The Caribbean: An ideal recessionista retreat

Even the most luxe bits of the Caribbean are affordable off peak


One of  the idyllic beaches which encircle the Caribbean island of Barbados

One of the idyllic beaches which encircle the Caribbean island of Barbados

My flip-flopped feet were speeding towards the beach when I heard someone shouting at me. I thought I’d been spotted smuggling fruit out of the breakfast buffet, but the smiling Barbadian just said: “Stop rushing — it’s illegal to hurry in the Caribbean!”

It was that relaxed attitude that had lured me towards a summer sojourn in the tropics. Sick of gloomy news and grey skies, my boyfriend, Howard, and I listed our dream holiday destinations. The perfect beaches and famously friendly Bajan attitude had pushed tiny Barbados to the top of our list. But this was the summer of recession and a luxury long-haul break seemed unaffordable, until we discovered the words “off season”. For many, the hurricane risk and higher chance of rain makes the Caribbean in summer a no-go and most islands hit only 60 percent occupancy. This year, the economic implosion means it’s even lower, leading to huge discounts so we researched and discovered that hurricanes are rare in Barbados and St Lucia — where we also wanted to go — and those showers intense but brief.

Two weeks later, we were checking into the four-star Crane hotel, on the east coast of Barbados. The receptionist told us it was one of the first resorts in Barbados, built in 1887, but a recent refurb meant our cool, white suite (one of 200) was modern and spacious.

Most suites are more than 1,000 sq ft, with a large bedroom, lounge with sofa beds, spacious terrace and well-equipped kitchen.Ours would have comfortably hosted a family of four.

Poolside luxury in St Lucia, where the sun shines all year, including “off” season

Poolside luxury in St Lucia, where the sun shines all year, including “off” season

The island’s plentiful and beautiful beaches provided a plethora of cheap days out, too. At Crane beach, powder-soft sand met a transparent turquoise sea. The waves were perfect for our novice boogie boarding on the hotel’s free boards, but equally pleasant for a paddle. After a trip to the local supermarket, we participated in the Bajan picnicking tradition. There were also plentiful loungers. Our price-determined decision to visit in summer was revealing extra benefits.

Away from the beach, we loved Hunte’s Garden, an Edenesque sprawl of tropical flowers, where for $10, eccentric creator Mr Hunte led a tour, and poured us the island’s famous rum punch — from a teapot. A mini-tram ride miles underground to Harrison’s Cave was educational as well as impressive, and we didn’t encounter a queue at any point during the trip.

Fewer tourists did create some drawbacks, however. Some hotspots introduce shorter opening hours in summer: we were keen to visit Bridgetown’s Nidhe Israel synagogue, which was built in 1654 by Brazilian Jews fleeing the Inquisition. Rebuilt 30 years ago, it includes a museum of Barbadian Jewish history, but it was shut when we tried to visit. It’s a good idea to ask the Barbados Tourist Authority about opening hours before leaving the UK.

Keen to discover Barbados’s latest “it” place to stay, we also checked into the Royal Westmoreland, which is taking on Sandy Lane as the island’s ultimate luxury fix. The sprawling resort on the smart, west coast, offers huge villas, many celebrity-owned (the Rooneys have bought one off-plan) and a championship golf course, which seemed hard to reconcile with our recessionista holiday. But summer season prices are a quarter of the peak period rates, offering good value for families looking for a special holiday.

Villas offer from two to seven air-conditioned bedrooms. Our huge four-bedroom, four-bathroom house with a pool had a spacious kitchen, barbecue and eating areas that made self-catering easy. It included access to a central swimming complex with gym and tennis courts, and Mullins beach club, a 10-minute ride on the free shuttle.

Royal Westmoreland’s beach, on the west coast’s calm Caribbean sea, was idyllic for swimming — there was even a floating near the shore.

Eating out, fish and vegetarian options were readily available, and the Gourmet Card, available free to off-season visitors, made food even cheaper, giving 25 percent off bills at many restaurants. Memorable meals included tuna steak and fruit punches at Pisces in the buzzy St Lawrence Gap area, and a three haute-cuisine courses at Mullins.

The Bajan welcome meant we had mixed feelings about making the 35-minute plane hop to neighbouring St Lucia. There, we had booked into LeSport, an all-inclusive in the north of the island, which bills itself as offering a “body holiday”, emphasising health as well as enjoyment.

There was so much going on there I almost needed a diary. Included in the price was tennis, golf and gym classes, scuba diving, yoga, watersports including water skiing (which meant I rarely saw Howard) and a daily treatment in the huge, Moorish-style spa (which meant he rarely saw me).

But I did catch regular sightings of spa devotee Amy Winehouse, who loafed around there most days. Maybe she, too, was appreciating the summer discount, with rooms hugely discounted compared to peak winter prices.

We also caught some Lucian culture, spending a night dancing to reggae with locals at a street party in the nearby town of Gros Islet, and visiting Castries, which was disappointingly overrun by souvenir stands targeted at cruise-ship passengers. But at least that meant we didn’t feel guilty for becoming ensconced in resort life, lazing on the Cariblue beach (excellent for snorkelling), and befriending the other guests, who were mainly British couples plus a few families with teens (the resort only takes kids 14-plus).

Despite being an all-inclusive resort, LeSport’s food surpassed expectations. A salad and smoothie deli on the beach was perfect for light lunches (though I could have done without the guilt-inducing calorie listings: who can holiday without hoovering up ice cream?), while the Cariblue restaurant offered a wide variety of veggie and fish at its lunch buffets and a la carte dinners. There were also barbecues and excellent oriental food in the award-winning Tao Restaurant.

Toasting the end of our holiday with a glacé cherry-topped fruit punch, the Caribbean’s “off season” looked like a misnomer. There had been rain showers only every other day, and they had been brief, lasting only around 10 minutes and never disturbing our plans.

The odd closed attraction was offset by the heavy discounts, and many Caribbean islands have summer festivals that provide yet another seasonal draw, like Barbados’s five-week Crop Over carnival, from July to mid-August. We just missed out this year, but will be back another year.

This was one summer break when going off peak had no down side.

Travel facts

Lucy Tobin travelled with Thomas Cook Signature (0844 879 8015; www.tcsignature.com) which offers 7-night holidays next summer at The Crane (www.thecrane.com) from £1,369 in a junior suite, room-only; 7-nights at Le Sport (www.thebodyholiday.com) from £2,279, including meals, drinks, watersports, and daily spa treatment, and 7 nights at the Royal Westmoreland (www.royalwestmoreland.com) in a two-bedroom Resort Club Villa from £1,505 from May 1 to December 14, including housekeeper. All prices per person based on two sharing and include Virgin Atlantic flights and transfers. Further information: www.visitbarbados.org

    Last updated: 5:34pm, July 29 2009