Published: April 2009
By Shane Mitchell
On the sister islands of Antigua and Barbuda, the revitalized hotel scene is making waves.
Like other isles in the British West Indies, the commonwealth state of Antigua and Barbuda models itself on that chilly isle far across the Atlantic: vestiges of the empire (cricket, high tea) are still fused with Caribbean culture (reggae, conch fritters). Last March, the twin-island nation bucked tradition and voted for change. After more than 30 years under the rule of the Bird family, Antigua booted the corrupt regime from power and installed a new majority party in the regional parliament. Chatting about politics with taxi driver Bobby Francis, I ask how one clan managed to keep an iron grip on the government for so long. "Till recently," he says with a chuckle,"a lot of the dead was voting." That ended when Baldwin Spencer, head of the country's UPP (United Progressive Party), launched a successful voter registration drive aimed at abolishing the Caribbean version of the hanging chad. Spencer was elected prime minister, sending a message of promise to this burgeoning island.
I first observed Antigua's progress 20 years ago, when I sailed boats professionally. Back then, Antigua Sailing Week was a rum-fueled blowout that transformed a quiet island into the yachting world's wildest dock party. The rest of the year, Antigua remained blessedly provincial: cattle grazed by the road and a handful of simple beachfront resorts catered to sun-worshiping prepsters.
These days, uniformed schoolchildren still trade candy on the wooden porches of one-room groceries, and ladies hold unofficial best-Sunday-hat competitions at rural churches. Even so, in villages that until recently lacked running water, cell phones are now the norm. In English Harbour, Italian mega-yachts ride at anchor next to wooden sloops, and Tod's sandals outnumber Top-Siders. Sushi is replacing goat roti on beach-bar menus. And two top resorts—each with a loyal constituency that has seen Antigua through thick and thin—have launched their own reinvention campaigns, while, at the same time, two European hoteliers have transformed existing properties into style-savvy getaways. It sure beats a brine-soaked berth on a racing boat.
Antigua Carlisle Bay
Gordon Campbell Gray is rearranging the furniture. The owner of Carlisle Bay can't stand to see ottomans crammed together, even for just a few minutes while his staff sweeps the Pavilion, an airy drawing room and piano bar next to the pool. Abandoning his mint tisane, Campbell Gray has leaped up from the white linen sofa to inch each hyacinth-blue cube apart until, once again, they are positioned just so.It's a pleasure to watch a perfectionist at work. Campbell Gray is best known for the refined urban sensibility he brought to One Aldwych in London; now he's bestowing the same rigorous polish on his first resort in the Caribbean. In his mania for excellence, he has test-driven 16 different pool chaises and had full-grown date palms barged down from Miami's Boynton nursery, rather than settling for immature local specimens. The neighboring mangrove, dotted with sun-bleached roots, resembles an art installation: I suspect Campbell Gray of having tidied it up so elegantly.
Last year, when Campbell Gray assumed ownership of a half-built hotel project in Antigua's rain forest, he ripped out all vestiges of Caribbean kitsch and started again from scratch, with a pickled gray-on-blue-on-white scheme. At first sight, the 80 guest suites seem too subdued for the tropics (platform beds, bare tile floors, black-and-white photos); then you realize that the sneaky purpose is to draw your eye outside, to the blooming gardens and Crayola sea. On the vanilla-colored beach, the eager staff treats guests with watermelon slices and cold hand towels.
Since going on vacation doesn't have to mean shutting down your brain, Campbell Gray has elevated the beach read. In the all-glass library, a clever compendium of hardcovers—Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, Andrea Barrett's Voyage of the Narwhal—tests your literacy. Not surprisingly, Campbell Gray also has distinctive ideas about which books should wind up on the coffee table (Legendary Yachts, yes; Nelson's Ships, no). Evening entertainment is meticulously planned, as well. Stilted hotel managers' parties have been abolished here in favor of films in the 45-seat cinema, a twin to the original at One Aldwych. After lingeringin the Pavilion bar to hear local jazz pianist Rawdon Edwards, I plop down in a blue Italianleather armchair in the Screening Room to catch Dooley Wilson tinkling "As Time Goes By" in Casablanca.
