Verandah Resort & Spa Antigua
International eXcellence Magazine reviews Antigua in the Caribbean and comes back with a great tan, some fabulous memories and a new found love for this tropical island paradise.
We flew Virgin Air first class to St Johns, I can recommend both First class and Club class as it really makes the journey part of the holiday rather than an Iron Man style endurance test. The service is wonderful. Though one does get the impression that the seats in economy on all airlines are deliberately designed to be so excruciatingly painful that anyone over the age of 24 has to upgrade if they wish to arrive at their destination with their vertebrae intact.
It’s a 7 hour flight depending on winds so a pretty easy trip, meaning you arrive in good shape to commence the holiday with gusto. We were staying at The Verandah Resort which had been recommended by a friend in the travel business, Tamasin, and she could not have chosen better. We boarded the bus at the airport for the bumpy ride to the hotel and upon arrival were greeted by a genuine Caribbean wooden pillared verandah with drinks and a small check in desk to the side. Now this is the first thing you see when you arrive at a hotel so it is vital to get it right. Some hotels plump for grandeur, some for efficiency and some for peaceful calm. This hit exactly the right note with authentic Caribbean style that focused on a relaxed informal serenity . Normally it can take around 3 days to lose the stress and strains of work and London life, but we were in the groove in minutes. I knew instantly that this was going to be a great trip.
Check in was a relaxed and friendly affair and we were then escorted to our golf cart that hummed us gently to our cabin. The whole resort is made up of single floor double bungalows, no high rise, no blocks, just wood cabins dotted over the hillside, almost all overlooking the sea that snakes around the hotel. It is based on an isthmus that juts out with a myriad of coves so the sea is calm and very safe. The bungalows are separated by explosions of palm trees and flowers and little steps take to up to your own brightly coloured front door. Inside each there is a suite with a good sized bathroom, with large bath, living room and kitchen and a balcony suspended over the mangroves with sea and cloudless sky.
After the usual unpacking we set off to explore the area and find the beaches. The paths in the hotel meander up and around the bungalows and the layout is superbly well executed. You are far enough away from everything to be private but close enough so you wander a couple of minutes and reach any amenity. The golf carts run all day and you can hop on any if you prefer to be whisked around in chauffeured style. The main pool and restaurant are on the top of the hill and the restaurant is so well hidden in the foliage that you only notice the entrance, another bravo for the designer whom we will get to later. Then just past the pool you come across the beach bar and restaurant with balcony overlooking the main beach, which is just delightful. The beach is the icing on the cake if you excuse the metaphor, it is perfectly laid out with loungers and because the hotel aims at a boutique feel without over overcrowding, you are never short of a perfect place to lie and relax. There was 80% occupancy whist we were there and you would have assumed far less. You were never waiting for a wind surf board, or paddle board, or catamaran, or equipment, all of which are included free. It was quite simply the most relaxing beach I have stayed on in a long while, including 5 star hotels whose prices would have added at least a zero or two to the stay.
The beach is called Fanny’s Cove (all place names should be euphemisms) and is a stone’s throw from the famous landmark Devil’s Bridge. Just walk around the mangrove to the point and you can stand on a thin bridge of rock out over the sea, with waves pounding the rocks around you. I would dearly love to live there and be able to direct people by saying, “yes it’s Fanny’s Cove, just by Devil’s Bridge”, but I am fond of juvenile humour. Now a disclaimer, the water can get a little brown from the seaweed, but do not let this put you off, it is merely a little discolouration that lies close to the shore, swim out a little and it is clear as the most pucker diamond. Fish abound here as it is a protected cove and you can see Parrot fish, Barracuda, Clown fish, Snappers and too many more to list. There are also a plethora of Heron and Pelicans that swirl and dive below the water for your entertainment. It beats any nature documentary hands down, glorious 3D technicolour, enriched reality right before your eyes, mere feet away. Ahhh, so that’s what the world was like before we took over!
The beach faces the sea and another isthmus that juts out to the left. So there is another deserted beach across the bay that is an easy mile swim. I highly recommend this as your early morning wake up before or after breakfast. The waves are small as they break on the reef at the entrance to the cove and the beach opposite is part of an abandoned hotel with decaying grand piano, boats and dinky wooden bridge. Private of course, but beautiful to admire and as a swim destination. It’s like your own private island. Richard Branson had the smarts to buy his early, but one can enjoy that feeling here for much less. The reef also means that it is very safe to take out a catamaran, canoe or paddle board over a large are without the usual danger of getting swept out as you are in a land swaddled cove. The wind surfing is fantastic here and I achieved the “lean all the way back to the surface and skim the water with your back” as the gusts are strong enough, but manageable. There are even round bright orange trampoline rings in the water for relaxing, as our journalist Darren can attest, wherein he spent most of his free time, adorned with a crushed ice mango drink.
