a short stay in...Barbados

It may be known as 'Little England', but there is more to this Caribbean island than cricket and red letter-boxes. And, as Stephen Roe discovered, you no longer have to be a millionaire to go there

ONCE THE exclusive domain of the rich and famous - the only holiday destination to justify scheduled Concorde flights - the island of Barbados is broadening its appeal. All-inclusive hotels and bargain packages from as low as pounds 359 for two weeks are making some of the finest beaches in the Caribbean highly affordable. Charter planes now regularly line up on the tarmac alongside Concorde, and British arrivals are up by around 40 per cent this year.

With names like Brighton Beach, Hastings, Worthing, Folkestone and Dover, Barbados still has a distinctly British feel. Known among the locals as "Little England", popular island activities include cricket, polo, rugby and horse-racing. There is even a Kensington Oval cricket ground. Red post and telephone boxes are dotted around the capital, Bridgetown, and the island has its own Trafalgar Square, complete with a statue of Nelson.

Why go there?

With its superb beaches, crystal-clear warm water, great snorkelling and diving, reggae bars, lively nightlife, cosy restaurants and excellent food and wines, Barbados has a very special appeal. Also, in keeping with its laid-back atmosphere, it is one of the safer Caribbean destinations.

When to go

Barbados enjoys 3,000 hours of sunshine every year, with annual temperatures ranging between 21C and 26C. Peak season is from Christmas to Easter, when hotel rates rocket and the weather is at its finest. Expect regular showers between June and October, with a risk of serious hurricanes and prolonged downpours in August and September. Best-value months, when the weather is reliable, are November, December, April and May.

Getting there

The following airlines operate scheduled services from London, direct to Barbados:

British Airways (tel: 0345 222111), BWIA International (tel: 0181-577 1100) and Virgin Atlantic (tel: 01293 747747) which starts its new route to Barbados on 27 September. Typical scheduled return fares are pounds 583 economy, pounds 2,232 business, pounds 4,944 first and pounds 6,118 Concorde.

Seats on a number of non-stop weekly charter flights from London and Manchester can be purchased from Unijet (tel: 0990 114114) from pounds 350 return.

Getting around

The island is easy to get around, with an excellent minibus network operating virtually everywhere for a flat fare of 50p. Cars and open-air mini jeeps can be rented from most hotels for around pounds 50 a day, and licensed taxis are also available.

What to see and do

Beaches The west coast of Barbados has some of the finest and safest beaches in the Caribbean, stretching more than 10 miles from just north of Bridgetown to beyond Speightstown. On the less sophisticated but livelier south coast, the beaches are also excellent but the waves are a little rougher and the peace frequently shattered by planes approaching the nearby airport.

The Atlantic coast on the east side of the island also has stunning beaches but the water is too rough for swimming and is only recommended for accomplished surfers. There are no private beaches.

The beach at Folkestone, close to Holetown on the west coast, has some great snorkelling around reefs and nearby coves. Equipment can be rented on the beach for around pounds 5 a day. Enthusiasts can take excursions to explore shallow sunken wrecks and reefs around the island.

Cruises Catamaran cruises sail every day along the island's calm west coast, with hostesses serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, and dispensing rum punch and other exotic cocktails. Snorkelling and swimming from these vessels, in totally clear water and alongside almost deserted beaches, is an experience not to be missed.

In complete contrast, reggae music, unlimited free booze, and dancing from 10 in the morning, set the tone for cruises aboard the Bajan Queen and the Jolly Roger, a mock pirate ship that offers non-stop floating parties around the coast. More sophisticated twilight dinner cruises can be booked on the Harbour Master.

Watersports Sailing, windsurfing and water-skiing are all popular activities along the west and south coasts. Serious surfers head for the big rollers on the East coast, which is not suitable for swimming because of its strong riptides.

Diving For accomplished divers, Carlisle Bay, on the border of the west and south coasts, is home to three wrecks all lying in 25 to 40 feet of water. Divers sometimes find antique medicine and rum bottles, cannonballs and old anchors here.

To experience the ocean floor without actually getting wet, the island's Atlantis submarine takes tourists on hourly dives to depths of around 150 feet.

Shopping Some good duty-free bargains can be found in the air-conditioned shops of Bridgetown and Holetown. More ambitious bargain-hunters, seeking locally made leather goods and souvenirs, can venture into Bridgetown's Temple Yard, a Rastafarian enclave said to be the only place where the local police turn a blind eye to the smell of cannabis smoke emanating from the makeshift shops and bars.

On all the beaches, large ladies in huge hats sell colourful wraps and beachwear, and vendors offer handmade jewellery.