The real show takes place in the two restaurants. Hand-molded wax votives flicker on terrazzo tables at Indigo on the Beach. Since Campbell Gray is a healthy-living convert, the open-air bistro focuses on uncomplicated grills and organic salads. (At breakfast, the menu honors the West Indies with pumpkin fritters and pan-fried flying fish, a.k.a. Caribbean kippers.) At East, the resort's Asian dining room, burnished silver walls and peony-pink linen slipcovers balance an equally dramatic menu of Thai curries and Chinese dim sum, from chef Philippe Wagenführer. Philippine-born manager Leni Miras routinely guides diners in choosing spice-nuanced combinations—she decides that I need vegetables to balance lobster tempura and shitake rice, and sends over green-papaya slaw and bok choy drizzled with gingery soy.
Carlisle Bay allows ocean kayaks, Sunfish sailboats, and a 24-foot Sea Ray powerboat, intended strictly for picnic cruises. "Antigua is a yachty place, but no way are we having waterskiing and Jet Skis," Campbell Gray told me. Luckily, by the time I test the waters he has departed for London. Launching a Sunfish, I skim across the bay. My triumphant return to shore is marred by a sudden gust that rams my little craft right into the anchored Sea Ray. The dock crew scrambles to rescue me, but my own concern is aesthetic. Heaven forbid that I've dented any part of Campbell Gray's magnificent obsession.
Old Road Village, St. Mary's; 800/628-8929 or 268/484-0000; www.carlisle-bay.com; doubles from $595, including breakfast; reopens for the season on October 15.
BEST ROOM Suite 40, a top-floor three-bedroom with a wraparound deck overlooking the waterfront
COCKTAIL SPECIAL Coconut-rum Indigo Charmer
DON'T MISS The orchid lecture by gardener Hubert Martin
FAIR WARNING Service can be slow
Antigua Curtain Bluff Resort
It is five o'clock in the morning. Will someone please wring that rooster's neck?Old Road Village sits right outside Curtain Bluff's front gates, so expect a pastoral wake-up call, even after late-night dancing, at this classic 72-room resort with twin beaches. Curtain Bluff is beloved by repeat guests, who come for the all-inclusive food, drinks, entertainment, scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, and a competitive tennis program. Nervy kids that were once kicked out of the bar are now trundling their own offspring to this blustery peninsula on the island's southern shoreline. No one seems to care that the scruffy rattan furniture in the Garden Pavilion has seen better days or that the only air-conditioning is a stiff onshore breeze from Morris Bay.
Newcomers may feel slightly unsure of their welcome—especially during peak holidays—in an environment dominated by this Waspy crowd for the past 42 years. At Curtain Bluff, if you relax and let them, the kind staff will adopt you, treating you like a longtime resident. My first clue in grasping this resort's appeal: elsewhere on Antigua, waiters spend half their time shooing greedy banana quits away from luncheon buffets. Here the kitchen puts out a VIP sugar dish for those brightly colored birds. Curtain Bluff also looks after its neighbors, sending local kids to a summer camp in Maine and offering full college scholarships through its Old Road Fund. On New Year's Eve, East Coast CEO's donate the proceeds of the annual Sunfish charity regatta to the cause. (Curtain Bluff owner Howard Hulford is a founder of Sailing Week, held in late April.)
Perhaps a resistance to change isn't all bad. A few years ago, managing director Rob Sherman banished the hotel restaurant's jacket-and-tie rule; this season, he is wooing sous-chef Franco Parisi from Nobu in London to spruce up a distinctly bland menu. There's nothing dull about the wine list: get sommelier Gloucester St. Ville to show you the cellar. It holds an impressive collection of Barolos and Margaux. The resort also demolished older rooms to create 40 junior suites, which either sit right on the beach or rise up the bluff facing Grace Bay. Two larger, third-floor suites have open-air living spaces and plantation beds smothered in matelassé pillows. Sherman is keen to attract younger clients. Yoga and Pilates classes, a children's program, and in-room massages are calculated tweaks. Big hint: Bulldoze the shuffleboard court. Now, how about those roosters?
