The Caribbean island of Antigua, only a 4-hour flight from New York City, might as well be a world away, especially in winter. As you step from the dry plane cabin into the humid air under the strong island sun, its hard to resist letting out a long sigh of satisfaction.
Antigua tops my list of Caribbean destinations because it has the right balance of luxury (without being snobby), and offers quiet relaxation (without desolate beaches), modest nightlife (no spring breakers in sight), and European culture (its a former English colony).
The next big decision is where to stay. My vote is The Inn at English Harbour, a lush oasis on the southern side of the island. The neocolonial-style property of the Inn, as locals call it, has a laid-back, boutique feel and it offers a good value, as the all-inclusive rates (covering breakfast and dinner) are lower than those at the high-glamour hotels. Set on a white sandy beach with swaying palm trees and sailing yachts anchored nearby, the Inn is so perfectly situated it could have been created by Hollywood. While I prefer one of the main suites by the pool, the somewhat simpler airy beachside cabanas also provide a good value, and are just steps from the water.
Jumby Bay is ultraluxe and tucked away on its own private island, but a bit remote from activities, while Carlisle Bay is a terrific pick for those traveling with children. Also consider Curtain Bluff and the kid-friendly St. James Club (stjamesclubantigua.com).
After settling in, my first stop was the Inns beach café, The Reef, for a late lunch and a rum punch, the best way to smooth out postflight stress. That night we took a shuttle up to the main house for drinks and dinner at the Stone Bar and Terrace restaurant, perched high above the sea. It reminded me of an elegant old English bar cozy and refined. We met a few British women, one of whom has been coming to the Inn for more than 40 years. Antigua, I learned, has many regulars, which is always a good sign.
The Terrace serves, in a romantic atmosphere, excellent food, including Creole dishes made from local recipes, a top-notch spaghetti appetizer, and succulent local lobster. Wesley, the maître d, like all the staff, is incredibly friendly.
The Inn has kayaks, snorkeling gear, and inflatable rafts available for guests use, plus a water shuttle that can transport them to Nelsons Dockyard, a nicely preserved 18th-century port that once served as a West Indies headquarters for the British fleet. Also accessible via the shuttle is Catherines Café (268-460-5050), with a fine view, great food, and better steak tartare than what one finds at many New York restaurants.
Falmouth Bay, the south side of the islands main marina, is a 10-minute walk away from Nelsons. Ultrawealthy boaters spend the winter here; Ive never seen so many impressive yachts.
Falmouth has several excellent restaurants. Le Cap Horn (268-460-1194) serves fine French food, though it lacks a view. For a nightcap, stop by Abracadabra (theabracadabra.com), a dance club. Be sure to head over to the charming all-stone bar at Shirley Heights Lookout (shirleyheightslookout.com), offering stellar views of English Harbour at sunset. On Sundays the place hosts a barbecue featuring a live reggae band and dancing.
Its worth spending a day exploring uninhabited Green Island, just off the coast. Another interesting destination is the Harmony Hall hotel (harmonyhallantigua.com), with historical buildings, an art gallery, and fine dining overlooking the water. From Jolly Harbour, on the west side of Antigua, one can hire a boat and skipper for the day, or take a tour to nearby beaches like Dickenson and coral reefs.
Here are a few tips for those heading to Antigua: It seems counterintuitive but fill out the departure portion of the immigration form upon arrival. Bring some dollars from home; most places take U.S. currency, but local ATMs dont dispense it. You can pick up some Eastern Caribbean dollars at an airport ATM; theyll come in handy. Be sure to have cash on hand for the departure tax $20, or 50 Eastern Caribbean dollars per person when saying goodbye to the island.
From the Winter 2010/2011 issue of Smart Luxury Travel magazine by ShermansTravel.com.
For general trip-planning information, see our Antigua Travel Guide.