Lots of people told me to expect nothing but quaint Britishness in Barbados, a country of Anglican churches, horse-racing and cricket and even a district known as Scotland. But there's more. Barbados is a proud, successful and unrepentantly West Indian country, covered by a patchwork of sugar-cane fields, dotted with hundreds of tiny and characterful rum shops, with calypso the music of choice and flying fish the favoured food.
Few people but the surfers make it up to the fabulous beaches of the wild east coast, where fierce Atlantic breakers make swimming risky and surfing - in the "Bathsheba soupbowl" - magnificent. All the better for true beach aficionados - there are miles and miles of beautiful sand with no one but the seabirds for company.
Essential conversation opener
Birthplace of Sir Gary Sobers and dozens more great cricketers, Barbados is the place to get into the game; there are pitches everywhere and the entire population (it seems) is capable of spinning out any cricketing anecdote until the cows come home. Expect to get roped into at least one game of beach cricket during your stay; expect also, like me, to spend most of your time fielding under the palm trees or in the sea.
These days, Caribbean nouvelle cuisine is serving up spectacular yellowfin sushi, lobster pastas and a variety of other great seafood at west coast restaurants like the Cliff and the Mews. But to make the tastebuds really move, I look out for someone making up the traditional pudding and souse - steamed sweet potato served with cuts of pork marinated in onion, lime and hot peppers. Simple and totally delicious.
Most unexpected sounds
Reggae, calypso and steelpan notwithstanding, my trip to the Holders Festival of classical music was about as surreal as it gets in the Caribbean. Italian opera under the stars in the grounds of a gorgeous old plantation house, performed in period costume beneath the ancient mahogany and palm trees.
Friendliest place to stay
Whenever I can, I go back to the tiny Crystal Waters Guest House - the pick of a range of guest houses dotted along the south coast. The rooms are simple with no frills, but the owners are delightful, the breakfasts substantial and, for the evenings, there is a snug veranda and a laid- back beach bar on the edge of glittering Sandy Beach.
Best way to escape
At busy times, parts of the south and west coasts can feel somewhat like bedlam under the sheer weight of tourist numbers. But you can get away from the crowds quite easily by hopping on to one of the island's buses. Fortunately, they are cheap, fast and comfortable. They also run past all of the beaches and into practically every nook and cranny of the interior that you could possibly want to explore.
The following airlines fly direct from the UK: BA (tel: 0345 222111), BWIA International (tel: 0181-577 1100), and Virgin Atlantic (tel: 01293 747747). A two-week return with Virgin costs from pounds 349 including tax. Seats on some charter flights from London and Manchester can be purchased from Unijet (tel: 0990 114114) from pounds 194 return, including tax.
Where to stay and eat
Crystal Waters Guest House, Worthing (tel: 001 246 435 7514). Double rooms from B$75 (pounds 25).
The Cliff, Fitts (tel: 246 432 1922).
The Mews, Holetown (tel: 246 432 1122).
What to do
The Holders Festival takes place in March (tel: 246 432 6385).