austin

On certain fragrant evenings in Barbados, when an overripe mango moon seems ready to burst, the island gives itself over to magical realism. And at this loopy moment, the Globe Theatre of London is performing a rendition ofMuch Ado About Nothing on the vast lawn of Holders House. Amid a spectacular Eden of frangipani and hibiscus orchids, the production spins between flawlessly executed Shakespeare and musical winks to Grease. Around the grounds, chandeliers dangle from the branches of live oaks and tiny lights glimmer through the leaves like faint constellations. The eerie lullaby of Barbados—the nocturnal chirping of the whistling tree frogs—ebbs and wells up like a confused concerto, as the banality of daily life slips away.

Holders, on the west coast, is the 17th-century estate of British society survivor Wendy Kidd, whose two daughters have a knack for turning up in the papers. Jemma, a former model who now has a line of cosmetics for Target, married Arthur Wellesley at St. James Church just down the road, and promptly became the Countess of Mornington. Jodie Kidd is the hard-living model, race-car driver, and polo player; the polo grounds of Holders Hill, a former sugarcane field, are below the stage. For three weeks every year, Wendy Kidd opens her home to the public for the Holders Season, a series of plays and concerts that began as a version of an Andy Hardy–style hootenanny for the neighborhood. In the early 1990’s, a handful of entertainment-starved old Barbadian families, looking for something to do in the evenings, hit on the plan of mounting productions for their social circle. “I’m an opera fan, so we started with operas,” Kidd says. “It was just a way to have a bit of fun together.”

Nothing in Barbados can be separated from the romance of the island’s past, and nothing is the same anymore—Holders Season is now a mainstream affair, with promotional booths sponsored by the government and various corporations. For a certain crowd, Barbados began going straight to hell shortly after 1627, when Sir William Courteen financed the development of Holetown for the greater commercial glory of the British Empire. Holetown, the closest thing Barbados has to Palm Beach, is the centerpiece of the Platinum Coast, a strip along the western edge of the island haunted by the remains of the international watering-hole era, the time of Sir Edward and Nancy Cunard, Jackie Onassis, T. S. Eliot, Greta Garbo, and Maria Callas sashaying about with her pet marmoset. So much is gone, but then again, it’s easy to channel some Somerset Maugham exoticism over drinks at old hotels like the Coral Reef Club, where Bajan green monkeys scamper in the lush gardens. On occasion, the Queen Mary 2—ablaze in lights, pomp, and symbolism—glides by the beach, and for a few minutes, the old empire is rocking again.

The Platinum Coast is a tropical offspring of England, a parallel pop universe: the paparazzi often stalk celebrities who don’t even show up on the radar in the States—look, there’s Michael Winner!—and it’s possible to go days at a time without encountering a fellow American, something of a liberating experience. A stylish afternoon at the Holders Hill polo field, watching a match with some bright young English things, is akin to stepping back into the 1920’s, and costs less than the price of a movie in New York. At Scarlet, a sharp little restaurant given to nicely pitched coq au vin, pâté, and sticky toffee pudding, the bathrooms are decorated with layouts from 1960’s-era British Vogue, with Gloria Guinness adrift in a “sea of voile.” Guinness was also an icon of Sandy Lane, the hotel that arrived in a storm of glamour in 1961. Sir Ronald Tree—a British MP who had served as a member of Winston Churchill’s war cabinet—hired American architect Happy Ward to create a neo-Palladian–goes–Palm Beach affair. Tree didn’t let his fashionable bisexuality get in the way of an artful marriage to Marietta Endicott Peabody, whose family background stretched back to before the American Revolution. The smart set around Barbados all seemed to obey Marietta Tree’s dictum, “Always look as if you’re having a wonderful time.”

