Sandals Resorts International quietly unveiled its first resort in Barbados in January, following a multimillion-dollar transformation of the former Couples Barbados. Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers was there last weekend to take a peek at the updates, from pools to pubs.
DOVER, Barbados -- Markson placed the tiniest of periwinkle shells in the nook between his thumb and forefinger and sounded a piercing whistle that could be heard in the rum bars along St. Lawrence Gap, 10 minutes away.
"That's how we used to signal our girlfriends to come out and meet us," he said.
Markson, a native Bajan and head groundskeeper for Sandals Barbados, was a wealth of local history and lore.
He filled me in on the native flowers that line the entrance to Sandals, on the recipe for pudding and souse (boiled pigs' head and innards that are a Bajan specialty; this did not appear on any of the menus at Sandals' eight restaurants) and the only way to cook fish and chicken (soak in water, add lime drops and salt before cooking).
He's worked those same garden grounds for 16 years under four owners.
"The great thing about Sandals is that they let us do our own handiwork because they know that we know this place best," he said.
The transformation from what the resort was when Sandals acquired it in October 2013 to present "makes my heart swell with pride," Markson said.
Other staff agreed, but I ran into many for whom this is their first Sandals job.
My butler, Jane (the 280-room resort has 61 butler suites served by 13 butlers) came from Sandy Lane, also on Barbados, while these are the first Sandals jobs for Susan, the enthusiastic bartender at The Merry Monkey English pub, and Patty, the waitress at the Cafe de Paris.
"We invest a lot of time, energy and money into staff training," said Joe Zellner, general manager, whose background includes top stints at eight Sandals resorts in the Caribbean.
"It's all about service; it's always about service. It's the Sandals mantra," Zellner said.
It's also about the extra touches, such as air-conditioned elevators, great signage (even I did not get lost and I've been known to at other more spread-out properties), the melancholy sounds of the lone clarinetist playing in the courtyard at dusk and the recipe for deep-fried codfish balls that was slipped under my door after I had asked Chef Tony for his special ingredients.
The resort has been Sandalized, so I pretty much knew what to expect before I arrived, but Sandals always has a trick up its sleeve, like the Bombay restaurant, the first-ever Indian restaurant in the Sandals portfolio.
The curved dome of the ceiling, with a mural hand-painted in the Michelangelo style, features a map of the world.
Zellner pointed out that the only Caribbean island labeled on the map is Barbados and one of the few countries also labeled is India.
I sipped a mango lasse, the restaurant's signature drink made with mango, yogurt, vodka and simple syrup, bit into garlic nan (bread) and dug into spicy saffron rice, spicy butter chicken, spicy lamb curry and spicy lentils until my eyes watered.
"You come back, now," I was told as the front desk staff escorted me to a cab at 4:30 a.m. for a 7 a.m. flight back to the U.S. and my bland menus.
I will. And soon, I hope.