Favourite freebie destination

by FRANK BARRETT, Mail on Sunday

Last updated at 12:12 08 January 2001

The newspapers were full last week of pictures of celebrities on a sunkissed Barbados beach. This was no coincidence. These lucky people were the recipients of some very generous largesse.

Well, you know how tough it is being a celebrity - not only are you overpaid for presenting a breakfast TV show or dragging the latest couture across a fashion catwalk, you also have people inviting you to stand in line to enjoy a buckshee Caribbean trip.

On offer for the likes of Will Carling's former girlfriend Ali Cockayne is a stay at one of the world's great resort hotels: the famous Sandy Lane. And what must they do to earn their free holiday in the sun? Simply act as guinea pigs.

The Sandy Lane is close to reopening after a long rebuilding period and its owners are keen to test it out.

After being sold off by Sir Rocco Forte for a vast sum to a group of Irish investors, the island has sat back and waited . . . and waited . . . for the hotel to be recreated.

It is estimated that the investors spent £26 million buying the hotel and well in excess of £100 million rebuilding it.

True, by the late Nineties it had begun to look a little dated for its regular clientele, which included Mick Jagger, Michael Caine, Luciano Pavarotti, John Cleese and, perhaps most famously, Michael Winner. But the style didn't bother them particularly. What they liked most was its exclusivity.

The long wait for it to reopen caused particular unhappiness for Winner, who regularly spent his Christmases there and had to find alternative hotspots.

So, as work on the new Sandy Lane neared completion, it made sense for the management to give the place a dry run - and at the same time to use this 'soft opening' as a way to generate some much-needed positive publicity.

In the run-up to Christmas, 70 lucky social butterflies received invitations to spend Christmas and New Year at the hotel.

Guests - including pop star Chris Rea - were given the run of the Sandy Lane as they tried out the various completed suites.

Rea and his family were spotted on the beach every day, with the singer usually listening to a Walkman to drown out the racket of the builders' pneumatic drills.

Ali Cockayne was also there with her multi-millionaire lover David Ross, along with her son Henry.

Even Michael Winner was persuaded back with girlfriend Georgina Hristova.

Food critic Winner - who once moaned that Barbados was getting 'a bit like East Grinstead' - was spotted chuntering away into his tape recorder as he wolfed down a mound of food in the hotel restaurant.

A photographer also snapped him on the glorious 500-yard golden beach chatting with the new It girl, Lady Victoria Hervey. They looked like the Little and Large of the Hello! crowd. It was a caption writer's dream.

But not everything has gone smoothly. British Ryder Cup golfer Paul Way and ten friends, who have been staying in the resort, were robbed at gunpoint of £60,000 worth of cash and valuables while there.

Singer and chat show host Des O'Connor, who was also at Sandy Lane, stopped to offer help after one of the victims flagged down his hire car.

So why didn't I get a gold-edged invitation? Al Gilkes, the Sandy Lane's corporate communications consultant, said the select 70 were close friends and associates of the owners.

He explained: 'Really, they were only helping to identify and work out any kinks. After all, the hotel will now be marketed as the premier resort in the world.

'Everything must be perfect and in perfect condition when the hotel does reopen its doors early this year.'

Hotel boss Dermot Desmond, leader of the consortium that bought the Sandy Lane from Rocco Forte four years ago, is said to be planning an official opening on March 1. But, with the revamp already a year behind schedule, the only thing that is certain about the new-look Sandy Lane is the prices. And they're exorbitant.

On March 1, the cheapest suite in the entire 112-room hotel will cost £800 per night. Prices go up to £3,300 for a luxurious Penthouse suite - breakfast included.

But if Michael Winner is planning his next Yuletide trip to the Sandy Lane, he will have to dig deep into his savings: the minimum basic package begins at £16,800 - and that's not even including a slice of turkey.

Over Christmas, guests must stay for a minimum of 14 days and the most basic Orchid suite will cost £1,200 a night. For one of the Sandy Lane's two penthouse suites, a fortnight's Christmas break will start at £56,000.

Has it been worth the expense? From the beach, the Sandy Lane looks pretty much as it did in the Sixties, with a round terrace flanked by two enormous wings.

Some snootier critics have compared the new beach front to 'a rather grim boarding school' or 'a couple of prison blocks'. It's at the back of the Sandy Lane that Desmond has transformed the hotel beyond recognition, with a colossal 30,000 sq ft spa.

The spa, complete with a 7,500 sq ft pool that snakes through the gardens, is quite simply breathtaking. A five-metre-high waterfall cascades over natural rock, while underneath there is a grotto bar.

The real worry for the hotel's new owners is whether the Sandy Lane will regain its status as the fashionable haven for the smart set. Three years is a long time in the tourist business. Other destinations have emerged to attract the elite tourist - the spa resorts of the Far East in Thailand, the Maldives and even Vietnam.

Australia has now become a major destination. But perhaps the most telling blow for Barbados has been the temporary absence of Concorde, grounded following the Air France crash near Paris.

With its weekly flights from Heathrow to Barbados, the most exclusive travellers could jet off to the Caribbean with the ease that the rest of us journey to Majorca.

The regular Saturday supersonic flight was a charabanc outing for rock gods, film stars and other fabulously wealthy individuals who enjoyed having lots of money and flaunting it.

Concorde is planning to return in the spring. But will the rich and famous - even after they have been tempted by the world's biggest freebie?

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