Sunday, January 17, 2010
Its a quiet MLK weekend in the country. The Fleshtones are on a month's sabbatical and I am recovering from what I suspect was a bout of the until recently dreaded H1N1 virus. Since I'm waiting on more photos from Ken (on the way) to continue 'I'll Make A Note Of It -The Fleshtones in Spain, 2009' I thought it would be a good time to backtrack to Antigua which Sergei, Marilla and I visited last summer as guests of Jolly Beach Resort. I was on assignment for the New York Daily News and the much-mourned (especially by me) Modern Bride. My Antigua bit for Modern Bride was slated to run in what would have been its next issue if the magazine hadn't folded without warning. My article for The Daily News fared a little better, however, due to the last minute addition of more advertisement (always a good thing!), they wound up only having space for about half of my feature (a bad thing). Newspapers have to do what they have to do and I've been proud to write for The New York Daily News for over ten years, but I felt that with the second half of my story missing, readers kind of miss its point. So I'd like to give you a more complete version. Why not? It's the dead of winter and it might be nice to read about a fun place on a sunny island. In the words of the great Paul Harvey "And now -for the rest of the story"
Most Americans think of Antigua (if at all) as the preserve of the yachty set and the super rich. After all, Eric Clapton, Oprah Windfrey and Georgio Armani all maintain spreads there. Britney and Whitney discreetly rehabbed there. But don't write-off this Caribbean island, where British tourists far outnumber Americans, when it comes to thinking about an affordable alternative to budget 'all inclusives' in the DR or Mexico.
View from Shirley Heights: Eric Clapton's compound is at the far tip of the peninsular to the middle/right.
Besides driving on the left, there's not an overwhelming amount of attractions on Antigua to make English, or any other, vacationers feel guilty about lazing about in the sun: There's Colonial-era architecture and duty-free shops in the capital of St. Johns (stick to touristed areas); historic English Harbour /Nelson's Dockyard -an 18th century British naval complex that remains a world-class sailing center; and the natural 'Devil's Bridge' on Antigua's wave-pounded Atlantic coast. And there's the inexpensive local 'Cavalier' rum that especially flows to the reggae and steel band music during the Sunday Afternoon 'jump up' at Shirley Heights (breath-taking views). But Antigua's main draw (and it's a good one) is it's dazzling beaches, purportedly 365 of them -not bad for an island smaller than Queens.
18th century-era English Harbour. Clarence House, a palatial mansion, was constructed here for the future King William IV while Admiral Nelson was obliged to live aboard his ship.
Sprawling along it's own mile of palm-studded beach, Jolly Beach Resort is a 464 room 'all inclusive' that's an exception to the island's pricey reputation. The Queen doesn't stay here (in fact, Helen Mirren, who played the Queen, doesn't stay here either) but 'regular' Brits return year after year, along with sizable West Indian and Italian contingents. The resort ambles to a definite Antiguan rhythm. It's the Caribbean with an indelible British stamp. Jerked chicken is served along with the 'chips' to an upbeat soundtrack of 'soca' music at the poolside grill. Teatime is observed, British tabloids are available in the gift shop and bartenders don't drop a beat when asked to mix a 'shandy' (beer and lemon soda). Besides the expected water sports and volleyball, the beach is the center for almost daily sessions of cricket, that distant ancestor of baseball that's an obsession for half the planet.
The Serg' at bat.
Despite being obvious novices (Americans) , we were welcome to join in and the staff were delighted to initiate us baffled, but willing, Yanks into the mysteries of the sport. Once started, the good-natured play attracted kitchen staff and other guests eager to show their stuff. Antigua is mad for cricket. Being played in 'the round' (oval, actually) there's no such thing as a 'foul' ball, although balls hit over the water were considered out of play. It was fun to take a refreshing dive into the surf after them anyhow. With no one keeping score, play stretched into the afternoon with Sergei and I getting pointers in both hitting and (more difficult) bowling (pitching) which requires that the ball bounce once before the batsman hits it. Then the action shifted to beach volleyball, where Sergei was quickly dubbed 'Harry Potter' (his hero) due to his curly hair and glasses. The resort also maintains a real grass 'pitch' (playing field) for serious games during peak cricket season (late winter- summer). Of course, the resort has night-lit tennis courts as well (mid-day tennis in the tropics is gruesome).
