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Where’s Kelly?                                          Antigua



Oh, Antigua
The good, the bad and the ugly side of this island paradise.
By Kelly Gray

At 3:50am on the morning of my flight to paradise, the alarm sounded. With barely a nap the night before, having waited until the last minute to pack, I walked out the door toward the dim lights of the cab waiting in the darkness of my street. I was running 15 minutes behind schedule. The driver threw my bag in the trunk and off we went ... in the wrong direction.

These days, I begin most of my trips with a loud dose of my favorite music mix, which includes the band Blue October. Our very own Johnny Jet tuned me into the song Into the Ocean when he set his Where's Johnny Jet? Toronto video to the song. The song is luxuriant, the beat rhythmic. It's a great distraction from travel troubles like directionally challenged cabbies when you're late for a flight.

On the flight to Atlanta, I had an aisle seat right behind a darling little guy, about two-years-old, peering over his dad's shoulder at me. The boy was smiling from ear to ear until his father pulled him down for takeoff, at which point he began to wail. That's when I said a little prayer and thanked God for one of his greatest creations – the almighty iPod.

We arrived in Atlanta early (go Delta!), which would have been great, if not for a three-hour layover and one-hour delay on the runway behind, oh, I don't know, 11,346 other planes. We finally took off and on the flight to Antigua, I met an attorney who owns a vacation home in neighboring Montserrat. He was a great resource, full of information about the region and he inquired about my hotel. When I answered, he looked at me like I was out of my mind and asked a frightening question. "Why, when there are so many nice hotels in Antigua, would you stay so far away at The Grand Pineapple?"

Worried that the attorney's opinion was a harbinger of things to come, I was relieved upon arrival to see that the property at The Grand Pineapple is quite lovely. The landscaping is all lush and green and the flowers are so colorful you want to eat them. The small but darling lobby is colonial style, with a small sitting area and large, swing-up colonial shutters. We were greeted with a rum punch that would give my cousin's moonshine a run for its money, but it was a nice touch. Overall, The Grand Pineapple appeared, at first glance, to be a terribly charming, rustic place ... which, in the Caribbean, can be fabulous when done right. Rates at The Grand Pineapple can range from online-listed prices of $242 a night to $450 per person depending on the package you choose.

At The Grand Pineapple, they protect nesting turtles. The water is beautiful. It's quiet and the beach is relaxing. On one night, the resort lounge showcased a great band. The aforementioned landscaping is beautiful and reminded me of Fantasy Island. And to quote Dolly Parton's character Truvy in the film Steel Magnolias, I'd rather walk on my own lips than say something bad about somebody. That's the one thing I hate about my job. Sometimes, telling the truth just isn't fun. But discerning Johnny Jet travel-lovers trust us to tell it like it is. So here goes.

If you've ever rented a Lexus and were given a Corolla … if you've ever dated a woman because of her large breasts, only to discover the miracle of the WonderBra … if you've ever ordered a Kobe steak and instead received a hearty helping of Purina cat chow … if opulence, luxury and gourmet cuisine are your passion fruits, The Grand Pineapple is not for you.

I've been writing about food longer than I've been writing about travel. For nearly 10 years, I've sampled foods from around the world; from hometown barbecue served on paper plates to the upper echelons of culinary delights. I'm not that hard to please at table, but these days, with so many wonderful ingredients at our fingertips, there is no excuse for bad food at what is supposed to be a nice resort. And despite coming highly recommended by the wait staff, our dinner on the night we arrived was truly in the top three of the worst meals I can recall. The ‘beet with blue cheese crumble' appetizer as listed on the menu arrived with nary a blue cheese crumble in sight, and instead arrived with a huge portion of raw white onion swimming in vinegar. Pe-uw! The beets were followed by a breaded-to-death chicken, rolled in what appeared to be dry Quaker Instant Oatmeal and topped with something masquerading as honey mustard sauce. Subsequent meals fared no better and it really pains me to say that I cannot recall one decent meal during my entire stay at this resort. Worse, the cocktails in the bar were watered down. The nightlife consisted of a pitiful dining room-turned-disco though thankfully, on one night there we heard one good band.