In 2001, the Irish investment syndicate that had torn down the original Sandy Lane a few years beforehand spent more than $200 million on an expanded replica, sparking yet another gilded revolution. The beaches around Sandy Lane are still ideal for swimming, but the island now also has plenty of strip malls, sad discos, karaoke bars, and slap-happy resorts in Bridgetown and the South Coast, where oversize catamarans—soca music blaring and captains chanting maniacally (“Everybody be liming, liming…”)—sail along the shore. This aspect of the tourism scene is fairly unfortunate: the government, which recently made hometown sweetheart Rihanna a cultural ambassador, has been trying to promote heritage tourism and upgrade its clientele. As with Jamaica, which has clung to the romance of Noël Coward and Ian Fleming in the age of hot-tub hijinks at Hedonism VII, Barbados is in the business of myth, trading on its glittering, sybaritic past.

In fact, the volume is turned up all over the island. This month the Coral Reef Club is launching a spa, a project overseen by Neil Howard, who worked on the Armani hotels in Dubai and Milan. The Crane, a fixture on the southeast coast since 1887, is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar expansion. In 2011 a contemporary Caribbean-style Four Seasons, the first international luxury brand-name hotel on the island, will open on the site of the old Paradise Beach hotel in Clearwater Bay. Little Good Harbour, where an India Hicks studied informality prevails, recently took over the funky old Atlantis Hotel. Barbados now has one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean and is not an inexpensive destination, but there are bargains off the tourist track. In every town, the oldest and loveliest public building is the local church: a fund-raising supper of fried flying fish and cou-cou(cornmeal and okra), prepared by parishioners, was one of the best meals I’ve had on the island, and cost about one-twentieth of a dinner at one of the overwrought Barbadian-luxe palaces. The idiosyncratic little hotels around Bathsheba, on the windswept east coast, are considerably less expensive than the generic chain operations elsewhere on the island, and infinitely more compelling. At the sweet little Sea-U Guest House, for instance, fresh coconuts are cut open every week for visitors.

In the 1970’s, during breaks from school in Miami, I worked as a deckhand on yachts—a New Year’s Eve drama involving Princess Margaret and Margaux Hemingway is a sustaining memory—and Barbados was a fantastic alien civilization, with people like a still-young Mick Jagger sharing Holetown with Claudette Colbert. For some 38 years, the twice-married Colbert, whose circle included Babe Paley, Slim Keith, and Frank Sinatra, wintered in her old Georgian plantation house, Bellerive, a whimsical name evocative of Blanche DuBois’s lost manor, Belle Reve, in A Streetcar Named Desire. (Several years after Colbert died at Bellerive in 1996, at age 92 and in full makeup, new owners dramatically recreated the property, one more Disneyland salute to chic.)

Thirty-five years after my first visit to Barbados, I rediscovered the enduring joy of its architecture, a delight that demands only the initiative required to get out of the pool. The beauty of Barbados encompasses chattel houses, tiny gingerbread cottages that workers once transported from plantation to plantation, and great estates done in styles that span Palladian Regency to neo-Gothic. A cult has built up around the work of Oliver Messel, a British theatrical designer who was the uncle of Lord Snowdon and worked with Diaghilev, among others, before winding up as one of the island’s society-pet architects. Old houses are the true celebrities on the island, debated and judged as if they were Hollywood stars, denounced for either letting themselves go or, worse, having too much work done and taking a turn for the vulgar.

From January through mid-April, the Barbados National Trust hosts the weekly fund-raiser Open Houses: for $9, it’s possible to see everything from Messel homes to the Caribbean Georgian Byde Mill house, a study in coral stone owned by Chris and Sue Scott (who also have a Georgian residence on the Isle of Wight). On their Open House day, Sue Scott, a woman with a gift for conversational segues, talks first about her serving cart from Queen Victoria’s estate, then moves on to the subject of a nearby mega-home development wrought from an old sugarcane field, and a sugar mill that she has turned into a pool house. “Byde Mill is where the Confederation Riots began,” she says, referring to the workers’ rebellion of 1876. “The sugarcane plantation next door was burned down, and riots spread all over the island.”

Before the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1807, more than 387,000 Africans—the ancestors of 92 percent of the island’s current 274,000 residents—were brought to Barbados, normally the first port of call for slaves from Africa. The Dutch introduced sugarcane and slaves in 1637, and sugar enabled the island to prosper in step with Charleston, South Carolina, another engine of the slave trade. The Carolinas, in fact, were given to Barbadian sugarcane planter Sir John Colleton by King Charles II. In Speightstown, which still resembles Charleston, the Barbados National Trust has restored Arlington House, a classic three-story Charleston-style “single” house with a stack of long rooms facing the street, as elegant as it is simple.

