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Playing fast and loose with Earl Grey in Barbados

Published 19 January 2003
News Review
497th article

Beach boys: Winner with Sciuto, Patten, Chase and Jackson (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

Sometime in November 2001 Jean-Luc Naret, the stylish French general manager of Sandy Lane, Barbados, was fired or quit, according to which rumour you believed. "You should have stayed to run the hotel for the first Christmas," I said. "Only one person runs this hotel," replied Jean-Luc, "and that's Dermot Desmond."

I think M Naret meant that as an insult - ie, owners are owners and should leave hotel management to the experts. To me it was greatly reassuring. There's nothing better than a hotel run by a man with endless financial resources, an immense intelligence and a desire to learn all about what he's doing and make necessary adjustments.

This is what Sandy Lane always lacked. It rumble-tumbled along, a distant outpost of the Forte empire, dimly managed by Richard Williams for years before Dermot and his delightful associates knocked it down and totally rebuilt the whole thing.

This may not have been the greatest investment ever made. But it produced a hotel immeasurably better than it was before - and a delight for Michael Winner. What else could anyone wish to achieve? They have a notice in an underground staff corridor - "Our vision: to be the premier luxury hotel of the world." They're within a whisker of achieving that. It's certainly the hotel I most enjoy.

The building exhibits the finest standards of craftsmanship. The staff are improved. The food is better than ever. Last Christmas-new year period was a triumph - a snip at £63,000 for 28 nights. Except for one horrific moment. On my first afternoon I ordered Earl Grey tea as I've done on their terrace for 20 years. It tasted like old bath water. Then I noticed the dreaded tea bag. Its tag drooped from the beautiful china pot.

I asked the charming Bajan waitress for loose tea. "We only have tea bags in the hotel," she replied.

"But you always served leaf tea," I expostulated. "Not now, Mr Winner," she repeated.

I telephoned the resident manager, Jan Tibaldi. "We have loose tea," he said. "People have to ask for it."

"I did ask for it," I responded. "I was told there wasn't any. Why are you serving tea bags anyway? They're for motorway service stations. Your owners stay at the Dorchester. You won't see a tea bag there, except occasionally for room service. The Connaught wouldn't dream of offering tea bags."

"We have loose tea," insisted Mr Tibaldi.

"I'll be down for dinner soon, bring some Earl Grey to my table, please," I suggested.

"I will," said Mr Tibaldi.

He came. Loose tea did not. After dinner I asked the lovely waitress Cathy-Ann Miller for loose tea. "There is none," she said.

At breakfast the next day a tired tin of used Earl Grey, its rim rusting, was on my table. I complained. My tea next appeared in a china sugar bowl, letting what little flavour it had depart through the cracks. They eventually bought a proper tin. Cathy-Ann said they'd got this in especially for me. No one else knew of loose tea. It was bizarre.

Ten days later they had available, but still did not tell the guests, Earl Grey and Darjeeling tea. Sometime thereafter Frankie Browne, the excellent Bajan Blue restaurant manager, exhibited the hotel's latest, secret stock of loose tea. It was Earl Grey, fruit tea, camomile herbal and Darjeeling. Other teas were only in bags.

Why did Mr Tibaldi originally tell me an untruth? What a silly way to deal with a client. Then Mr Tibaldi starred in the oddest piece of restaurant theatre I've ever seen. On a morning when Frankie was off, the breakfast service collapsed. This can happen anywhere occasionally.

Chris Rea came over and said in his wonderful Middlesbrough accent: "It's taken me 20 minutes to get a cup of tea."

"You've done better than me, Chris," I said. "I've been waiting 25 minutes and I still don't have one."

Into this chaos walked Mr Tibaldi, like an articulated waxwork. He glided from table to table saying "Good morning". Sometimes he doubled it up - "Good morning, good morning" - as if the machinery were faulty. Then he sailed off.

"Couldn't he have noticed what was going on, chipped in and helped?" I said to myself.

Mr Tibaldi's wooden manner was talked about by guests, particularly as Sandy Lane's other staff - Bajan and European - are so genuinely charming. In the Bajan Blue restaurant the three superb chefs - the boss Mark Patten, Kelly Jackson and Italian Max Sciuto (recently returned from distant parts) - were outstandingly warm and helpful. Among the blue sun-loungers, Carlos Chase gets my award as the most efficient beach supervisor ever. These four I chose for our photo. A true honour.

Winner's letters

Please give my condolences to Grace Ciappara (Winner's Letters, last week) over the fact that some think she is a friend of Michael Winner. It must be extremely embarrassing.
Alan Parr, Derwent

As a friendly acquaintance of Michael Winner's I believe he is a bit of a fraud, creating a false persona. I have witnessed acts of kindness and loyalty from him that would shock his detractors.
Johnny Goodman, Stanmore

I managed to reserve a table as a treat for my boyfriend at the famed Locanda Locatelli after three days of trying the booking line. Seven weeks later we were ushered to a table where I was sitting so close to the woman next to me it was as if I were a member of her party. The waiters were more interested in relaying tables than taking our order. Three close neighbours continually smoked and chatted on their mobiles. So much for a romantic evening.
Alexandra Keller, London

I recently had a modest dinner with six colleagues in a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona. The bill for $210 arrived with a note scrawled on it from our waitress: "Tip $40 - thanks." Twenty per cent seems to have become the going rate in the land of the free. Thank God I didn't decide to "do a Winner" and blow $400 on a bottle of wine: the waitress would have scored £50 just for bringing it.
Steve Chambers, by e-mail

Martin Haggett (Winner's Letters, last week) complains about the bill for a New Year's Eve party and brunch the following day at the Hempel, London. Where a restaurant bill is seen to be excessive it is perfectly legal for a customert offer an amount deemed appropriate, give a contact address and allow the restaurateur to show to a court that the bill was appropriate. Since Mr Haggett states his intention never to return to the Hempel, he had nothing to lose.
Gerald Steele, Lancaster

How astute of Geraldine to check out the toilets at Florian: (Winner's Dinners, last week). If restaurants can't be bothered with hygiene there, imagine what they can't be bothered with behind the scenes. My rule of thumb is: check the loo before the menu. Alas, it has somewhat restricted our choice of eateries.
Heather Tanner, Suffolk

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mall michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk