Paradise on a shoestring

Simon Calder takes his backpacker mentality to the land of luxury and is surprised to find a world of budget opportunities

You know the feeling, perhaps: as the plane lands, you glance out of the window and wobble a little, fearing that you have made a big mistake. In my case, the cause was a glimpse of the world's most beautiful aeroplane.

You know the feeling, perhaps: as the plane lands, you glance out of the window and wobble a little, fearing that you have made a big mistake. In my case, the cause was a glimpse of the world's most beautiful aeroplane.

As soon as I saw Concorde parked beside the terminal, it triggered a thought sequence with an unfortunate conclusion. When British Airways was deciding where to assign its seven precious supersonic jets, Barbados earned one for a very good reason: the airline considered the island to be the only leisure destination anywhere in the world that could sustain a scheduled service at twice the speed of sound (New York, the other target for Concorde, was primarily a business destination).

Shall I get my backpack, and leave immediately? On the face of it, Barbados is no place for the budget traveller. Some of the world's finest hotels are concentrated into an area the size of the Isle of Wight, and complemented by a drizzling of the planet's best chefs. Such fine hospitality comes at a fine price, which Barbados's well-heeled clientele are happy to pay. But the backpackers' grapevine is almost silent on the prospects for the island. Budget travellers evidently detour past this part of the world to reach cheaper destinations, such as Cuba, right at the other end of the Antilles, or Venezuela on the South American mainland. From flights to food, Barbados is a gold-card sort of destination.

Happily, I was wrong on all counts - starting with the cost of getting there. The fare I paid for a non-stop (and sadly subsonic) flight to the Caribbean on Virgin Atlantic was a lot less than the going rate to either Caracas or Havana.

Arrival procedures are less stressful, too, even if you - and your luggage - do not happen to be sporting the same designer labels as many of your fellow passengers. Leaving the passenger terminal at either Havana or Caracas airport involves the assumption, by about five million men professing to be taxi drivers, that you will be taking a cab into town. In complete contrast, the relaxed cabbies at Grantley Adams airports cheerfully point the newcomer in the direction of the bus stop. And once you plug into the Barbados public transport network, you can start enjoying an island that looks after backpackers as well as more well-heeled visitors.

Well, you can relax just as soon as you have a place to stay. Looking at the prices for the fine-sounding hotels on the next two pages, you can see why the average backpacker might be tempted to skip Barbados in favour of places where the price for a room in pounds does not reach double, let alone triple figures.

The ladies running the tourist office at the airport said that the south coast of the island was the area to head for something approaching budget accommodation. A B$1.50 (40p) minibus ride drops you at Worthing, which I must say felt more sultry and appealing than its Sussex namesake. Along a lane towards the beach, I stumbled upon the Crystal Waters Guesthouse: the sort of place that I imagined Barbados would have carelessly discarded a decade ago as part of a quest for ever-increasing luxury. But no: a St Lucian who had been brought up in Barbados before moving to Canada now runs the place as much out of love for the island as for profit; I have paid US$30 (£16) a night for many less comfortable places, and the ambience is priceless.

If you, like me, take a while to adjust to the time zone, the Caribbean will lap you to sleep; but you will awake just before dawn - the ideal time to tip-toe across the handsome, high-ceilinged hallway, and out of the louvred door onto the verandah. By the time the sun has prised through the morning mist and hoisted itself out of the ocean, breakfast (included in the overnight rate) will be ready. With fresh juice, coffee and industrial quantities of eggs and toast, you are ready to conquer the island.

The place to get your bearings - geographically and culturally - is the Barbados Museum. That might sound blindingly obvious, but judging from the lack of crowds and the effusive welcome I received I deduce that all too few visitors make the effort. The collection takes you on a fascinating journey through the island's story, from sugar and slavery to cricket and tourism. The museum makes you hungry to explore, and better tuned to everything you see. On the walk into Bridgetown, for example, you pass the Barbados version of the mobile home: chattel houses, neat little homes planted by the roadside as they have been for decades.

