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The Caribbean's most luxurious spa

The Oshadi Envelopment sounds like a sly grand-master chess stratagem, and, indeed, it proceeds like one.
The Villa at Sandy Lane is a butler-serviced compound built around a courtyard pool.
The Villa at Sandy Lane is a butler-serviced compound built around a courtyard pool. Courtesy of Sandy Lane
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The Oshadi Envelopment sounds like a sly grand-master chess stratagem, and, indeed, it proceeds like one. The beginning is straightforward--an exfoliation with sea salt that looks like yellow rock candy, followed by a shower. The middle is the feint, a body mask of fennel and licorice that leaves you looking distractedly at your green-paste skin (and thinking you've been prepped for an adult initiation ritual). And the coup de grâce comes inevitably and quietly. Loosely wrapped in tinfoil like an ear of corn, I succumb to the nimble fingers of Ronaldo Barroga as he presses his thumb along the line of my jaw and up onto my skull to drain the lymph glands and then massages my scalp in short, brisk bursts, like Cezanne brushstrokes. He also presses my marma points, but by then I'm sound asleep.

Barroga, who is from the Philippines, has come halfway around the world to work at Sandy Lane's spa, and how he got here speaks volumes about the hotel's sense of its prerogative. Dermot Desmond, one of Sandy Lane's owners, had a massage from Barroga at the Four Seasons Kuda Huraa in the Maldives Islands, after which he promptly called his then spa director, Brigitte Laurayne. "No buts," she recalls him saying. "I want him there by the 20th of December, when I arrive." That required a lot of 1 a.m. wooing phone calls by Laurayne, and a bit of last-minute string pulling by Desmond with the British High Commissioner for Barbados: Barroga had landed, but no one had remembered that he needed a visa to enter.

This is the Sandy Lane MO: Spare no expense in the drive to be peerless. Along with four partners, Desmond, a billionaire investor who owns London City Airport and a stake in Manchester United, among other businesses, spent upwards of $280 million to redo the 112-room hotel. It was a jet-setter playground in the '60s but frayed and frowsy by the time the partners, who had been frequent guests, bought the property from Trusthouse Forte in 1996. What began as a six-month refurbishment in 1998 turned into a three-year closing. (The hotel reopened in 2001.) During that time the old building was knocked down and then put back up, right down to the rusticated archways and distinctive roofline-puncturing cornices--but with a level of luxury intended to put Sandy Lane on a par with the world's, not just the Caribbean's, top resorts. "The budget went out the window very early in the project," quips general manager Colm Hannon.

Desmond cherry-picked the world's top hotels and resorts for ideas. Taking a cue from a hotel in Dubai (Sandy Lane won't say which one), he had tunnels dug beneath the buildings for the housekeeping and room-service carts so guests wouldn't see (or hear) them trundling down the halls. He went through mock-up room after mock-up room--"I lost count of how many were done and discarded," says Laurayne--and it shows: Sandy Lane has perhaps the most beautiful and luxurious guest rooms in the Caribbean. Desmond had to be sold on the spa--it wasn't part of the original plan--but when he bought in, he did so in characteristic fashion: "Build the best spa in the Caribbean," he told interior designer Fiona Thompson of Richmond International, which also did the hotel interiors. And halfway through the project, he fired the original consultants and hired E'Spa, considered one of the best in the business, after meeting the president, Susan Harmsworth, in London.

Thompson certainly built the largest spa in the Caribbean, a 47,000-square-foot building with a Las Vegas-y faux waterfall in front that flows into the 7,500-square-foot resort pool. The entryway is an open, columned rotunda in which curling, make-an-entrance staircases descend to the spa level. The 11 treatment rooms, which lie along a dimly lit, gently curving corridor, have their own bathrooms and showers. (They were designed for celebrities, who won't usually put up with using a locker room.) Nine of them have private gardens, and in three of those there are private outdoor hydrotherapy pools. In the public areas, space is used lavishly for effect. The treatment-room corridor ends in a small rotunda that holds three tall creamy white amphorae, and the hydrotherapy pool is part of a faux-grotto stage set, with burly blocks of coral stone cut and dressed to evoke an architectural ruin.

What is striking about the spa is the quiet. Where is everyone? I wondered on my second morning as I lay in the relax room, a soothing spectrum of whites (a scheme borrowed from Les Thermes Marins at the Hotel Hermitage in Monaco), waiting for my therapist. At the beach and pool, it turns out: Only 20 percent of the hotel guests use the spa (up from 11 percent when it opened), and aside from the 4 to 7 p.m. rush hour, you can have the run of the place. In three days I never met another person in the locker room--and the resort was nearly full during my stay.