The bartenders take pride in remembering guests names and their favorite drinks, which are generously poured. At the main pool, an bottle of rum is even left on the bar for guests to adjust their own drinks. That's different. Although you wouldn't come here expressly for a gourmet experience, lovers of fresh fish (grilled marlin, wahoo and 'dolphinfish' -that's mahi-mahi, not Flipper) and authentic West Indian cooking (like curry chicken, johnny cake and ducana -a sort of sweet, coconut and allspice tamale) will be more than happy. And a new chef promises to bring Bocciolo, the resort's Italian restaurant, up to snuff. Anyway, "It's all about getting out on the beach" as Jolly Beach's marketing director Patrice Christian explained. While I'll agree with that I'd also say a place like Jolly Beach offers a lot more. It's also about feeling at home while getting away to a place that's a little different.
Antigua itself seems to be bouncing back after a rough year when violent crime was putting an unwanted international spotlight on this normally bucolic island. Security, although not obtrusive, now seems to be taken seriously. Good. Although the beach, or beaches, will certainly be the focus of your trip here, there's no reason not to get out among the island's polite if somewhat reserved people. I was the only passenger on one of the 'route buses' that ply the island's roads when the driver pulled over to pick up an elderly woman. She explained that she had been waiting for a Mrs. Johnson, who was coming on a bus from the direction we were headed. So as we went on our way, the driver hailed down and asked the driver of every bus we passed if Mrs. Johnson was on board. I didn't mind the few minutes this added on to my trip as much as I enjoyed this glimpse of old-fashioned courtesy that you can still come across in the Caribbean.
Every week there's a Jolly Beach bonfire. The staff put on a thoroughly enjoyable show including limbo and fire dancing -routines that have been performed for tourists so long they've almost morphed into 'authentic' Caribbean culture. Afterwards, at 'Disco Night', today's informal cricket instructor had himself morphed into 'DJ One'. The assembled crowd of British teenagers, European holiday-makers and West Indians held back, waiting for someone to make the first move.
Sergei said "not yet" but when DJ One segued into Micheal Jackson's 'Really Starting Something' he launched into an all-out break dance that earned him a resounding ovation. The party had indeed started. During his short stay, he had had no trouble finding partners and packing his days with non-stop beach volleyball, pool volleyball (his favorite), billiards, tennis, table tennis and of course cricket. At the bar a middle-aged South Asian travel agent from London inquired why my son and I had dropped out of that afternoon's session of cricket. "We needed you!" he earnestly exclaimed. I still wasn't sure I knew the difference between an 'inning' and an 'over', but it was nice to feel included.
the pool at Jolly Beach Resort
IF YOU GO...
Jolly Beach Resort starts at USD$218 per couple per night. Includes all beverages, entertainment, tennis, non-motorized water sports and meals (although certain dishes, mostly shrimp and lobster, attract a surcharge of $10 -$15USD): www.jollybeachresort.com.
Intimate and utterly luxurious, Carlisle Bay Resort's serene Balinese-contemporary vibe extends from it's 82-suites to it's 'Blue Spa' and pan-Asian 'East' restaurant (doubles from $555, www.carlisle-bay.com)
Debuting in 2007, The Verandah offers 200 deluxe cottages crowning a bluff book-ended by two unspoiled coves (doubles from $520, all-inclusive; www.verandahresortandspa.com)
Antigua is also the location of Jumby Bay, a highly-reputed (and expensive) resort on its own islet.
On Antigua swimming, snorkeling, windsurfing and jet-skis are never more than a few steps from your doorstep. Sailing reigns supreme -start by sharing the waves with sea turtles and dolphins on an 'around the island sail' (www.antiguatourcruises, $115 per person). By land, you can zip-line through the jungle (www.antiguarainforest.com) or hike up recently re-named Mount Obama, Antigua's highest peak. Antigua's taxi drivers make willing tour guides, although during the daylight hours you can take advantage of the minibuses that ply the island's main roads for EC$2.70, the equivalent of $1USD.
For more info on Antigua go to www.antigua-barbuda.org.