Sightseeing While most visitors choose to spend their daylight hours on the beach, for those with itchy feet, there are several interesting restored historic mansions to visit on the island. Free spirits can explore caves, botanical gardens, sugar mills, museums, rum distilleries and, for nature- lovers, the Welchman Hall Gully, in St Thomas, with over 200 species of tropical plants, is well worth a visit.

Getting Married New laws in Barbados have stripped away virtually all formalities and restrictions, enabling tourists to marry as early as their day of arrival. Personal wedding co-ordinators are available to take care of all the local paperwork and wedding arrangements, and the choice of venue is as wide as your imagination. You can be married hovering over a coral reef, 150 feet below the surface of the ocean in the Atlantis submarine; in a historic plantation house; in dramatic cave settings; under waterfalls, and in any number of romantic beach and hotel settings.

Golf Royal Westmoreland, the island's challenging 18-hole championship course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr, restricts play to those visitors either staying in the on-course villas or in selected hotels. The nearby Sandy Lane course has been reduced to just nine holes during a redevelopment programme, which promises new courses totalling up to 45 holes when the project is finished.

Other island courses include nine holes at Rockley Resort on the south coast, and nine holes at Almond Beach Village, near Speightstown, which can only be played with a lightweight "Cayman ball", which flies half the distance of a regular ball, because of restricted distances. A golf driving range is located close to the airport.

Night Life Every night is party night somewhere in Barbados, but local revellers switch their allegiances regularly according to where the most popular bands are playing. Tuesdays and Sundays are big nights at the Boatyard on Bridgetown's Bay Street, while on Wednesdays and Fridays, Harbour Lights draws the crowds, in addition to staging a limbo beach- party and barbecue every Monday. On Saturday nights, the place to be is Baku, the newest and most sophisticated nightspot on the island, located on the beach at Holetown, on the west coast. At St Lawrence Gap, on the south coast, the Ship Inn and the Reggae Lounge are lively on most nights until the early hours.

Where to stay

Significantly, the bulldozers moved in in May to flatten Sandy Lane, one of the Caribbean's best-known and most exclusive hotels, which dominated the finest stretch of beach on Barbados. The new Sandy Lane will not be fully operational until the start of the millennium, so the Concorde set are having to look elsewhere. Fortunately, the island's west coast has plenty of alternative luxury accommodation to offer, including Cobblers Cove, the Coral Reef Club, Glitter Bay, Royal Pavilion, Colony Club, Treasure Beach and Sandpiper Inn.

Smaller villas and luxury apartments are available at Port St Charles, a new marina development at the northern end of the west coast. Villas can also be rented on the Royal Westmoreland Golf Club, which includes playing rights and beach facilities at Glitter Bay.

Some of the best all-inclusive resort properties, with superb beachfront locations on the west coast, include Kings Beach Hotel; Almond Beach Village, which has its own nine-hole pitch-and-putt golf course; Tamarind Cove and Crystal Cove.

On the south coast, hotels are much cheaper, with most falling into the two or three-star category and appealing particularly to younger and budget- conscious visitors. One of the attractions of the south coast is its lively atmosphere, with numerous bars, restaurants and nightspots within walking distance, particularly around the area of St Lawrence Gap.

Here, the Casuarina Beach Club is a well-established apartment hotel set in lush tropical gardens with a beachfront adjoining Turtle Beach, the newest all-inclusive resort to be opened on the island's south coast. Budget-priced accommodation on the south-coast beaches can also be found at Woodville Beach, Silver Sands, Coconut Court Beach and Accra Beach.

Food and drink

There can be few places in the Caribbean to rival the choice and variety of restaurants available in Barbados. Most hotel restaurants are open to non-residents and, in addition, there are at least 15 quality restaurants in superb settings along the west coast. These include Cliff House, Emerald Palm, Chateau Creole, Lone Star, Ile de France, Nico's and Olives.

Along the south coast there are plenty of fast-food outlets and pub- style restaurants, plus the occasional gem like Shak Shak, with its great beachfront setting. The Waterfront Cafe is a good lunchtime retreat in Bridgetown, with live music several evenings a week.

Deals and Packages

Unijet (tel: 0990 114114) also does holiday packages. For example, two weeks self-catering at Casuarina Beach Club on the south coast is pounds 775, including flights and transfers. The all-inclusive (full board and flights) Almond Beach Village on the west coast is available from pounds 1,415, and Kings Beach, another all-inclusive west coast property, is pounds 1,355 for a fortnight.

Currency

There are approximately three Barbados dollars to one pound sterling. US dollars are also accepted everywhere.

Further information

Free information packs with maps can be obtained from the Barbados Tourism Authority (tel: 0171-636 9448).

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