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.”