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Insider Classics: Tropical Hotel Renovations

Inside: Caribbean Savings

These four time-tested retreats are the clearest reflection of our Caribbean dreams: the kind of places where you can roll out of bed and onto a sun-soaked beach chaise. What's more, each has recently been updated. They're the latest in Caribbean high life.

CAP JULUCA, ANGUILLA
I wasn't expecting to love Cap Juluca. After all, I'd swung by the 71-room resort four years earlier on a trip to Anguilla, and left unimpressed. I found its fanciful interpretation of a North African oasis a little cliché, the food at Pimm's—its posh seaside restaurant—good but not great, and its beach lovely, but not head and shoulders above others on the island.

What a difference a stay makes.

Although I'd requested a lower-level room for easy beach access, none was available, and I was grumpy. But I got a quick pick-me-up when I threw open the louvered French doors in my upper-floor junior suite to reveal an enormous terrace and impossibly turquoise water framed by two whitewashed arches. That entrancing view is visible from the bed, even when you're lying down. When you return from dinner, the only light is the glow of a glass oil lamp. Sexy. Sexy doesn't even begin to describe my bathroom, with a tub for two and a high-walled open-air lounge area, perfect for drying off sans towels.

Upon closer inspection, Cap Juluca's beach turned out to be one of the Caribbean's finest: a long, wide crescent of snowy, silky sand on Maundays Bay. (This is a hotel for beach-lovers: the pool is small and unappealing.) And although the resort's design—arches, domes, rookery rooftops—is no longer groundbreaking, I came to find it entertaining, especially in areas such as Kemia, a tapas bar with a tented ceiling and hanging lanterns. Along with a massive spa, Kemia is among the many improvements made during a soup-to-nuts refurbishment in the wake of Hurricane Lenny in 2000. Converts can get carried away with enthusiasm, but I'd say the whole place sparkles.

Maundays Bay; 888/858-5822 or 264/497-6779, fax 264/497-6340; doubles from $635, including breakfast, your mini-bar, and water sports. —N.L.

FOUR SEASONS RESORT, NEVIS
"All you need to know is that Sarah Jessica Parker was here." So bragged the hulking guy next to me as his fiancée admired the glinting rock on her finger. Downing my daiquiri at the poolside bar, I wondered how the Four Seasons Resort Nevis had managed to attract this conspicuously consumptive couple, plus the star of Sex and the City, the picture-perfect family of four floating on the water, and me, making the scene in hot-pink Lilly Pulitzer swim trunks. Could the resort really please all of us?

I needn't have raised the question, since the Four Seasons group has a well-established record of satisfying both businessmen and fashionistas. The kinds of thoughtful touches that characterize Four Seasons hotels are all here—things like a bathroom night-light concealed in the toe kick—as is the crack service. Just try getting to a chaise before an attendant swaddles it expertly with towels.

During a yearlong closure to repair damage from Hurricane Lenny, the Four Seasons also got a sensitive style update. The 196 rooms, housed in gingerbread buildings along the beach, have pretty pastel color schemes and carved mahogany beds made up with light damask throws rather than bedspreads. (For maximum privacy and the best ocean views, book an upper-floor room at the south end.) In the lobby, the new look is dark wood tables, cane chairs with matelassé cushions, and masses of mismatched mirrors. It's a testament to the lobby's attractiveness that guests actually hang out here.

Caribbean resorts are not renowned for their food, but the Creole-inflected menu at the main restaurant, the Dining Room, is quite good, if expensive (dinner entrées average $40). And there's no shortage of things to do. Tennis players have 10 courts. Golfers tee off on what is by most accounts the Caribbean's best course. Families pack the tots off to an excellent kids' program. Sybarites get massages in beachside cabanas.

The only thing, in fact, that's less than stellar is the beach itself, which for this connoisseur has the tightly packed, tarmac feel of a man-made beach. (It was reconstructed after the hurricane, and should improve naturally over time.) I may have been the only one who noticed; most guests take their sun at the two showy infinity pools, where waiters keep the libations coming, attendants do that famed Evian spritzing, and portable CD players are provided for your listening pleasure. I didn't spy Sarah Jessica, but everyone else was smiling.

Pinney's Beach; 800/332-3442 or 869/469-1111, fax 869/469-1040; doubles from $710. —N.L.

CURTAIN BLUFF HOTEL, ANTIGUA
Checking in at Curtain Bluff is an experience. As you go through the usual motions, there's American owner Howard Hulford by the front desk, trademark stogie in hand, at the ready to greet you—and ask a few questions. "How long are you staying?" he inquired of me. "Two days," I answered. He frowned. "Hmm. Too short." When I requested a proper meal—it was four o'clock and I hadn't eaten all day—the desk attendant told me it was past lunchtime, but the kitchen might be able to rustle up a few sandwiches. Hulford was of another opinion: "You can't have lunch now—you won't be hungry for dinner!" (I did get the sandwiches.)