There are three restaurants and you can pick and choose, but all are good, with some of the best food we have had in the Caribbean but it was in the service that this place really excelled. The staff were all friendly and went out of there way to make everyone comfortable and ensure they had a good time. We got to know the restaurant staff on our first evening and from then on they greeted us with huge smiles, chatting and joking, though that may have been partly down to Darren who is a bit of a charmer and they clearly took to him. They were attentive and helpful at all times and it really made our time there very enjoyable. The bar by the pool is also a delight. You can choose from a variety of drinks and they stock all the best brands, the wine list is very good and even the house wine was perfectly acceptable, which for the Caribbean is exceptional. They have discreet entertainment, such as a singer or dancing without being intrusive or tacky and the atmosphere in the evening was delightful. Not to mention the Prosecco on tap, which made the nights fly by with dancing and lively conversations.
There is another beach at the start of the inlet, called the Rasta beach, very similar to the main one, but smaller and even more restful, for those that do not want any sound to disturb their professional relaxing. One night they held a wedding for an American couple and it looked like a film set. It was dazzling, the entire beach was decorated with orange lanterns strung between palm trees and gleaming white Marquees. The yacht by the wooden pier was decorated in lights and the sea glowed with reflected orange, green and yellow lights, framed by the shimmering Mangroves. It would be worth getting divorced for, just so you could get remarried there.
Now this hotel is only a 4 star but excellence is more than just ticking all the boxes or a high price tag. This place may not be a super efficient 5 star hotel, but this is the Caribbean and there is a reason it has won so many awards based on customer reviews. It has real peace and tranquility, not to mention genuinely friendly, helpful staff and presents a more authentic Caribbean experience. It harks back to the 70’s when things were perhaps a little more rough and ready, but all the more exciting and fun because of it.
The chap who manages the hotel actually built it. When the company commissioned an architect to design the plans they were presented with high rise apartments that made efficient use of the space for maximum profit. This was thrown out and the manager designed the build as it went along. Normally a recipe for disaster, it meant that the entire resort was built as he would have wished a Caribbean holiday to be, bungalows, private space, Caribbean style, but with communal areas for socialising and dining. French American, he has lived in Antigua for 18 years and handpicks the staff from the families he knows well and still manages it now with a very friendly hands on approach.
The hotel excels at creating a sublimely relaxed atmosphere, this is an art and it takes vision and care rather than money. At 85 percent occupancy you do not notice any other residents. This place exudes a calm and peace that you would normally only find in very expensive boutique hotels, but without any of the formality. It wins our award for best value, relaxed resort in Antigua.
We rented a 4×4 convertible jeep and toured the rest of the island, heading for the famous English Harbour first for lunch at The Copper and Lumber Store who do a fantastic lobster salad. English Harbour is the old port that used to serve as the main harbour for England’s fleets from the 1700’s onwards. It is a natural port with a strong strip of land that protects it from the rougher weather whilst the water is deep enough to accommodate quite large sailing vessels. This was the proverbial port in a storm that served for many years until the trade dried up and it became more of a memory of English colonial sailing power. It is the only surviving Georgian dockyard in the world and you really feel like you are walking through an period film set with the added bonus of restaurants and bars.
The greatest view is without doubt from Shirley Heights where you can see the entire bay and harbour from the nearby peak. Named after Sir Thomas Shirley, the governor of the Leeward Islands in 1781, the military complex is rich in history and the lookout is now the place to be on a sunday afternoon for a local jump up. Antigua is a wonderfully verdant island and we enjoyed a wonderful drive through the lush rainforests on the south-west coast, passing the island’s zip line and rope challenge course, run by the Antigua Rainforest Company.
A couple of beaches that really should be visited are Half Moon Bay and Morris Bay. Half Moon Bay is where they shot large chunks of The Pirates of The Caribbean with Johnny Depp and boasts a fabulous abandoned hotel that used to be one of the best on the Island. It was destroyed by a storm around 20 years ago and the owner and the government have been in dispute over the compensation claims since. Morris Bay should be visited around sunset as the light is fantastic as it turns from yellow to orange, pink and red, casting shadows over the giant palms lined along the promenade.