Published 17 February 2002 Style Magazine 449th article
Peter Bowling, Michael Winner and Gary Knowles at the Villa Nova (Georgina Hristova)
There's something about the laid-back charm of Barbados that induces financial abandon. I'm not referring to my £2,000-a-night bed and breakfast at the Sandy Lane. Dermot Desmond described his gargantuan investment in Sandy Lane as a folly. I'm delighted he and his partners pitched in. They produced a stunningly good hotel.
On the other side of the island - the east coast, which faces the Atlantic - Lynne Pemberton has put her money into Villa Nova, transforming what was once Sir Anthony Eden's house into a hotel. She took it over when the Swiss gentleman rebuilding it ran out of funds. She is still to add a Balinese spa with water columns. I would guess, impertinently, that Ms Pemberton is putting at risk a or greater percentage of her personal wealth than the Sandy Lane partners are of theirs.
I say "risk" because it's hard to believe a hotel on a Caribbean island can be successful when it's half an hour from the sea. It has no views of the sea. The sea closest to it is too dangerous to swim in unless you're an athlete. And there are no beach facilities, although Villa Nova's managing director, a charming man named Peter Bowling (he left a few days ago), pointed out guests could take picnics to their house on the beach. "You can't swim, but in the late afternoon you can float in rock pools," explained Mr Bowling. I didn't rush to try this.
Lynne Pemberton is no stranger to Barbados. She's a vibrant and captivating lady who for years helped her husband, Michael, run the Royal Pavilion and Glitter Bay, two posh hotels on the west coast. She left him and took up with a journalist - well, nobody's perfect. She also wrote some excellent fiction books.
It takes 40 minutes to get to Villa Nova from Sandy Lane. It took Chris Rea an hour and a quarter, because he got lost. Which is extremely easy. So guests at the Villa - unable to visit nearby restaurants because there aren't any - must drive an hour and a half to and from the west coast for culinary variety. My journey to Villa Nova was depressing. Once, I'd have passed cane fields and little hut villages: now, there were endless housing estates, golf courses and Chefette restaurants before I reached unspoilt countryside.
The Villa Nova is a pleasant building with covered terraces. It reminded me of a sanatorium. I expected to see nurses wheeling old ladies around. The public rooms are well furnished and the two suites I saw were modest but attractive. There are more luxurious ones, but they were occupied.
For lunch on the terrace, Mr Bowling placed me next to a large group, so I delicately removed myself to a quieter area. We faced the gardens, which are nice, but not spectacular. Because of large trees, there were no long vistas. Only a clear view to the swimming pool, which nobody was using.
The chef, Gary Knowles, was sous-chef at Kensington Place and once worked at the Ivy. The lunch menu offered only three starters and three main courses. The first thing to arrive was Blenheim Water, which is horrible. I think a classy hotel like Villa Nova could afford Evian. After all, Sandy Lane can.
Georgina had carrot-and-ginger soup and I ate blackened salmon with grilled asparagus, pink grapefruit and sweet chilli. Both these starters were superb. The knives had "Christofle Hotel France" engraved on them. My main course was spoilt because I'd ordered a medium-rare chargrilled sirloin steak - and got one very well done. So much for people who say: "They're all on red alert when you turn up, Michael."
Georgina had seafood spaghetti with slow-baked tomatoes, basil and garlic oil. She said: "This is sun-dried tomato, not slow-baked." She put that to the waiter, who simply walked away. "I spoke to the wall," Georgina said, holding up her sun-dried tomato with utter disdain. "I don't see the purpose of making a tomato like this," she muttered. I agree. Sun-dried tomatoes are ridiculous. "It's much better to make a hot tomato," Georgina continued. "Then you get the juices of it added to the pasta." She found her spaghetti heavy. "The sauce adds nothing," she said.
My dessert apple crumble was very good indeed. Georgina's creme caramel was good. We had two pina coladas without alcohol. They were fine.
If you've decided to read the entire works of Marcel Proust twice, then Villa Nova could be the place for you. It's restful. If you like sea and sand, forget it. Georgina looked around. "The people at the next table have got rare steaks," she announced. Obviously the restaurant was on red alert for them.
Could Michael Winner please explain the following statement from a recent column (February 3): "Palms was quite buzzy now, in a secretarial way."
Mrs Julia Kinsey (secretary), Rotherham
The Lygon Arms in Broadway, Worcs, seems to be suffering a mild identity crisis. Although the decor is undoubtedly English, the menu is littered with Americanisms. Having ordered "chips" to accompany my lunchtime snack, I was delivered a plate of what are known in the UK as "crisps". Naturally, I informed the waitress that what I wanted was "real chips". She duly returned with a plate of what she called "french fries", and a look that pitied my determination to have a conversation in English.
Matt Foster, Feckenham, Worcs
Michael Winner's article When you've gotta go (December 23) struck a chord with me. I, too, have been to places where "the staff are miserable, the customers are boring, there's no welcome and no charm". In stark contrast, a friend describes to me a sparkling dinner party this weekend, the organisers of which had taken on board the words of Margaret Willes, which appeared on the invitations: "The same food may be consumed in a happy or unhappy atmosphere, but only in the first will it be a feast."
Julian Corlett, Scunthorpe
When in Venice some years ago, we booked a table at the "historic" Harry's Bar. We turned up on time, but an hour and a half later, we were still waiting. Tired and hungry, we gave up and left. By contrast, at Palms in Kensington High Street (February 3), where friends and I have dined regularly for the past 15 years, we always get a table, excellent food and wine, and exemplary service, for a fraction of the price of Harry's. Give me cheap and cheerful every time. Mr Winner can keep the historic.
Ann King, Orsett, Essex
Has Michael Winner sampled the awful catering on offer at London's National Theatre and the Barbican Centre? If you don't want a large meal before the performance, the choices on offer are dire. At the Barbican Riverside Cafe, I recently had a piece of fruitcake (£1.95) that was so stale it could not be cut, while the sandwiches at the National Theatre's Terrace are so soggy that many friends have resorted to taking their own. It is a great shame that this ready clientele can't get edible food.
Dr Rita Henryk-Gutt, London