Travel: Something idyllic for the weekend?

Barbados may be on the other side of the Atlantic but it is still only a short hop away - and has become the most immediately accessible Caribbean hot spot. Hamish McRae takes a perfect short break, swimming among the turtles and dancing to steel bands

Gatwick nil, Barbados 26. The difference in Celsius degrees alone makes the whole outrageous exercise worthwhile.

Barbados is the ultimate glam spot for a winter weekend. It is, for a start, the only place aside from New York which has a scheduled London service by Concorde. But there are plenty of other options that also make Barbados the most immediately accessible Caribbean destination. You simply take a non-stop flight from London and a half-hour taxi-ride later you are greeted with a vast range of hotels, every water sport from scuba to para-gliding on tap, gorgeous seafood restaurants, and unlike some other islands in the region, courteous and hassle-free treatment of visitors.

As people familiar with the Caribbean know, the key thing to understand about the West Indies is that every island is different. There are big ones and tiny ones; English-speaking, French-speaking and Spanish-speaking; mountainous ones and flat ones; developed and undeveloped; calm and frenetic.

From the point of view of the visitor, Barbados is something of a compromise. It is small (22 miles by 14 miles) without being tiny; it has both a rugged Atlantic coast and a calm Caribbean one; it has a strong English (or more accurately, Anglo-Celtic) ambience; it has a complete infrastructure for the tourist who wants just to lie on a beach, but also the cultural interest of its earlier incarnation as a sugar producer.

There are other places that could outbid Barbados for specific attractions: St Lucia and Barbuda have better diving, Trinidad has greater cultural diversity, while if you want to get away from it all you need to do a Branson and go to somewhere like Necker. But nowhere else is there so much variety in such a tight compass - which makes it ideal for the long weekend.

I should confess that my own long weekend last month arose because my spouse was giving a speech there. Since I had a lot of spare Air Miles I tagged along too. As a result of that task, we had the privilege of meeting a number of government ministers as well as leading bankers and industrialists - plus the help of a thoughtful local guide. We also met a number of returnees - people who had spent much of their life in Britain and had moved back to Barbados - and learnt about their perspective on the country. So from the point of view of the journalist, it was a wonderfully interesting experience: for a few hours we saw the world through Caribbean eyes.

But thanks to its variety, the place works very well at a pure tourist level too. I know nowhere else in the world where you can, within the space of three or four hours: snorkel down to a sunken wreck, swim with some turtles, wander round the ruins of an abandoned sugar plantation, eat a gorgeous seafood buffet - and dance to a steel band under a tropical moon. Bliss.

Being in Barbados is also a good history lesson. Walk round an abandoned plantation house and you catch a feeling for the way in which the Caribbean sugar industry brought extraordinary wealth to a few British families, together with the sad realisation of the human misery involved in the generation of that wealth. It is good to be aware of what the tiny huts that the slaves lived in look like, for many of these are still standing, over a century and a half after slavery was abolished.

The abandoned plantation huts make an extraordinary contrast to the grand new houses of the successful local entrepreneurs round the corner.

So you can combine a weekend of pure pleasure with a little education about the country's past, and - in the booming new offices, fast-food outlets and supermarkets - a glimpse of its economic future too.

A practical weekend? You really do need three days and four - which we had - is better. But with only three days (and the regular subsonic flights) you can still do it. Here's how.

On Saturday morning, you catch the 0955 BA flight from Gatwick and, with the four-hour time difference, be in your hotel by 4pm. (The Concorde crowd, meanwhile, arrived in time for a late breakfast.) You then follow the trick of staying as far as possible on British time, so it is early supper and bed. You are up with a cup of tea at 5.30 and back in the sea with the flying fish by 6am.

Then the whole of Sunday and Monday are ahead of you. You can have two complete days doing whatever before turning up at the airport on the Monday evening for the flight back. The next trick is to treat yourself to business class coming home; on Air Miles, Club World "costs" only twice as much as economy, compared with a tenfold difference for paid tickets. So you sleep all night, and seven hours later - at 7am - you are at Gatwick, heading with the commuters back to the office.

A bit tough to go so far for such a short time? Well, not if you stay on GMT, refuse all the food they offer you on the plane on the way back, and instead use the time to sleep. A bit extravagant? Well, yes, a bit. But Barbados itself is not particularly expensive and the shortness of the time there makes the experience all the more memorable: you use every minute. So provided you can get a good deal on the flight (or use Air Miles) it is only a slightly outrageous thing to do. No, come to think of it, it is not out- rageous at all. It is fascinating, and it is gorgeous. Turtles, be warned: I shall be back swimming with you again very soon.

Fact File

Subsonic flights:

British Airways (0345 222111) flies daily from Gatwick and, on Sundays, from Heathrow. British West Indian Airways (0181-577 1100) flies from Heathrow on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747) flies on the same days from Gatwick. It follows that all three airlines can offer the three-day trip that Hamish McRae took.

For travel early next year, going outbound in economy and back in business class, the fare on BA is pounds 1,627; BWIA has a fare of pounds 1,653. On Virgin, using regular economy outbound and premium economy inbound, the fare is pounds 1,110. In this instance, we have been unable to improve on these deals by going through discount agents.

Air Miles: The economy out, business back arrangement "costs" 12,000 Air Miles. If you are able to wait until 11 April, you would "pay" only 6,750. Call 0990 511806.

Supersonic: British Airways (0345 222111) flies on Saturdays only from Heathrow for a fare of pounds 6,138 return.

More information: Barbados Tourism Authority, 263 Tottenham Court Road, London W1P 9AA (0171-636 9448)

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