I’m not much of a luxury traveler. But it’s not because I don’t like the glam life.
I’m just, you know… cheap.
But last week was the first time I experienced what it was like to travel sans budget in the island of Antigua, and while I don’t see myself spending this kind of money on my humble journalist’s salary, I see why people shell out the cash for these five-star getaways. Add in the fact that the island is nearly COVID-free, and well, it might just be worth the investment.
Generally, my trip planning starts with pulling up one of those flight fare maps that show the lowest prices for random times of the year, picking a location that looks cool, and then heading to a bargain hotel site or finding a friend nearby that I can crash with. As for activities, I cover my eyes and spend the bulk of my cash here, but you won’t catch me doing anything I can do at home or watch a video and get the gist of.
On some occasions, this has led me to bring bed bugs back to a shared New York City apartment or unexpectedly freeze in the cold of an off-season destination. And one time, I accidentally flew to an airport two hours away from London to save a few bucks (didn’t realize how far away it was when I booked) and spent several days in a 12-person Manchester hostel room with a creepy elevator shaft—because I refused to spend the extra money on a train ride to the place I actually wanted to be—only to miss my return flight and have to spend more than $100 for a new flight and more money on another night in a hostel.
Sometimes saving money will cost you.
But when the taxi pulled up to the white stone entranceway of the all-inclusive Carlisle Bay Resort in Antigua and the security guard seated just outside of their booth opened the white bars of the gate, approached the taxi and asked for my name, I knew this was about to make up for my past travel mistakes.
The Carlisle Bay Resort is named after the bright blue ocean recess that sits just beyond its beachfront suites and, like much of the island, is surrounded by lush greenery and rolling hills. It has multiple restaurants and bars and with 87 multi-room suites and single-bed suites on separate sides of the property, it’s a family-friendly vacation spot (They even offer a kids club for children up to 6 years old and free water activities for kids 7 to 13.) with the intimacy of a honeymoon getaway and ease of a solo retreat. The rates for an all-inclusive stay start from $710 per night. Antigua doesn’t have any private beaches, but you’d rarely find non-guests venturing onto the sand, and since each unit faces the sea, every room has a view.
After the driver made his way to the left of the roundabout toward the wood-paneled walkway, it was obvious the resort would be nothing at all like my bargain travels. I was asked to sanitize my hands upon entry and told an employee would take my bags to my room.
Then, a woman came and offered me a cold towel that I had absolutely no idea what to do with. So I held onto it hoping they’d assume I just didn’t need it and not that I wasn’t sure If I was expected to wipe my hands or clean the tables. I later realized it was probably to cool off from the heat, so I touched it to my neck and forehead to give off the impression that this wasn’t my first rodeo with high-class trips.
We walked up a pathway lined with white wooden fencing that cut through a green-tinted pond with dozens of orange koi fish that gather to the sides of the walkway hoping for a meal from those that approach. The path led to an open-air lobby area modernly furnished with a black piano in the center, an Asian-inspired restaurant and a bar in the far left corner.
After check-in, next up was dinner and as I chatted briefly with the general manager right before, I remembered I look like I just arrived from hours of economy travel and a flight delay. I thought these people must be used to meeting guests with Prada bags, clothing from top designers unknown to regular people like me, multiple homes and who have never even heard of hostelworld.com. I mean Prince Charles was once a guest here!
I went up to my third floor Ocean Suite on a far end of the beach and unceremoniously thrust open the door to an enormous open-plan room with a living space strategically placed on a slightly lower level to give the feeling of a separate lounging area. The aquamarine-accented room had a king-sized bed and ample storage space for anyone looking for a long stay.
There was a complimentary, fully stocked minibar that I barely touched, scarred by years of giving myself a hard “NO!” to $10 water and $5 chocolate bars.
Sliding doors opened to a balcony with a double bed-sized lounger that overlooked the sea, a view complemented by the sky-high palm trees planted in the sand.
The resort even laid out cheese, wine, and chocolate cake on a brown coffee table in front of a white couch adorned with blue pillows for my arrival and I wished I had time to try it, but I had strangers to impress.
For dinner, I did a full face of makeup and put on a form-fitting mid-thigh blue and cream floral dress with an asymmetrical hemline, low, yet sophisticated, neckline and thin straps resting across my shoulders with a pair of backless yellow sandal heels. Luckily I’d purchased enough surprisingly well-made dresses off of Amazon.com to make this a nightly ritual.
Directly before dinner, I met with two high-ranking resort employees including Brian Murphy, the resort manager.
The first thing I realized was that I’d been mispronouncing Antigua since I got there (It’s An-tee-gah, not An-tee-gwa.). But either they didn’t notice or ignored my flub.
