There are 365 beaches on the Caribbean island of Antigua, ‘one for every day of the year!’, they’ll tell you, (which seems rather convenient, but too much of a catnip line for a travel writer to disregard or seek to prove otherwise). The Sandals Grande Antigua Resort and Spa sits on the quiet end of the mile-long Dickinson Bay. Named 4th best beach in the world, by Conde Nast Traveller, it’s a long stretch of super soft, white sand, lapped by the bluest, consistently warm, calm sea.
‘Luxury Included® Holiday for Two People in Love’, is one of Sandals’ strap lines, and pretty much sums up who the resorts are geared towards. ‘Love is all you need’, (because everything else is taken care of), is another Sandals gem. This is not a place for the recently detached or uncomfortably single; the abundance of seemingly loved up, honeymooning or anniversary-celebrating couples will bring out your worst Bridget Jones. There’s a reason why Sandals Grande Antigua has been named Caribbean’s Most Romantic Resort 15 years overall and Caribbean’s Leading Honeymoon Resort, for four consecutive years. The Sandals portfolio of 24 properties is also the 19-time recipient of the World’s Leading All-Inclusive Company award. The list of accolades goes on, but I think you get the point.
Here, all inclusive means exactly that; where the quality of the food, drink, service and amenities are what you expect for parting ways with a few grand. Even tipping is included – the staff wear badges reminding you of this. They’re nice to you because they’re professional (and nice), not because they’re sweetening you up for your spare change at the end of the night. You can pay to go on extra excursions, order wine from the ‘manager’s selection’ (though the Robert Mondavi wines included in the package are perfectly fine), indulge in a spa treatment, or purchase a dodgy-looking shirt from one of the beach traders, but you could also leave your wallet in your safe for the duration and spoil yourself rotten on what’s already available. You’re not branded with a garish rubber wristband either, which is my number one pet hate for all-inclusives.
The 373 rooms and suites, in 25 categories, range from spacious suites on the 7th floor, offering views across the whole resort and out to the sea – and on a clear day, as far as Nevis and St Kitts – to garden rooms a few steps from the sea, to charming circular, conical-roofed all-in-one-room Rondovals, reminiscent of the Trulli of Alberobello. Entry level feels anything but, with every one sporting a grand mahogany four-poster bed (with feather duvet!), stocked mini bars, marble bathrooms, iPod docking stations and speedy WiFi.
Me and my beau were booked into a One Bedroom Butler Villa with Private Pool Sanctuary, a two minute stroll to the beach. At the top of the room scale, it’s a generously-sized suite, with a pretty patio garden, housing a separate Jacuzzi and pool, which beckoned us in for many a morning and midnight dip. As the name suggests, it came with a butler, and a mobile phone so we could reach him wherever we were on resort, whenever. Being typically English about it all, the first few calls followed a similar painful pattern of, ‘terribly sorry to bother you, Geoffrey. Um, might it be possible to..er.. oh, why thank you, thanks very much..’; until we got into the swing of asking for things, without the Hugh Grant awkwardness. He had a flower-sprinkled bubble bath waiting for us in our in-room roman whirlpool tub when we arrived back from an excursion one afternoon; perched next to it, a bottle of fizz on ice, ready to pop open and santé to the situation.
Each day we returned to a bottle in the ice bucket and more in the cupboard should we wish to get completely sozzled – none of which we asked for, but loved receiving. He delivered freshly cracked coconuts to our prime-positioned umbrella on the beach, which he’d reserved for us first thing that morning, marking our territory with a towel swan and a cool-box stocked with water and beers. He left impromptu little snacks each day in our room: sandwiches, prawn canapés, chocolate-dipped marshmallows… and surprised us with a cocktail at the beach just at the moment we fancied one. He even managed to get us an ocean-side table at the popular a la carte, Eleanor’s, with just a few hours notice, where you’re recommended to book as soon as you arrive. Yes, upgrading to a butler room certainly has its perks…
The suite was stocked with enough drinks to host a little party and a room service menu to order from as we pleased. Daily-stocked Jamaican Blue Mountain ground coffee, a mini bar with water, juices, soft drinks, beers, wine – and an adjacent cupboard with more of the same – plus a drinks table, topped with full sized premium brand bottles of liquor and red wine, ensured there was no chance of going thirsty on this trip.
