Feature: A cut above the rest

Individual islands can get lost in the tourism powerhouse that is the Caribbean.

Individual islands can get lost in the tourism powerhouse that is the Caribbean. Endless photos of glorious beaches pumped out by every island don’t help to differentiate, but Antigua is unique.


Cast your eye over Antiguan promotional material and the following words will greet you almost every time. “There are 365 beaches, one for every day of the year.”

This fact is really only of practical interest to wealthy unemployed beach fanatics with an empty social calendar. If you have a client like that, then by all means put it front and centre of your pitch. But for a two-week holidaymaker the existence of a beach for every day of the year is as useful as knowing how many traffic lights there are on the island. Plus it’s a leap year this year, so we’re one beach short anyway.

You and your clients already know the Caribbean has a lot of nice beaches and endless water-based activities. And we Brits love it. We’ve loved it for decades, and despite the best efforts of the British government’s unfair Air Passenger Duty bands, we will continue our love affair.

But that’s the Caribbean. This is Antigua. To spend two weeks living on the sandy edges would be like nibbling the sugar-coated edges of a delicious jam-filled doughnut.

First things first though, your clients need somewhere to stay, and it would be silly not to grab a room with a view of the ocean. Three of the finest are reviewed on page 61-62. There’s the serene je ne sais quoi civility of the Inn at English Harbour, the somehow casual silver-service and tennis whites of Curtain Bluff and the unique private island resort Jumby Bay.

Caribtours product executive Joanne Ellis says it is the range of quality all-inclusive accommodation that sets Antigua apart.

Affluence and all-inclusive were not comfortable bedmates until relatively recently, but Ellis’s suggestions are far from the perception of such resorts as the eat-as-much-as-you-can, drink-until-you-drop hellholes.

“Jumby Bay, Curtain Bluff and Bluewaters are great for families, as is Carlisle Bay, which is introducing all-inclusive packages this summer. For couples Hermitage Bay and Galley Bay are among the best.”

Once base camp is organised there are three ways to see the island that are all vital – helicopter, boat and car.

Start in the sky. It’s half an hour and $160 well spent and the swiftest path to a decent grasp of scale, landscape and where to go once you’re back on solid ground.

If your pilot is as helpful as mine he can show you the best hotels, the interesting landmarks and most importantly, of course, the celebrity houses. Eric Clapton, Silvio Berlusconi, Richard Branson and Timothy Dalton’s houses are varying degrees of blimey. Caribbean Helicopters (caribbeanhelicopters.com) offers a 50-minute trip to the Montserrat volcano or a tailor-made trip is possible at extra cost.

The accurately titled Circumnavigation of Antigua Cruise has the usual snorkel and luncheon trimmings and is perfectly pleasant. Other more exciting options include private tours, eco-tours and the Black Swan Pirate Day Cruise, which are easily arranged through the likes of Wadadli Cats, Antigua Ocean Adventures and Treasure Island Cruises.

Although signposts are somewhat lacking, the roads are generally good and there aren’t enough of them for it to qualify as complicated, so hiring a car is an easy way to explore the island.

Locals seem to have contracted horn Tourette’s so it’s easy to develop a complex, but predominantly it’s just them saying hello. Antiguans are a sociable bunch and with a population of fewer than 100,000 they all seem to know one another, which means they can also spot a tourist. At least 10 times while driving around, help, directions, advice and admiration of my sunglasses were forthcoming. It wasn’t customer service in the classic sense – far better than that. It was genuine delight in someone enjoying their home.

Community appears to be incredibly important to Antiguans and if you’re on the island, you’re part of it. This is further evident in the churches I saw which, without fail, claim the most impressive and beautiful buildings prize and are the beating hearts of the smaller villages; therefore inherently important if your client wants geography to play more of a role than the provision of sunshine.

The pink Tyrells Church was a personal favourite stumbled upon during a pootle along lush vegetation and fruit vendor-filled Fig Tree Drive (there’s a great art gallery too). If you spot a church, pop in and pray for the congregation to turn up and start singing. Devine.