The circa-1650 St. Nicholas Abbey, a sanctuary suspended in architectural grace, has a dark history: John Yeamans, who would later become the governor of South Carolina, had his partner, Benjamin Berringer, poisoned, married Berringer’s widow, and moved on up as the second owner of St. Nicholas. It is now one of three remaining Jacobean plantation great houses in the Western Hemisphere; the others include Barbados’s Drax Hall and Bacon’s Castle, in Virginia. In 2006, St. Nicholas was acquired and no doubt saved from becoming a golf resort or a McMansion development by local architect Larry Warren, who has done both sorts of projects on the island. Warren savors the property’s Chinese Chippendale staircase and a 1936 gentleman’s chair (“the first La-Z-Boy recliner”) with a built-in cocktail holder, noting that for the last owner, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Cave, St. Nicholas became a sad playground. “He never married or had children, and lived here alone until he died in 2003, letting the house slowly go,” Warren says. “If anyone turned up, he’d show them around for ten dollars.”

A short drive south of St. Nicholas Abbey leads to a series of pink and white revival tents used by traveling ministers, strange roadside signs (Satan is an Evil Charmer), and church graveyards with headstones draped in colored ribbon. Near the historic Morgan Lewis Sugar Mill is Love City, a Rastafarian compound with a circular open-air hut for worship. One wall is adorned with a portrait of Haile Selassie and a thundering exhortation: …Brimstone and Fire…A Tempest to All Oppressors. On one sun-drenched afternoon, a visiting Rasta, Isaiah Jones, shows off a brave little garden of papaya and cassava. “We are about self-sustaining development and alleviating poverty,” he says affably. “Barbados is a hard place for simple people.”

Further inland, amid the lush hills of the Scotland District, local women carry baskets of flowers and produce on their heads to their chattel houses, past standpipes (roadside faucets where entire families would bathe in the old days), convenience stores housed in wooden huts (No Hair-Braiding, No Smoking), and rum shops, gaily painted stands where Bajans meet to sip the local Mount Gay rum and other brands. The 1,600 or so establishments on the island are an indigenous art form, but liquor companies are covering them in corporate logos, creating one big billboard for booze.

Within St. Peter Parish is Farley Hill National Park, acres of Barbados mahogany trees surrounding an old estate that was used as a backdrop for 1957’s Island in the Sun. Nearby, in St. Thomas Parish, is the circa-1635 Fisher Pond Great House, a private estate that owners John and Rain Chandler open on Sundays for brunch, serving up a buffet of flying fish, curried green bananas, and other Bajan dishes to tourists and locals alike. In the space of a few minutes, John Chandler manages to cover photographer Norman Parkinson’s torrid affair on the island, the protocol disasters involved in the loan of his antique table to a Barbadian state affair attended by Queen Elizabeth, and a 17th-century Flemish screen in his dining room. “I bought it at an auction of Verna Hull’s things after she died,” he says. “She had given it to her neighbor, Claudette Colbert, who gave it back to her after they had a fight over something.” Hull, a Sears Roebuck heiress, was fascinated by Colbert, but they never spoke again after the quarrel, though they continued to occupy adjacent estates year after year.

Barbados is an island of ghosts, awash in the poetry of loss and longing. One night, with the sort of weird historical inevitability that happens all the time on the Platinum Coast, another emblem of Swinging London, Pattie Boyd, turns up at the bar at the Lone Star, an all-too-glam hotel and restaurant. Boyd, the onetime “it” girl of rock, began her career playing a schoolgirl in A Hard Day’s Night, ultimately co-authoring Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me. As it happens, she honeymooned on Barbados with Harrison in 1966. Like many on the island, Boyd’s in search of the past, and she has returned to photograph old houses. “I’m really interested in ruins and decay, the old estates that are starting to vanish with all this development,” she says. “When the beauty of those ruins is gone, it will be gone forever.”