Unfortunately, the rooms were also disappointing. The phone in my room looked to be at least 10 years old. Only a few buttons worked and every time I tried to call the lobby, the line was busy. Finally, I got through to someone who delivered a replacement; an equally geriatric phone, but at least it worked. On the second day, when I tried to take a bath instead of a shower, I discovered the bathtub drain was broken. Even that I could tolerate, since the shower worked. The next day, in gazillion degree heat, the air conditioner followed the lead of the drain and phone. The staff promised to have the A/C fixed by the time I returned from a day of diving on another part of the island. Eight hours later, I returned to my room, which had, in the sweltering heat, essentially become a sauna. The tiny room had one window, which, not surprisingly I suppose, wouldn't open. The staff then claimed the A/C would be fixed by dinner; it wasn't. At midnight, I sat baking on my bed, waiting to hear about another room. The only other room, er, "ready for occupancy", was on the other side of the resort quite far from my party. To recap, thus far at The Grand Pineapple Resort I had come across a broken phone, broken air conditioning, broken bathtub drain, horrific food and no Internet access despite the $50 I had paid for it. On top of that, the resort refused to refund the charge for the non-existent web access, claiming it was provided by an outside service. I also had the great displeasure of killing several bugs in my room – two of which I found in my bed.

But food and lodging aside, Antigua offered up many wonderful activities including diving, historical sightseeing and off-property dining. Because the island itself is so lovely and the water and diving were spectacular, I resigned myself to ignore the negative and enjoy my last two days and nights on this beautiful island. One of our group members was leaving early to go home and offered me her room. So that night, I fell asleep soundly in an air-conditioned room, determined to wake up fresh and ready to greet the day. And somewhere as I slumbered, fate slapped its knee and laughed its ass off.

Hear that? It's the unmistakable sound of some poor camel's back breaking cleanly in two. Despite watching The Secret, being an ardent Oprah fan and a major animal lover, on my second to last morning in Antigua, the harangue of expletives that came out of my mouth would shock Andrew Dice Clay. A native Antiguan had decided to become my date that morning. He, and each of his eight hairy legs, that is. Talk about coyote ugly! I have such arachnophobia, he might as well have been Al Pacino's AK47 in Scarface. Broken drains and malfunctioning A/C I can handle. Bad food and cheap liquor, not so much, but I'm always up for dropping a few pounds. No phone or Internet access is stretching it, but spiders the size of dinner plates within two feet of me ... that's all she wrote, folks. I spent half of my next to last day in Antigua tracking down another place to stay for the night. Mercifully, the island gods were in a better mood that day and led me to someplace akin to paradise.

Take a deep breath. Leave your worries behind. Focus on you. Find your center. Whatever your relaxation mantra, Hermitage Bay will beat it and retain a piece of your heart when you leave. Hermitage Bay is on the western side of Antigua, at the end of a ramshackle dirt road. But don't let the journey fool you – they like it that way. It insulates the resort and makes it somewhat hard for the masses to find ... thank God for small favors.

Upon arriving, I instantly wished I'd been there for the entire trip. I was greeted in a luxurious, open-air lobby with a virgin Mojito, replete with a ton of fresh mint and lime – my absolute favorite drink. Soon after, I was escorted to my very own beachfront cottage, which appeared to be a bungalow straight out of a sultry, tropical, James Bond-esque adult fairytale. All that was missing in this romantic place was Daniel Craig.

The cottage suites as they're called, inspired by the island's colonial days, are beachfront, adjacent to the beach or perched on a picturesque hillside. All beach cottages are split level suites with lounging areas. The A/C worked beautifully but wasn't necessary because the suites have giant doors, which open to large verandahs with sweeping views that invite a precious breeze. I couldn't wait to lie down on my outdoor double day bed and relax in one of the plantation chairs with my Mojito.

