Ryan Oliver is huddled by the dominoes table but he'd rather be out there in the ocean, taking his chances amid the walls of foam that rear up from the blue seas as gracefully as a Lipizzan stallion of the Spanish Riding School, before breaking loose and rushing to the shore.

"This is a world-class place. The Soup Bowl. People travel from all over the world to surf this break," says Oliver, dreadlocked and somewhat unimaginatively nicknamed "Surfer" by his pals, who throw their domino pieces in the shade of a tree above the bay of Bathsheba, the centre of the "other" Barbados.

Don't come here if you want to see the likes of Michael Winner and Philip Green sploshing about in the clear waters off the Platinum Coast. This is the eastern side of the island, where the Atlantic lashes the coast with a ferocity that means it is largely unsafe for swimming at all.

But there is a rugged beauty that appeals to the more adventurous traveller, those who prefer a walk across a wild green headland or a stroll on a beach inhabited only by driftwood. Oliver throws out his hand to draw attention to the breathtaking geological formations that flank the bay, close to where he has been surfing since the age of seven.

"That hill to the left, that's the Sleeping Giant. And that's Lion Pride rock," he says, pointing to a sphinx-like formation protruding from the waves.

Not much happens round here. The Sea Side Bar rum shop has but a couple of patrons. A short distance from the Soup Bowl, Robert LaMare is idling in a hammock on the porch of his Island Craft shop, which doesn't seem to sell a great deal except hammocks - which are currently out of stock. LaMare decamped to Barbados from upstate New York some 15 years ago and hasn't gone back.

"I get two deliveries of post a month," he says, "the water bill and the electricity bill. I don't have a television or a cellphone. But I don't want or need anything."

A little further north, beneath the Round House restaurant, a family is playing in the natural water pools that provide safe bathing away from the breakers. For a Caribbean holiday island it is very, very quiet.

That could change, at least very slightly, in the months ahead as two major hotel projects get under way on the east coast. Both will provide luxury accommodation for a more discerning traveller, without detracting from the tranquillity of this side of the island.

As Andrew Warden scrambles around the site of the Atlantis Hotel which, since 1884, has been the premier hotel on Barbados's east coast, he remains confident that by this August it will have reopened with 10 bedrooms.

"My hope," he says, "is that it's going to become one of those spots that everybody coming to the east coast will want to take a picture of; it's going to look majestic."

Warden, who is Australian but has a Barbadian mother, will try to create at the new Atlantis the same mix of stylish decor and home-from-home comforts that exist at his other hotel project, Little Good Harbour, lapped by the gentle Caribbean waters on the north-west of the island.

He is hoping to offer holidays which combine stays at both sites, offering two very different perspectives of this tiny country with a population of only 274 000.

Attached to Little Good Harbour is an acclaimed restaurant, the Fish Pot, and Warden also wants the Atlantis to continue its long-held reputation for offering ABC, "all Bajan cuisine". So the new hotel will be serving such delicacies as callalloo soup, and flying fish and cou-cou. Warden says it is in nobody's interest to overdevelop the east coast.

"We are just restoring the Atlantis but it would be a very sad day if they allowed anything and everything to be built on the east coast."

That is unlikely to happen now that the Barbados government has turned almost the whole of the east coast, from Archer Bay in the distant north down to Consett Bay in the south, into an area protected from overdevelopment.

The east coast already has one designated national park, at Farley Hill, a popular spot with Bajan families that head to picnic tables set among mahogany trees and with views out over the Atlantic.

Once the grounds of the island's grandest mansion, owned by English planter Sir Graham Briggs, it is now a fine setting for open-air concerts, including the renowned Barbados Jazz Festival.

Inland from Bathsheba, visitors can gain another unusual view of this Caribbean island; the stunning Harrison's Cave, a subterranean experience that inspires serious geologists as well as adventurous schoolchildren to explore below ground on board an underground tram.

Scary, that journey must have been to the cave adventurers who braved the darkness and the running streams to map this vast network of tunnels and shafts in the 1970s. It is the scale that surprises, with one cavern, now named the Great Hall, stretching 15 from floor to its stalactite-laden ceiling.

Bathsheba makes a good base from which to explore the rolling green hills of Scotland district, too. Closer to the coast, British visitors (who make up the bulk of the island's tourist trade, having overtaken in Americans in recent years) might be reminded of Cornwall.

Bajans have themselves recognised the beauty of this area for years and close to the coast road, opened by the Queen in 1966, there are holiday homes with names such as Mon Desir and Sandy Crest.

In the north-east of Barbados, at the end of an avenue of mahogany trees, is the extraordinary site of a Jacobean house, St Nicholas Abbey, which is billed as the last remaining 17th-century house anywhere in the New World.

The main three-storey house, built from brick and limestone around 1658, is extraordinarily well preserved and contains a grandfather clock, made in 1759 by James Thwaites of London, that has remained on the same spot for a quarter of a millennium.

Once a sugar plantation, St Nicholas has recently brought back to life its steam-driven mill - made in the 19th century by Fletcher's of Derby - and now makes its own rum ("smooth enough for a lady, strong enough for a man").

Visitors can also enter a tiny cinema to see the home movies made by former owner Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Cave, a fascinating and valuable record of Barbados life during the 1930s when workers travelled by donkey and children dared each other to cling to the rotating sails of the plantation windmills.

Compared with some other Caribbean islands, modern Barbados is affluent and sedate. Oil drilling rigs dip in and out of the soil in some inland parishes, and a country youth might be seen practising a golf swing or rolling the village cricket pitch, rather than shooting basketball hoops.

Travelling south back down the east coast, we pass a rum joint in St Andrew's with the slogan "Nigel Benn Aunty Bar" - in reference to the British middleweight boxer - and musician Eddy Grant's house is an impressive residence opposite St John's parish church.

Near Newcastle, some elderly "red legs" - the descendants of 17th-century white British or Irish indentured servants shipped to Barbados as a punishment - are helping some black children cross the road.

In the parish of St Philip, down on the south-east corner of the island, the Atlantic waves are calm enough for swimming. Since the 18th century, demure English ladies have been descending from the cliff on to Crane beach; once by a staircase hewn from the rock face and, today, by a glass-fronted elevator that showcases a palette of marine blues.

Alhough this inlet was named among the best 10 beaches in the world, those who awarded that accolade may not have ventured a little further to the east. For, just beyond the headland, is Ginger Bay, an empty sweep of white barely trodden sands at the end of which, hidden behind a tree, is a dark tunnel in the rock.

About 10m long, it offers the merest fleck of light before half a dozen steps lead up to a deserted cove. Barely 30m wide, and disguised by a vast mushroom-shaped boulder of coral rock, this sandy hideaway is silent except for the waves that wash upon its narrow shore.

Canadian Paul Doyle has made the Crane into one of the best hotels on the island, recently completing the Crane Village, a series of colonial-style buildings including an art gallery, a cinema, a fitness centre and a bookshop.

He is planning a new project, Anani (named after the Amerindian word for flower), further north, opposite Culpepper Island. Doyle's design will make the most of the stream and ponds that are features of the site and each room will have its own infinity pool and views of the ocean.

"The east coast is hugely different," says Doyle. "We are the rural part, where Bajans come to take their vacations. They come because of the breezes and the culture. The colour of our water is a little more turquoise, our sand a little whiter, and a little softer."