Resort to bliss

Bridget van Dongen isn’t usually the five-star-resort type. But when a new survey determined that four of the Caribbean’s most expensive holiday resorts are in Antigua and Barbuda, she decided it was time for some research into life on the edge of the infinity pool

Herbs from the resort’s own organic garden. Photograph courtesy Hermitage BayHermitage Bay suites are actually individual bungalows, scattered across a hillside. Photograph courtesy Hermitage BayRosewood Jumby Bay occupies its own three-hundred-acre island. Photograph courtesy Rosewood Jumby BayRosewood Jumby Bay’s sybaritic surroundings. Photograph courtesy Rosewood Jumby BayRosewood Jumby Bay’s sybaritic surroundings. Photograph courtesy Rosewood Jumby BaySunset on the jetty at Rosewood Jumby Bay, with the Antigua “mainland” in the distance. Photograph courtesy Rosewood Jumby BayThe sublime view from the suites at Hermitage Bay. Photograph courtesy Hermitage Bay

I was lying in the warm water at the edge of the infinity pool, Champagne cocktail in hand. A passing waiter offered me some sunblock, as the sun was warming up right about then. Another went by with a tray of snacks.

As I stared across the azure water towards Antigua, two thoughts filled my head. I could get used to this. And time for another cocktail.

I’m not a five-star-resort sort of girl. My usual holiday haunts are dive bars and cheap hotels — when I can’t beg a bed from a friend. My main experience with posh hotels is driving past their gates and wondering what happens inside. Yet here I was, deep into the lap of luxury, on a mission to investigate how the lucky enjoy their exclusive vacations.

In 2013, the website Caribbeanresorts.net surveyed the ten most expensive resorts in the Caribbean. Four of those resorts — including the one that topped the list — are in Antigua and Barbuda. What justifies the handsome rates they charge, and why are people are willing to pay that kind of money for a holiday? I was there to find out. Tough assignment, but someone had to do it.

I began at Rosewood Jumby Bay, on its own private three-hundred-acre island off the north coast of Antigua. The forty-suite hotel and twenty-three privately owned villas and homes (some of which can be rented) are popular with the rich and famous — the only way to get there is by ferry (a ten-minute ride), and the staff are strict about protecting guests’ privacy. Even though I begged guest services manager Melinda Fletcher for one celebrity name — in the interest of journalism, of course — she refused.

Fletcher greeted me at the Jumby Bay dock with a delicious fruit punch and a scented cold towel — the scent is a proprietary blend, used to fragrance everything from the soap in the hotel rooms to the massage oils in the spa. Then she whisked me off to my suite — and, boy, what a suite it was. I entered through a courtyard with a non-lockable gate (according to Fletcher, “there are no keys on Jumby Bay”), and the cutest do-not-disturb sign: a bunch of shells on a string. Inside were vaulted ceilings, a private balcony opening onto the beach, and a massive hardwood four-poster bed. The amazing bathroom included an old-fashioned bathtub in a private outdoor garden. I realised I hadn’t had a proper bubble bath in years, and made a mental note to take advantage of this one. Also waiting to greet me were a bottle of sparkling wine and some lovely macaroons and fruit nibbles.

But first I had an appointment at Rosewood Jumby Bay’s Sense Spa, a new addition to the resort’s attractions, set in a neat tropical garden. Although the resort is all-inclusive, spa services aren’t included in the price tag. But I was lucky enough to have been gifted a massage by the spa manager, and was eager to see what they had to offer. I left feeling super relaxed, and wishing I hadn’t booked dinner so early.

There are three restaurants at the resort, and I’d decided to try them all, starting with dinner at the upscale Estate House (the island was once a sugar plantation). I began at the upstairs bar, where I asked the friendly barman, Seon Athill, for a mojito. This rum cocktail is my benchmark for bartenders, since the balance of sour, sweet, mint, and alcohol isn’t easy to get right. I was blown away. This was far and away the best mojito I’ve ever had. Then it was time for the menu. I ordered carpaccio to start and then a beautifully cooked filet of beef, accompanied by seemingly endless glasses of wine. Since I’d earlier demolished the welcome bottle in my suite, I was soon having a great time . . .

. . . though it caught up with me next morning, when I set off to ride around the island. The resort is set on the southern end, but the entire island is crisscrossed by concrete paths, and each guest gets a bicycle to use to explore. It took me a good forty-five minutes to make the circuit, past windswept, manicured pastures and roaming black-and-white sheep. By the time I was done, I’d remembered why I keep promising myself to go to the gym back at home.

I’d arranged for a friend to come over to the island and spend the day with me. We soon settled in on loungers by the infinity pool, and I contemplated my “research” thus far. When I’d told Antiguan friends I was going to stay at Jumby Bay, I was struck by their reactions: most people’s impression of the resort is that it’s stuck up, and only for the elite. Yet the guests I saw ran the gamut from families with young children to pensioners. I also heard accents from around the world. Every guest I met wanted me to know how much they were enjoying their stay, and my experience there was nothing like the over-the-top, snobbish atmosphere I’d expected.

A couple days later, it was time for part two of my investigation. A few years ago, I’d visited the site of the Hermitage Bay resort while it was being built. I remember one of the developers describing how they envisioned a place where people could get away from it all, with no air-conditioning, no TV, no Internet access, no phones. Unsurprisingly, those modern essentials did sneak into the final plans, but I was curious to discover if the resort still managed to offer a sense of escape.

On Antigua’s west coast, Hermitage Bay has just twenty-five suites, surrounded by lush, overgrown gardens with birds singing. Once again I was greeted at reception with a cold towel, plus a virgin mojito — which unfortunately was no competition for my Jumby Bay mojito. (Seriously, I still dream about that cocktail.) I ordered lunch at the bar and took my bearings before going up to my room.

The rooms at Hermitage Bay are actually individual bungalows, scattered across a hillside, and each has its own infinity plunge pool with a wrap-around balcony. Everything is made with greenheart wood from Guyana. The bathroom featured another massive tub, with huge fold-out wooden shutters, so I could relax in the bath and gaze at possibly the most incredible view I have seen in my life. The impossibly blue Caribbean Sea was flanked on both sides by green hills, and no sign of human life. It was easy to imagine this was my own personal utopia.

Over dinner — Hermitage Bay has only one restaurant, and the fare is not fancy, but delicious nonetheless — I chatted with Makeba Dowdy, guest services manager. She explained that the owner of the resort is very keen on locally sourced, organic ingredients. In fact, the resort grows a lot of its own vegetables, fruit, and herbs in their well-tended organic kitchen garden, which I saw with my own eyes during a tour the next day.

The wait staff were very attentive, and once again my wine glass seemed to keep refilling itself, as we enjoyed the entertainment by a local musician. After dinner, I got a ride up to my bungalow, feeling a little light-headed. (I’m not a big drinker, and this trip made me realise what a cheap date I really am!)

I nursed my sore head next morning with tasty French press coffee in my room, before making my way down to breakfast. It was the kind of day to lounge on my private balcony, enjoying the plunge pool and daybed, reading my Kindle and thinking how much I’d love to bring my family to a place like this, and make amazing memories with them.

The truth is, I am now spoiled for life. And two days surely wasn’t enough time to do the kind of in-depth investigation Caribbean Beat readers need. I guess I’ll now have to go and visit all the other hotels on that most-expensive list. For research, you understand.