I wake early to an orchestra of unfamiliar birdsong. Before the organised morning work-out on the beach, I settle into a pot of tea in the balmy morning on my private veranda, shared with sparrows flitting about me prospecting for titbits, and watch the sun slowly illuminate the view across the dense gardens and the pool below, looking out to the gently undulating, inviting sea beyond. It’s a glimpse into what life must be like for those who chose to move here, and I find I could get seriously used to it.
I’m staying in one of the plantation suites, a penthouse at the top of one of the lodges, at the Coral Reef Club in Barbados. Inside, the décor is colonial Barbadian; a limewash wood-beamed ceiling, coarsely rendered stonework, luxurious soft furnishings and beautiful framed prints of the island in yesteryear. It’s less a suite, more an apartment. With a writing desk and bureau, a living area large enough to entertain that opens onto a wraparound veranda complete with plunge pool and a well-appointed bar stocked with decanters of spirits. Sliding doors reveal a four poster in the bedroom leading to a dressing area and a bathroom that’s a suite in itself. I would happily move in.
I’m not alone in that thought either. A staggering 75% of the Coral Reef Club’s clientele is repeat business; some guests have been coming here for 40 years. It does this precisely because it’s not part of a big hotel group, directed from a faraway corporate office, instead it’s distinctly personal, like visiting old friends. The owners, the O’Haras, are second generation ex-pats, keeping the 12-acre property in the family having acquired it back in the 1950s, and developing it since into one of the finest hotels on the island, if not the Caribbean.
Across just these 12 acres of abundant, beautiful gardens – themselves worthy of a guided tour – there’s both sanctuary and sociability in equal measure, from the quiet calm of the spa to the delightfully conducive bar and restaurant; a lovely fluid experience of passing through lounge areas to a central bar and a panoramic terrace looking out onto the turquoise sea.
But what’s kept the Coral Reef Club at the top of its game through the years isn’t simply the setting, or the lavishness of the accommodation you’d expect from a five star property (the complimentary minibar, the cooling towel in the fridge), nor that the waiting staff have an innate ability to anticipate a guest’s need, or that a chamber maid can happily engage in a friendly conversation; it’s everything. It’s the lifestyle that makes staying here enviably enduring.
The word ‘club’ in the title is not a misnomer; to be here is akin to being part of a particularly exclusive set. The experience is personal in the truest sense; the O’Haras literally invite you into their family home – Cynthia, the matriarch, hosts cocktail parties for guests every Monday at her villa (and has been doing so since 1960) – welcoming you not with thoughts of bottom lines behind thinly-veiled platitudes, but with a genuine warmth, sharing their pleasure at being able to do this and inviting you to experience a lifestyle quite unlike any other.
It was over a rum punch at said cocktail party that Cynthia, having proudly showed me photos of her extensive clan, regaled me with stories of her own arrival, by weeks-long boat journey with her husband, to take on a small, failing property – just a house at the time – and developing it over the years into, simply, something they would have liked.
As a result, the guest offering is not something that’s not been learnt per se, but acquired through decades of personal experience. You’re not so much a guest as a good friend. Many properties purport to offer a ‘lifestyle’ but I think this is the first where I’ve ever truly experienced it. Conversation was furnished with anecdotes galore, from annals of the hotel’s history and its guest roster – Agatha Christie stayed in the early days and set her Caribbean Mystery here – and of the antics by the O’Hara clan and the other long-standing – in some cases very long-standing – island families.
For an island just 21 miles by 14, it is as large as it is tiny, with different areas exuding their own character, from the flat calm seas and historical hotels of the leeward west, to the wild windswept east. It, too, carries a timelessness with it; hotel groups have tried, and failed to open here – just one, Fairmont, managed to secure a plot to open on the west coast – and the island remains the preserve of the present incumbents.
A visit to Barbados is as much about life on the water as it is on the island; indeed, to not have a boat – or access to one – is like living on a golf course and not playing golf. While various craft criss-cross the west coast, for an island that’s blessed with sunshine and wind in abundance, there’s only way to take to the water: under sail on a 62ft luxury Lagoon catamaran.
The Cat & the Fiddle is the definition of elegance on water. Brilliant white and beacon-like, its gleaming hulls and massive machine-cranked mainsheet sit proud against the Caribbean blue; it’s a vision to see from the shore, but distinctly better to be aboard. Interior spaces, far from being boat-like, boast more room than a Manhattan hotel suite. To sun soak on deck, sipping rum punches and fine lunches is one thing, but nothing beats taking advantage of the wind and straddling a trampoline for the exhilaration of a crashing bow wave amid yelps of delight. Even if one can lose one’s shades overboard in the process.
Something else was evident from the water, too: just how verdant Barbados is, benefitting as it does from tropical downpours (that only seem to happen at night) adding a lushness to the island that supersedes the arid heat of the Med. And there is another way to see this greenery – or, rather, immerse oneself in it – via a National Trust (no relation) hike.
These are not the pleasant ambles in the country you might wish to walk off an overindulgent lunch. These are dawn call, mass organised, three-hour military-like exercise regimens. Disappointed not to have joined the most vigorous, as I watched those that had fell-run up a hillside, two hours in I was thankful we’d taken the easy route. And by ‘easy’ I mean a breathless, sweat-inducing, undergrowth-hacking exploratory trek from coast to hillside. It reminded me of the Park Run initiatives in the UK; large, free, organised socials designed to get people on their feet, raising heart rates and meeting others. And as rewarding and convivial as it was, nothing made me appreciate it more than a long, luxurious massage back at the Coral Reef’s spa.
Revived and refreshed, with our stay nearing its end, we ventured to the latest addition to the island’s social scene; a Nikki Beach hotel had just opened towards the north. It’s fun and vibrant, but it’s brought an influence from the outside world that didn’t seem to sit right with Barbados’s sensibilities. There was a party atmosphere, sure, but with much peacocking and posturing it lacked the sophistication of those who’ve been doing it for years. We didn’t stay long, instead seeking out another new addition, One-Eleven, a small, unassuming beach bar, for sundowners and the sunset and retreating to the familiar comforts of a lifestyle we now knew so well.
Double Rooms at the Coral Reef Club start from £380 per room per night including breakfast.
The property’s popular Wellness Retreats start from £280 and can be tailored individually. From 22-28th October 2018, these incorporate a spa wellness package with the added option of a series of exercise classes and educational seminars so that guests can achieve profound restoration of the body and senses.
For more information about the Coral Reef Club and its Wellness Retreats, visit www.coralreefbarbados.com.