For a first-time guest, it's all a bit like meeting the parents. Any stress is worth it, though, because staying at Curtain Bluff is like gaining entry into an exclusive—but welcoming—country club gone tropical. Hulford opened the resort in 1962, on a short, hilly peninsula. Since then, the 70-room hotel has built up quite a following—almost three-quarters of the guests return year after year.

Many come for the frequent tennis tournaments. Others, for the annual sailing week. Still more for shuffleboard, croquet matches, and all-inclusive water sports. And everyone loves the resort's two private beaches—one a busy crescent on a calm bay, the other lonely, wide, and windswept. But the camaraderie is the real allure. Everywhere you look, chatty couples and families are getting to know one another. Talk on the beach is of going dry ("I'll maybe have one or two drinks while I'm down here, but otherwise, never"), back pain ("In the evening it just gets so bad"), and reconnecting ("We missed you last year—we said, 'Where are they?'"). At night, guests dress up and head to the dance floor or bar, or gather in the library for Scrabble games. Although the rooms, with their rattan furniture, floral comforters, and straw mats, won't cure anyone suffering from Caribbean ennui, they show admirable restraint. (The 18 new junior suites are the freshest.) The food, likewise, is forgettable, with dishes such as halibut in basic brown-butter sauce. And the dedicated and well-meaning staff does occasionally blunder. But no one's complaining. Resort regulars tell me that, to them, coming to Curtain Bluff each year is like coming home. What's that line about home being sweet?

Morris Bay; 888/289-9898 or 268/462-8400, fax 268/462-8409; doubles from $725, including all meals, drinks (fine wines are extra), and water sports. —N.L.

SANDY LANE, BARBADOS
Will this torment never end? I asked myself. Hopelessly lost in my rental car, I stopped a third time to ask for directions to Sandy Lane. Hearing of my plight, a cane farmer by the roadside burst into thigh-slapping laughter. "You stayin' at Sandy Lane?" he howled. "Where's your chauffeur?"

Good question. The hotel's reservationist had cruelly neglected to tell my travel agent that Sandy Lane can collect guests from the airport in a Bentley. After this irksome oversight, I was skeptical that the newly renovated hotel would live up to tales of its glorious past. Built of coral stone in 1961 by Ronald Tree—an heir to the Marshall Field's department store fortune—Sandy Lane was once a playground for the rum-punch high jinks of the international set. Since that gilded age, it had slipped into a decline. "Sewage had a nasty habit of rising in the bathtub," recalls one guest. A group of Irish investors bought the hotel and closed it in April 1997 for major renovations. After three long years and some $350 million, it was rebuilt to look virtually identical to its 1961 incarnation, but with a 45,000-square-foot spa, finer restaurants, and three golf courses.

When I arrived in the light, airy lobby, I was welcomed with such a deferential flurry that I feared someone had been tipped off that I was on assignment. But after conferring with fellow guests, I learned that every first greeting is orchestrated to make you feel like a visiting potentate. In my room, a butler offered to unpack my suitcase—which by some logistical magic had already been delivered to my bedside. While the beige décor lacked any convincing Caribbean touches, my room was equipped with technological marvels (a motion-sensor system to alert maids when you're there; seven adjustable nozzles in the marble shower). The thrill waned when an arctic blast of air-conditioning woke me at 5 a.m.

Later that day, I warmed up in the spa's dry-heat laconium crystal room. Supposedly, it's superior to a regular sauna, but the benches were unbearably hot. So I moved to the polar room, which has an ice fountain where you can shiver for a few minutes before plunging into a hot shower with delicious camphor-scented water. The rest of the spa is a dream, open to the tropical breezes and surrounded by a giant curvilinear pool.

While Sandy Lane's prices are fairly horrifying (Sunday brunch rang in at $179 for two—with no liquor), you can't argue with the exemplary service. The sleek golf carts have satellite tracking that shows your exact position on the course and keeps score for you. Now, that's luxury.

St. James; 866/444-4080 or 246/444-2000, fax 246/444-2072; doubles from $800, including breakfast. —C.M.




Savings Under the Sun This season, Caribbean resorts are making special efforts to lure budget-conscious travelers. Here, some of the top deals:

BEST VALUE The all-inclusive chains SuperClubs and Sandals are slashing rates by 55 and 30 percent, respectively.

MORE BANG FOR YOUR BUCK Many resorts are adding incentives—room upgrades, free golf or massages. Cap Juluca rewards repeat visitors with a seventh night free; Virgin Gorda's Little Dix Bay is throwing in a sixth night for all guests.

BRIBES ACCEPTED Some islands are actually paying you to visit. The U.S. Virgins are doling out $200 in traveler's checks to each visitor (call 800/372-8784), while Bermuda is giving out $100 worth of island gift checks (call 800/237-6832).

GOOD THINGS COME TO THOSE WHO WAIT The bigger hotel groups (Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton) will be offering last-minute savings. And keep in mind that prices drop drastically in the off-season, which at some resorts starts around Easter (which falls early this year) or on April 15. —Kristine Ziwica

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