by Claire Irvin, The Telegraph, March 8, 2019
Just a few yards away, out of the early afternoon heat, Charley, six, sits under the shade of a palm tree sorting his latest collection of shells. Amelie, nine, is sketching a lizard she has been photographing all morning as my husband, Stuart, 44, snoozes under the same tree. Even I am sitting still, albeit wondering why no one is kicking off about anything.
This idyllic holiday tableau is shattered seconds later when Charley decides he wants to go to the pool, therefore requiring the entire family to accompany him. No change there, then… Even for a few moments the classic holiday R&R is something we seem to find very hard to maintain. But that, of course, is why we are here.
Like many people, my husband and I find it hard to take more than a week off at a time between us, so a holiday is often nearly over before we have started to relax. We are hotel junkies, often choosing to stay in two or three across a one-week holiday. We like doing stuff. And we have young children who, as any parent will testify, are not conducive to the classic “fly and flop” holiday, being more of a “display boundless energy, while making incessant demands on their weary parents” mindset.
So, what’s different this time? Well, Carlisle Bay, that’s what. Not only is Antigua a long way to go for a week before you start moving accommodation but, despite the lure of 364 other perfect beaches on the island, there was something about this sparkling turquoise bay that made us want to linger.
Turns out our hunch was right. Carlisle Bay absorbs you – and your stress – the minute you arrive. There is no tentative shuffling down or settling in – instead, the casual ebb and flow of island life is reflected in the rhythm of the resort and engulfs you in its easy, breezy approach.
There’s nothing to offend in its interior design either: the tastefully muted greys and creams characteristic of Campbell Grey properties introduced thatch-free, twee-free uber-luxe to Antigua that is almost horizontally tasteful. It won’t necessarily wow your inner aesthete or trigger its own special memory bank, but nor will it raise your hackles, take anything away from the shimmering bayscape that frames it or entice your attention away from the very serious matter of relaxing.
During our stay, the signature Caribbean breeze is, admittedly, more of a wind (boat trips are off early in the week, yet the choppy oceans attract a lot of fascinating vessels into the bay for us to ponder from our sunbeds) but it keeps the temperature down and even if it means that the turtles we might otherwise have hoped to see in the shallow bay waters aren’t playing ball, there really is no need for all the apologies coming our way from the staff.
And anyway, Amelie has developed an obsession with lizards, and the wind doesn’t quite reach their leafy flowerbed homes, nor the shady paths that wind their way through the resort providing daily “nature walks” complete with exotic-looking birds, tropical flowers and oversized conch shells. (As the week progresses, so does the thrill of independence as the kids are allowed to wander without us – albeit they are never more than a few yards and a lot of smiley staff away.) Mongooses take over in the hall of fame when one cheeky specimen runs over Amelie’s feet.
Even my usual early morning weather watch takes a break. One day, it rains. And you know what? I’m even relaxed about that. We swim in it, walk in it, run along the beach revelling in it. And with it we feel our face muscles loosening and the stress blowing away on that overly excitable breeze.
As holidays do, this one starts to take on its own routine. Not known since parenthood for our late nights, this holiday takes early nights to an extreme. We go to bed with the children and more often than not before 9.30pm. In fact, rather than staying up later as we recharge, we retire earlier and earlier every night.
You might think that, as the week went on, this would result in a hyper-energised family bouncing off the walls of the hotel room. Far from it. Combined with incrementally long lie-ins, the challenge becomes not so much how long will it take us to relax, but how long can we stay awake? The children get the hang of this pretty quickly by falling asleep at the table, and Stuart falls asleep wherever he sits. Yes, we’re that sociable.
And it’s catching – floating sunbeds keep the children happy for hours in the pool. Even when the excellent kids’ club staff arrive for a game of pool volleyball, our kids simply bob around on the outskirts looking on with interest. It’s as much as we can do to muster the energy for a game of tennis (although these, on one of the former tennis club’s six courts, are a daily highlight). Our room is practically on the beach, with sunsets we don’t even need to move for – and, thanks to the hotel’s free minibar policy (chain hotels take note), sundowners are on tap too, and friendly hotel staff are only too willing to bring Shirley Temples for the small people.