Some guidebooks are scathing about Bridgetown, but I found it a thoroughly engaging place: whether you wish to shop, worship or drink, you can do so in convivial surroundings. The 20th century has left few scars on the capital, and the 21st-century cruise ships do not distort Bridgetown in the way that some other Caribbean ports of call. The capital has a critical mass that means that in its markets, rum shops and cafés you are quickly eased into the islanders' way of life.

Can't sit here chatting and sipping rum all day: the Malibu tour awaits. I can think of more appealing drinks than white rum and coconut (Banks beer is among them), but a meander around a beachside distillery seemed a good idea at the time.

More fulfilling, though, is to roam around "these fields and hills beyond recall" that are celebrated in the National Anthem. Elsewhere in this edition you can discover the delights of the Barbados beach; independent travellers may prefer to explore the fabric that binds the island together, and to visit places with intriguing names like Content and Mount Pleasant. The island's tag as "Little England" does not apply once you start roaming around the hills and valleys of the interior. The middle of the island has been scrunched up, then draped with tropical vegetation. On a still day, the air seems heavy with the scent of fruit and flowers, laced with a hint of treacle.

Buses march across the hills to the corners of the island, but to reach some of the finest sights you must get off and walk. St Nicholas Abbey sounds as though it should be the mother church for Barbados, but in reality it is one of the most extraordinary sights in the Caribbean: a Jacobean plantation house. It is one of those places where you get the feeling that the family has just popped out to the fields, leaving the ensemble of affluence on show. An informally guided tour takes you around the ground floor of a house that was started soon after the British arrived. The best years of its life were in the 18th century, which is when much of the furniture dates from. Other accoutrements are just left lying casually around, such as an early 20th-century croquet set, hinting at the lifestyle of the Bajan aristocracy.

By now you are on the far side of the hills from Bridgetown, and it is hard to believe that this is the same island as the one strung with diamond-grade resorts. All the barriers between traveller and host are down, and the day turns into a series of chance encounters with lively people in drowsy villages that bear Biblical names. There are surprises, too - such as the roundabout near Bathsheba dressed in a dramatic sculpture called Edgehenge.

A surprise was awaiting when I returned to the guest house at the end of my final inspiring but wearying day. A knock on the door summoned me to a barbecue, hosted by the owner. As the meat sizzled and the ocean sighed, it was the best of times to be a backpacker in Barbados.

Crystal Waters Guesthouse: 001 246 435 7514

A Day At The Races

In many respects, the racing calendar in Barbados resembles the Mother Country's - except that the months have been transposed. Every year, a Derby is run to sort out the best of the three-year-olds - but it happens on the first Saturday in August, rather than two months earlier.

The other classic is the Barbados Gold Cup, which attracts the best horses and the biggest prize, but is run on the first Saturday in March at the Garrison Savannah in Bridgetown, and not the first Saturday in July at Royal Ascot.

The name of the premier racetrack in the Caribbean betrays its military origins. This was - and on occasion still is - the island's parade ground, where racing began about a century ago, and is avidly followed by much of the population.

The big race days at Garrison Savannah see Barbados at its most exuberant and colourful, with fancy-dress parades and pageants, and a crowd of more than 10,000 packing out the grandstand and every inch of the rails. For many, the best days out are on Boxing Day and New Year's Day, when the atmosphere is festive, the wagers a little more reckless than usual, and the trade winds blow to take the edge off the heat.

Near the unsaddling enclosure is a bronze of the legendary Blast of Storm. He won the Gold Cup three years in succession (2001-2003), adding to the laurels of English-born trainer Bill Marshall, who has chalked up seven Gold Cup and 10 Derby wins. Bill came to Barbados on holiday in the Eighties and liked it so much he applied for residency and set up in business. Now he's a Caribbean racing legend, as well known in the other horsy centres of Trinidad and Martinique as in his adopted home. Eighteen months ago he published his autobiography, the title of which any trainer, jockey or punter would concur: You Win Some, You Lose Some.

Frank Partridge

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