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 of Much 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.