From banana plantations and spas to rum punch and black-bellied sheep, Natalie Wheen savours the laid-back beauty of this Caribbean jewel

I knew my suntan would look good: cinnamon gold in the aquamarine sea. Out of the water, palm trees fringe pink sand; this is clearly one of the best beaches in the world. In the ultimate Caribbean fantasy, the waiter brings my rum punch at the merest hint of a wave. Come sunset, freshen up, put on the glamour and head off to exotic dining somewhere along the strip of luxury hotels. Every night a different gourmet experience. Believe the brochures, it's all true.

I knew my suntan would look good: cinnamon gold in the aquamarine sea. Out of the water, palm trees fringe pink sand; this is clearly one of the best beaches in the world. In the ultimate Caribbean fantasy, the waiter brings my rum punch at the merest hint of a wave. Come sunset, freshen up, put on the glamour and head off to exotic dining somewhere along the strip of luxury hotels. Every night a different gourmet experience. Believe the brochures, it's all true.

Well, up to a point. It's really 6.30am, no one else around except two retired ladies, returned from London, who sit on the rocks every morning enjoying the light on the water; I've already experienced the drama of dawn over the Atlantic breakers, sipping coffee on my private balcony in the coolest of breezes that always keep the air conditioning natural. And it's just the elegant seclusion of The Crane here. There is no other hotel for miles around - quite a different aspect from the glass calm of the Caribbean coast and its necklace of luxury establishments.

Toasting myself isn't really my kind of thing anymore; I'm out of the sun by 11 at the latest. So what to do with the rest of the day before the late afternoon dip, apart from getting slaughtered on those all-too-delicious drinks? Apart from swimming, the only activity at The Crane is reading.

So, duty-free shopping, the Mount Gay rum tour, a lazy day on a catamaran - it all sounds tempting. With Tiami cruises you can do that all in one day, from Buck's fizz at 9am and onwards through lunch and tea as you swim with fish and feed the turtles. Even try a jet ski - whatever next? Then watch the west coast slip by from the seaward side, feeling no pain, until you fall off the boat and into the well-positioned craft and souvenir shops.

But driving east from the airport, I was taking in a world of wonder: trees and flowers, brilliant, vibrant; bougainvilleas, flamboyant; I haven't seen frangipani so glorious for years. Almost every house - even the little wooden houses, the chattel house that people can up sticks and carry off with them to wherever they're next working - surrounded with vivid planting. I'd forgotten that the display Jean Robinson brings from the Barbados Horticultural Society is the marvel every year at Chelsea.

In this climate a seed planted today becomes Jack's Beanstalk tomorrow. Edwin Franklin, the landscaper at The Crane, whose gardens promise to be the sensation of the island in a couple of years, showed me what's grown spectacularly in just three weeks. Two years of growth around a recent new building is already waiting the pruners. I swear I saw the nursery seedlings swelling before my eyes.

Then sugar cane stretches for miles, the plantation houses nearly always marked with a ruined windmill once used for crushing canes. Signposts promise eco-tours, natural wonders, botanic gardens, Flower Forest, Orchid World. Go first thing before the cruise ships disgorge and you're alone in paradise.

With four centuries of modern history, Barbados has plenty to engage the mind, too. The National Trust's property at Sunbury Plantation House beautifully reveals how life was once for the ruling classes - spacious, elegant and restrained in the furnishing - but I did marvel at how they coped with the heat in all that underwear. (Three changes a day in today's light cottons.) See how the rest lived in the Bridgetown Museum on Garrison Savannah: the old military jail transformed into a series of tableaux of times past. Take a calculator to work out the costs of supporting a family at the bottom of the social ladder.

The Island Safari is a brilliant way to orientate. Land Rovers go anywhere. It's just a matter of how well you can hold onto your breakfast as the convoy slips and slides sideways along steep muddy lanes in between the sugar canes which stretch improbably high and impenetrably wide. Imagine cutting that back by hand in the tropical heat: worlds away from the indolent hotel scene and the closed golf and polo enclaves.

Into the next off-road experience and you're deep in the last bit of virgin forest: thick creepers, termite nests, bearded fig trees (which gave Barbados its name) and the really sneaky palm trees with needle spikes up every stem and over the leaves which sort of get lost in the gloom until you brush past one. Ouch. Indentured Brits did the original clearing in a matter of decades: in return for seven years' labour, they got a free passage to the island and the promise of land ownership at the end. If they survived.

As you drive across and back, the island unfolds: familiar shapes of Anglican churches mark each of the patchwork of parishes that make up Barbados (more churches than rumshops, incidentally). The first was St James in Holetown, dating from 1628 - not long after the first settlers arrived. It has since been joined by comfortable Christchurch in the south, St Michael, St Joseph, St Philip, St Andrew and so on up to St Lucy, the only female saint, in the very north. "On top, where the lady always likes to be," says driver Fernando wryly as he roars up another steep off-road experience to show us a startling panorama of wide grassy plains dotted with cattle, which end in steep, razor-sharp coral cliffs.