The relax room and adjoining hydrotherapy pool became my resort within a resort, with its own spa buffet: Crystal Laconium Steam Room, where an amethyst crystal is intended to transfer energy to you (didn't work on me); aromatherapy steam shower; and hydro pool vitality beds, one hidden in a stone niche. My headquarters was a relax bed in the corner of the room. Made of mahogany and one of the most difficult pieces to source, according to Thompson, the beds have thick white pads and voluptuous curves--like a caterpillar doing the limbo. The shape drops your derriere, supports your lower back, raises your legs slightly, and causes you to sort of pool. With running water in the background as my soundtrack, I dropped off to sleep on both days that I holed up here. You know you've slept soundly when it takes a visit to the spa's Ice Cave to drive out the cobwebs.

The original Sandy Lane was the classic recipe for the perfect hotel--one person, Ronald Tree, hosting his soigné friends. Tree, a scion of the Marshall Field family, fell in love with Barbados after World War II, and his residence, Heron Bay, became a magnet for '50s high society. He then persuaded his rich friends to invest in a hotel that would have the same ethos. In 1961 Sandy Lane was born, and everyone who was anyone came to stay. Aristotle Onassis was rowed in from his yacht while Maria Callas swam alongside, pet marmoset on her back. Babe Paley and Kitty Carlisle Hart, who were staying with neighbor Claudette Colbert, dropped in for lunch. Greta Garbo checked in as Harriet Brown (her nom de voyage) and had the boutique make her a pair of baggy Bermudas. David Niven dreamed up cocktails at the bar, and Elton John once adhered to the New Year's Eve black-tie rule by wearing a bow tie as a garter.

Today the resort is about private-jet cocooning--more about seclusion (with the family, if my visit is any indication) than glamour. Sandy Lane II caters to the off-duty plutocrat who wants the world without kept at bay and the world within at his beck and call. The guest rooms provide the luxury of space (the smallest is 779 square feet) and push-button control. Lights up, lights down; sheers open, sheers closed; ceiling fan on, ceiling fan off; volume up, volume down; music on the terrace, the bathroom, the bedroom--it's all done from touch pads on the night table and beside the doorways. The TV is a wall-mounted, 42-inch flat-screen plasma, and the stall shower has four modes, two heads, six body jets, and a foot faucet. Closets are designed for the person who likes clothes and shoes and comes for a long stay. Outside, the beach is finely ground (and smoothed each evening with a Zamboni), and the sea is a pussycat. Did I mention that the bar Champagne is Bollinger?

When Sandy Lane II opened, it was just this marbled-womb-away-from-home feeling that seemed to put off journalists, who huffed about the rates (then they started at $1,000 a night; now they start at $800, which at this level is par for the course) and the money spent redoing the hotel. Left unsaid was that Desmond, for all his preemptory style, had created a hotel whose own vibe--low-key, restrained, quite classical, in the words of Thompson--is the antithesis.

Happy Ward, the architect of the original Sandy Lane, said that when he designed the hotel, "I put myself in the position of a well-educated English gentleman of the late 18th century going to the West Indies to build a great house." Sandy Lane II, being a replica, proposes the same fantasy. The library has mahogany bookshelves and that centuries-old symbol of the worldly gentleman, a large globe. The lines of the public-room furniture are fine, contoured, and curving. Stripes and windowpane patterns are rampant (but on their best behavior), and the scroll and acanthus leaf is practically the house escutcheon.

From chic to rustic, expensive to affordable, tourists looking for some sun and sand can find what they're looking for in the Caribbean.

The room decor shows off Thompson's pitch-perfect ear for understatement. In the Luxury Ocean Rooms and the Dolphin Suites, she handles the layout with particular aplomb. Here the architecture unfolds gracefully and deliberately--foyer, hall, bedroom, terrace, sea view (framed by Tuscan columns)--like an antique spyglass. The mahogany furniture uses the 18th-century vocabulary as if it were a native tongue, the ceilings are garnished with cornices, and the doorjambs are made of coral stone, an aristocratic flourish I've never before seen in a Caribbean resort. Seventy percent of the guest- and public-room furniture is custom-made, which is almost unheard-of, says Thompson. The one tropical flourish is the cushions on the scroll-back chairs and make-up benches in the guest rooms, done in soft coral pink. Otherwise, Sandy Lane's rooms are a harmony of white, gilt, and mahogany, planter society's gang colors.

