Up At The Villa

In the gardens of Eden—as in those once belonging to former British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden, who with his wife, Clarissa Churchill, spent many a gray and chilly English winter here from 1965 to 1971—blue ginger, pink mussaendas, canary bush, and star jasmine add a wild, exotic blush to the landscape. Mahogany and mango trees, massive cabbage palms, and tall, willowy banyans bring a junglelike drama to the almost primordial solitude.

"The entire plantation, including the gardens and Eden's old house, was restored," says dapper Englishman Peter Bowling, general manager of what is now the hotel Villa Nova. "Each detail of the original house was perfectly replicated." The goal, it would seem, as one looks down the coral stone pathways toward the gardens and swimming pool and the fanciful, ever-so-English gazebo, was to create something utterly timeless and yet very specific. And to think that just a couple of years ago the whole place "looked like an overgrown forest," according to landscape architect Kevin Talma, whose assignment was to create "grace amidst chaos" and, along the way, a botanically interesting environment.

Every great hotel has its own personality, its own point of view. "Like people, those are the hotels that we remember," says Lynne Pemberton, who opened Villa Nova last April. Small, intimate, and terribly sophisticated, Villa Nova has 28 rooms in two main houses, lavish marble bathrooms, one of the best dining rooms in the Caribbean, and a modest but lovely spa. But if your idea of Caribbean heaven is rolling out of bed, sliding open glass doors, and stepping onto your own private beach, read no further. I understand perfectly that for some the Caribbean experience is inextricably tied to sand in their shoes. That you will not find here. This is a Caribbean hideaway not by the sea, but just off a dusty country road, tucked away above sugarcane fields in the tiny parish of St. John on the unfashionable east side of the island. It hearkens back to a Barbados when the Britannia would anchor for the afternoon in Bridgetown harbor so Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip might take tea with Anthony and Clarissa up at the villa; when photographer Norman Parkinson, with his twinkling blue eyes and David Niven-ish mustache, would shoot English beauties like Jean Shrimpton in the latest Dior or Mainbocher for the pages of British Vogue. Now that was chic. And the chic of the past, as we all know, is much more difficult to re-create than the chic of the present or the chic of the future—those, after all, come without sentimental memories or blueprints.

Still, Lynne Pemberton's idea, from the very beginning, was to re-create the rural elegance of that Barbados, but in a modern vernacular. The new Villa Nova might suggest a posh English country house, but it wouldn't be about chintz and tweed and afternoon tea in chipped Wedgwood cups. When Pemberton bought Villa Nova two years ago from a Swiss financier who had run out of cash, she certainly wasn't new to the hotel business: In the 1970s, she and her husband had run two successful hotels on the island. Now—living in London and recently divorced—Pemberton warmed quickly to the idea of Villa Nova. She immediately signed on English designer Nina Campbell to help her create "a modern plantation house that reflected its 19th-century origins but at the same time was very much a 21st-century hotel."

Campbell's vision was to create a sort of Anglo-Caribbean chic, not some "island ethnic look" of bright tropical colors. Her palette would be soft and subtle: creams and limes, with hints of raspberry and lavender. Not that she wouldn't be bold. Take, for example, the drama of the metallic wallpaper and zebra-striped fabric on high-back chairs in the dining room. "Fun, isn't it?" asks Campbell, who was tempted to do the room entirely in Venetian mirrors but thought that might have been "a bit much."

As a child, Campbell spent time at a grand house called Pineapple Place in Jamaica. There the decor was "terribly simple, done almost entirely with flowers. Divine." Things aren't quite so simple at Villa Nova. In the public rooms, she's mixed new and old, antique French and Far Eastern; while in the bedrooms, the classic toiles of the duvets play off a touch of Philippe Starck-like moderne in the little table lamps at bedside.

"We definitely worked on a tight budget," says the designer, "but when there was something stunning, something utterly fabulous that we just had to have, we got it." Take the drawing room's red mercury-glass lamps, handmade in Venice. Campbell spotted them while at an "awful" trade fair in Holland. "I was so bored with everything. And then I saw these two amazing lamps across the room, and I just knew I had to have them." Likewise the pair of enormous peony still lifes by British artist Sophy Corridan. The black-and-white photographs of everyone from Marlene Dietrich and David Bowie to Audrey Hepburn and Frank Sinatra add a glam modernism.

Of Villa Nova's 28 suites, the most commodious are the Churchill, the Eden, and the Haynes, with balconies overlooking a Scheherazade-like swimming pool of deep-blue tiles with tented white cabana and jungle palms. It could just as easily belong to Beverly Hills or Bahrain as to Barbados.

The whole thing works because Pemberton and Bowling understand what makes a small hotel grand. They both are devoted to style, service, and comfort and recognize that the person spending up to $1,400 per night wants to wait for neither fax nor martini. Bowling says he interviewed 400 people before settling on his staff of 70. While hardly in white glove and tails, they are attentive and respectful. You notice how much so in the dining room, overseen by Gary Knowles—the thirtysomething chef formerly at the Ivy in London. His cooking is stylishly straightforward, whether it be smoked-salmon sandwiches at the bar for lunch or something more elaborate on the terrace, such as the lobster salad with crispy pancetta and tarragon butter.

Villa Nova may not be by the sea, but you can certainly get there with a snap of your fingers. Each morning, there's transportation to Cattlewash Beach, where the hotel has its own private cabana with living room and dining room.

So far, Villa Nova has been pretty much the purview of smart, in-the-know Brits, but then the English have always thought of Barbados as their own special island. It's no coincidence that the Concorde, when it resumed flights between London and New York last fall, also reinstated its Saturday flight from London to Barbados: the perfect way, as Lynne Pemberton might put it, of experiencing "the rural elegance of a bygone Barbados in a modern vernacular."

Suites are from $720 to $1,050 March 1 through April 5. Rates drop substantially from April 6 through December 19 ($395-$675). Included are transportation from the airport, full breakfast, and tennis. Information: 246-433-1524; fax 246-433-6363; e-mail villanova@sunbeach.net.