Before anyone had dreamt of Sandy Lane, the centrepiece of the main drag of snazzy hotels on the Caribbean Coast, visitors were coming to The Crane, on the southern corner of the Atlantic Coast, just up from Foul Bay. It has offered the same formula for 110 years. The Crane may not appeal to Michael Winner, perhaps (he couldn't possibly spend his pounds 30,000 annual Sandy Lane budget there even if he tried), but it is Barbados's best-kept secret.
You could easily miss it. The chipped pink signpost at the end of the track and the surrounding scrubland look unpromising. There are a handful of vehicles in the car park and no attendants in uniform. The only sign of life is a notice on the wall: "Our Mission Statement: HAPPINESS".
Keep going through the white arches, and the impact is dazzling. High on a cliff, an exquisitely proportioned pool overhangs one of the world's most dramatic beaches. Half a mile of bleached beach stretches out below, the natural beauty unspoiled by a single sunlounger.
But where is everybody? Some people boogyboard in the surf; others kick a football around half-heartedly; a few hardcore tanners are splayed on the sand, fanned by the breeze ... 20 people at the most. The beach is pretty much your own. This is partly because the hotel has only 18 bedrooms, and although daytrippers can spend a day on it for five bajan dollars, it is half an hour's drive from the island's action and few bother. Long may it stay that way.
The Crane is Barbados's oldest resort. Pre-1886, it was a private residence. In the days when it wasn't done for women to be seen swimming in public, the hotel provided a sea-bathing spot for such purposes. The Horse, named after England's horse-drawn bathing machines, is much as it was when it was built in 1769. One can imagine ladies in voluminous costumes and bathing caps being chaperoned down the steps to take a discreet dip.
Paul Doyle, 49, from Toronto, has managed The Crane for 10 years. He describes his clients as "independent": writers, painters, sculptors, musicians. Those who stay at The Crane can afford to stay anywhere, "but they know what they like and are not worried about what is the accepted thing".
Sculptures are dotted around the grounds. Televisions are available on request, but guests rarely feel the need. Every Tuesday night there is "something on the house for guests to get to know each other", but don't get too excited about themed evenings: there aren't any. Mr Doyle "keeps meaning to fix up the sign", but somehow never gets round to it - and it doesn't really matter. For as Fielding's Guide to the Caribbean put it in 1971 (one of the more recent guidebook entries for The Crane): "This is the place for those who are satisfied with simple pleasures."
In 1936, the author Raymond Savage outlined a suitable way to spend a day at The Crane. At 8am he recommends: "Arrange for a waiter to meet you at the top of the steps bearing a tray on which is an iced nog made of milk, an egg yolk, rum (if not to your liking, brandy), and sugar to taste. Drink delicately through a straw, but do not let it go flat ..." The rest of the day consists of sitting in the sun, sleeping and swimming, rounded off with one or two green swizzles and long, weak whiskies, some flying fish and a frog chorus. He concludes: "A week or two ... will restore the most jaded to a measure of health and strength which is quite remarkable."
The same is true today - but go now. The sad truth is that Mr Doyle has designs on the scrubland, where he hopes to build a host of condominiums.
Crane Beach Hotel, Crane, St Philip (00 1 246 423 6220; fax: 00 1 246 423 5343; e mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) is 10 minutes east of Barbados airport. Off-peak rates (April-Dec) are US$90 (about pounds 56) per night for a room, up to US$255 (about pounds 159) for a two-bedroom suite. Corresponding peak rates are US$150 (about pounds 94) and US$425 (about pounds 265).
Going to Barbados
Getting there: British Airways (0345 222111) and British West Indian Airways (0181-577 1100) fly between Heathrow and Barbados; BA also flies from Gatwick. The lowest official fare on BWIA is pounds 762, but discount agents such as Caribbean Connection (0171-344 3000) offer lower fares.
Charter flights are available from Gatwick and Manchester, mostly catering for inclusive tour customers of companies such as Thomson (0990 502399) and Airtours (0541 500479).
Money: sterling is easily convertible to the Barbadian dollar at a rate of about pounds 1 to B$4.50.
Further information: Barbados Tourism Authority, 263 Tottenham Court Road, London W1P 9AA (0171-636 9448).Reuse content