Weeks after I returned from four fast days in Antigua, I could close my eyes and still feel the warm embrace of the long stretches of quiet beaches that hug the curvy Caribbean coastline and the clear blue sea. Oh, that blue. A blue that beckons, constant and seductive, promising and encouraging. A lens to another world. And, isn’t that what a real vacation is about?
We travelled in January when daily temperatures lingered around 81, with the sea nearly as warm. With Delta’s new direct flights, you can have breakfast at home and find yourself sipping a Wadadli beer at one of the islands many intimate luxury hotels, sprawling all-inclusive resorts or budget friendly family properties by noon.
The 100 square-mile island of Antigua and its baby sister Barbuda sit perched at the eastern edge of the Caribbean’s chain of gems, the Leeward Islands. Independent for 36 years now, after being a British dependent since Admiral Horatio Nelson arrived with his squadron in 1784, the island is experiencing a growth spurt, with docks for more mammoth cruise ships under construction in the bustling main port and capital of St. John’s. The tourism industry and commercial growth seem to be growing in tandem, traffic congestion and construction managed. More important, Antiguans are happy and fiercely proud, not jaded or hot and bothered by the eager American shoppers, rum punch-drinking Europeans and dozy honeymooners who visit their island. When the 100,000th visitor landed at the end of last year (an annual record), the tourism board celebrated and gave gifts to everyone on board that flight.
We stayed at the Sandals Grande Antigua Resort, just 10 minutes from the sleek newly renovated airport. With 13 restaurants, six pools, wide white beach and 373 rooms served by 700 “team members,” the sprawling property includes a “Caribbean” and “Mediterranean” themed community, with room choices ranging from lovely king rooms in a 5-story tower (the Med) to adorable thatched bungalows and balconied courtyard apartments dotting winding paths between pools and hot tubs and private cabanas.
While I was at first skeptical of couples-only, all-inclusive properties, I left promising to visit another Sandals property soon. There are 19 in the Caribbean with one planned for Mexico by the end of the year. If you stay at the Sandals Grande Antigua, you should indulge by reserving a Butler Suite, where you meet your very own butler when you check in (seamlessly) and are presented a cell phone that connects you immediately with your new best friend who can unpack, bring you drinks, snacks and just about anything else you need during your stay and arrange excursions like zip-lining through the nearby rainforest canopy or dining by candlelight on the beach at a table for two. Your suite, a bungalow steps from the beach, will be decked out with Egyptian cotton linens and your brands of top shelf bar choices, a private pool and patio.
Do venture off property, where ever you stay, however.
The main roads are pretty smooth and in good condition. Head to the northwest side of the island and meet up with Sun Fire (that’s his name) and his sons who own 38 good looking horses. They will take you on a trail ride, passing an estate owned by a government official who likes to give rollicking parties, and ending on a pretty beach where your blood pressure will surely drop even further. In a good way. Grab lunch at the beach-front Beach Limerz Bar and order the Johnny Oink-slices of jerk pork on lettuce, tomatoes and onions piled on a LimerZ johnny cake… and if you dare, the Burgers ’n Cream – a scoop of vanilla ice cream and pickles in your burger. Ask if they have saltfish and ducana, a sort of sweet potato dumpling made with sweet potato and carrots, grated coconut, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger served with a saltfish lollipop. Wash it down with a local Wadadli Lager. Wadadli is the island’s original name, though some dispute this. And that’s about all under dispute on this lovely, welcoming island. When I asked my guide, Sun Fire’s teen-aged son, Jamail, if he liked living on the island of Antigua, there wasn’t a hint of teen angst. “I love this island,” he said squinting toward the horizon like a true cowboy. “Antigua has everything I need—good music, good food, fresh fruit, so much to do, all my family to love me and all this,” he nodded to the setting sun, the clear sea, the 90 miles of beach and the warm scented air of Antigua.