BRIDGETOWN, Barbados — The Caribbean may be paradise, but it never seems to show up on anyone's list of best travel bargains. Almost every island, in fact, has high prices.
One extraordinary exception to that rule is the Atlantis Hotel on what was formerly British Barbados.
For starters, the hotel is miles down the coast from Bridgetown, the capital and only large settlement. Secondly, it's on the eastern or Atlantic Ocean side, which means that the coast is rocky more often than sandy, and the waves are big and thundering, not gently lapping as on the quiet Caribbean side.
The main drawback--if you can call it that--may be that the hotel sits right on the rocky shore where the fishing boats are drawn up each day. So you're more likely to make friends with the Creole fishermen than you are with anyone else.
In addition, if you want a sandy beach to lie on, you have to walk over the hill above the big, half-awash rocks where the waves keep slamming and sending spray high in the air. Sometimes you're likely to just stand there, watching the beauty of it and forgetting to go swimming.
If you want air conditioning in your room, you pull on a string and watch the wooden blades of a fan stir the air around as it flicks lazy circles over your head. A bit primitive.
The advantages? One is the food. The Atlantis started life as a modest Bajan (that's what Barbadians call themselves) guest house in 1882 and the family has been cooking Bajan food for guests ever since. By now they really know how.
The other hotels, some of which charge 10 times as much for rooms, recommend this modest place to their own guests for the best native cooking on the island.
A typical buffet lunch at the Atlantis: a salad that came out of the garden this morning, and special green, finger-length bananas marinated in lime juice and ginger. Pumpkin fritters, rice and beans, and doved peas. These are green peas that turn brown when they're cooked in oil and parsley.
Flying fish, which is practically the Barbados national dish, is done here superlatively, as is dolphin. Add to that edde --an edible root marinated and then cooked, pork souse, chicken done the spicy island way and half a dozen more dishes.
Then, if you can still waddle to the dessert table, there are coconut pie, fruit and coffee.
That's just lunch. Included in the price of a room is also a big breakfast and dinner, which is an extension and elaboration of lunch.
Balconies and Ambrosia
The other advantage is the price of the 14 rooms. Half are inside and the other half overlook the ocean, each with its own little balcony, just right to sit and watch the water with a rum punch in hand--and they're probably the best you'll ever taste.
You'll sit there sipping that ambrosia, watching the fishing boats come in as the sun goes down, and start to wonder about arranging things so you could spend the next five or 10 years here.
Advice: Don't stay in the cheap, inside rooms. You wouldn't want them; they're dark because the windows open on the inside hallway for some odd, Bajan reason.
The high-priced, ocean-view rooms go for $44 a day. That's American plan and includes breakfast, lunch and dinner, for two. Of course, that's during the high season, which runs from Dec. 15 to April 15. The rest of the year it's cheaper.
The Atlantis Hotel also has apartments in another small building next door, on the water overlooking Tent Bay. Winter rates run from $25 a day for a studio to $35 for a one-bedroom. Summer rates, April 16 to Dec. 14, are $20 and $25.
What do you do when you're not keeping an eye on the sunset or eating? You might relax on the hotel veranda while someone brings you a bottle of Banks, the excellent local beer, which goes for 75 cents. Or get something stronger for a buck.
Buses Go Everywhere
If you want to go sightseeing around Barbados, you can hop on the public buses; the fare is 75 cents to travel anywhere on the island.
There's lots to see. Try Welchman Hall Gully, a tropical garden of fruit and spice trees, or Harrison's Cave, so big that an electric train takes you through huge underground rooms past subterranean lakes and waterfalls.
Or you can visit The Potteries, a small village at the top of picturesque Chalky Mount, where potters work at ancient wheels operated by foot treadles. You might try Sam Lord's Castle, an elegant Georgian mansion built in 1820 by the buccaneer, now part of Marriott's luxury resort hotel.
You'll want to go to Bridgetown, which is so British that you expect to see the changing of the guard.
Cafe Shephards is a big department store ("departmental" store to the British and Barbadians) on Broad Street. Da Costa's is another, and Harrington's is in the next block. All good places to shop for colorful dresses and blouses made on Barbados, and for almost anything shipped over from the European Common Market countries.
Here's a crazy one, for instance: Jackets and capes of warm Icelandic wool, made in Iceland, sell for about 20% less at Cafe Shephards in tropical Barbados than they do in Alaska, where they're 20% less than in Los Angeles.
But even if you're not looking for bargains from Iceland, Barbados is a lovely place to go any time of the year.
You may contact the Atlantis Hotel at Tent Bay, Bathsheba, St. Joseph, Barbados, or phone (809) 433-9445.
Get more information about all of Barbados' hotels and attractions from the Barbados Tourist Board, 800 2nd Ave., New York 10017; phone (212) 986-6516.