English tea, French dressing - can these really be Caribbean islands?

Hunter Davies enjoys a most unlikely pursuit - visiting stately homes (old and new) in Barbados
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The Independent Travel

Those who have been to Barbados will probably remember the amazing 10 miles of white beach on the west coast, the rum punches, the brilliant swimming, the view of Bathsheba Bay on the east coast, the rum punches, the friendly people on a well-organised island, the rum punches, the stunning and ever-so-classy hotels - and who can forget the rum punches.

Those who have been to Barbados will probably remember the amazing 10 miles of white beach on the west coast, the rum punches, the brilliant swimming, the view of Bathsheba Bay on the east coast, the rum punches, the friendly people on a well-organised island, the rum punches, the stunning and ever-so-classy hotels - and who can forget the rum punches.

I have now added the island's stately homes to my portfolio of Bajan images. Yes, just as in England, grand Jacobean and Georgian houses are open to the public. Not something you normally associate with the Caribbean, but then Barbados is a very English island.

On Jamaica and Trinidad, its two rival islands, people tend to dismiss Barbados as Little England, but they would doubtless wish they too had the same high standards of living, education and development and the relative safety.

One reason why so many handsome houses were built in Barbados is that the plantation owners, mostly British, had so much money they hardly knew what to do with it. In the 18th century, there were some 1,200 plantations, and on almost every one they wanted a grand house, grander than those of their neighbours. The survival today of so many is due to the fact that Barbados, unlike almost every other Caribbean island, did not suffer the waves of colonisers - British, Spanish, French and Dutch - who over the centuries invaded, pillaged and wrecked, then in turn got chucked out.

The original British architecture of most of the finer houses remains unaltered, unadorned by other styles. It makes it strange today to stand and stare at some of these imposing buildings. Many of the pretty churches on Barbados look so English you could swear you were in the Cotswolds, until you notice the palm trees waving in the background and remember that it is 80F all the year round.

St Nicholas Abbey, built in 1658 in the north-east of Barbados, is one of the two oldest surviving Jacobean mansions in the Western hemisphere - the other is in Virginia, USA. It is open on weekdays and has some splendid furniture and lush gardens, but the thing I enjoyed most was a Thirties film made by the father of the present owner, Colonel Cave. It is a silent home movie, recording a voyage from England to Barbados, arriving at the Big House, going round the plantations, watching the workers. Historic stuff, not just as a piece of film but because a working sugar plantation is rarely seen on the island now.

You used to be able to visit Villa Nova, which was built in 1832. Not quite as old as St Nicholas Abbey but still very charming and it has added political interest in that it was once the home of Sir Anthony Eden. It is now being turned into a stately hotel, with the original house preserved. Many hotels in Barbados do feature an old plantation-style house, such as the one I was staying in at Cobblers Cove.

Other stately homes open to the public include Francis Plantation House, with a display of some interesting 19th-century furniture made by Bajan craftsmen, and a map of the West Indies dating from 1522. Sunbury Plantation, which is more than 300 years old, was badly damaged by a fire in 1995 but is now open again, with some excellent china and other treasures.

The recently opened Fisherpond Plantation House, dating back to around 1660, is being restored by the new owner, a Bajan called John Chandler. He has been collecting period furniture and paintings, trying to recreate the house as it was, though his real passion in life appears to be dead chandeliers. I poked my head into one room that seemed like a burial ground for glass - hundreds of pieces of crystal of all shapes, waiting to be reassembled. Not only does he host private lunches at his grand dining table - by appointment - he will also play you Thirties dance-band records on his wind-up gramophone.

Barbados has its own National Trust, founded in 1961 on the lines of our own institution. It has 12 properties, including Andromeda Gardens and Morgan Lewis Sugar Mill. Both are open to the public, along with a series of houses which they do not own. This excellent idea is very similar to our English Garden Scheme, only these are houses.

Every Wednesday, from January to April, you can have the chance to look around a private house. Most are relatively modern but incredibly luxurious. Barbados, after all, has some of the richest second-home owners in the world, who have built some of the most extravagant holiday homes.

"People have an enduring curiosity to see how others live, especially the well-off," said Penelope Hynam-Roach, director of the Barbados National Trust. "But we also get people going round who are architects, looking for ideas, or designers looking at materials."

How about burglars, looking for something to pinch? "In 26 years of running our Open Houses scheme, all that has ever gone missing was a crystal pineapple. And only one thing has been broken - the top of a glass table. We have a waiting list of people willing to open their houses. There is a boom in exotic houses at the moment in Barbados, so I don't think our supply will ever dry up. Added to that, we have some 320 older houses in Barbados that are listed and deemed of historic interest."

This is an amazing amount, when you realise Barbados is a small island, just 21 miles by 14, with a population of only 250,000. On a good open day, they can get up to 900 visitors. Entry is B$15 (about £5) - with a discount for members of most National Trusts around the world.

I went to an open day at Chummery House, built in the Seventies as a holiday home for the chairman of Macy's in New York and his chum, who was boss of RCA. Hence its name. The present owner, an American woman, vacated it for the day and let the National Trust take over. The public can roam free, gaping at the furniture, examining the bookshelves and studying the family photographs - well, that's what I did.

It felt Tuscan rather than Caribbean, but with a lot of mahogany furniture made in Barbados, set in six acres. There were National Trust volunteers on duty in every room to guard the treasures, all women of a certain age who mostly looked exactly like their British National Trust counterparts. Over-excited and quite bossy.

In one bedroom, with thick white carpets, I was told to take my shoes off before entering. "You haven't looked in the bathroom," called out Mrs Bossy, just as I was putting my shoes on again. I asked her what was the most common question from visitors, though I should have guessed: "How much is the house worth?"

More than 70 per cent of the visitors are people on holiday in Barbados. The rest are residents. In a way, it does seem a bit daft, going to gawp at someone's house when you are on holiday on a tropical island, where the main attractions are the sun, sea and beach. On the other hand, it does make a pleasant change to go inside somewhere cool, to nose around a stately home or tut-tut at the flash drapes in a des res. In between the rum punches...