Mr Smith has booked us a surprise holiday. To celebrate, he proposes a round of the word association game. I should have guessed what was up his sleeve when he prompts me with ‘Barbados’, before sitting back with a grin. ‘Michael Winner and Sandy Lane? Golfing footballers,’ I suggest. ‘All-inclusive resorts with Kelly Brook posing at the seashore, in an ever-changing array of swimwear?’ A sneaky look has spread across his face. ‘So you’re suggesting this Caribbean island is touristy, built-up and very much discovered?’ I nod. ‘Ha! Gotcha!’ he cheers, passing me a print-out of our reservation for the Atlantis.
Fast forward to these two Smiths in a taxi on the eastern side of Barbados. It’s clear we’re heading somewhere out of the ordinary when our driver asks us for the third time what exactly our destination is. Peering cautiously down unsigned road after road, he finally swerves off for Tent Bay, St Joseph.
Winding through country lanes past hectares of neat sugar cane farms and shady inland villages made up of small single-storey houses, we admire food shacks in peeling candy colours, and pretty clapboard churches – this is a world away from any glitz or golf. Spying posters for Brighton’s Sunday farmers market, it feels like we’re where the locals live, work and shop. ‘This is the real Barbados,’ grins Mr Smith.
Wild. Wave-bashed. Romantically wuthering. Isolated and definitely off the typical tourist trail – we’ve arrived at a surfers’ paradise at the end of a steep gritty path. Here, the Atlantis is perched above the sea on tiny Tent Bay. Composed of wood and coral stone, this gracious 10-room hideaway is a world away from the epic all-inclusive palaces and imposing walled-in resorts of the western coastline. It’s like a private home that has been here forever.
Recently renovated by owner Andrew Warden, he welcomes us with a nutmeg-spiced rum punch. Standing here since the 19th century the hotel was in desperate need of some TLC and an injection of chic. Talking us through the recent refurb, we learn that Warden cut his teeth on the island’s most in-the-know west-coast hotspots – the Fishpot restaurant and luxe bijou resort Little Good Harbour. And this deceptively laconic Aussie has now whipped Atlantic House into shape and it’s ripe for a new generation of style-conscious travellers.
Nautical and colonial references nod towards the building’s heritage as a sea-swept port of call, trimmed with wraparound plantation shutters, brass hanging lamps and hurricane lights. Chunky wooden Balinese furniture, festooned with colourful cushions in aqua green and coral, are teamed with bleached driftwood table lamps, while white-painted wood, dark mahogany and natural stone floor tiling ensure it feels breezy and summery.
Glimpsing up the Atlantic coast we can see miles of undulating waves. Rum racing to our heads, we gaze out to sea, feeling an overwhelming urge to surf. Tousled blond hair and a deep golden tan suggest Andrew knows a thing or two about riptides. Diplomatically he suggests before tackling the awesome breakers of Bathsheba, beginners such as us should maybe start our lessons further south, where the surf is more forgiving.
Quicker than you can say Quicksilver, Andrew has lined us up with the perfect teacher for private lessons. Pledging to spend our days in, on, beside or under the sea, scuba sessions are also on our agenda. Unlike the millpond-calm western coast of Barbados, this eastern seaboard scoffs at casual swimmers. Advised to avoid the riptides, Andrew suggests we wallow instead in the natural rockpools towards Barclay. Briefing over, and the planning has made us snoozy. Or is it the rum punch? Mr Smith prescribes a quick lie-down and we scarper upstairs to ‘see our room’.
Named after the iconic Three Boys rocks, our corner room is surrounded by full-length wooden shutters that invite in lots of gentle ozone air, while shading it perfectly for a nap. St Joseph’s sand-and-rock coastline is battered by Atlantic waves, providing a constantly crashing soundtrack. Marry that with a wooden four-poster and muslin drapes and inevitably a catnap becomes a serious siesta. Hours later, our eyes open just in time for a scout around the pretty garden terrace and pool before dinner.
Luckily the terrace restaurant at the Atlantis is just downstairs, and here we’re treated further to that awesome endless sea view. Local, seasonal and traditional are the buzzwords of the dining, with plenty of Caribbean favourites, such as chewy conch fritters and delicate grilled flying fish fillets, alongside more esoteric recipes. I plump for a salad of pickled seacat (aka octopus) and a mildly curried chicken roti. Mr selects a fiery pepperpot stew of dark and mysterious meat that falls of the bone in a black-pepper gravy. To the sound of waves hitting the rocks of Tent Bay, we sip one last coconut water and rum, slipping at last well and truly into island time.
The Atlantis is a rare beast in the Caribbean – infinitely more stylish than your average guesthouse and smaller than a typical resort. Drumming home how fantastically unspoiled the East Coast is, we have a whirl west side one afternoon. Here we find those pristine golf clubs, vast resorts, bustling Bridgetown and touristy Hole Town and Gucci-, Pucci- and Fiorucci-flogging malls... Meanwhile our eastern retreat beckons us back to the Barbados we now know to feel untouched, laid-back and down to earth.
Bowled over by the friendliness of all the local people we meet in Barbados, we become determined to make our experience as memorable as possible in every way. Over our week-long Caribbean holiday we cram in every authentic and unique activity possible. Then, on the flight home, Mr Smith gets that familiar twinkle in his eye. He launches a final round of word association.
‘I say Barbados,’ he says, ‘and you think…’ I tilt my head to the side and smile. ‘Reggae buses, diving 40m to the SS Stravronikita wreck, jerk chicken with rice and peas purchased from the back of a van, Bailey’s bread ’n’ butter pudding at the Fish Pot restaurant, grilled fish at Oistins Friday Fish Fry and karaoke in Moon Town with a bottle of Banks beer, in hand.’ This time, even quick-witted Mr Smith has no comeback.