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.
It was our last full day on the island. We had shopped, walked miles around St. James Parish, where we stayed, and eaten many good meals. But we still hadn't visited Barbados' other beautiful coasts.
Larry Williams, owner of L.E. Williams Tour Co., was our guide and driver. Williams, whose family has been on the island for 300 years, took us to breathtaking vistas at Little Scotland overlook at the small community of Bathsheba on the Atlantic Coast.
We feasted on Bajan specialties of flying fish, pumpkin fritters and breadfruit at the Atlantis Hotel, and explored the impressive Sunbury Plantation House to get a view of Colonial times.
En route, we also got glimpses of bearded fig trees, after which Barbados (which means "bearded ones") is named.
Williams pointed out where actress Claudette Colbert lived before her death in 1996, and showed us the foliage-shrouded mansion of Hollywood star Steven Segal.
Along on the tour were four other Americans. We were surprised to find out the two couples were from Baltimore. There's nothing like chatting about hometown news thousands of miles from home.
Avid cyclists David Scharff and Paul Silvestri have been coming to the island for several years, using the roads to build their bicycling stamina. While the guys are cycling, their travel partners Chris Sabin and Marcia Ribeiro spend hours soaking up the ambience of the South Coast.
The South Coast is the island's hot spot these days. The white-sand beaches are beautiful, and the many shops and restaurants are all within walking distance. There's a vibrancy to the South Coast that's missing in the more secluded, upscale St. James coast, where we were staying. Williams recommended the Accra Hotel as a place to stay on this side of the island.
Our new Baltimore friends invited us to join them that evening at the Waterfront CafM-i in Bridgetown, a friendly bistro where locals gather. We had to decline. We had reservations at the Cliff, called by Food & Wine Magazine "The Best Insider's Place on the Island." It's been reported that you have to make reservations in December for a table there by June.
The setting is gorgeous. Lighted by torches, the multi-terraced restaurant is chiseled into seaside rock. Every seat overlooks the water.
The food is wonderful, unforgettable and also expensive. Prices were in Barbadian dollars, which were roughly double American dollars when we were there. Breast of Duck with Pink and Black Peppercorn Sauce, Carrot Tartlette and Creamed Potatoes carried a $77 Barbadian price tag - $38.50 in U.S. dollars, but pricey in any currency.
AN IDEAL DAY
8 a.m.: Head for the open-air restaurant at Treasure Beach Hotel, where a breakfast buffet, featuring fresh mango and papaya, is served on the terrace overlooking the hotel's well-tended tropical gardens and the Caribbean Sea.
9 a.m.: Go for an energizing walk before it gets hot. Head for Holetown, the center of Barbados' Platinum Coast where there are interesting shops. It is also where Capt. John Powell landed in 1625 and claimed the island for England.
10 a.m.: Check out the Chattel House Village, a colorful complex of stores, where you can buy local products, the island's popular mega-proof rums and other souvenirs.
Noon: Gather your shopping bags and head back to the hotel. If you're overloaded, it's easy to find a taxi or take a bus for $1.50 (keep exact fare handy).
1 p.m.: Don't lounge on the beach yet. Lunch at nearby Bombas will keep you sated throughout the afternoon. It's a quirky beach bar with umbrella-shaded tables on a deck facing the sea. Owned by a Scottish chef and Bajan Rastafarian, the food and atmosphere are lively.
2 p.m.: You've earned your rest. Find a shady spot under a palm tree or brave the afternoon sun. Dips in the Caribbean or hotel pool will cool you down. (Wear sunscreen, even early in the morning, and watch out for machineels, green-apple lookalikes, that fall from trees onto the beach. They are poisonous and toxic - don't touch or step on them.)
5:45 p.m.: Sunset over the Caribbean is not to be missed. It's a daily attraction. After the sun hits the horizon, nightfall is instant. Within seconds, it's dark, and the tree frogs begin their rhythmic evening song.
8 p.m.: Time to eat again. Although Treasure Beach Hotel has an award-winning chef, venture out from time to time. A dinner by candlelight at Fathoms Restaurant, within walking distance of the hotel, is the perfect end to a no-stress beach day. We watched tiny crabs scoot across the beach as we savored fresh dolphin fish on the outdoor deck.
WHEN YOU GO...
Getting there: American Airlines (800-433-7300) and Air Jamaica (800-523-5585) offer connecting flights from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Treasure Beach Hotel, Paynes Bay, St. James, 246-432-1346 (Barbados is part of the North American calling plan. Just dial "1" and then the number)
Sandy Lane Hotel, Highway 1, St. James, 246-432-1311
Cobbler's Cove Hotel, Highway 1, St. Peter (Barbados' only member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux organization), 800-890-6060
Accra Beach Hotel & Resort, Box 73W, Rockley, Christ Church, 246-435-8920 Dining:
The Cliff, Derricks, St. James, 246-432-1922
Fathoms, Paynes Bay, St. James, 246-422-3245
Treasure Beach, Paynes Bay, St. James, 246-432-1346
Bombas, Paynes Bay, St. James, 246-432-0569
Atlantis Hotel, Bathsheba, St. Joseph, 246-433-9445
Waterfront Cafe, The Careenage, Bridgetown, St. Michael, 246-427-0093 Activities:
L.E. Williams Tour Co., offers an 80-mile island tour for about $50, plus other island tours; 246-427-1043
Best of Barbados shops, Mall 34, Broad Street, Bridgetown and 11 other locations around the island, offer high-quality artwork and crafts. Local artist Jill Walker sells her watercolors and prints here.
Barbados Tourism Authority, 800 Second Ave., New York, N.Y., 10017, 800-221-9831