Published 20 January 2008 News Review 757th article
Michael at Sandy Lane with the hotel's new culinary director, Grant Ferguson (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
It was strange returning to the Sandy Lane hotel, Barbados. Last year an oyster from warm waters, where they collect a little more of their usual muck, combined with my slightly raised blood sugar level and slightly fatty liver to produce Vibrio Vulnificus. A rare disease which kills 95% of people who get it in 48 hours.
I collapsed on New Year's Day. In the ambulance on the way to hospital the medic said to Geraldine, "If he drifts into sleep he's gone, keep pinching him." What followed was horrific. I'll be writing a book about it titled Laugh After Death.
At Sandy Lane I couldn't go into the sea because there's a big dip of shingle and pebbles, which I had trouble getting out of before. With a depleted left leg, it was impossible. Nor could I take long walks along the beach because the slope and stones were too risky. But I had a lovely time.
The hotel remains magical. The aura was dented by a wooden platform which appeared on the sand opposite my usual table on the Bajan Blue restaurant terrace. This wiped out the sun-lounger area normally occupied by Simon Cowell and Lucian Grainge, the witty chief of Universal Music.
Then tacky wooden tables and chairs were added. "B&Q on a bad day," I suggested. Another guest said "MFI - made for idiots." A famous retailer suggested Ikea. "They should put chairman's offer, 'Was £9.99, now £6.99' on all the tables," he said.
I asked the normally sane general manager, Carl Henderson, why this monstrosity blocked my view of sand and sea. "It's to give people who normally dress to come into Bajan Blue a more casual environment," he explained. Ridiculous. Nobody dresses for Bajan Blue. They just put on a shirt with their swimming shorts.
To add insult to insult a grossly fat woman sat on the platform opposite me every breakfast time. The hotel didn't need space for additional guests because there weren't any.
Mercifully they'd barred non-residents from coming during the peak Christmas-New Year season. Thus avoiding the pathetic situation where hotel regular Chris Rea and his family sat outside the restaurant fuming because their Christmas lunch table had been given to cruise ship outsiders.
The food this year took a definite turn for the worse. Under chef Richard Ekkebus it was brilliant. Under his successor, Marcel Driessen, it remained excellent. This year there was no senior chef, as the much-heralded "culinary director" Grant Ferguson turned up on January 5, three hours before I left for England.
"He's bloody lucky," said Michelle, a guest from Stanmore, "because you'll be gone when he starts."
Thus I suffered roast goose tougher than leather; a dry, almost brittle, Christmas turkey with no stuffing or chipolata sausages in sight; and no fresh local lobsters for two weeks when nearby restaurants had them on the menu.
There had been a mass exodus of Sandy Lane staff, including the chef, the pastry chef, Carlos the brilliant beach attendant (although Curtis, his number two, did very well) and many more. The dreaded hotel manager, Christian Langlade, sadly remained. I heard stories of his activities which I cannot repeat (a) because they're libellous and (b) because I was told in confidence.
The Scots executive pastry chef, Cameron Steele, did pretty well. Marvellous mince pies, cloying Christmas pud.
One night was Asian buffet, meaning curry galore. The next night was Indian buffet, more curry galore. When that happens you know the lunatics are running the asylum. I hope Grant Ferguson sorts it all out.
My blood ran cold when he asked me, "Do guests really want a buffet?" Yes, Grant, they do. Getting served by Bajans, however likable they are, is a miss and miss affair. Reduce the buffets and there'll be a riot headed by me.
The hotel also needs tarting up. The gents' lavatory has dirty walls with peeling paint and loose tiles. The supposedly self-flushing lavatories often didn't. My bathroom sported black marks on the walls. Corridors and other areas are rampant with water stains. Doors are chipped.
A Four Seasons hotel is looming nearby. This will be Sandy Lane's first serious rival. Fingers out, Sandy Lane management. This is no time to let the building go grubby.
But it was still great. I totally recommend it. My suite cost £2,500 a night bed and breakfast. But from April through October there are great deals, free days, free golf, two lollipops, a signed Michael Winner, buckets and spades. Get on to a travel agent and book.
Never mind old moaning Winner. The beach and bay are sensational. And the hotel, although down a bit at Christmas, will have risen again.
Michael Winner's column last week named Theresa Sabin, the PA to our chief executive, in a personal attack that began: "British Airways senior personnel are toilet fodder at best" and described her as "snooty enough to remove entrails from a rabbit". Winner didn't put this complaint to her, and she did not say the phrase he attributes to her - she didn't get the chance. He was ranting and slammed down the phone. Our press office tried to call him, but again he would give us his complaint. It would seem he was reluctant to tell us because it would have unpicked his story. I think the message to Mr Winner is "pick on someone your own size". (Sent Tuesday, January 15)
Julia Simpson, head of corporate communications, BA
Did you not get the hint when Lady Bamford gave you a sleeping pill that would keep you quiet for seven and a half hours for a flight that only lasted six?
Victor Temple, Newcastle upon Tyne
You, Mr Winner, describing yourself as "a mere member of the public". Dear me! I trust not! I fear that recent medication might have induced delusions of vulgarity.
Darrell Desbrow, Kirkcudbrightshire
I'm pleased your Virgin flight to Barbados went smoothly. For lesser mortals in cattle class on the same plane the experience was a nightmare. A two-and-a-half-hour queue to drop our bags, flight delayed as a consequence and no time to shop.
Alan Pollard, Salisbury
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday times.co.uk