When I first went to Barbados 15 years ago, I had images of polo matches next to sugar-cane fields and afternoon tea at old plantation houses, knowing that the island had been ruled by Britain for 341 years (it won independence in 1966). Instead, I discovered a spring-break fantasy—beach vendors and hair braiders, booze cruises and oceanfront bars. It was even cheap: $400 bought airfare and seven nights at a no-frills hotel.
One day, I snuck onto the beach at the exclusive Sandy Lane resort, where I glimpsed couples who resembled the Howells from Gilligan's Island lounging by the golden sand; surely they had touched down with butlers and Louis Vuitton trunks in tow. It was a scene left over from the high-society heyday (which kicked off in the 1920's and lasted for decades), when Cunard family members docked their yachts in the bustling capital of Bridgetown, former British MP Ronald Tree entertained Sir Winston Churchill at his estate on the privet-lined Platinum Coast, and Hollywood legend Claudette Colbert played the ultimate hostess at her manor next to Sandy Lane. After a new international airport opened in 1979, the island began to attract package tourists. But, as I witnessed, there was a clear divide between the two worlds.
I've returned more than a dozen times since, called back by white-sand beaches, friendly locals (Bajans), and near perfect weather. Barbados has become more all-embracing, offering everything from fish fries and family-run guesthouses to $4,000-a-night villas and white-linen restaurants. These days, it's not surprising to spot a silk-clad Sandy Lane guest eating fried chicken at a roadside stand downtown. Or a couturier selling $2,000 dresses in a chattel house, one of the traditional wooden shacks that dot the landscape. Here, the ultimate guide to Barbados now.
Whoever makes a decent road map could become the island's next millionaire. Street signs are practically nonexistent, and asking islanders for assistance doesn't help; directions differ, depending on where the person providing them is from (west coast residents say they're going "up" to Bridgetown, while east coasters think of the capital as "down island"). Driving here is a test of nerve in any case, since cars use the left-hand lane and pass even on narrow bends. But, because taxis are expensive and difficult to find, it's the best way to explore.
West Coast Opulent mansions and resorts line the Platinum Coast, on the Caribbean side of the island. The dollar signs really flash in the districts of St. James and St. Peter, but even the less populated northern reaches—around the fishing villages of Little Good Harbour and Half Moon Fort, for instance—are going glam.
East Coast Pounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Barbados's windward shore is wild and natural, a panorama of steep cliffs and huge waves, wide fields and lush forests. Most insiders say "the country" is their favorite area. Tiny Bathsheba is the boomtown.
South Coast The road stretching between the "gaps" (hamlets) of Hastings and Oistins provides a snapshot of how tourism can destroy the landscape. Strip malls compete for your attention with condo colonies and noisy pubs. St. Lawrence Gap is an all-night party zone.
Scotland District The sparsely developed northeastern region earned its name for its resemblance to the Highlands.
Bridgetown Wedged between the south and west coasts, Bridgetown is the island's congested capital—and not worth visiting unless you're in the market for duty-free emeralds.
Speightstown Barbados's second-largest town is home to a couple of good restaurants and shops— and not much more. At one time, this west coast port was called Little Bristol.
Holetown Also on the west coast, Barbados's oldest settlement has restaurants lined up cheek by jowl along the main drag.
For such a small island (21 miles long and 14 miles wide), Barbados has an enormous number of hotels. Be prepared: it can take 45 minutes to drive from coast to coast—so in order to experience the entire island, it's best to split your stay between the west and the east. Warning: rates listed below are for the fall season, which ends around December 15 at most properties. Winter rates can be up to twice as much.
TOP HOTELS Hands down, the shining star is Sandy Lane (St. James; 866/444-4080 or 246/444-2000; www.sandylane.com; doubles from $800), where a Bentley is at your disposal. When Sandy Lane reopened in 2001 after a major renovation, it drew heaps of criticism for service flaws. Now that the kinks have been worked out, the only possible complaint is that Sandy Lane is perhaps too over-the-top, with its three golf courses, extensive children's program, beach assistants ready to clean your sunglasses, a five-bedroom villa, and 112 marble-floored rooms—with plasma-screen televisions, no less.
The closest competition is Villa Nova (St. John; 246/433-1524; www.villanovabarbados.com; doubles from $450), a country-house hotel set on 15 acres of landscaped gardens. Built in 1834, the coral-and-stone estate was the former residence of British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden. New owner Lynne Pemberton hired decorator Nina Campbell to dress up the 28 rooms, each of which has a private terrace. Since Villa Nova isn't on the ocean, Pemberton is building a beach house a 10-minute drive away, on the east coast. A small spa is also opening for the winter season.
Some 115 years old, the Crane (St. Philip; 246/423-6220; www.thecrane.com; doubles from $225) was the first resort hotel on Barbados. In the 1970's Oliver Messel revamped the main building; a more recent redo has taken the Crane into prime time, adding three buildings with sprawling mahogany suites and private plunge pools.
The tropical-colonial Cobbler's Cove (Road View, St. Peter; 800/890-6060 or 246/422-2291; www.cobblerscove.com; doubles from $371), a member of the Relais & Châteaux hotel group, is looking a little tired—but guests like it just that way. They're also quite fond of the beachside afternoon tea and the restaurant overseen by Michelin-starred chef Michael Taylor.