By Tom O'Hara
By the time I landed in Antigua, on what was my first visit to the island, it was early evening, and the sun had already disappeared. The drive from the airport to my hotel afforded the occasional glimpse of a brightly painted house or the barely perceptible outline of a hill looming in the distance, but this small, sparsely populated island does not give much away in the dark.
It was only on my arrival at Galley Bay that I got the first taste of what was to come. The charming ladies at reception gave me a warm welcome, along with an ice-cold glass of rum punch, before a buggy whisked me down the causeway that crosses the lagoon, through the resort's lush tropical gardens, to my Premium Room on the beachfront. The room was cool, spacious and, much to my delight, on the ground floor, meaning I could quite literally walk out of my back door and on to the sand. Relaxing on the terrace with a cold bottle of Wadadli, the local beer that takes its name from the ancient Arawak name for the island, with the only sound the gently crashing waves, I felt like I had truly arrived in Antigua.
However, it's only when the sun comes up that you realise just how perfectly this resort is situated. The beach is long and sweeping, with the rooms half hidden amongst a green fringe of picture-perfect palm trees. Unlike some resorts, Galley Bay doesn't just feel like a hotel has been plonked down on a beach, the resort feels like it belongs here, and you soon realise that the hotel's paying guests aren't the only ones who live here. You might spot a lime green lizard basking in the sun on your terrace, or a pelican swooping down to snatch a beak-full of fish from the Caribbean Sea. Nature is all around you here, and the resort is making a big effort to minimise the impact it has on its surroundings: an on-site desalination plant means the tap water is safe to drink, cutting down on the use of plastic bottles, while the gardens are irrigated using recycled 'grey water', important measures in a part of the world where droughts are common and recycling facilities are scarce. Galley Bay also has its own herb and vegetable garden, a source of great pride to Paolo, the hotel's General Manager, who often spends his days off tending to the plants.
"At one point," he tells me, "we had so many cherry tomatoes that we were selling them to the other hotels on the island!"
These home-grown ingredients featured heavily on the menu when I dined at Ismay's, the hotel's fine dining restaurant on the beachfront, named after a long-serving member of the hotel staff who will celebrate her fiftieth year at Galley Bay in 2013. The food at Ismay's is exceptional, and the restaurant will never seat more than 35 guests in one night, giving it a really intimate feel. I can also highly recommend breakfast at the main Sea Grape restaurant, where the chefs will make sure your Eggs Benedict are served exactly how you like them. In fact the staff are one of the hotel's greatest assets, and play a huge part in creating the 'home from home' atmosphere that has so many clients returning year after year. Just keep an eye on the bar staff, who are prone to mixing you up another cocktail before you've even finished the last one...
The only thing missing from Galley Bay is children, as this is an adults only resort. However, if you're travelling with the kids you need not feel left out, as there are two more Elite Island Resorts properties in Antigua which cater perfectly to families. St James's Club Resort & Villas, perched on the Atlantic coast overlooking a brilliantly blue bay, is spread out over 100 acres of expansive grounds, and yet retains a village feel. I loved the Royal St James's Suites, which are the newest rooms, and were actually based on the Premium Beachfront Rooms at Galley Bay, with the same airy, split-level design and capacious bathroom. They're smartly furnished in a striking white and navy blue, with spectacular ocean views, and there is also a separate check-in area for Royal Suite guests. The Two Bedroom Villas are perhaps better kitted out for families though, sleeping up to six, and while the resort is All-Inclusive, with a choice of 4 restaurants, I'm not sure many dads could stay a week here without being tempted to fire up the barbecue provided on the villa balcony...
Further up the east coast is another family favourite, The Verandah Resort & Spa. Though the grounds are smaller than St James's Club, the rooms still feel very spread out. Again there is something of a village atmosphere to it, and the resort even has its own 'bus stops', where you can hop on a buggy to get you from A to B. The large main pool was full of kids happily splashing about, and there's an adventure playground that I would have loved to explore were I twenty years younger. It's definitely not an exclusively family affair though, I saw plenty of couples, which isn't surprising as the rooms themselves are located in quieter, more secluded areas of the resort than the main facilities, and the smaller of the two beaches is laid back and tranquil, which makes it popular with honeymooners and empty nesters alike. There are plenty of sporting facilities, including four tennis courts, although I must confess flailing around in the Caribbean heat trying to hit a ball is not my idea of a relaxing holiday. Luckily for people like me, The Verandah also has a well-designed mini-golf course, a much more sedate pursuit, though admittedly no less competitive!
If I learnt one thing from my time in Antigua then it's that this is an island with something for everyone. I loved Galley Bay, but then I like to chill out on holiday, and I don't have kids. St James's Club offers a similar experience but with a family focus, while for more active types, The Verandah has all bases covered. That old Arawak name for the island, Wadadli, loosely translates as 'our own', and with such a range of accommodation options, Antigua really can cater for your own individual tastes.