It had been a while since I'd visited Barbados and even longer since I'd lived there for a year — almost 15 years ago. Returning en famille, with my two boys and a husband whose parents are Bajans themselves, I wondered how different the experience would be.
We were staying at the chichi Royal Westmoreland, in the north, just out of the glare of the glitzy west coast strip in St James, home of Sandy Lane, the grande dame of Bajan hotels. The rambling estate is set inland in 750 acres, around a Robert Trent Jones Jr championship golf course. Accommodation ranges from one-bedroom apartments to seven-bedroom uber-luxe villas that draw a sporting celebrity crowd — Wayne Rooney, Andrew Flintoff and Joe Calzaghe own properties here. Within the next few years, another 18-hole course is set to open, along with 150 more multimillion-pound villas.
If you want the full-on, five-star experience, you can certainly have it here in a swanky villa with chef, housekeeper and concierge service. But a low-key, affordable self-catering holiday is on offer too. Apartments are modern and stylish, and even the one-bedroom pad is surprisingly large with a luxurious urban feel. Our villa, one of the smaller properties, was spacious and chic, and made the most of the sea breeze. In this setting, where the five-star hotel is king, we felt we had stumbled on Barbados's best-kept secret.
For the first few days, we spent mornings on the beach, taking advantage of the padded day beds, and afternoons dipping in and out of our private pool. The boys spent some time teeing off on the welcoming, child-friendly golf course. Whizzing around in the golf buggy supplied with each villa seemed half the fun for the kids.
Wanting to show the boys that there's more to their grandparents' homeland than sensational villas and pool service, we headed to the east coast, my favourite part of the island, with its dramatic seascape and rugged hills with windswept palm trees. I was relieved to see it hadn't changed over the years and is largely blissfully unspoilt. Being on the Atlantic coast, beaches are a surfers' paradise, with their high rollers, laid-back beach shacks and casual b&bs.
The Crane Hotel, further south, was the first ever hotel in Barbados, opened in 1887 for prosperous merchants visiting the island's plantations. Since my last visit, it has been reborn as The Crane Village, offering guests the option of staying in the original revamped hotel or newly built suites. There's now a shopping parade and a selection of eating spots, too, with the Zen sushi restaurant giving the west coast places a run for their money.