Space, privacy and exclusivity in Antigua's new villa hotels
Antigua's new villa hotels are giving luxury travellers the space and privacy they crave under the Caribbean sun, discovers Laura French
As I sit sipping a rum punch on the terrace of my villa at Tamarind Hills, looking down over Antigua’s cerulean water and fairy-dust sand fringed by bottle-green palms, I ponder the pace of change.
Antigua’s move on to the UK’s green list has green-lit my trip at the last moment, and almost before I can blink I’ve swapped summer rain in London for the balmy charm of the Caribbean.
But not everything happens overnight. Tamarind Hills itself, perched on a slope between two beautiful beaches on the island’s southwest coast, has been a longer labour of love.
A sea change
In the words of general manager Keith Martel, this long-standing development has reached its “coming of age”. Launched in 2010 as a handful of villas, this year it has undergone a rapid expansion to become a full-blown, high-end resort.
During my stay, trucks and cranes were at work clearing land, paving the way for two restaurants, a beach bar and pool area, set to open in November, with a wellness centre, gym and tennis courts to follow next year.
Several new apartments and villas have opened in recent months, alongside a handful of one and two‑bedroom Ocean View Suites that expand Tamarind’s appeal beyond its original larger villas.
I stay in one of the suites, and it’s seriously impressive; neutral cream tones and dark-wood furnishings fill its huge living area – encircling a king-size bed, convenient kitchenette and standalone bathtub – while the balcony boasts its own private whirlpool bath overlooking the idyllic (and almost always deserted) Ffryes Beach below.
But it’s the two-floor, four-bedroom villas that really blow me away, with huge, curvaceous balconies jutting over an expanse of pure opal sand, exotic plants and contemporary paintings marking the interiors and private infinity pools blending into the blue horizon.
These developments are just the start, however, according to managing director Poonam Agarwalla. She pulls out a comprehensive design map and talks me through the plans. “We'll have tennis courts, a bar, green roofs, fruit trees – banana, avocado, fig – and walkways around the beach,” she says.
“The wellness centre will have a series of water bodies and separate treatment rooms with a focus on natural, organic ingredients, and we want there to be an almost villagey atmosphere around the restaurant and beach area. It’ll be stunning.”
I don’t doubt it. It might still be a work in progress, but it’s not hard to see the potential here as I bathe in the calm, lagoon-like waters of the beach, the pearly-white shore deserted but for the odd, wandering soul discovering this place before it hits the mainstream.
It’s not only Tamarind Hills that sweeps me off my feet. Next, I’m whisked over to Hammock Cove, a high-end all-inclusive that opened in December 2019 on the east coast featuring 42 villas, each with their own private, infinity-edge plunge pool and butler.
The property is owned by Elite Island Resorts (parent of the famous St James’s Club) and I’m charmed from the moment I walk into the elegant reception and am handed a cocktail to sip during check-in. It’s a short buggy ride to my villa, which boasts a huge, wood-floored bedroom, sparkling bathroom (with novel double shower) and spacious terrace with sunbeds, swing and ocean-view pool.
Later, I venture to the Lighthouse restaurant, the resort’s fine-dining venue, where squid ink risotto (so rich it’s almost chocolatey) is followed by tender duck breast. The following day, I sample Irina’s, a more casual spot that majors on poached-egg breakfasts, fresh local fish, salads and burgers.
But it’s the beach that really bewitches, with an elegant boardwalk above an aqua lagoon, a cocktail shack rustling up whatever you ask for (there’s no menu), and complimentary kayaks and stand-up paddleboards dotting the sand.
I sit for several hours gazing over the calm, glittering water, feeling uncharacteristically zen as a waiter tops up my glass and brings jerk chicken to my sunbed, leaving me more than a little reluctant to tear myself away.
But exploring this island is a must. One of my highlights is a sailing lesson with the National Sailing Academy, where I learn how to tack as we sail around the bay in a dainty yacht, water splashing up from the sides in the choppier sections as the boat tips and slants (from £35 for a 90-minute private lesson).
We visit the Unesco-listed Nelson’s Dockyard, located in the nearby English Harbour, and learn how the British navy used the sheltered facility to protect and repair its ships from 1725 to 1889. Colonial buildings in red brick, honeyed stone and slatted white wood dot the area, fringing the water’s edge and laced with colourful fruit trees. A museum reveals the darker side of this period, telling the stories of some of the hundreds of enslaved Africans who were brought to the island to construct the dockyard and work for the navy.
At nearby Shirley Heights, famous for its panoramic views, I witness preparations for the sunset fiesta, when locals and visitors flock to dance along to a live steel band every Thursday and Sunday evening. Pre-booking a table is now essential given Covid restrictions, and currently a curfew is in place from 11pm.
Active clients can climb a series of steep, scenic trails through the rainforest to reach mountain-view lookouts in Wallings Nature Reserve, while those looking for authentic island life can venture into St John’s. Here streets are lined with dishevelled houses in shades of lemon, magenta and cobalt, music blasts from shopfront speakers and stalls sell giant yellowfin tuna at the rather pungent fish market.
But the real standout is an ‘Xtreme Circumnavigation’ boat trip with Adventure Antigua, where we circle the island in a high-speed boat (from $170 per person for the day). Adrenaline pumping, we ride waves that sometimes reach six feet high, stopping at calmer bays along the way to swim, snorkel and sunbathe on white-sand, picture-perfect beaches that belong on a postcard.
As we pass Hodges Bay, Blue Waters and Jumby Bay – where the swankiest residence leads in at $16,500 a night – I’m left wanting a little more time to explore the island’s slew of elegant properties. But I console myself with dreams of my return – not least to see Tamarind Hills in all its sparkling glory, and to dig a little deeper into this scenic isle that blends landscapes, culture, history and a sizeable dose of luxury to enchanting effect.
Book it: One-bedroom Ocean View Suites at Tamarind Hills start at $403 per night, room-only. At Hammock Cove, rates start at £385 per person per night on an all-inclusive basis, staying in a Waterview Villa.
Catherine's Cafe: From the same owners as Sheer Rocks, this stylish, laid-back spot is set right on the beach, with light, nature-inspired decor and dishes spanning ultra-tender oxtail croquettes to mahi-mahi with black quinoa, and a caramelised, !lambed banana tart that was nothing short of divine.
Jacqui O's: This rustic beachfront bar and restaurant puts the emphasis on fresh seafood and hearty Antiguan dishes, with a changing menu whose star on our visit was a bowl of fresh clams in white-wine sauce, and the biggest half-lobster I've ever attempted to tackle - well worth recommending.
Jenny Basham, product manager, Carrier
"Tamarind Hills is an exciting project, bringing a new contemporary offering to the more independent client. The rooms are large, airy and spacious, with stunning sea views, and if they can execute the finer details, they will attract the Mykonos or Tulum lifestyle client, bringing a new demographic to the island."
Jenny Peart, head of commercial, Caribtours
"It was great to be travelling again and to be back in Antigua, celebrating a new route from Heathrow with British Airways. Always one of our avourite destinations, Antigua is proving popular with Caribtours clients for summer travel - in part thanks to ,ts excellent hotel offering and also the ease of the entry protocols. We felt safe throughout our stay."