The twin Yamaha motors of the Carlisle Bay 2 fired up, and Skipper Cleve pivoted the boat west, skimming the smooth waters that stroked the white southern beaches of Antigua. Our resort, the Carlisle Bay, had no sooner disappeared than its neighbor, Curtain Bluff, came into view. Then came one of the many disused sugar mills that dot the island, each looking like an overgrown, stone beehive, the queen bee and her swarm gone on to better things.
Crewmate Garfield poured the champagne for my wife and me and juice for our kindergartener, Ryan, and we followed the sun, whose descent through blue water on this, our day of arrival on Antigua, was the object of waterborne pursuit. Sea air washed over us like sacred incense, and we ate hors d’oeuvre and contented ourselves with a mischievous sun that snuck behind a low cloud, as if suddenly too modest to set in full public view.
Barely had I awoken the next morning before I was lying on a mat in the open-sided yoga pavilion, holding a pose that made me look like a zombie lizard, eyeing a small bat dozing inverted above us, hoping my wife did not notice him.
This was my introduction to Pilates — and my wife and I were trying to follow the instructions and imitate the moves of Karen, a graceful young woman whose every twist defied the laws of physics. “Let your legs get heavy,” she would say, and after holding them aloft for as long as we did, we needed no further encouragement. The bat slept through it all, and only after it was done did Karen and I let my wife in on the identity of our slumbering visitor.
Ryan was already in the inspirationally named Cool Kids Club and threatening not to leave. Each day, the club followed a careful schedule of activities that ranged from splashing in its pool, to tennis and crafts, to pizza and a movie (the latter, at dinnertime, for the purpose of affording parents a night off). Most of the families staying at the resort were from Britain, and Ryan quickly made friends with children his age from London to Aberdeen.
Each afternoon, Mommy would take Ryan to the beach, which was so close, I would have landed on it if I had jumped from the terrace of our suite. They next would head together to the main pool, making a Mommy-and-me ruckus until dinnertime.
The resort caters to families and couples, and the families tended to congregate together once their kids got to know each other in the club. The couples were obviously enjoying being well-cared-for, and they looked more relaxed than the parents — which, of course, would surprise no parent who has ever vacationed with children. The resort had anticipated that, and it offered the one thing that parents most need on the road: support. In short, we had everything made easy for us, and thank goodness for that.
So the staff at the aquatics center carefully outfitted us to go kayaking as a family, which, although novices, we managed to do without ramming snorkelers, despite a close call or two. One afternoon, Ryan and I tried a stand-up paddle board. Mommy suddenly swam into view and insisted on joining us, ignoring the laws of gravity. Fortunately, Lenny, an ever-vigilant member of the aquatics staff, had seen what was coming and was already at the end of the jetty to fish the Behr family out of the bay. (The hotel follows a safety-first policy; Ryan and I were in life preservers, and no one was in danger, except from ridicule.)
The sea had risen the next afternoon, and this time the Carlisle Bay 2 bore through it, speeding east like a homesick torpedo. We arrived at Nelson’s Dockyard, in English Harbour, in very short order.
Our guide showed us through the restored Royal Navy yard where then-Captain Horatio Nelson was senior naval officer from 1784 through 1787. His thankless mission was to enforce the Navigation Acts, which forbade trade with the new United States — to the great annoyance of the many Antiguan merchants who depended on that trade for their livelihoods. When American merchants sued Nelson for illegally seizing their ships, he spent eight long months stuck aboard his command, HMS Boreas, dodging imprisonment should he lose in court. He won that round and later went on to win the Battle of Trafalgar, one of the greatest naval victories in history.
When we arrived back at the boat, the sun pierced low clouds with an intensity straight from a Jacob van Ruisdael landscape, and Lenny said it was time to take shelter because the beautiful light meant a storm was coming fast. We had just made it to the porch of the nearest building when the rain came down in a tropical sheet.
It cleared enough for us to get to the boat, and it picked up again as we bounced over the sea, huddled in increasingly wet towels, the water spraying from the awning that spread over us.
Ryan, meanwhile, had fallen in love — with little Eloise from the U.K.; with our morning server, Lateifa; and most of all with our evening hostess, Tracy, who was so pretty, we had to wonder why she was not a fashion model. Both Lateifa and Tracy worked at the seaside, open-walled Indigo on the Beach, which is both the breakfast room and the main restaurant.
But we soon discovered the Asian-themed East. Although it is indoors, the food is more complex and the prices about the same — and there is a kind of upside-down fun about eating sophisticated Thai and Japanese-influenced cuisine in the middle of your Caribbean vacation.
Both my wife and I got massages at the hotel’s Blue Spa.
