Two Caribbean retreats

As dramatic as winter can be, with the raw power of its storms and the thrilling embrace of its icy winds, there comes a time when even the most stalwart supporter of this phenomenon of nature demands a reprieve - the sort of reprieve afforded by a brief sojourn on the islands of Barbados.

Barbados, a small island located 100 miles east of the Windward Islands' St. Vincent, was under English rule from 1625 until its independence in 1966, making it one of the few islands in the West Indies that hasn't been bounced from one foreign power to another. Perhaps this is one reason why it is such a receptive and congenial atmosphere in which to unwind.

As I walked from the airline terminal into the balmy tropical evening, eased myself into the back seat of a taxi, rolled down the windows, and let the warm winds waft across my bare arms, the rigors of winter fell away. The glare of the airport now behind us, we passed into a soft darkness of winding country lanes, crowded by sharp-edge, whispering walls of sugar cane, on our way to Sandy Lane, one of the Caribbean's loveliest and most gracious hotels.

Awakening in a new place is always a quiet thrill - especially if the place offers hibiscus blooming by your terrace and a glittering azure sea beyond. Breakfast was another delight - the cloth, the pink linen napkins, hibiscus blooms, pitchers, creamers, and covered dishes all elegantly arranged. One dish was a local favorite - flying fish, fried to a delicate, crispy brown with a slightly sweet flavor.

Out on the beach, the morning light was still soft; the palms, a clear, almost translucent green; and the sea, a myriad of shimmering blues. First, a milky white liquid melting into the white sand, then deeper aquamarine merging into azure, till finally, against the horizon, a rich, fathomless cobalt.

It is difficult to elucidate the effect of stepping into that liquid, except to say that when floating in this elusively tinted balm, every care seems to surrender. From the vantage point of a raft, I surveyed the cove and the eclectic blend of Palladian and Barbadian charm of Sandy Lane Hotel with a kind of rapture.

Luncheon in the Beach Restaurant (open to guests and the public) offered an indulgent and beautifully presented buffet, including caviar, smoked salmon, piles of cold shrimp, various aspics, and delicately cooked local and imported fresh vegetables, along with a selection of rich desserts. It was an exceedingly pleasant way to while away the afternoon.

Sandy Lane was the concept of the late Ronald Tree, a former member of the British Parliament and a visitor to Barbados in the 1930s. In 1945, Mr. Tree built his own home, Heron Bay, on what was originally part of Sandy Lane Plantation. Mr. Tree was founder of the Barbados National Trust, an institution akin to England's National Trust, and was intent on creating an enclave where his friends and their friends could stay.

The original plantation was subdivided into estates, and the 48-room hotel built. Apparently no detail was too small for Ronald Tree's attention, because virtually every aspect of the hotel's creation came under his guidance - from the selection of antique furniture from London and Paris to the china and light fixtures. The staff, too, was carefully selected, with some of the key people coming from some of London's most distinguished hotels - the chef from Claridge's and the maitre d' from the Savoy.

Since its beginning, Sandy Lane has undergone changes of ownership and management, and the original Palladian structure still serves as the nucleus for 115 rooms. Despite the necessary concessions to practicality and profitability - no longer are the markets of Paris and London scoured for antiques - the hotel still serves as a rendezvous for Europeans, Americans, and an international clientele who prefer its homey, understated elegance. The atmosphere of the hotel clearly reflects this background, in its combination of Old World ease and island charm.

Though some Sandy Lane visitors may be tempted never to leave its pleasant premises, one item on most travelers' agenda is a trip to the capital of Barbados, Bridgetown. The sights of Bridgetown are far more difficult to appreciate toward noon, when the temperatures become uncomfortably hot, so it's important to set out before the sun gets too high.

Bridgetown is mildly picturesque, with certain highlights such as Trafalgar Square, with its fountain and women selling local fruits and vegetables, set against a backdrop of public buildings and the House of Parliament and the wharfs.

Supplied with a few store names, I meandered with the throng along Broad Street and poked my head in Cave Shepard, the island's main department store, for a look at the usual duty-free items, which include perfume, china, crystal, watches, and cashmere sweaters. Along the back lanes of Milk and Market Streets, donkeys amble and tiny hole-in-the-wall shops supply more basic needs.

I also enjoyed a sightseeing tour along the east coast. Sam Alleyne, an independent cab owner (telephone H-20821), provided an articulate tour. We drove through rolling fields of fragrant sugar cane, past brilliantly painted wooden houses, through the deep shade of mahogany trees. Once atop Cherry Tree Hill (the cherry trees long gone), we paused for a broad view of the rugged east coast and an area that has been labeled the Scotland District, perhaps by some wistful expatriot. The vistas of rolling hills and grassy pastures dotted with sheep do indeed recall that lovely country; the illusion might be even more complete, were it not for the fact that the cows lie clustered in the shade of flame-colored hibiscus and that the nearby hills are crowned with towering palms.

Down along the East Coast Road, the hills were frequently craggy, with dramatic cliffs falling into the dark-blue breakers of the Atlantic. Unlike the west coast, where hotels have proliferated, the Atlantic offers miles of virtually deserted white sandy beaches, punctuated by massive coral boulders, long ago uprooted by tropical storms. The air, too, seems lighter, more buoyant and exhilarating on the Atlantic side.

I could have easily walked along this stretch of seascape for hours, but was a bit more intent on reaching Andromeda Gardens, situated on a rocky hillside above Tent Bay. Since 1954, when the gardens were started by Iris Banochie and her husband, the gardens have gained an international reputation among horticulturists.

Set on a hillside, paths and streams link plants of Barbados and the Caribbean with special gardens of bromeliads and hibiscus. Interconnected landscape gardens focus on rare orchids, as well as the more familiar oncidiums, Miltonias, cattelyas, and phalaenopsis. Except for Sundays and during very bad weather, the garden is open daily, dawn to dusk, for a nominal entrance fee.

The morning of my departure, I rose early, took a last leisurely swim - and discovered that I was not quite ready to leave the soothing embrace of those waves. Looking back now, I realize this was the kind of rare vacation that many travelers seldom allow themselves. An opportunity to indulge in the luxury of being catered to, while not feeling compelled to run around and see everything listed in the brochures, seemed just the right formula for letting the pressures of winter just melt away. Practical information:

Room rates at the Sandy Lane Hotel vary according to the season. During the winter season, from January 3 through April 15, 1983, a double room with breakfast and dinner is $335.

The Sandy Lane is a member of Trusthouse Forte Hotels. For reservations, call (800) 223-5672. For more information, contact Trusthouse Forte Hotels at 810 7th Ave., New York, N.Y. 10019. (212) 541-4400, or write directly to the Sandy Lane Hotel, St. James, Barbados, West Indies.

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