Old Road Village, St. Mary's; 888/289-9898 or 268/462-8400; www.curtainbluff.com; doubles from $595, including meals, drinks, and most activities; reopens October 16.
CURTAIN BLUFF BEST ROOM Morris Bay Suite, with a living room open to ocean breezes and a Jacuzzi on the balcony
COCKTAIL SPECIAL Pineapple-Chambord Caribbean Fantasy
DON'T MISS Snorkeling on Cades Reef, just offshore
FAIR WARNING Steam-tray lunch buffets
Antigua Jumby Bay
At the Estate House, a 230-year-old manor turned restaurant, I call out for Ishmael. Who could resist requesting a wine steward straight out of Melville?He suggests a perfectly chilled Pinot Grigio for my shrimp cocktail, and I immediately decide that 39-room Jumby Bay, a Rosewood Resort, is leading the Caribbean's country club revival. This 300-acre island resort lies two miles off Antigua's northeast coast, but that narrow ocean passage serves as a saltwater privacy gate for a domain where villas are never locked and guests have their own golf carts and fat-tired bikes to zip around the property and to the three deserted beaches.
Recently, following a series of disputes with island homeowners, canceled management contracts, and a lengthy closing, Jumby Bay was taken over by Rosewood Hotels & Resorts. Suave managing director Peter Bowling toiled to reinstate Jumby's original reputation as an enclave for low-profile guests who detest constant tipping and signing bar tabs. Both of these nuisances have been eliminated. Pedaling around the island pathways affords the guilty pleasure of snooping past the estates lining Buckley and Flinty Bays. (Several are available for rent.) Standard guest rooms done in shades of café au lait are scattered along the beach and Pond Bay; larger two-bedroom villas with plunge pools overlook Davis Bay. To compensate for a hillside setting, Courtyard rooms offer new outdoor footed tubs for starlit soaks.
During the day, both residents of the island's private villas and hotel guests tend to scatter under palm umbrellas on the main beach or snorkel among coral reefs near uninhabited Bird Island. Fierce croquet competitions on the Estate House lawn and tea with crustless finger sandwiches confirm my first impression of Jumby's retro-colonialism. And then the place throws me for a loop: I discover Su Ha Yang, a Chinese expat who lives in St John's. Her limited practice in Jumby Bay's one-room therapy center is a subtle blend of reflexology and Asian massage; it's just the ticket for tennis elbow and jogger's knee, the sort of genteel injuries that plague Jumby's sportier guests. At the end of our intensive session, she dabs a minty pick-me-up balm from Fujian on my nostrils.
Sunsets are heralded by a combo playing oldies (ever heard a steel drum rendition of "On Broadway"?) at Verandah, the resort's informal clubhouse restaurant. Diners slowly amble in from the tennis courts—especially for the Wednesday night stuff-your-face buffet of cold salads and carving stations. It's a throwback that recalls swank dinner dances in Newport or Palm Beach. Adleza, the polite manager, expertly steers me toward grilled-to-order lobster and crêpes suzette. A couple in a green blazer and Lilly Pulitzer sundress start to boogie on the patio. Time warp complete.
Long Island, St. John's; 888/767-3966 or 268/462-6000; www.rosewoodhotels.com; doubles from $700, including meals, drinks, and some activities.
JUMBY BAY BEST ROOM Harbour Villa 207, a two-bedroom with plunge pool and full kitchen
COCKTAIL SPECIAL Grapefruit-and-gin Cool Me Off
DON'T MISS Picnics on Pasture Bay Beach
FAIR WARNING Not for night owls—everything closes down at 12 A.M.
SHANE MITCHELL, a contributing editor for T+L, also writes about the Maldives this month.