Barbados: Seduced by 60 years of sunshine

In 1953, the first weekly flights from the UK to Barbados began – and British travellers have never looked back. Dan Gledhill swaps winter's chill for a warm welcome in the tropics

A boast you'll frequently hear from Bajans is that they've never been invaded. True, the English arrived in 1624 – aboard the Olive Blossom – and took possession in the name of James I, but the island had no permanent settlements at the time, so it doesn't really count. Indeed, perhaps the nearest thing to a conquest began on 7 October 1953 when BOAC (the forerunner of British Airways) began the first weekly service to Barbados from Heathrow. Sixty years on, the travelling hordes have left their mark on what's become one of the most popular Caribbean island destinations for British travellers. Almost 180,000 of us arrived last year by air; another 98,000 stopped off as part of a cruise itinerary.

Even before 1953, the island – with its timeless tourism triumvirate of sun, sand and sea – had been a popular winter destination for those with enough time and money to get there by ocean liner. Suddenly, though, Barbados's tourism potential was unleashed. By December 1987, a twice-weekly winter Concorde service had been launched from Heathrow to add some top-end glitter to the range of travel possibilities. However, the era of faster-than-sound holidaymaking ended with the final supersonic arrival in August 2003, when the aircraft (G-BOAE) was retired. It now forms the centrepiece of the Concorde Experience, adjacent to the terminal at Grantley Adams airport on the southern shore of the island. Visitors to its converted hangar can climb aboard, see where the Queen sat on its maiden flight, and marvel at the surprising lack of space – although you would get there from the UK in less than five hours, including a refuelling stop in Shannon, barely half the current journey time.

These days, Barbados is also known as a redoubt for the rich and famous. There are the opulent holiday homes belonging to, among others, Tom Selleck, Wayne Rooney and Sir Cliff Richard. And, for those with a budget that stretches to a £1,000-a-night room, the Sandy Lane hotel is probably the place to be.

My base was the luxurious Coral Reef Club, on the so-called Platinum Coast, one of the oldest hotels on the island. Indeed, the development of the resort – which is also celebrating its 60th birthday this year – has mirrored that of Barbados itself.

Budge and Cynthia O'Hara arrived in the 1950s as a newly married British couple and took over the management of the then-fledgling property. Since then it has grown to accommodate an army of regular guests as well as those discovering its charms for the first time. It's now run by the children of the O'Haras and their families. They've preserved the feel of a family hotel – even as its reputation and popularity has grown.

Set within 12 acres of lush gardens, the hotel comprises 88 rooms, suites and cottages. I was in Codrington, a magnificent suite with a bathroom the size of most hotel rooms and an enormous balcony complete with plunge pool. Wooden balustrades and shuttered windows added a touch of plantation – not to say palatial – living.

Tempting as it was to stay put and let room service come to me, Coral Reef's restaurant is an unmissable treat. It's exquisitely positioned by the sea, with an elaborate menu crammed with fish specialities – the tuna was the highlight, amid stiff competition. Then there are the tennis courts, the watersports, a gym and two pools. And the spa, an oasis of comfort and relaxation with a portfolio of treatments that would keep you busy for a month. The "Mojito Magic" body scrub – which uses sugar cane, mint and a dash of white rum – will certainly leave you with an aroma appropriate for Monday evening cocktails chez Cynthia O'Hara, whose house at the entrance to the resort symbolises the family-run ethos of Coral Reef.

Sixty years of development means that Barbados resonates with opportunities for the inquiring tourist. Try Seaduced, a 47ft catamaran which offers a dozen passengers a cruise up the west coast of the island through the clearest blue water you're ever likely to see. There are pauses to see nautical wrecks and to swim with turtles, who do their bit for the tourist trade by sharing the water with snorkellers. Drinks are served on board and the food (courtesy of chef Jan) is excellent.

Alternatively, inland and uphill are the extraordinary Hunte's Gardens. These are the work of Anthony Hunte, a Bajan whose beguiling accent carries a whiff of the West Country, from where his ancestors emigrated many generations ago. How on Earth he envisaged that a rubbish tip could one day be transformed into a riot of tropical trees and plants is beyond me, but he did it: and you'll get the full, extraordinary story of how the garden grew from the man himself over a glass of rum on his mercifully cool balcony.

Of course, British colonial history in the Caribbean long predates our love affair with Barbados as a holiday destination. Every Sunday, John and Rain Chandler open the doors to their spectacular 17th-century home, Fisherpond Great House. This was once the hub of a large sugar plantation, and retains a feel of Barbados's opulent – if brutal – colonial past. It's an opportunity for tourists to find out more about the island, and incidentally to discover how tasty unripe bananas can be.

Travel north from Fisherpond, through the lush green hillsides which at times seem as British as they are Caribbean, and you'll get to St Nicholas Abbey plantation house. Built in the 1650s, this Jacobean mansion has been preserved to provide a glimpse of how the plantation-owning aristocracy once lived. Sugar cane is still grown there, from which the estate's own rum is distilled. The scenic route back from St Nicholas Abbey takes you along the Atlantic east coast – a turbulent contrast from the calm Caribbean side – through the town of Bathsheba and its dramatic rock formations.

A tour of the Garrison on the south-east corner of the island reveals another side of Barbados's history. This relic of Britain's colonial power has been neglected over the years; the gaudy Hilton hotel towers incongruously above the remains of 17th-century battlements. Today, thanks to the efforts of some dedicated volunteers, this former military headquarters – including a vast network of tunnels – is slowly being restored, and is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. The absorbing tour begins at George Washington House, where the future president spent two months in 1751 and, the locals like to think, saw the light about America's need for independence from Britain. It is capped by the changing of the guard, when two retired Bajan soldiers standing to attention in full regalia are relieved of their duty.

Like so much in the daily life of the island, it's a show that's put on for the tourists. The island achieved its political independence in 1966. But such is the importance of tourism, and in particular visitors from the UK, that it's never gained independence from British money – as became painfully apparent during the downturn.

As Derek Braithwaite, a taxi driver born on the island who emigrated to Canada only to feel the pull of his homeland, explains: "Yes, we're feeling the recession. We definitely saw fewer visitors. But look at this island. The pace is slow, the people are friendly, there's very little crime. It's the best place on Earth to be."

Back at the Coral Reef Club, cocktail in hand, it's easy to agree with Derek. Sixty years on, the island is still a diamond destination. Happy anniversary, Barbados.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Dan Gledhill travelled with Carrier (0161 492 1354; carrier.co.uk), which offers seven nights at the Coral Reef Club from £1,810pp, with breakfast, transfers and flights from Gatwick. Flights to the island are operated by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) from Gatwick, with the latter also flying from Manchester.

Seeing there

Half-day "Lunch & Snorkle" cruises aboard Seaduced are operated by Warren Yatching Barbados (001 246 432 8387; warrenyachtingbarbados.com), from US$125 (£83)pp.

Hunte's Gardens (001 246 433 3333; huntesgardensbarbados.com).

Fisherpond Great House (001 246 266 8752). Sunday buffet: B$120 (£37).

Nicholas Abbey (001 246 422 5357; stnicholasabbey.com).

George Washington House (001 246 228 5461; georgewashingtonbarbados.org). Tours US$10 (£6.70).

More information

visitbarbados.org

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