Sandy Lane works hard to choreograph surprises out of a stay. It's about calm, not caprice, and the staff know their parts. Which is why my encounter with Yvonne Ons at the spa on my last day, by which time I'd gotten with the program, was so memorable. Brought up in Holland by a father from Hong Kong and a mother from Surinam, she is a gifted (this is admittedly based on two hours' knowledge) holistic healer.

"You seem to have dry skin," she said disarmingly as we sat discussing what we could substitute for the Ayurvedic treatment, which she didn't recommend because it would cover much of the same ground I had already traversed. (I was impressed that she had looked at my schedule of spa treatments.) And then, out of left field but asked in a completely professional manner, came this: "How many times a day do you move your bowels?"

She had somehow pegged me as a person with digestive disorders--confirmed during reflexology--and from then on, I was in her hands. In addition to the foot treatment, we decided on a scalp massage and ear candling, and along the way I received a new prescription--Bali Green, a vitamin supplement made from green plants; hydrochloric-acid tablets, which make it easier to digest food; a glass of warm water with lemon before breakfast for cleansing--each time Ons divined that another part of my system was out of whack.

I agreed to the ear candling in a spirit of journalistic inquiry, as it involved having a hollow, pencil-shaped poplin candle, imbued with pure beeswax and stuck through a paper plate (which acts as a support), inserted gently into my ear. The heat acts like a chimney, drawing the earwax into the candle point.

When I looked up out of the corner of my eye, I saw the candle flaming like an oil-refinery chimney and tried to recall if my medical plan covered spa burns. But candling turned out to be very relaxing, with Ons gently massaging my jaw and forehead as a distraction. Most people go to sleep, she told me. I find that hard to believe. What's beyond question, though, was the session itself, perhaps the most illuminating two hours I've had in a spa.


Getting There: Air Jamaica, American Airlines, and BWIA all fly nonstop from New York and Miami to Barbados, and US Airways flies nonstop from Philadelphia.

Room Hierarchy: Villa, Penthouse, two-bedroom Luxury Dolphin Suite, one-bedroom Dolphin Suite, Luxury Ocean Suite, Luxury Orchid Suite, Ocean Room, Orchid Room.

Best Rooms for Couples: Luxury Ocean ($1,900) or one-bedroom Dolphin ($2,300) Suites. (Prices are high season, which runs from January 7 to April 30, 2005.)
Best Rooms for Families: Luxury Dolphin Suites ($3,500), which have a second bedroom and bathroom for children.

Memo to High Rollers: The two penthouses ($4,200) don't have a view of the beach, which is obscured by a line of trees. You're better off taking the 7,300-square-foot, five-bedroom villa ($15,000) built around a courtyard and with its own pool and butler, or a Luxury Ocean or one-bedroom Dolphin Suite.

Nice Touch: Complimentary airport transfers in a Bentley.

Service: Good (and much improved since my visit two years ago) but still with inexplicable lapses: A request for ice to refill a Champagne bucket went unfulfilled, and the computer technician didn't come to hook up my e-mail, despite three calls.

Food: Good but not as adventurous as I expected, given the clientele. I was surprised that there wasn't more seafood on the menu at L'Acajou, the gourmet restaurant. And the chef should know that vegetable tempura is not a vegetarian entrée.
Memorable Dishes: Grilled tuna on a bed of lentils at the spa cafe; house-smoked marlin carpaccio and antipasto buffet at Bajan Blue, the casual restaurant.

Consider: Having the chef create a spa menu for you, which must be arranged in advance.

New at the Spa: Yoga and meditation retreats led by Lynn McGowan, a certified Kripalu yoga instructor and Phoenix Rising therapist.

Golf: Two 18-hole Tom Fazio-designed courses.

For Kids: The Treehouse Club, a large playhouse near the resort pool, and a spa menu for 12- to 16-year-olds, available only in the morning and created because of guest demand.

Rates: $1,000-$4,200. Villa, $15,000.
Reservations: 866-444-4080


High: Ronaldo Barroga's Oshadi Envelopment and, I suspect, any other treatment he performs. (His specialty is Thai massage.)
Low: The Ayurveda lesson preceding the Bajan Synchronized Massage. It was long, perfunctory, and seemingly there just to burn up time.
High: The large, well-equipped fitness center.
High: The Blissful Back, Face & Scalp treatment, which lived up to its billing. According to former spa director Brigitte Laurayne, it's one of the spa's best treatments--and one of the most underrated by guests.
Middling: The Bajan Synchronized Massage because the therapist duo always seemed to be thinking, Ready, set, go, as they started on a new body part.
High: The treatment rooms and the curvaceous relax-room beds.
High: Yvonne Ons, period.

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