Despite what resorts in Barbados would have you think, steel drums, or more mystifyingly, steel drums played over Eighties and Nineties soft-rock muzak, are not the most popular music on the island. That honour, it seems, goes to R'n'B and soul. It rolls out of my taxi from Grantley Adams Airport and there's no let-up at the Fisherman bar in ramshackle Speightstown, where the tuneless trill of Ne-Yo accompanies my flying fish and cou cou – a sort-of fruit version of mashed potato – doused with the local Banks beer and rum.

I'd come for what is nominally called the Barbados Jazz Festival, a small but well-formed rival to St Lucia's own celebration of the genre, the largest event of its kind in the Caribbean. "It used to be more jazz when it started," the waitress at the Fisherman tells me. "Now it's all R'n'B." She was, at least, hoping to see a performance by Babyface, the US soul crooner.

I was looking forward to escaping the frozen wastes of Britain – a week-long music festival in Barbados in January sounded like a good way to do it. But as a pale-skinned, freckle-faced Irishman, extended stays in the sun don't work out well for me. I spend more time hiding in the shade and applying sun-cream than basking in the sunshine; sunbathing is pointless. I find little consolation in the evening as there isn't much to do – decent culture in sun resorts is thin on the ground. Usually my holidays are spent loafing around warm cities where there are amenities beyond sunbathing. A jazz festival in idyllic surroundings could offer the best of every world.

By the fourth night, I've set aside my quibbles. Soul singer Lalah Hathaway, daughter of Donny, is performing in the gardens of Ilaro Court, the official residence of Barbados's Prime Minister. It gets dark very early on the

island and the gardens are lit up; the mansion sits glowing up on a hill to the right of the stage. Hathaway puts in a spirited two-hour performance and the crowd, made up largely of Bajans, is warmly appreciative. It's admirable that, given how dependent the island is on tourism, the festival caters as much for locals as it does for more moneyed outsiders (my musical questioning be damned).

The final two days of the festival take place in another impressive setting, high up in the Farley Hill National Park in the north end of Barbados. Beyond Farley Hill, it's worth trekking even further up the island to the North Point, where the Atlantic Ocean crashes against stunning cliffs. Perhaps then travel down along the east side of Barbados: this coast is less of a tourist destination than the west because of the rough Atlantic Ocean. Apparently it's not as alluring as the white sands caressing the Caribbean Sea on the west, but the rolling hills with small houses dotted along are a fine site and the beach still appeared pretty nice to me. In many ways this less developed side holds greater attraction than the more popular west coast, with its array of fancy resorts. However, the tranquil Caribbean Sea and that gleaming sand have an inescapable pull.

I'm staying for the week at the Colony Club, a fine beachside hotel on the west coast, where the draw of the sea helps me forget my aversion to "sun holidays". There is a free water taxi – a fine way to see some of the island – to the hotel's four sister resorts of the Elegant Hotel Group. As I wait for the boat at the watersports stand of the Crystal Cove Hotel, I speak to an elderly Bajan man who runs the stand. "I realised this was paradise in 1979," he says, "That was when I lived in Canada." As I glide over the beautiful water of the "Platinum Coast", the sun beating down and the boat's canopy shading my precious skin, it's hard to argue with him. Sorry, Canada.

Festival fun

# Nine concerts in nine legendary spots where J S Bach lived and worked. Hear his music in the German venues he frequented or performed, such as the Church of St George in Bach's natal town of Eisenach. Seven days in June from £2,510pp. See

# Celebrate Chopin, whose bicentenary festivities are at their grandest in his native Poland. The world's leading pianists will play in Warsaw at a series of concerts in February and in the Chopin & His Europe Festival, in August. Kirker ( ) offers six-night tours from £1,766 pp.

# It's a full week of partying, so not for the faint-hearted, but the Sziget Festival (12-17 August) is putting Budapest on the dance- music map. The Danube River has rarely looked so lively, with prices that undercut Ibiza several times over, a starry line-up of DJs and a truly underground atmosphere. See .

# France's best rock/pop festival, Eurockeennes with be held from 3 to 5 July in the town of Malsaucy, near the Swiss border. At €85 for three days, tickets are comparatively cheap for a mega-festival which features Kanye West, the Ting Tings and death-metal veterans Slipknot. See

# Haven't yet got it together for the imminent carnival season? Then try St Lucia's Carnival, which has, for the last decade, taken place in July. The party was moved back a few months to avoid clashing with the Trinidad and Tobago carnival in February but has now come into its own as a soca and calypso cultural event. See