The taste of old Barbados

If you can't run to £20m...
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The Independent Online

While the Blairs recharge their batteries at Sir Cliff's wedding-cake villa at Sugar Hill, and Rod Stewart's love-ins with Penny Lancaster at the playfully tropical Cove Springs, keep the paparazzi on heat, even a sneaky peak at the visitors' book is frowned upon at Jane's Harbour. It is a sign perhaps, that old-school Barbados still knows how to behave.

While the Blairs recharge their batteries at Sir Cliff's wedding-cake villa at Sugar Hill, and Rod Stewart's love-ins with Penny Lancaster at the playfully tropical Cove Springs, keep the paparazzi on heat, even a sneaky peak at the visitors' book is frowned upon at Jane's Harbour. It is a sign perhaps, that old-school Barbados still knows how to behave.

The glory days that began in the 1940s, with dynasties such as Cunard and Guinness, established Barbados as a world-class destination. Back then holiday homes were home-from-home for the exclusive use of immediate family and friends, without media intrusion, solicited or otherwise. These days, gated community celebrity is laying more obvious claim to the island and the fate of the late racehorse owner Robert Sangster's original Great House, on the market at a price guide of $37m (£20m), now lies in the balance.

Sangster, who died last year, aged 67, bought the estate in 1978, beating off Lord Forte, then the owner of the Sandy Lane hotel. He hatched an plan to import brood-mares into Kentucky to raise the money.

Originally built in 1961 for Lord Astor by the American architect John "Happy" Ward, the villa is the only private home on the Sandy Lane estate, its shingle-roofed, coral-stone creation loosely fashioned after the hotel's famous curved-front Palladian design.

Astor never finished the house and rumour has it, the property was sold to the American stockbroker Miles Warner over a game of golf. Warner's eccentric socialite wife, Jane, filled the place with a stunning array of antiques and curios, and was known to redecorate on a whim. A reminder of her tastes and the only really ostentatious curios remaining today are two imposing copper and crystal Oliver Messel chandeliers, in the drawing room.

Access to the estate is through a set of wrought-iron Chelsea gates that creak open on to a large, mossy, courtyard bordered by mature magnolia. First impressions are of a timeless, elegant but unstuffy, family home. The main house faces west, to the sea, and is flanked by two detached single-storey annexes. The classically proportioned elevations sit under a hipped roof, while the louvred doors, coral-stone pillars and tall Demerara windows lend a distinctly colonial feel.

The interior is largely the work of Penny Morrison, whose current commission, the Ile de France hotel in St Barts, has just been voted the world's best dressed hotel by Condé Nast.

"An immaculate look without the fuss," she says. "Guest comfort took priority over permanently plumped cushions." These are sentiments shared by the interior designer Jane Churchill, who was involved in the initial refurbishment. "The house has such good bones," she confirms, "you could pretty much do anything with it. The key was ensuring that the decor didn't try too hard. It was a beach-front home after all, built for entertaining."

While Dynasty moments do creep up on you at times, the "casual glam" decor works in the main. Furlongs of squashy, low-slung, calico-covered sofas, ceiling fans and colourful artwork blend with the Provençal country theme running throughout the main rooms, a therapeutic mix of muted coloured linens and distressed French textiles. The spacious bedrooms (nine in all) have their own pecking order, the most sumptuous decorated with Japanese silks and ornate oriental furnishings. The airy drawing room, with pale pink coral-stone walls features a baby grand piano.

The cool, white, open lounge-terrace acts as the social hub for casual gatherings, while the fresco-walled terrace dining room, with its hand-painted vaulted ceiling and mural is a shady spot for dining.

Sandwiched between the drawing room and the bedrooms is the cosy bar, the walls heaving with photos of showbiz and society friends including Sinatra, Connery and Pavarotti. Outside, to the right of the centrepiece Roman pool, is the "doll's house wing" and Sangster's personal sanctuary; "a favoured spot", says the housekeeper, Judith Cadogan, "for spinning tales with his cronies".

"Mr Sangster loved entertaining," she adds. "It was always open-house around here; no one was ever turned away." The last memorable bash was at the Millennium. "Don't panic, Judith," he said, before breezing out of the door to play golf, "we've just the 60 for dinner tonight". By midnight, some 250 champagne-swilling guests were partying in style on the lantern-lit beach.

As to the villa's future, gated community developers have been beadily eyeing its beach-front location; a sign that the floodwave of bland global design may prove unstoppable. This is disheartening news for the Sangsters. "My grandparents holidayed at Sandy Lane," says Guy, Robert's eldest son, "and we've spent many family Christmases at the house. I even met my wife there." Time will tell whether the house's past can live on.

* Gun Site: Beautiful three-bed townhouse in the historic district of Christ Church. $312,000 (£165,000) ( www.terracaribbeanbarbados. com; 00 1 246 419 3602)

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