Published 27 January 2002 Style Magazine 446th article
Bajan on the beach: Michael Winner, Sonja Hinds and Colm Hannon (Georgina Hristova)
I've visited Sandy Lane for 19 years. This year, for the first time, I searched Barbados airport in vain for a smile of welcome from their nice lady holding her "Sandy Lane" board. When their Bentley Arnage alighted at the hotel, Colm Hannon, the new general manager, greeted me. "Saving on airport reps are you, Colm?" I asked cheerfully. Mr Hannon went a shade paler and assured me someone should have been there.
We'd phoned from the car and asked for over-the-counter medicines to be ready for Georgina when we arrived. Forty-five minutes later, I rang reception about their non-appearance. "We've got them. Do you want them in the room?" I was asked.
Later, we dined in the Bajan Blue downstairs restaurant. My favourite waitress, Sonja Hinds, said Georgina and I couldn't both have menus because they'd run out. The restaurant was half-empty. The next day, John Cleese and his wife, Alyce, came to dinner. We were a party of six. Only four main courses arrived. Alyce spoke wistfully. "We were just in Russia," she said. "They managed to serve six people at once." When the last two courses finally arrived, Georgina got something she hadn't ordered.
The so-called butlers - unquestionably the strangest service offered at any hotel in the world - continued at sub-basement level. The butlers - sweet local girls - entered your room without knocking. It was like living in a commune. When I complained, Mr Hannon assured me he'd stop it. Not only did the butler girls continue to enter, the bellman came in without knocking and so did the maid. As I was paying £2,000 a night for bed and breakfast, I thought of asking them to share the cost. A lady butler entered Chris Rea's room unannounced as he stood in his underpants. Chris said: "Unless you leave the room in 20 seconds, I'll take my pants off."
In spite of these eccentricities - and many more - I greatly enjoyed my stay. This is the ﬁrst year Sandy Lane has operated under its new, Irish ownership. It is vastly better than it was before. Last Christmas it was closed, but a few of us were invited to try it out, with many facilities absent and builders still present. The hotel boss was a lively, stylish Frenchman, Jean-Luc Naret. Mr Naret departed dramatically shortly before Christmas 2001 and his deputy, Colm Hannon, was upgraded.
When I first came across Mr Hannon, I described him as the only Irishman I'd ever met without charm. But I think he rallied well. Colm is not a natural host, but he did his best, and that's intended as a hefty compliment. I liked him. He chose as his assistant the food-and-beverage manager of the Park Lane Hilton, made redundant after September 11 cutbacks. Ilio Rodoni looked bemused and sombre. Rather like the Keep Death Off the Road poster that was once so prominent.
Luckily, the two main chefs, Mark Patten and Andy Whiffen, have superb personalities and hosted the guests with aplomb. They also prepared, together with Freddie Foster, some very fine food.
I was immensely impressed with the meals until my last dinner, to which I'd invited Lord Glenconner, Cilla Black and Lily Savage, aka Paul O'Grady. This so-called Bajan Buffet was an absolute disgrace. The downmarket Harvester restaurant chain does better. At Sandy Lane prices it was an insult.
The new Sandy Lane started with little publicity. The opening party, organised by my least favourite PR, Jo Vickers, would have been meagre for a tennis club in Epping. Ms Vickers kept down the standard by asking me and not Georgina. The venue was a small restaurant in Knightsbridge. The guests could have come from a bedraggled-extras casting agency. So the hotel has not been full.
It was at Christmas. And for 2002, they've considerably reduced the prices. It's a great buy. Contact your travel agent and book. The building is superb, vastly superior to the old one. The bay offers one of the greatest beaches in the world. The Bajan staff are historically brilliant. They have personality, they smile, they're witty without being over the top. Carlos Chase runs the beach immaculately. Sonja used to patrol the restaurant like a prison wardress. You had only a 50-50 chance of getting what you ordered. If you complained, you got a look that would terrify a regiment.
Now Sonja's transmogrified into a fine assistant manager. Her collection of wigs puts Joan Collins to shame. It was a delight to see her each day. Which is more than I can say for the two European restaurant managers. I think they came from a furniture catalogue. No, that's not fair. It's being unkind to furniture.
My wife and I enjoyed a Christmas break in Marrakesh, which allowed us to test Michael Winner's reports. While the Moroccan feasts at Le Tobsil and Yacout were both stunning, we disagree with Mr Winner that Le Tobsil comes out on top. We put Yacout ahead.
Roger and Josette Champness, Cheltenham
Everybody in the world, with the exception of Michael Winner, it seems, knows that you never make coffee with boiling water, but with water just below boiling point. He is dubious on tea, too: what about letting it stand for a few minutes before pouring? This sort of ignorant stuff throws new doubt on his recommendations of restaurants and hotels.
Charles Hennessy, by e-mail
Does Michael Winner really believe that speedy service is the mark of a good restaurant, as some of his recent remarks seem to suggest? Personally, I expect to have to wait for good food, and if one course follows another too promptly, I feel not only rushed but insulted. I enjoy eating out, and part of that enjoyment comes from eating at leisure in a relaxed, social atmosphere. It certainly isn't about how quickly the establishment enables me to gorge my food.
Susan White, by e-mail
I have just successfully made an excellent mug of coffee using Michael Winner's two-mugs-and-a-sieve method (January 6). This saves me buying an expensive coffee machine.
Roger Taylor, Buckhurst Hill, Essex
I have just read Michael's assertion that "a fried-egg sandwich with a cup of tea on a film set in the cold early morning is as great a taste as I've ever experienced" (January 6). Might I suggest that he produce an occasional series called Winner's Breakfasts, which involves him rising at the crack of dawn on cold mornings to seek out breakfast establishments for his loyal readership. I, for one, would feel better able to face the day having breakfasted at an establishment that had been quality-assured by the great man.
Paul Hamilton, by e-mail
I am a regular reader of the Letters column, which I enjoy immensely, but I was wondering: who is the large blonde lady who appears every week on the same page - and what does she do?
David Jacobs, by e-mail
Send letters to Style; or e-mail: email@example.com