On Barbados, I am joined by an emissary from New York's HQ, ostensibly to make sure that I go through with the dreaded windsurfing -- the word gunpoint is mentioned during a tense phone conversation about arrangements -- but actually (I suspect) because of the swank accommodations. I'm staying at the Lone Star Restaurant and Hotel, about a mile up the western coast from Holetown, along a strip that's home to some of the island's older big resorts -- Colony Club, Glitter Bay, Coral Reef, Royal Pavilion. The Lone Star is something else entirely: a restaurant primarily -- and a good one -- but with four adjacent suites right on a small beach. The former garage, which dated to the forties, has been turned into a boutique hotel; it opened in 1998, and the owners are contemplating expanding to ten rooms. The restaurant's heavily British guest list has included Roger Moore, John Cleese, and 40 percent of the original Spice Girls. In short, it's good enough for me -- and, coincidentally, for the emissary from New York.
The service is both first-rate and unstuffy, the rooms beautiful in a Philippe Starckish way (he in fact did the bathroom fittings). There are a lot of mirrors around the Lone Star, including a framed, full-length one stuck casually down on the sand.
For the first couple of days, conditions were deemed (by me) to be unacceptable for windsurfing. Rather, the precise activity that seemed to be indicated by the soft breezes was drinking caipirinhas on the balcony. The caipirinhas were followed by a series of pleasing meals in the Lone Star's casual yet elegant restaurant -- light, mainly Mediterranean- and Asian-influenced dishes of red snapper, pork tenderloin, crab claws, tuna medallion, baby octopus. But eventually the wind kicked up and it was down to the beach by scruff of neck to the water-sports stand with me, where Matthew did his best to explain the unnatural act of standing upright on a board that's moving swiftly along the surface of the water.
There was a learning curve. Initially, I would crash into the sea almost instantly, and I feared that I would in time develop some exotic repetitive-motion syndrome (tensing/gulping/clambering; tensing/gulping/clambering). But eventually I learned to relax, and with the emissary heckling supportively from shore, I increased the duration of my nerve-racking aquatic glides to 10, 30, even 45 seconds. "You're doing everything right!" Matthew screamed at one point, as he paddled distantly behind me on a sail-less board. And I would have grinned then, had my face not already been frozen in a rictus of terror as I raced toward St. Lucia 100 miles away, clinging to a sail.
Such exertions are ideally planned for Sunday, because then you can unwind in grand style at the weekly party in Holetown. At a tiny intersection on 1st Street, two establishments, next-door to each other, provide the catnip: The TML Bar sponsors a popular karaoke party right out in the street; TML stands for Too Much Love, as it must. And the restaurant Ragamuffin's, a converted chattel house, has on its menu on Sundays what must be the biggest, if not the only, drag show in all Barbados.
In the rear garden at Ragamuffin's, we are handed a large drinks cube, which we roll like a die to make our selection. It comes up african delight. And what would that be? "It'll get you there," promises the waitress. As we eat a delicious meal of calamari, and chicken with mushrooms, the performers start to arrive, hurrying past us with hangers and garment bags. The show soon starts in the small front room, among the crowded tables. There's a Tina Turner, a Shania Twain. "River Deep, Mountain High" mercifully drowns out a karaoke "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " from out front. The performers' wigs brush the fishnet hanging from the low ceiling, and their huge pumps bend the old floorboards. They're still vamping when we leave at around eleven, and the street party is in full swing as well, though the karaoke's been shelved in favor of taped reggae. Scores of people are drinking and dancing. But even the unsteadiest of them appear to be on more solid footing than a certain beginning windsurfer was that afternoon, out on the open sea somewhere west of Barbados.
"Monday is like Sunday here," says Walter. "Every day of the week is about the same."
Anguilla is quiet and calm, and not just compared with Ragamuffin's. Walter, an older taxi driver, reflects his island's collective demeanor. "I have two hobbies I would like to tell you about," he says softly as we approach CuisinArt, the new resort and spa that, from a distance in the nighttime, resembles a lit-up cruise ship. "One is collecting business cards. The other is singing and dancing. So if you have a business card, I would like to have it."
CuisinArt is a close approximation of a gleaming, whitewashed Mediterranean village. The various sections are named for Greek islands, and I'm in Lipsi, in an enormous suite with a bedroom, living room, two bathrooms, a balcony, and a private deck for tanning. From my shower, I can see St. Martin. The resort opened last December after having been delayed by Hurricane Lenny, which damaged the island severely. CuisinArt is teeming with staff, and everywhere you look people are carrying linens or mowing or watering. The pristine white sand beach is long and empty.
I'm here, supposedly, to learn something about cooking, but one look at the enticing new spa suggests a very different line of self-improvement. Tennis on St. John left me with an aching forearm and wrist. My fingers still hurt from applying the handbrakes while biking in the Dominican Republic, and they're a bit raw from tugging at the sail on Barbados. The windsurfing has also done alarming things to my lower back (bending), to my knees (climbing back aboard; praying), and to my ego (passim). Surely there was much to be gained, if not learned, from a really great massage. Maybe even a facial. I'd always wanted to utter the words, "No, I can't do it then -- I have a facial." So I make a couple of appointments.
Michelle McDonough runs a spa staff of physical therapists who specialize in sports injuries, and guests are more than willing to seek them out. There are specialists and treatments for migraine, sciatica, tennis elbow, and the like. The staff have all worked with doctors but, as one specialist told me, "we can also do the pampering thing."
So they can. I passed on something called "ear-coning" ("It can help with pressurization problems -- it creates a vortex of energy on either side of your third eye," the specialist explained), but their skillful way with a massage and, yes, a facial enable me to confront even cooking with equanimity. This turns out to be more of a demonstration than a class: We just watch and take notes. CuisinArt is owned by Leandro Rizzuto, who also owns the Cuisinart line of kitchen products, and the resort places a great emphasis on its cuisine -- they have their own hydroponic garden and restaurant -- and, starting in the spring, visiting chefs will conduct two such sessions a week for interested guests. Along with a half-dozen others, I sit in one afternoon and watch Denis Jaricot, CuisinArt's satisfyingly Gallic-looking and -sounding head chef, whip up a few things in Santorini's demo kitchen.
Jaricot starts with a smoothie. "Raymond," he says to his assistant, "I am missing ba-nana."
And so it goes. Jaricot talks throughout, explaining what he's doing and why. Portions of each concoction are passed around to the class -- gazpacho, potato gnocchi, cucumber-blossom fritter. On tasting this last delicacy, one of my classmates cries out in ecstasy. Jaricot smiles, says to Raymond, "Leave some out, he wants more." People jump up now and then to peer into a saucepan. "What was in the middle of that almond cake last night?" one woman asks. Jaricot grins: "Rice Krispies." The dinner I have at Santorini that evening -- tuna sashimi, rack of lamb -- suggests that Jaricot and his staff perform every bit as well for a less intimate audience.
CuisinArt is so high-end and produced -- turn a corner and you're likely to stumble upon a harpist, or a crooner -- that an evening off-base at the Pumphouse, a popular joint over in the hamlet of Sandy Ground, is a welcome change of pace. A burger, a few beers, a live reggae band: something to cut the pampering a little.
A short while later, I'm back in resort-land, walking by the pool and gardens under a full moon. Nearby, a group of men and women are engaged in a spirited game of late-night boccie. And I thought: Reggae in a roadhouse, boccie on a manicured lawn. Tennis and composting. Stunt-riding and massages. Lots of exercise and lots of rum. Not extreme travel, exactly, but a vacation of extremes. What could be better?