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Heartbreak hotel

Michael Winner bemoans the fate of the Sandy Lane hotel in Barbados, likely to be a building site beyond the millennium

Published 17 January 1999
News Review

Life's a beach: Winner talks to managing director Richard Williams on the building site, top right, while the hotel's chairs are rented out by a local bar (Vanessa Perry)

On a scale from one to ten, the activity, energy and effort seen at a hotel construction site in Las Vegas is a strong nine. In London I reckon it an eight. In Barbados, where they're rebuilding the torn-down Sandy Lane hotel, I'd generously give it a weak two.

When my favourite hotel closed at the start of May 1998, managing director Richard Williams's press release, sent to guests and glitterati galore, announced it would reopen in September 1999 and be ready to welcome people for the millennium. That's about as likely as me landing on Mars next Wednesday with a troupe of trained elephants and a flying pig. Which leaves a bevy of distressed Sandy Laners, including me, wondering where to welcome in the year 2000. I'm so fed up with the whole thing, I think I'll take a Mogadon and go to bed. Nor did any of us really believe such a vast undertaking would finish on time. What building ever does?

I paid four visits to the Sandy Lane site a few days ago. There was the beach where I so vigorously kept at bay cruise-ship intruders. The beach where Pavarotti, John Cleese and Joan Collins lolled and knocked back pina coladas. The beach where my assisted entries into the sea accompanied by loud screams at every stone I encountered, were a daily cabaret. Now it is deserted, backed by a blue fence and behind that the highly unfinished concrete shell of part of the forthcoming attraction.

The ever gracious Mr Williams proudly stood with his senior project manager, a wiry Scots gentleman named Fraser Aitken, and assorted Sandy Lane executives in front of a beautifully formed model of what might turn up, God knows when. As models go it was extremely attractive. The new owners, marvellously exotic Irish entrepreneurs Dermot Desmond and JP McManus, have sensibly added lavish penthouses for themselves either side of the classic central rotunda, which was originally to be saved but has now been carted away like the rest of the place. In England most of the hotel would have been listed and preserved, but it's too late to worry about that. They are all terribly nice people, but it was like going round a building site with folk who had left reality behind. "I'd put all my money on the hotel opening on November 15, 1999," said Fraser. "You're a guaranteed bankrupt," I joked.

A few days earlier Mr Williams gave a party and addressed Sandy Laners who had found other accommodation in Barbados. None of them I spoke to were terribly happy with it. "Optimistically, we hope to open on November 15," he said. A billionaire reckoned to be part of the group backing the hotel's rebirth said to a friend of mine: "Underline the word optimistically." Eccentric rumours abound among the small island community. Nobody can get decisions to keep the thing moving, there have been strikes galore, how will they make money out of what is reckoned to be at least a £100m investment. And so on.

I stood with Fraser Aitken. "Look," I said. "There's a couple of workmen staring out to sea. There's six having a sit down. There's three leaning against the side. Oh look, there's about 20 chatting: do you think it's a union meeting?" "Don't mention unions," muttered Fraser. "It isn't over-energised, is it?" I remarked sweetly. "It's the Caribbean," replied Fraser. But he remained solid on his opening date. Richard Williams said he hoped he'd know by the beginning of April if they could take bookings for next Christmas. Sceptical as I am, I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Nobody is even giving a date for the completion of the vast new swimming pool, gymnasium and spa area with conference rooms that has pushed the tennis courts over the coast road to adjoin the golf course. There a second 18-hole course. and a new nine-hole course are under way. "There'll be golf carts for you to drive in underground tunnels from the hotel to the tennis courts," volunteered Mr Williams. "And when you arrive your luggage will go by elevator underground and pass through more tunnels to appear in your room." I made a note to keep my suitcases with me.

In the meantime the retained Sandy Lane staff run a restaurant on the golf course, headed by the excellent chef Hans Schweizer. He's just the sort of person they'll need to get the new hotel going, foodwise. Max Sciuto, their Italian chef, is somewhere in Taiwan, but returning. And Sonya, the stroppiest waitress I've ever met, but I adore her, is apparently in Opreyland in America's country and western capital Nashville, Tennessee. That should be a laugh.

As always there is no pain without gain. Some hotels have pumped up their rates and doubtless more will for the millennium. The enterprising owner of Bombas, a beach bar half a mile away, has bought some of the Sandy Lane chairs and umbrellas and does a roaring trade hiring them out at $5 a day to customers who want to lounge on the sand outside his little restaurant. In the meantime the loss of Sandy Lane is felt by far more people than those of us who could afford to stay there. It was always a centre for the island. Visitors, many famous, would come to the beach bar or to take English tea and watch the sunset. Quite a few this year said how quiet and diffused it was without the pleasure of visiting me on the Sandy Lane beach.

There is worry about whether the special, comfortably familiar tone of Sandy Lane will be retained. That's difficult to say. Certainly the drawings of room decoration, being done by a Los Angeles interior design company, lacked any Caribbean flavour. They looked like hotel by numbers decoration. But highly professional firms are at work and I remain optimistic. The new building will end up with 112 rooms instead of 120 as before, so that's not bad. But I wonder how much of the hotel will eventually be servicing the luxury housing estate Messrs Desmond and McManus cleverly plan on land they bought in the adjacent hinterland. Caribbean hotels seldom make much profit. An ex-manager of Sandy Lane once explained to me how the sand, salt and humidity do terrible damage to wiring, soft furnishings and everything in general. "We make a bit for three years, then blow it all on refurnishing and repairs," he said.

There Dermot and JP boxed clever. Land on Barbados has shot up in value since they bought the hotel. In the best areas, an acre with nothing on it goes for $1m. That side of it should balance what must be a massive overspend on the hotel, combined with added months of closure and no revenue. And there is, lurking in the background, a possible lottery win for the new owners. It's called a casino. At the moment Barbados does not allow gambling. The present government under my friend, prime minister Owen Arthur, has taken a position against it. But governments have been known to change their minds. No party stays in power for ever. If Dermot and JP can get a casino in or near the hotel, Irish eyes will be smiling fit to bust.

All this and more will occupy Dermot Desmond on his monthly trips to Barbados to check out the operation. But there is something far more important he should be concentrating on. One of the great pleasures of staying at Sandy Lane was always breakfast taken in the first-floor restaurant with an unparalleled view of the sweeping bay. One of the great vistas of the world. Mr Williams has never really appreciated this. Being a local it's probably all just so much twaddle to him. He once moved breakfast into the downstairs area, where we only saw a sliver of beach and sea. When I protested he took it back up.

This first floor area is now to be called The Fine Dining Room. There's a naff label if ever there was one. At the moment it is not intended to give us the view for breakfast. Since lunch is only served downstairs, the view would be gone for ever, because at night all you see is the dark waters of the Caribbean.

If sense does not prevail and I am asked to eat my breakfast in a view-less dining room I shall be onto Dermot Desmond like crazy. I'll ask if I can come to his penthouse roof terrace and order room service. That'll teach him to get into hotels!

  • PS: I know Dermot and JP are betting men. I'll wager £10,000 they don't get their hotel open before June 2000. And probably October. That's a real offer, fellas. Want to take me on?