For mealtimes and the hours in between, there are plenty of places to line your stomach too. A choice of buffet and a la carte and combinations of the two, so you don’t have that common all-inclusive, Groundhog Day feeling of heading to the same sad old buffet every day. Some need to be booked in advance, but mostly, you’re free to swing by wherever takes your fancy at that moment, or score a hat trick of various restaurant sittings in one mealtime, should you so wish. Through the Gourmet Discovery Dining ethos, eleven restaurants cater to different cuisines: Barefoot by the Sea serves up jerk chicken, Greek salad, shrimp brochettes and the like, while you sink your toes into the soft, white sand; Kimonos, for the theatre of Japanese teppanyaki, as well as superb scallops, steak, and spicy martinis; Soy, for expertly rolled sushi, prime cuts of sashimi, and powerful sake; Bayside, for themed breakfast and lunch buffets, and French brasserie dinners, right next to the beach. At Mario’s there’s a help yourself smorgasbord of nibbles to test your restraint to start, followed by a la carte Italian mains and desserts; and the aforementioned Eleanor’s, where we ate on two of the six nights, and raved about the lamb chops to anyone who’d listen. Poolside hotdog cart Doggies, which I wish I’d visited more than once; Bella Napolia Pizzeria for thin-crust, made to order pizza, and, one of my personal highlights, Café de Paris, open 7am-10pm for crepes, ice cream, pastries, cakes, liqueur, filter coffees, frappuccinos and medicinal teas. Suffice to say, one does not go hungry on a Sandals holiday.
Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to work up an appetite. Those with a PADI certificate have access to as much scuba diving as they can muster; whereas, paddle boards, kayaks, hobie cats, wind surfing, and multiple snorkelling trips a day to prime reefs, offer plenty of other all-inclusive opportunities to peel yourself away from the sun lounger.
The 27-acre resort has two distinctive styles, with a different entrance and reception for each. The Mediterranean Village is bordered by landscaped lawns and gardens, attracting lizards, butterflies, and tranquil birdsong, with a 15,000 sq foot main swimming pool, croquet lawn and water sports centre to explore. The Caribbean Grove is surrounded by lush tropical gardens, with coconut palms, pink hibiscus and pagodas draped with vibrant bougainvillea. It’s also home to the two ‘cat cafés’, little wooden shelters providing refreshments for the resort’s impeccably-behaved feline residents.
To compliment the laid back surroundings, there’s the sumptuous Red Lane Spa, serving up massages that leave you loose-limbed and fancy free; a 24-hr fitness centre, early morning yoga, open-air hot and cold plunge pools to thrust you out of an afternoon daze, and pristine tennis courts. Seamlessly adjoining the two areas is a central piazza, where the resort gift shops, traditional English pub-style Drunken Duck and Café de Paris reside, and themed activities such a late night chocolate buffet, couples dance-offs, and karaoke take place. The variety of places to sit, drink and do, from cobbled piazzas and beach cabanas, to roaring fire pits surrounded by love seats, mean that although the resort was at 95% capacity during our stay, it never feels overcrowded.
Prime location and amenities aside, we were keen to see a bit more of the island, and what better way then by zip-lining through the tropical, Fig Tree Drive rainforest, cruising past mango trees, at heights of up to 300 feet. On the 40-minute drive there, through Antigua’s lush green, hilly terrain, we passed fields of pineapples, beautiful coves, sugared almond-colour houses, clapped-out vintage American pick-ups, and brilliantly-named food carts and stores such as Myra’s Hot Place and Bossy Mini Mart.
On every car number plate the island’s slogan, ‘Land of Sea and Sun’, winks at you; a line that sums up this Caribbean gem rather nicely. If relentless sun and bluesy sea are indeed what you’re after, perhaps with a side of good food, top notch service, and more all-inclusive offerings than you and your other half can possibly get through on one trip, then you could do worse then check-in to Sandals…
Seven nights’ accommodation at Sandals Grande Antigua Resort & Spa costs from £1,849pp. Price includes Luxury Included® (all-inclusive) accommodation in a Mediterranean Club Level Suite, return economy flights from London Gatwick with Virgin Atlantic and return resort transfers. Subject to availability and valid for travel between 1st September – 22nd October 2016. To book or for more information, call 0800 597 0002, visit www.sandals.co.uk or visit the new Sandals Luxury Travel Store in London.
The Antigua Rainforest Canopy Adventure tour can be booked through Caribbean tour and excursion operator, Island Routes Caribbean Adventures www.islandroutes.co.uk