A sharp southward turn will take you towards the well-beaten pathways of Shirley Heights and Nelson’s Dockyard. The latter, in the midst of the Charter Yacht Meeting, was rammed with large stunning boats, owned by the types of people who founded Google or own a country. Named after one Admiral Horatio Nelson, the dockyard has been beautifully restored to history buff heaven status and offers the best kind of fun – educational fun – as well as a beautiful luncheon spot.

Sunday is the day to go because you can be at Shirley Heights for the barbecue party in minutes. Many attendees seem to have stepped directly off the ‘set’ of Made in Chelsea, but on the plus side, the views are beautiful and the steel band is a treat and a half. Cash is a must as they don’t take cards.

The must-dos are never-ending and deserve more space than I have so have a look at the box on page 47.

And when you’ve seen them all, why not enjoy a well-deserved cocktail on one of the island’s 365 beaches.

GETTING THERE: Rupert flew Upper Class with Virgin Atlantic, which flies three times a week, on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, from Gatwick from £2,349. virginatlantic.com

Must-dos?- ST JOHN’S ~ The capital is colourful and vibrant. The flea market on Saturday is a highlight as is Big Banana Pizza, which serves the greatest pizzas ever. Heritage Quay is the shopping hub, while Redcliffe Quay is a smaller more authentic version.

?- DEVIL’S BRIDGE ~ A naturally-carved limestone bridge eroded by the waves, this is the place to see some angry sea in action in unforgiving but beautiful surroundings.

?- RENDEZVOUS BAY ~ It’s one of the last untouched seafront areas of the island and probably the most impressive. It’s not easy to get to, but worth the effort.

?- BARBUDA ~ A 90-minute boat ride on the Barbuda Express or a suitable stop on a private boat charter, the best bits are the caves, the pink-sand beaches and the frigatebird colony.

Top 3 Luxury Hotel Offers1. Curtain Bluff Stay seven nights and pay for six. Offer valid from May 15 to July 23. All-inclusive from £1,999. curtainbluff.com2. The Inn at English Harbour Stay seven nights and pay for six. Offer valid from May 1 to August 12. Half-board from £1,326. theinn.ag 3. JUMBY BAY All-inclusive stay on the offshore island for seven nights from £3,160 in June. rosewoodhotels.com/en/jumbybay

Expert TipsKaren Pocock,
Designer Travel?- Departure taxes in Antigua can be a headache for clients so speak to the hotel and get them paid up front. The hotel can arrange for prepaid documents to be ready on departure.?- Send clients a list of events taking place during their stay. Carnivals, music festivals and other events fill the calendar. Sailing Week in April, for example, will be a must-visit for some clients. Popular spots are bustling at some times and quiet at others – which suits your clients??- Don’t just send your clients to Nelson’s Dockyard or Shirley Heights – tell them about the great bakery hidden behind the workshop in the dockyard or the steel drum party in Shirley Heights on Sunday nights.?- Clients are getting better at taking the right plug adaptors, but why not give them the right adaptor for Antigua – a two-pin US adaptor.?- Send a last-minute message to the client reminding them to fill in both sides of the arrivals form. It’s not immediately obvious and if they don’t, it will delay them on the way home.

Luxury in Spades

The tourist board wants luxury to be a major focus in 2012. The Antigua A-list incentive rewards agents who make bookings in excess of £25,000 and runs until September.

Eight agents will win places on a top-end fam trip in November. It is also running a luxury fam in July with Club class flights, access to British Airways’ VIP lounges, stays at the best hotels, a host of activities and free gifts from top luxury brands. ( joel.henry@aandbtourism.com?for more).

Linda Bellis, director at luxury travel specialist Lusso, believes Antigua has some of the highest quality fully-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean. She said: “It is our second top-selling island in the Caribbean and many clients combine it with contrasting islands such as St Barts, Nevis and Anguilla.

Suzanne Walford, product manager for Carrier, described it as a “hugely important” destination. “With high-end openings over recent years, the significant investment in perennial favourites and direct access from the UK, the island presents a very credible alternative for the luxury traveller.”

Antigua and Barbuda’s new airport opens in 2013 following a $45 million investment.