3 MARCH 2001, Page 35

Forget ethnic integrity

Charlotte Metcalf is not ashamed to admit it: she likes Barbados

WHEN I told people I was going to Barbados, everyone, without exception, sneered. It was clear that, whereas I was being vulgar and flash, they would not be seen dead throwing their money away on such a trashy, expensive place. I was beginning to think that they were right as we ventured down the vast, polished, alarmingly steep staircase into the Lone Star restaurant, one of the smartest in St James, feeling tired, pale and uninteresting. At the bar, tanned girls in tiny skirts and tight leather trousers thronged around Julian Lennon. On the way to our beachside table we were assailed by the smell of Allure as two women, festooned in gold, pushed past us. Someone sniggered at our sarongs as we sat down. At the next-door table, a man with a shaved head and a gold Rolex was complaining in a loud Essex accent that his lobster was late.

'I came here for bleeding dinner, not for breakfast tomorrow,' he said. 'And my wife will have another glass of the Veuve Clicquot [pronounced Weil Kleekotej while you're at it.'

The wife was a blonde in a backless satin top. At the same table were a man whose mountainous belly thrust through his black silk shirt and a woman wearing diamonds, a lot of lip-liner and a full-length Prada evening gown. Evidently, sarongs and wilting linen, the mainstay of our holiday wardrobes, were going to be infra dig.

They were. On New Year's Eve my partner was told that he was unlikely to gain entrance to any club 'wearing a skirt'. (We ended up joining the street party on 2nd Street in Holetown with the waiters from our hotel.) Night after night we were dazzled by the sequins, gold and diamonds that adorned the surgically enhanced, scented bodies of the super-rich. The stench of fresh, new money was pungent.

Dinner at the Lone Star cost £160 — without the Veuve Clicquot. You can book a seat in economy to fly to Bridgetown, but not in clubor first-class, In Barbados three lemons cost £1 at a market-stall and a pineapple fetches £6 in the supermarket.

• The west coast restaurants charge up to £7 for a bottle of mineral water — but then it does come from Blenheim Palace. Of course it does. In the Lone Star a lugubrious-looking man at the next table asked us whether we preferred still or sparkling water. 'It's mine, you see,' he said. It was Jamie Blandford. Of course it was.

We became complacent about celebrities and playboys. I got used to queuing in the ladies' loo with Barbara Windsor and not really staring at Sporty Spice, Ruby Wax or Andrew Lloyd-Webber en famille. On this tiny island tourism has rocketed into a super-league, attracting the lottery winners, the bankers and dotcom millionaires, and the celebrities by the jumboload. Clutching their platinum Amex cards and wedges of dollars in gold clips, the wealthy swarm to the west coast and pay $800 a night for a seaside room at the Royal Pavilion, or $1,000 for a two-bedroom villa on the Westmoreland golf course. Sandy Lane, which reopens next month complete with wildly ostentatious temples and fountains, will charge $3,000 a night. Already ensconced on a Sandy Lane press junket was Michael Winner, complaining about the food at the island's best restaurant, The Cliff, and parading his Croatian babe.

For all — or perhaps because of — the celebrities and glitz. Barbados retains its tacky reputation. It might do for Posh and Becks, or even Jamie Blanclford, but I sus

pect it would definitely not do for most Spectator readers. Back in London I pretended that I found it 'hilarious' and was far too ashamed to admit that I had had a great time.

'You can't have actually enjoyed it?' asked a friend aghast. He eyed my tan with distaste. It's hardly Lamu.'

And that is just the point. What Barbados lacks is the shabby chic of a sweaty, malarial outpost on the Swahili coast of Africa. The truth about Barbados is that it works. The food, the service and the accommodation are all predictably excellent. The Bajans are simply among the best hosts in the world. Not only are they consummate professionals when it comes to tourism, but their manners are impeccable too. Even on the public beach at Mullins they tout their wares with easygoing charm. Single women do not feel threatened — compare that with the frisson of knowing that there have been several rapes at knifepoint on Lamu's Shela beach. The man selling drinks or setting up the beach chairs knows instinctively when to leave you alone rather than harass you or haggle over prices. There is none of the aggressive jostle of the souk.

For the discerning Brit in search of local colour and thrills, the place is too clean; too perfect and smooth an operation. The climate is exquisite — sunny and hot during the day without being muggy, deliciously warm at night, tempered by the hint of a breeze. There are few mosquitoes and none of them is malarial. The white sand on the beaches is so glossy it shines, and the sea is clear as turquoise glass. In the restaurants, the tuna sashimi or spicy shrimp Caesar salad are delicious, the Sancerre perfectly chilled, the table linen crisp.

What this paradise lacks is edge. Unlike the Americans, who will pay to know that the plumbing and telephones work, we Brits like a bit of ethnic authenticity to prop up our image of ourselves as intrepid, spirited travellers. Barbados simply does not offer us the challenge of Lamu. You can buy emeralds, diamonds and gold, and some hideous ethnic pottery, but you will never root out those elusive artefacts haggled over in the souk at Marrakesh or the market at Otavalo. You are unlikely to see a cockroach, let alone a spider or a snake. Barbados is a slick, safe paradise, and there are enough people who want that to pay through the nose for it.

A friend just back from Nepal shook his head in dismay when I told him that I had been to Barbados. `It sounds awful — real low-life,' he said, and went on to regale me with stories of harassment, horrific food, creepy-crawlies and the inevitable bargains. I looked impressed, then giggled coyly and pretended that Barbados was really rather ghastly.