The hillside cottages have their own views. Honeymooners love these hideaways, since they're designed to ensure privacy and each has a large plunge pool and sunbathing deck. By the way, if you're too tired to trek down to the beach to sunbathe, each deck comes with its own chaise longue and private sitting area. All of the suites have flat screen TVs, DVD players and iPod docking stations, which have no doubt heard their fair share of Barry White and Al Green lovemaking mixes. In fact, as much as I can recommend Hermitage Bay for innumberable reasons, this place is so romantic I wouldn't recommend coming here alone. When Hermitage Bay happens to you, be sure to bring someone you're hot for along for the ride.

Hermitage Bay is not a party resort. If you're the type who lives to do the Electric Slide or likes spring break in Cancun, go anywhere but here. It is also not a place for children or otherwise delightful (but noisy) creatures. Seriously: if you have children, leave them at home. This place is for people who want luxury and friendly service without the pomp and circumstance. It's for the serious traveler who appreciates true island relaxation, which can only be had at a place such as this. People who love Hermitage Bay lounge comfortably at the open air bar, read for hours on end, enjoy water sports, dine on some of the best food on the island, then slink off for a dip in the blue, blue sea or in their very own plunge pool. When they want to party like rock stars they go into town. Did I mention the spa at Hermitage Bay? It's the perfect place to send yourself over the moon with a Sugar and Spice body rub or a Togetherness couple's massage.

The food at Hermitage Bay is the stuff true culinary island dreams are made of. There are signature punches concocted by the brilliant Chef Dezi – each is like an IV strength, all-natural antioxidant. My favorite was the watermelon, soursop and passion fruit juice ... surely this is the nectar of the Gods. Afternoon tea is served daily with one sweet and one savory treat (a tiny pineapple cake and darling finger sandwich). The worst part of staying at Hermitage Bay is suppressing the glutton inside of you. I ask you, how is one supposed to choose between salmon with avocado mousse and poached tuna Nicoise? The menu is expertly designed, the presentation lovely.

I renamed Hermitage Bay 'Stepford Bay' because here, everyone is beautiful ... not beautiful in an obnoxious, supermodel kind of way, but beautiful in that each person seems to bear the unmistakable sign of contentment and happy restfulness. Even the affable, dapper manager Keith Martel resembles Sean Connery. Perhaps it's the privacy of the hillside cottages. Maybe it's Dezi's cuisine and wicked punch. Maybe it is the heavenly, coma-inducing views … it's all better than any anti-aging therapy I've tried. I had the privilege of going on a private tour of the out islands by boat, which provided a most beautiful view of nearby uninhabited islands and a very royal beach, indeed. The Queen's Beach as it's called, is adjacent to Hermitage Bay and is said to be the only beach where the Queen of England bathed while in Antigua. No surprise, given that rates at this place range from $570 a night in the off-season to $1600 a night in-season for a hillside cottage suite.

THIS is where you go on your honeymoon. THIS is for lovers and foodies. THIS is why you'll cry when you leave. Hermitage Bay is just too good. The cottage suites, the dining, the service, the plunge pools, the spa, the outdoor shower, the pest control, the scenery, the infinity's edge swimming pool, the privacy, the luxury, the indoor and outdoor beds, the afternoon tea, the expertly mixed cocktails, the over-abundance of Veuve Cliquot, the staff who remember your name after they've met you once ... what I know for sure is Hermitage Bay and its lush surroundings is my new favorite island paradise.

Scuba diving in Antigua was a blast, partly because of the relaxing shallow dive at the Pillars of Hercules and partly due to our colorful divemaster. An Antiguan gem, Tony Fincham of Dockyard Divers has traveled the Caribbean enough to have circled the globe five times. The adventurer / photographer has been diving for more than 40 years, having captained inter-island trading ships in the remote Pacific. Plus, he designed and built an 80-foot sailing schooner. Tony also produces and directs the annual ‘Fincham's Follies', a charitable theatrical musical extravaganza. We chose his dive shop because it is located at a place we were already planning to visit called Nelson's Dockyard. Tony regaled us with tall tales and information about the island he has chosen to call home.

