The caribbean is an obvious winter sun getaway for both Americans and Europeans. Having travelled to over twenty caribbean islands, I am still staggered by their beauty and variety. The hundred shades of green on fertile lands, captivating geography of peaks and beaches, and the spectacular marbled turquoise waters. It doesn’t just make me feel alive, it makes me feel at home. I grew up in the caribbean and hearing steel drums and feeling the salty sweet warmth of caribbean trade winds is the closest I feel to my happy, exotic and unusual childhood.
Kids change travel plans a little. I am not discovering new islands, or even re-discovering old favourites (like Anguilla or Virgin Gorda) that require multiple journey legs. British Airways or Virgin Atlantic non-stops from London are a necessity, as are child friendly resorts and a safe government. Carlisle Bay in Antigua is about as good as it gets. Here are my thoughts after a second perfect trip.
Jacqui Os. There is enough variety at Carlisle Bay to eat lunch every day – fresh salads and antipasti at Ottimo, grilled meat and fish at The Jetty Grill – or you can order direct to your terrace or sun lounger. Jacqui O’s is worth leaving your sun lounger for though. It’s on a nearby beach, accessible by car or boat and is absolutely breathtaking. Oversized sun loungers and hammocks on the whitest sand, shabby chic table settings fit for a Vogue Interiors shoot, and utterly yummy fresh food. The fish was melt in the mouth delicious, and there are so many amazing healthy dishes. The Love Basket appetiser had my boys eating raw broccoli and cauliflower and all sorts of crudites they hadn’t tried before. Fresh juices and smoothies made to your order – as usual I improvised and they were happy to accommodate. And the best part (at least for my children): a floating trampoline to swim out to to work off your lunch. A real find, don’t miss it on an Antigua trip.
East. Good Asian food is hard to come by in the Caribbean, and is probably my favourite style of food to eat in the evening. Japanese favourites like sushi, sashimi and seaweed salad are filled with good fats and phytochemicals (hello beauty from the inside). Thai style curries and coconut infused dishes are high in medium chain fatty acids. East does it all, and does it really well. My mouth still waters thinking about the red chicken curry.
Rainforest Canopy Ziplining. Yup. The chance to swing like a monkey between trees in a rainforest canopy. I know I’m an overgrown child, but this is unmissable. After a safety briefing, and yes I looked into their safety record, I don’t take unnecessary risks, off we were walking up wooden walkways built into the rainforest. There were two different safety ropes and jumps were between platforms manned by helpful and fun staff. My two boys (4 and 7) loved it so much, we had to go back for a second time. They weren’t exactly dragging me back.
Stingray City. I’ve been to a few Stingray places over the years. This one was the best I have visited. The staff had significant marine biology training and experience. My younger two children (aged 2 and 4) were pretty freaked out in the water, but you could see so many stingray even from the boat or the platform. There were literally hundreds of them and we were taught exactly how not to get stung, even while holding them. Just beware the punch you are offered on returning to the shore base – it was what my sister and I used to call “drunk in one sip” Caribbean rum measures.
Montserrat Volcano. Montserrat is a small neighbouring Caribbean island that has been ravaged by volcanic activity since 1995. Pre 1995, it hadn’t erupted in 300 years, and was a beautiful peaceful unspoilt idyllic island. In 1995, it started showing signs of activity, there was a large eruption in 1997 and it has remained unstable ever since. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to take my eldest son on his first helicopter ride to see a volcano close up. We had a long discussion afterwards about natural disasters and relief efforts and all sorts of related topics. You can still see many of the towns and housing, all destroyed and grey, covered in thick ash. You can also see very clearly all the extra land created by magma and lava at the shoreline. You can smell the sulphur. This was a geography lesson unlike any other. The helicopter pilot was extremely knowledgeable. I learnt all sorts of interesting facts – including that Antigua lies in an earlier arc of volcanoes, and only has light white sand (volcanic sand is dark) because of its cladding of coral limestone. It is the refraction of sunlight on these differing minerals that gives Antigua such surrealist painter seas – almost absurd shades of turquoise, aquamarine and jade.
Test Match. One rule I have on every trip I take with my children is that they get to pick something to do with me on one day each. With younger ones, I give a selection of acceptable options so they still feel in control. This is an adaption of child psychologist Oliver James’s concept of “love bombing”. My elder son, 7 and cricket obsessed, managed to find out (via the radio that one of the water-sports attendants was playing) that the Test Match was on while we were in Antigua. Not exactly how I would ideally spend a day in the Caribbean. I learnt from the taxi driver (taxi drivers are such a useful resource, and this one was a fountain of knowledge) that it would be nothing like a day at Lords. This was a public holiday for Antiguans. The stadium was part cricket, part carnival. I also learnt that my son knew every major player (both England and West indies) by name and batting or bowling record. I asked our taxi driver as we approached “Why is this called the Sir Vivian Richards stadium, who is he?” Arthur looked dumbfounded: “Mummy, he is one of the greatest batsmen ever”, and proceeded to throw some historical batting statistics at me and then talk me through the other statues on the grounds. He also managed to teach me the rules of cricket, which no other man has succeeded in doing. I will never forget that day.
I realised only when I got home that I hadn’t set foot in either the hotel gym or spa but judging from the rest of the resort, they are likely to be cutting edge and high on design, as well as function. This is strange because I am a huge gym bunny, but attests to how busy, fun and active the trip was. I swam, I ran on the beach, I waterskied, we sailed, we kayaked, we snorkelled, we went fishing with local fishermen, we did all sorts of excursions including a full day Ecological boat tour and we played tennis every other day (there are no less than 9 courts and a few ex-pros giving clinics and private tuition, so I could play simultaneously with my sons). We will be going back. My younger son will remind me when he turns 7 as this is when he can join the Crew Blue kids program. I booked thinking Carlisle Bay is great for my tiny kids, I should visit while they are still tiny. But it was just as good (if not better) for older kids, who can go off hunting for turtles, sailing hobie-cats, or learn some fascinating naval history on a Tour of English Harbour (Lord Admiral Nelson’s Dockyard). Carlisle Bay is magical: family friendly warmth and outdoorsy fun does not usually come together with high design stakes, luxury suites and impeccable service. If you can afford it, go.
Booking notes: I booked through Scott Dunn and flew British Airways. The best time to visit Antigua and any Caribbean destinations is November to May. We were there in April, which was perfect.