We sample the four restaurants in the resort. East has a lengthy menu of Japanese, Thai and Indonesian food that produces enough first-time Asian dishes to delight the children, and enough mouthwatering options to distract us from the fact that we are eating in a windowless air-conditioned room. Portions are big, food is delicious. At poolside Italian restaurant Ottimo! (note the exclamation mark – it’s the only enthusiasm you’ll find in this one consistent let-down at the resort), delicious ice-cream cones rescued our lunch but, after the evening produced the same lacklustre welcome and dismissive service, we resolved not to return.
Instead, Indigo on the Beach – with its ever-changing vista of the bay and gently lapping waves – becomes our default choice for breakfast, lunch and tea. While the food is consistently good, with a menu long enough to accommodate a different choice every mealtime for a two-week stay, the sommelier service is patchy, one night delighting us with a bottle of wine he had on reserve to match our musings over the wine list, the next night practically ignoring us. But still its charm – and the excellent live bands – is such that Stuart and I forego a romantic beachside Valentine’s meal at adults-only Jetty Grill for the repeat pleasure of another family dinner.
By the time our first just-in-case-we-get-bored excursion comes around, we’ve forgotten why we booked it in the first place – particularly when the choppy waters send Stuart sprawling across the speedboat the minute we get on. (No one laughs. Honest.) Further around the lush yellow-fringed island coast, the waters calm and we moor up by our own deserted beach for a swim on to our own very convincing desert island. A slap-up picnic back on board precedes The Hunt for Daddy’s Hat, which we notice too late has blown across the ocean.
A guided off-road romp around the island takes in majestic views of Nelson’s Dockyard, a cultural heritage site and marina in English Harbour, named after Admiral Horatio Nelson, who lived in the Royal Navy Dockyard from 1784 to 1787. It’s a preserved slice of history with a feel of frontier land.
It is a hair-raisingly bumpy ride that brings out Charley’s inner daredevil (not often seen for reasons he’s nicknamed health and safety) and takes us across scrubland, up steep inclines and down sheer drops, past dreamy vanilla-sand beaches and sparkling azure seas. We stop at an old fort with panoramic views and share our jerk chicken lunch with some uber cute stray kittens.
Devil’s Bridge (or “the splashy place”) is a wave-crashing showcase of nature’s might: a natural arch carved by the sea from soft and hard limestone ledges of the Antigua formation. A bridge was created when a soft part of the limestone eroded away, and it’s called Devil’s Bridge due to the slaves from neighbouring estates who used to go there and throw themselves overboard. It was said the Devil had to be there. It’s a day that combines action with just enough history to give the children a sense of the back story to the islands, and has inspired a multitude of curious conversations since.
Towards the end of the tour, when we have the option to hang out on one of the island’s spectacular beaches, it suddenly all becomes too much. We get withdrawal symptoms and demand to be taken back to Carlisle Bay.
This relaxing business is catching, you know.
Claire Irvin travelled as a guest of Virgin Holidays (0344 557 3870; virginholidays.co.uk), which offers seven nights in Antigua from £1,625 per person, including Virgin Atlantic flights from London Gatwick to Antigua, bed and breakfast accommodation at Carlisle Bay Antigua, and transfers. The price is based on two adults travelling and sharing a garden suite.
Non-package prices at Carlisle Bay start at £420 per night in a garden suite, including breakfast and afternoon tea. For a full review and to book, see telegraph.co.uk/tt-carlislebay
Holiday Extras (0800 1313 777; holidayextras.com) offers meet and greet services at all major UK airports. The service from Gatwick North costs from £49 for eight days.
Priority Pass (020 8680 1338; prioritypass.com) membership costs from £69 for access to airport lounges around the world.