I next hired a taxi to take us to St. John’s, the capital of the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Our driver, Reggie, was lean, effusive and obviously both knowledgeable and known to all: We had many shout-outs and waves to and from passers-by.
St. John’s revealed itself as one of those colonial capitals that hangs on by its own exertions. Low and heavily populated (nearly 40 percent of the island’s approximately 81,000 inhabitants live there), the town is busy once it shakes off the midday heat, its streets loud with music and loudspeaker announcements from cluttered retail stores. The better shopping district is formed by two quays, and it seems as if, like a naval port waiting for the fleet to come in, much of the life of the town is about anticipation and preparation for when the next cruise ship arrives.
At Cafe Napoleon, a small wedding party was celebrating with sparkling wine. Seeing my photojournalist’s camera rig, a woman from the restaurant approached me to say that the owner had hosted the party gratis, as a courtesy, but the couple lacked a photographer — would I mind helping out? Just hearing about that neighborly act of altruism was reason enough for me to stop what I was doing and become a wedding photographer.
For our final big moment, we booked the Carlisle Bay jetty for a romantic dinner for three, and I worked that morning with Chef Sebastiaan Seegers on a customized menu. Although sitters are available for parents seeking a memorably romantic moment, we brought Ryan, who arrived carrying a representative sample of his fleet of international toy service and rescue vehicles.
Our server, Juma, lit torches, and as the sun set, dinner was served. Juma warned us about wind gusts, and one did take down a tray and topple some glasses, but that turned out to be the herald of an unanticipated squall. My wife, ever prudent, called out, “I’ve got Ryan — you rescue the Riesling!” Ryan took hold of his miniature truck fleet; my wife took hold of Ryan, and I followed them to the protection of the aquatics area bar, bottles of wine and mineral water bouncing in the bucket in my hands, ice water bathing my legs as the rain washed down my neck and shoulders.
An unruffled Juma continued serving the meal on the terrace of our suite, as Ryan stretched out in our bedroom with one of his favorite videos. Like a honeymoon couple left by design to dine alone (albeit one with their child in plain sight), we finished the redirected gourmet meal and the rescued Riesling to the music of chirping crickets and the rain-pelted waters of the bay below.
It was at last time to leave. Ryan held hands with Eloise to say good-bye, and he cried when he had to say farewell to Tracy. He asked if we could stay another week. Of course, we promised we would come back to Antigua. What a terrific promise to make!
Going to Antigua
Getting there: American Airlines flies nonstop from Miami to Antigua, a flight of three hours and 15 minutes. Roundtrip airfare in early March starts around $780.
Island facts: Antigua is one of the Leeward Islands in the West Indies. Although only about 108 square miles in area, the island is part of the independent nation of Antigua and Barbuda. The primary business is tourism, and the airport is well served by major airlines. Formerly a British colony and now part of the Commonwealth, Antigua carries on British customs from expert cricket playing to driving on the left.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at Carlisle Bay, which caters both to families and couples. Rooms from $1,286, including tax, in March. 268-484-0000; www.carlisle-bay.com or reserve through Leading Hotels of the World, 800-745-8883.
Sugar Ridge Resort, 866-591-4881, www.sugarridgeantigua.com. The 60 guest rooms at this tropical-chic resort are set into the hillside in Jolly Harbor, overlooking the sea and neighboring islands. Art gallery, restaurant, Aveda Concept spa, complimentary transportation to local beaches. Rooms from $400 in March, including breakfast.
Blue Waters, 800-557-6536, www.bluewaters.net. Near the main town of St. John’s, this hotel is a good choice for families. Set on 17 lush acres on the sea, with seven freshwater pools, the resort offers children’s activities. Rooms from $466, including breakfast (from $748 all-inclusive) through April 15.
WHERE TO EAT
Papa Zouk, Hilda Davis Drive, Dickenson Bay St, Saint John’s; 268-464-0795. A seafood restaurant where the specialty is rum – many kinds from all over the world.
Pizzas in Paradise, Redcliffe Quay; 268- 480-6985; www.bigbanana-antigua.com. Part of the local Big Banana group, Pizzas in Paradise is a favorite among locals. The seafood pizza with cheese and veggies (around $30 for a large) was spot-on; you can also get a fish burger with salad or fries (around $7), conch salad, sandwiches and pasta.
C&C Wine Bar, Redcliffe Quay, Saint John’s; 268-460-7025; email@example.com. A small, convivial wine bar where locals enjoy many varieties of wines from South Africa. Friendly service.
Cafe Napoleon, Redcliffe Quay, Saint John’s; 268-562-1820; firstname.lastname@example.org. There is a restaurant somewhere inside Cafe Napoleon, but everyone who can dines under the spreading overhang of this popular rendezvous.