One visit to the island of Antigua will dispel the myth that black cats crossing your path are a bad omen. You'll find your share of stray cats, some black, in just about every island village you visit here, but by the time you leave this 14-by-11 mile island, you'll consider yourself anything but unlucky.
Tucked away in the middle of the Leeward Islands in the eastern Caribbean, roughly 17 degrees north of the equator, Antigua is home to some of the most beautiful beaches and vistas of both land and sea that you will probably ever see.
Warning: Do not experience Antigua alone. And while it has the potential for a great family vacation, Antigua should be considered primarily a romantic getaway. It doesn't matter if you've been married for a long time, are newlyweds, just recently engaged or in a relationship that might end before the ice in your Banana Crush cocktail melts; if you are not sharing the breathtaking views from Shirley Heights, overlooking English Harbour, with a significant other, the experience will most likely feel incomplete.
Shirley Heights, a restored garrison, has a panoramic view of English Harbour and Nelson's Dockyard. Named after General Sir Thomas Shirley, a former governor, this installation has two particular vantage points worth seeking out. One of the main buildings, known as the Block House, was put up as a stronghold in 1787 in case of a siege. From here, in the southeast area of the island, you can peer over a cliff 487 feet above Galleon Beach. It is as terrifying as it is absolutely gorgeous. Don't worry, you don't have to get too close to the edge to see the green hills, where countless goats and their adorable kids can be seen, and definitely heard, climbing on their way down to the base of the cliff.
At night, the area is a popular camping ground for couples looking to watch the sun come up. But you won't be the first person near Galleon Beach to tell someone he or she looks "wonderful tonight," since legendary guitarist Eric Clapton (who wrote and recorded the famous romantic tune "Wonderful Tonight") owns a home that can be seen from the top of the Block House.
If the whole Clapton thing gets you in the mood to move and groove while sharing a great view, the famous vista at Shirley Heights is about a five-minute drive away. On Sundays, you can hear a steel band from 3 to 6 p.m. and a reggae band from 6 to 9 p.m. at this historic site. If you make it there at a different time, it is still a great place, even without music.
There's a small bar and restaurant located on site, so you can have a cocktail and enjoy a view similar to the one at the Block House, except you can see much more of Antigua.
The island does have the potential for hurricanes, and although it hasn't seen a major one since 1995, checking the forecast before you leave is highly recommended. Antigua usually sees temperatures ranging from the mid-70s in the winter to the mid-80s in the summer.
Most resorts on the islands are all-inclusive and are located on beach property, offering easy access to the enticing turquoise water, which is so clear you can see schools of tiny fish darting by, and sand so white it's about a shade away from table salt.
There might be an occasional shower, but they will be some of the quickest rains you'll ever feel. It might come down heavily for about five seconds before thinning out, so quick that it's actually delightful to experience.
INFORMATION FOR PLANNING TRAVEL TO ANTIGUA
Agents should remind clients planning to fly to the Caribbean to apply for a passport now, so they can get it before the January deadline
Notable tour operators who sell Antigua include Travel Impressions and GWV Vacations.
Travel Impressions offers as much as a 16-percent commission. There's a minimum commission of 10 percent, with add-on opportunities as high as 15 percent. Agents can also receive an extra one percent by booking online at www.travelimpressions.com. For more information, agents should call Theresa Oakes of Kahn Travel Communication at 516-594-4100 or e-mail [email protected] For booking, agents should call 800-284-0044.
GWV Vacations offers anywhere from a 10 to 15 percent commission depending on the productivity of the agency or independent agent. To book, call Sharon Amore, reservations manager, at 800-225-5498.
Among the island's best restaurants are Le Bistro (www.antiguanice.com/lebistro) in Hodges Bay, which mixes French chic with zesty Caribbean flavors; and The Home (www.thehomerestaurant.com), which specializes in West Indian dishes that include local fish, fruit and vegetables.
Sandals Beaches and Resorts' $70 million expansion of its Sandals Grande Antigua Resort & Spa will be ready by Feb. 1. The new portion, called Mediterranean Village, will complement the existing Caribbean Village and will feature 180 luxurious suites, a lobby with private check-in services, the largest freshwater pool in the eastern Caribbean, poolside cabanas with wireless Internet access and plasma TVs, new meeting and banquet space and an expanded Red Lane Spa.
The Village will include 11 Luxury Ocean Villa suites, which have a spacious bedroom, their own 12-by-12-foot swimming pools and an outdoor Jacuzzi to go along with an interior Jacuzzi in the bathroom. These are the resort's finest suites; they have a rack rate of $1,260. The village will be topped off with a Sandals signature pool tower, a swim-up bar and the eastern Caribbean's largest whirlpool.
In celebration of the February opening, Sandals is offering 55 percent off published rates for bookings through Dec. 15, 2006 for travel Feb. 1-Dec. 20, 2007, in all six suite categories, with a minimum three-night stay. Agents can call 800-SANDALS to make reservations. All bookings are commissionable at 10-14 percent, depending on the number of bookings the agency has made to Sandals and Beaches.
For booking at either the Caribbean or Mediterranean village, agents should e-mail Kathy Van Heel (West Coast, [email protected]), Christina De Souza (Midwest, [email protected]), Holly Jones (Northeast, [email protected]) or Michelle Arencibia (Southeast, [email protected]).
Another popular Antigua resort is Jumby Bay, A Rosewood Resort. Set on a 300-acre private island, Jumby Bay, A Rosewood Resort's best rooms are its double bedroom suites, which include a private bathroom, a living room and a wrap-around terrace with hammocks. Rates for these rooms are $3,000 a night during the winter (peak season) and $1,950 from Jun. 1 to Nov. 10 (off season). A 10 percent commission is available. To book, call 888-ROSEWOOD. For car rentals, agents can visit www.antigua-barbuda.org/Agtsp01.htm#rentalcars.
The law requiring passports to and from the Caribbean has been delayed until 2009 for cruise passengers, although it will be enforced for airline passengers starting on Jan. 8, 2007.
Agents should bookmark www.antigua-barbuda.org/index.htm, which offers information on the island's history, arts, culture, and activities as well as links to news.