Before we dove, we had the pleasure of touring Nelson's Dockyard, which quickly scored high on my list of things to do. I love anything that has some sort of history attached to it and Nelson's Dockyard, otherwise known as His Majesty's Antigua Naval Yard at English Harbour was built around 1725. Back then, Nelson's Dockyard functioned as the maintenance home for Royal Naval warships. Restoration began in 1951 and the dockyard was renamed in honor of Admiral Horatio Nelson. Today, it's a busy tourist attraction and yacht marina. In April, thousands come for the Antigua sailing week where visitors flock to see some of the finest yacht racing in the islands, which ends with Lord Nelson's Ball.

The luckiest visitors to Nelson's Dockyard get to stay at The Copper & Lumber Store Hotel. This charming, darling throwback to old island days in all its brick and quaint glory is a delight to behold. If you can swing the price, select a Georgian Suite, which comes complete with a separate living room. The next time I visit Antigua, if I can tear myself away from Hermitage Bay, I plan to stay at least one night at the Copper & Lumber Store Hotel.

Another place worth visiting for the scenery, lodging and cuisine is the Galley Bay Resort. At Galley Bay we had a most intoxicating lunch, accompanied by possibly the best Pina Colada I've had – ever. The spinach salad with candied nuts, red onion and warm bacon and honey dressing may seem familiar to spinach salad lovers, but trust me when I say you could eat this salad everyday for a month and never tire of it. Galley Bay Resort carries an impressive menu and the gorgeous surroundings are yet another example of why this island really looks the part of paradise.

Anyone who loved the movie South Pacific would fall hard for Shirley Heights at sunset. This not-to-miss stop will have you longing to belt out the lyrics to Bloody Mary's Bali High along with the steel drum band. The view, which cascades way out over English Harbour, is breathtaking. Again, if you love history you'll appreciate Shirley Heights, named for General Shirley. Fair warning that it's definitely a tourist trap, but it's also a fun party with barbecue, rum (naturally) and a great bar scene where everyone is happy, slightly buzzed and clearly miles away from cubicles and yard work.

I can still hear her hollering out the kitchen window at my brother and me: "Do your homework!" How right my mother was, and still is to this day. Regarding Antigua, I did not follow her advice. I should have done copious amounts of research before setting one foot on the plane. But I didn't … I trusted the advice of others. And because I was so excited to go back to the islands, I adopted a devil-may-care attitude and forgot that not every rose is without thorns. So in essence, I got just what I deserved.

Thankfully, much of Antigua is special and in fact I'm grateful for the bad experiences early in the trip because they led me to inspiring places like Hermitage Bay, Nelson's Dockyard, Galley Bay and Shirley Heights. Antigua's beaches and lush mountain landscape make it one of most beautiful islands in the Caribbean. In some places it seems you can walk the length of a football field before the water is too deep to stand. The food is reputable and places off-the-beaten-path can be exceptional. I could never tire of sunset at Shirley Heights or the blue-emerald water and white sand, the images of which have yet to leave my mind. I was blessed to enjoy several activities while there and many stood out as spectacular.

And so, I'm on pins and needles to go back, but this time I'll know just where to stay, where to go, what to do, and what to see. And now, you do too.

*Please tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!

Note: This trip was sponsored by The Antigua and Barbuda Ministry of Tourism.

Pics From

The Trip


Off to Antigua 2007


The national snack

A darling ambassador

Grand Pineapple Resort

A most unsightly bunkmate

Natural bridge

Island beauty

Hermitage Bay

Beachfront Cottage Suite

Infinity’s Edge Pool


Hillside Cottage Suites

Hermitage Bay Verandahs

A Reason to Nap

View from the Top

Hermitage Bay Cottage Suite Interior

Hermitage Bay Cottage Suite Bath

The Lounge at Hermitage Bay

Hermitage Bay Manager Keith Martel and Chef Dezi

A common sight at Hermitage Bay

Divemaster Tony Fincham and Kelly Gray


Pillars of Hercules


Nelson’s Dockyard

Sailing, anyone?

Ahoy, a party barge!

Copper and Lumber Hotel at Nelson’s Dockyard

Shirley Heights at Sunset

A Harbor View from Shirley Heights

Just your typical everyday view…

Side View of the Pillars of Hercules

See you in Antigua!

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