'BARBADOS is the Southend-on-Sea of the islands,' a friend remarked when I said I was travelling to the Caribbean. I had been to Barbados three times before and the similarity had never really struck me. But I knew what he was driving at.

Jumbo jets, the strong influence of English culture, and the genuine friendliness of the people have made Barbados a popular wintering spot for game-show hosts and tabloid celebrities. Michael Winner boasted of spending pounds 29,000 on a Christmas holiday there, but then he did fly on Concorde.

My flight was somewhat cheaper. As I stood in line at Gate 43 for the Friday morning flight from Gatwick, I checked out the other passengers for signs of Essex Man. There did not seem to be a preponderance of 'big hair', gold necklaces, and fake tans; instead there were old ladies with too many bags and small boys with snorkels.

Barbados lies east of the necklace of Windward Islands, running from Dominica to Grenada near the Venezuelan coast. It is a relatively small island, 14 miles wide and 21 miles long. The main tourist hotels hug the St James coast along the Caribbean Sea, where the best beaches are protected from the Atlantic winds.

A taxi ride across the island confirmed not much had changed since I was last there four years ago. We bounced at break-neck speed along narrow lanes between fields waving with ripening green sugar cane, slowing only when we got stuck behind a trailer carrying a terrified cow. The old blue and yellow buses had been replaced by the local version of the Shopper mini-bus. There seemed fewer of the traditional wooden shacks, and more prefabs, by the roadside. It was getting late, people were sitting out on their doorsteps enjoying the breeze, and a crowd had gathered in a dusty field to watch the last overs of a scratch cricket match.

Unlike many of the other Caribbean islands, the inland scenery of Barbados is not dramatic, although the lanes across the cane fields are worth exploring in a rented Mini Moke. There are tropical gardens on the Atlantic east coast, where the rollers smash on to the beaches, providing a stunning backdrop favoured by fashion photographers.

The island was first settled by the British in 1627 and was a Crown Colony until it became independent in 1966. Some aspects of British influence seem indelible: Barbados is divided into parishes; it has a Westminster-style parliament with a Speaker who wears a wig; and the Bajans drive on the left.

Behind the laid-back manner of the islanders there is a politeness reminiscent of Britain in the Fifties (as are some of the cars). Customers are asked to cover up beachwear in banks, topless bathing is frowned on, and nudity is reserved for babies - and the French on other islands.

The dress code, I was informed, at my hotel (an all-inclusive beach 'club') was 'casual elegance'. No swimwear, please, in the bar and restaurant. Women wore beach wraps to lunch. One guest with a shaven head was the double of Ben Kingsley in Gandhi. He solved the problem of what to wear for the barbecue by donning a flowing white robe, with a pocket for his cigarettes. 'Hey, Gandhi smokes Marlboro,' said a Tom Cruise wannabe at the bar.

The Bajans are proud of their island, and one, a former London bus driver, asked me and my wife to tea. We walked up the hill, beyond Sandy Lane golf course, to meet his wife and children, and admire their new bungalow over tomato sandwiches with the crusts cut off. He wanted to know how London was, what had happened since Mrs Thatcher went, and whether it still rained all the time.

I had come to Barbados to brush up on my windsurfing, and had picked the beach club, with its three pools, beautiful shaded gardens, and open-air restaurant on the beach, because it offered water sports. But the windsurfing kit, in contrast to the rest of the hotel, turned out to be disappointingly neglected. The hard-core windsurfing area lies to the south of the island at Silver Sands, which receives high winds and rollers from the Atlantic, but lacks good beach hotels. The only serviceable board was an old Bic longboard with a 6.5m sail of unbattened sailcloth. The other surprise was the sea: the beach I remembered had been swept away, uncovering half an acre of coral at low tide. Coral islands are suffering from the rising seas caused by global warming, and, underlining the concern, in April Barbados hosted a UN conference on sustainable development of small island developing states. It was the first international event to come out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

To reach water where it was safe to sail, I had to wade through breaking surf across coral, which made reef sandals essential. Hauling up the rig, the wind cracked, the sail kicked, and I was off, slowly at first, dodging protruding coral, and then out across the bay of Sandy Lane, picking up speed, slashing through choppy waves.

The green sea and the mottled sea bed darkened to midnight blue as I sailed into deeper water. In the distance, the red sails of a ship headed towards me, it looked like a pirate vessel from a boy's comic. However, it was thumping with a calypso disco and bare dancing feet. And doubtless there were several thumping headaches from the free rum punch.

I turned the board by putting my weight on its tail, flicked the rig and fell in. The beauty of blowing a flare gybe in the Caribbean is that the water is warm, and you can do it all day without fearing the icy exposure you would get in the North Sea. I had been diving on my previous trips to Barbados, and had been assured there are no sharks in these waters. I scrambled back on board and started back across the glittering bay, towards Sandy Lane hotel sitting pink among the palm trees, their heads tossed by a force four wind. Then I spotted a disturbance in the water. It looked like a patch of seaweed and was about the size of a large tray. It had arms and a head, and was swimming. It was green turtle. I gave chase and sailed after it, but it ducked and disappeared below the deep blue waves.

When I got back to the beach, I asked Gerry, in charge of the water sports, about the turtle. 'Yes, we got lots of turtles, 'specially at this time of year. They come up on the beaches and lay their eggs,' he said.

'You don't get turtles at Southend,' I said. He looked puzzled, and told me about the latest cricket score. England were all out for 46. 'It's a disgrace, man,' he said, shaking his head, with real disappointment in his voice. I went for a rum punch and watched the humming-birds gathering nectar in the gardens by the swimming pool.

FACTFILE

Getting there: British Airways flies from Gatwick to Barbados. A fare of pounds 425 is available through Trailfinders (071-937 5400) for departures before 31 October. This increases to pounds 509 from 1 November to 5 December.

Money: The Barbadian dollar is tied to the US dollar at the rate of two-to-one, which makes pounds 1 worth about Bdollars 3.10.

Recommended reading: Caribbean Islands Handbook 1995 (Trade & Travel, pounds 14.95); The Southeastern Caribbean (Cadogan, pounds 9.99).

Further information: Barbados Tourist Authority, 263 Tottenham Court Road, London W1P 9AA (071-636 9448).

(Photographs and map omitted)

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