By Rory Winston
Though the West Indian island of Antigua lies in the eastern Caribbean Sea, it has a lot more to offer than exceptional beaches. From its rich history and colonial past to its natural splendor, family-friendly resorts and haute cuisine, the island is rife with enough unexpected pleasures to keep every traveler happy.
The Other Caribbean
Teeth-gritting jingles, a melee of canopied drinks struggling to out-gauche the parrot-like trappings, XL tourists in Speedos carping about how skimpily clad the well-proportioned natives are, a toddler finding my hair as good a place as any to extinguish the remains of an ice cream cone while his mother’s voice runs through my ears like a siren. Certainly, I had my preconceptions about “Aruba, Bahamas…” or whatever Caribbean locations were listed on that hyper-peppy jingle created in a pre-Prozac age.
My wife had arranged this “exotic island foray” into Antigua; my daughter and I were merely baggage. Armed with sun-block 45, fun-resistance 60 and apprehension set at toxic levels, I searched in vain for hijackers as our plane descended from the clear skies over Antigua.
Shortly after clearing customs, my prayers for abduction were answered – albeit in the highly polished form of an escort and his chauffeured car. Soon, we were being carted onto a catamaran that sped to Jumby Bay (jumbybayresort.com). I toyed with the idea of a weekend spent in the company of Dr. Moreau. His island’s second generation inhabitants were probably indistinguishable from average American tourists anyhow.
As we drew near, white egrets repositioned themselves, leering with disdain. In their no-man’s world, we were merely uppity fish who refused to conform to underwater travel. Taking its cue from the egrets, an unperturbed blue pelican stood on the bank gaping. By this time, however, we ourselves were gaping: rare tropical flowers, palm trees, white sand beaches on 300 acres of private land. And … no cars. Several sheep sauntered by. My daughter joined their ranks.
What had once been a sugar mill was now part of Rosewood Resort’s 40-suite and 11-villa hideaway. After prying my daughter from her herd, we shuffled into our private suite. There we discovered spacious rooms tastefully decorated. The garden bathroom was alternatively exposed to sunshine and moonlight. While indigenous foliage shot in from overhead, the state-of-the-art accoutrements engulfed the room in luxury. Not exactly the Caribbean I had been expecting. Comfortable rather than gaudy furnishings as far as the eye could see. The elegant décor and warm tones made a fine counterpoint to the tropical bloom outside.
Though there was a Pampered Parent Program – an obvious euphemism for “Childfree Fun” – my daughter subscribed to her own Just-Try-And-I’ll-Cry support group. And so, we hiked over to the freshwater lap pool where she decided we all wanted to swim. Though tennis, croquet and a marvelous fitness center were available, our own swim and sprint ended at Verandah Restaurant. The East-West fusion dishes were not only delectable but possessed enough nuance to satisfy my wife and enough color to keep my daughter up to her ears in war paint.
As night crawled over us like the inside of a heavily speckled black shell, we came upon the miraculously prehistoric creatures that fit this antediluvian setting to a tee, the Hawksbill turtles. This is where they crawled onto the beaches; this remote island is where they laid their eggs. Following their lead, we ambled sluggishly across the tract of star-filled space where sand glowed with moonlight and the sea lulled itself into an alert form of slumber — all was quiet above, all was alive below. Our heads fell forward instinctively.
Without a word spoken, we headed at a turtle’s pace toward our own sandpit. Sated, and breathing in time with the tide, we sailed into sleep as if we had chartered the very same dream.
In keeping with our newly evolved reptilian state, we awoke with a hankering for water: sunfish sailboats, sailboarding and deep-sea fishing. Our main meal was served at the Estate House, a signature restaurant within the 230-year-old plantation manor. Surrounded by porcelain, candlelight and Gershwin, we swam into the vibrant culinary waters of Executive Chef Frederic Wagnon. Looking out over the shoreline, I saw neither Speedo, nor deflated beach ball. Jumby Bay was no tourist trap; it was the real thing – understated luxury with a firm hold on one’s innermost desires.
The Remains of Colonial Days
Landing in Antigua’s capital at daybreak, the white baroque towers of St. John’s Cathedral stood like a defiant fist amidst a colorful battalion of shops and markets. The odd juxtaposition of British, African and native Indian motifs were evident here. Different cultural themes continued their struggle with nature to leave a lasting impression.
Climbing the “Megaliths” – 180-foot rock formations – we looked out over the island: an ancient Arawak campsite stood alongside a 30-foot natural limestone arch carved out by the sea. The coastline boasted hidden bays, astounding coral reefs and deserted offshore islands. In the distance, the active volcano of Montserrat still loomed threateningly over what remained from the charred and abandoned city.
Soon, we were making our way toward the tropical rainforest. Passing banana, mango and coconut groves, we found ourselves in a region of lush mountains. There, ensconced in cascading hills, stood Carlisle Bay (carlisle-bay.com).
As a reminder of British monarch King William IV’s ability to reshape wilderness until it was capable of accommodating royalty, the estate brandishes a form of subdued decadence associated with empires. With custom-made furniture at every turn, the expansive interiors are a proscenium for timeless design. Recherché objects collude with luxurious silks and Frette linen to create an ambiance of laidback splendor and sensuality. Original photography is strewn on nearly every wall, while large day beds mount each balcony and terrace. Still, the calm that overcame me was disquieting. I chalked it up to urban skepticism being displaced by utter serenity.
Though Carlisle Bay had water sports such as Hobi cat sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and snorkeling, we joined an eco-tour of the rainforest and saw lizards, brown pelicans, West Indian whistling ducks and red-billed tropicbirds. So, these were the strange origins of the mesmeric sounds that flooded our ears upon approach.
Returning to the property, we were famished and soon decided on East restaurant’s eclectic mix of Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese food. Local ingredients clearly supported such a kitchen. Lobsters, shrimp, scallops, prawns, tuna … the adjacent sea ensured that many of the dishes surpassed South Pacific fare. Perhaps Columbus’s first hunch was right: heading west, one need not travel long before hitting the Orient.
Situated next to Carlisle Bay is Cades Reef — an “underwater garden.” Whether one decides on snorkeling or – as I did – on scuba diving, the tropical marine life is enough to make any combination of superlatives sound inadequate.
Rising from the depths, it was the Blue Spa that awaited me. This cornucopia of sauna, aromatherapy and a plunge pool left me receptive to the resort’s gastronomical haven, Indigo on the Beach. Doused in a gentle sea breeze, we ordered lobster bisque, orzo with roast butternut, and a wonderful game fish, mahi-mahi.
Still, the wariness I initially felt returned. As my daughter washed her face in her banana split, I understood where the dissonance lay. Nowhere in my travels had I ever come across a setting so at ease with both sophistication and family fun. Here, urbane levels of service and panache went hand-in-hand with unselfconscious camp-like amusement.
As my daughter banged her spoon in time with a distant tolling from the jetty, I realized that there was a world of difference between truly posh resorts like this one and those that don pretentious mannerisms in order to appear high-end. Reading my mood, my daughter joyously smeared my wife’s dress with Black Forest trifle. Though I expected my wife to admonish her, the insouciance was contagious. She simply smiled and reiterated: “a mere trifle” – the bad pun followed by unrestrained laughter.
King William – the man responsible for freeing all the slaves under British rule (including those on this island) – understood what his predecessors had not: The glory of the realm does not rely on its abuses or pretensions … That which is inherently august remains so, precisely because of its capacity to adapt. The flamboyance and nonchalance of the crown were in evidence here. Ever whimsical and well-coiffed,