Great stands of mahogany trees on Cherry Tree Hill lead down to St Nicholas Abbey, one of the several Jacobean properties on Barbados. Steamy banana plantations, or were they plantains? Or even the delicious fig bananas, sweet as honey? Who knows, the ripe ones had all gone off to market. (But not exactly ripe: at Cheapside market, they told me they'd be best in a couple of days, by which time cheeky sparrows had found them in my fruit basket and made some good meals. They particularly like to share your breakfast with you.)

By the end of it, the ooh-aah factor was pretty high, the muscle tone pretty bumped around: the only possible follow-up the complete contrast of a spa treatment. Or so I was advised - what do I know about spas?

Spas have become very big here in the past five years and you're going to David Lloyd's latest enterprise, Suga Suga, spinning off from the success of Sugar Hill, favourite haunt of Cliff Richard and the Blairs. And no I didn't see Cherie having her face scrubbed in the next cubicle - Suga Suga is much too discreet. Just submit to sybaritic overdose. But I was most worried about the feet. Would young Cernara cope with sawing off the residue of countless barefoot summers in dry, dry Greece? She didn't turn a hair and I now don't recognise them. And what about her massage? Nothing mimsy there as she winkled out those knotty bits I'd long forgotten about. Total bliss.

In between, lunch at Mannie's. He's a Barbados institution, having worked his way through several of the grandest restaurants, The Cliff, Carambola, Sandy Lane - all the toffs know Mannie. These days he's running a much more relaxed affair for lunch and dinner on Mullins beach, so Michael Winner has not been yet. Winner might be the self-appointed Barbados style guru, but Mannie's family came in 1652, so he knows a thing or two about his home. Passionate, in fact, about the history and heritage. You could listen to him for hours. His next project is to recreate some idea of the pre-colonial island, inhabited then by peoples originally from the Amazon basin. Mannie pulled out a box of finds: implements made from conch shells, pottery bowls, toys (a sea turtle, a bat) - even a spindle for the old crop of sea island cotton. All of them were lying in the sand under the old chattel house next door that came down when they built his restaurant.

Barbados must have more spectacularly located restaurants per head than anywhere else in the world. At The Tides, right on the water's edge, you have to pinch yourself as you attack what looks like a work of art. Lobsters I think should look like lobsters, not contortionists. But still, delicious.

At the other end, raucous Oistins Fish Fry, open- air food stalls right by the market, where the fish is done in local style, marinated in lime and salt and grilled before you, served with rice and peas and the loudest of sound systems.

Best of all, the Sunday buffet at the historic Atlantis Hotel on Bathsheba on the east coast, where for B$50 (£13) you can eat all you want of traditional Bajan dishes, such as souse, christophene, ground provisions, Bajan pepper pot with cow heel and goodness knows what else, all beautifully prepared. My friend Linda pronounced it the best cooking she'd ever enjoyed at a restaurant.

The tall man behind me in the queue turned out to be Theo Williams, the owner of the Atlantis. He and his wife Margaret are passionate about keeping old Barbados traditions flourishing. They buy all their vegetables from local producers, while the fish comes fresh from the sea below the dining room balcony. The speciality black-bellied Barbados sheep, a prize delicacy for the quality of meat, comes from breeders like Ronald Howell, at Walkers St Andrew, who's only recently started to build up a flock. (By the way, they may look like goats, but their tails go down, while goats' go up). How do I know? I stopped to talk to him and his flock because they're so pretty, I had to know more. In Barbados, that's the way the adventure starts to open up and blossom into the unexpected.

Sunday lunch should really come after Sunday church, and I thought a good sing might build up an appetite. Ten hymns were up on the scoreboard at St Martin's just down the road from The Crane. By 7am it was filled with more people than you'd get on a high day in the UK, with another lot to come in two hours later. Canon Small drew his flock together with a hypnotic examination of the day's Gospel reading (I dreaded he would quiz me at any moment) and then jovially welcomed strangers by getting us each to stand up and be seen. I'm sure that if I hadn't been going to Atlantis, I would have ended up eating with someone from the congregation.

"Certainly", said Linda as we talked over the day over a glass of Mount Gay's best in Boo's rum shop. "That's the way we do it." And we dropped into easy, companionable silence. Barbados relaxed.

Back at The Crane, the night music of tree frogs was in full performance as always, unchallenged by anything except the tumble of the sea: you rarely see them, about an inch long, their tintinnabulations fill the trees and bushes. The breeze is warm, the flowers smell sweetly. I take my drink out on the terrace to watch the surf, shining on the beach. I think it would take a lot of this to annoy me.

Natalie Wheen broadcasts on Classic FM from 4pm at weekends