Colonial style, white-shuttered Holders House is not your typical five-star Barbadian abode. There are no cushion-covered sun loungers on the beach, with uniformed waiting staff on hand to bring you a Bellini, as you’d find down the road at Sandy Lane.
In fact, there is no beach at all.
Instead, you are surrounded by lush foliage, palm fronds, and orchids swaying in the breeze that caresses Holders Hill and prevents it from ever getting stiflingly hot. In the distance, the gleaming backs of athletic polo ponies gallop across the manicured Barbados Polo Club fields, and a spectrum of blue sky meets a glint of azure green Caribbean sea on the horizon.
The lack of immediately accessible beach shouldn’t be a deal breaker because you're not here for the beach. (Just 10 minutes by foot, at the bottom of the hill, is Daphne’s restaurant—well worth a lunch or dinner—with full access to the beautiful white sands of Payne’s Bay.) What Holders may lack in conventional luxuries, it more than makes up for in rich history and character. It's an untraditional hotel with unparalleled tradition.
Holders House has long been the Caribbean home of one of the U.K.’s most famous aristocratic families, the Kidds. All blonde, beautiful, and long-limbed, supermodel Jodie Kidd, her polo-playing brother Jack, and their sister, posh pajama designer Jemma (now the Countess of Mornington), have long been fodder for British tabloids and society pages alike. Collectively they’ve endured a roller-coaster of an existence—affairs, divorces, shotgun marriages, drug scandals, and anything else the British press can’t get enough of.
Their family’s Caribbean ‘seat,’ a former plantation house on the premium west coast, is a breezy eight-acre hilltop haven that couldn’t offer more contrast to many of this side of the island’s most popular places to stay. While other residences may offer silver service-trained staff and Cristal on tap, the pull at Holders is simpler: a sizeable swimming pool, rustic charm, and laid-back vibes. In the absence of butlers and bar managers, its permanent residents include Spinach, the overweight Scottie dog; Vinnie, the Ridgeback; and Mr. P, the talking, orange-winged Amazonian parrot.
Holders hasn’t always been a guesthouse.
It was a secret escape and part-time den of debauchery for the rich, royal, and famous throughout the swinging 1960s and '70s. This was the house where princes partied with dashing polo players, a place Princess Margaret and her second husband, Lord Snowdon—famous for embracing the ‘sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll’ lifestyle—visited during their Caribbean honeymoon in 1960, and where legendary bad boy actor Oliver Reed spent many a merry holiday.
It remained the Kidd holiday home, accessible only to invited guests until 2007, when scandal struck the family. Former show jumper Johnny Kidd—father to Jemma, Jack, and Jodie—left their mother and his wife of over three decades, Wendy Hodge (granddaughter of press baron Lord Beaverbrook), for a Canadian stuntwoman half his age. After the marriage broke down, Holders was put on the market and taken off several times until Wendy, who lives here, decided to turn home into business and run the estate as a functioning guesthouse.
Although open to the public, the house is still something of a well-kept secret for those in the know—friends of friends and such—so it’s still not your usual B&B setup. There’s more of an aristo-DIY atmosphere: if you want a drink, you help yourself to one from the fridge and write down what you’re imbibing.
As a rule, I’m not a guesthouse type of person. I like the anonymity of a hotel, the fact that if you want to retire to your room with sunstroke—or simply disappear after consuming an abundance of Whispering Angel at lunch—you can hang the "Do Not Disturb" sign on your door and you won’t be disturbed.
There are no such signs on any of the doors to the seven beautiful guest bedrooms here. Holders isn’t like that.
When it’s full, as you’d expect it to be over the New Year, when I visited, it’s raucous, fun, and loud. It feels like a (slightly dysfunctional) family home in a strangely comforting way. Conversation came easily to my group of four girlfriends and the other houseguests: a young Dutch couple in their late twenties, a British couple working in finance (which had met Jack Kidd playing polo in Sotogrande), an American heiress with teenage children and model boyfriend, and some cousins of the family. There are locks on the bedroom doors, of course, but I seldom picked up the keys over the duration of the stay. All rooms are ensuite except two, which share an adorable colored-tile, glass-basined bathroom.
Like a Kidd
The bedrooms are light and airy and, for the most part, traditionally decked-out with dark wooden four-posters, wooden flooring, white linens, and freestanding baths. Grinning portraits and family photos—Kidds looking pretty, Kidds show-jumping, Kidds playing polo—create a homely atmosphere in the bedrooms and communal spaces.
Mr. P will squawk and screech and call you his darling at any given moment from dawn till dusk. Housekeeper Joan, who has been here almost forever and rules the roost, might berate you for not using a coaster on the mahogany dining table, but she’ll cook your eggs and bacon with love.
On Thursday nights, a well-heeled crowd descends for Holders' legendary curry night, a buffet-style feast that won’t win any Michelin stars but will certainly satisfy hungry bellies. Each week, chef Nasim themes the food around a different Indian region. It was Karnataka, in the southwest, during my stay. We enjoyed spicy tamarind prawns with lemon rice and coconut chutney, chicken with tomatoes and coconut, and pickled aubergine accompanied by a variety of papadoms and chutneys—the ultimate in summery comfort food. Rather than being waited upon, guests queue up to serve themselves in British "school-dinners" style, knees-up, that is great fun.
On Sundays, Jack’s organic farmer’s market sets up in the grounds with an array of wonderful local delights, from fresh coconuts at $1 a pop, organic fruit and veggies, handcrafted jewelry, and homemade rotis—deliciously doughy wraps filled with curried goat or chicken or vegetables that are so good. (Especially if you’ve had one too many rums the night before, like many a market-goer.) They sell out well before lunchtime.
And if you happen to come in early March, the estate hosts an international arts festival, Holders Season, now in its 22nd year.
Jimmy Cliff at Midnight
The whole place courses with an electric energy, as if the house remembers what went on in times past and has gleefully banked the memories.
There’s something utterly magical and exhilarating about dancing to Jimmy Cliff at midnight, rum in hand, in the midst of a monsoon-like rain shower—something we did several times over the course of our 10-day stay.
Even at capacity, the house never felt full or crowded. Often my group of four had the pool and loungers to ourselves. Nothing is organized unless you choose to organize it, so besides breakfasts of fresh fruit and fry-ups, guests are left to come and go as they please. There is a chef on hand to cook lunch and dinner if need be, but mostly we’d either prepare our own or venture to one of the many eateries on the island.
Often after dinner, we’d taxi to the busy bars on Second Street or Lime Grove, where you’re as likely to find Simon Cowell having a chat with Rihanna as a Speightstown local glugging a Carib beer. Inevitably we’d head back to the house, choose a reggae CD from the ample selection and pour ourselves a large nightcap from the honesty bar (usually an iced vodka with fresh coconut water), before heading to bed in anticipation of tomorrow’s sun.
This ain’t the bourgeois, snooty stuff of the island’s flashiest hotels, and Holders need make no excuses for that. It’s old-school British aristocratic glamour at its finest: basic, rustic, utterly charming, and served up with a large helping of rum and coconut.
Holders House, St. James, Barbados; +1 246 432-6385 or holdersseason.com. Rates from $200 USD per night, including breakfast.