When it comes to COVID-19, the property and its open-air facilities allow for social distancing. The resort boasts of enhanced deep-cleaning measures and has trained its staff to adhere to World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
They leave the gym doors open to circulate the air, require temperature checks upon check-in, masks are required around the property, and they also have QR code menus to minimize a high touch environment. I was asked to sanitize my hands before entering taxis, restaurants, and the lobby. Even outside of the hotel, locations like the airport and the hiking and zip-lining facilities nearby required masks, sanitization and temperature checks. I was told that you even have to wash your hands before entering grocery stores. The cleanliness might seem a bit paranoid considering how unlikely it is for someone to catch COVID from surfaces, but I guess these strict measures are how Antigua has kept their active COVID cases so low.
No activity outside of your home with the people you live with is without some COVID risk, but for the first time since the beginning of the year, I didn’t feel like I was walking in a cesspool of disease when I stepped outside.
Surprisingly, to come to Antigua, the island actually seems to have some of the most relaxed restrictions for a COVID-cautious nation. You only need one negative COVID PCR test taken within seven days (which unfortunately still gives seven days for you to become positive before landing), you must have no symptoms or fever upon arrival, and there’s no mandatory quarantine.
Major airlines themselves have taken precautions like cleaning all high-touch surfaces, having mask requirements on board, limiting food and beverage service, and filtering the air with hospital-grade HEPA filters dozens of times an hour.
But with such an easy and comforting travel process, the resort, which has a capacity of up to 300 guests, still only had about 25 people on the property. But it was different when they opened back up on Oct. 10.
When the resort reopened following the country’s pandemic lockdown, they saw a wave of tourists from Britain (Antigua is a Commonwealth nation) and reached nearly 100 percent capacity. The resort told me 75 percent of their tourists come from the United Kingdom, but with Britain’s recent lockdown, their occupancy numbers dramatically dropped.
Murphy said that they “have confidence in the market” because they know once Britain opens up again, the business will be back to normal. It’s just a matter of when.
With so few British tourists and a severe lack of American tourists coming to the island in general, it sometimes felt like I had the whole place to myself.
I had four days to try out the lifestyle of the rich and famous and my itinerary was packed.
After my conversation, I sat down at an open pavilion for beachfront dining at their Indigo on The Beach restaurant. The waitress pulled out my chair for me to sit near the steps that descend into the soft sand touching the calm Caribbean Sea and it took everything in me not to scrape the ground as I tried to move closer to the table, so I just sat a foot-and-a-half away from my plate and accepted that this is how I eat now.
The menu had a decent selection of salads, pastas, seafood and Caribbean dishes, but I was still thinking from the mindset of someone who rarely splurges on meals, so when the waiter suggested I try the lobster tail in addition to the tuna sashimi and two glasses of wine, I tried not to look as shocked as I felt.
I won’t lie; I fully expected the crustacean to be an overpriced version of something I could find from Joe’s Crab Shack but drizzled with some expensive truffle oil or something. What was placed in front of me was as large as my face and so satiating I could barely finish it and was paired with a lemon butter I’d love to be lathered in. The executive chef later told me there’s a rule on the island prohibiting fisherman from catching young lobster in order to give each one enough time to reproduce before it’s eaten. That means, by the time they’re ready to be harvested, they’re twice the size of what someone like me is used to seeing on their plate.
I rarely had a bad dish save for one when the salt fish (a codfish in a red tomato sauce) was way too salty for my newly sophisticated palate. Aside from that, each food item at the restaurants I tried was well prepared.
The most memorable meal really had me feeling like a VIP. I went out to the farmer’s market with the executive chef Prabhakar Kumar to see the town and pick up items for a special meal of red snapper, the island’s traditional goat water stew, salt fish fritters, a plate of Julie mango and black pineapple, a cheesy vegetable dish and a glass of red sorrel juice.
It was a priceless albeit huge “screw you” to my ketogenic diet (but if you tell them ahead of time, they are able to accommodate nearly any dietary restriction).
It was on this market trip that I saw just how much the tourism halt has hurt this island nation. Streets lined with small businesses near the cruise ship harbor that would usually be flooded with tourists were empty.
Imagine seeing a shuttered Diamonds International midday in a port town.
Kumar, who started his chef career in Africa and later moved to the Caribbean, told me that without the cruise ships, the small businesses in the area haven’t seen too many customers. “If the tourists aren’t coming, the country is struggling,” he said.
All over the island was particularly impacted by the lockdown in the U.K., but I wondered why American tourism wasn’t picking up the slack. One of the Carlisle Bay restaurant workers told me she thinks it could be because Antigua is just very expensive and even a regular hotel can pack a steep price.
But for me it actually wasn’t the price that’s prevented me from traveling to Antigua. Honestly, the country has really never been on my radar and judging by the curious Instagram DMs I got from my American friends as I posted about my trip, they weren’t thinking about it either.
It’s not that Americans never come, but Taroon Missry, the general manager, told me that Americans tend to stay for three to five nights and the British come for twice that or more, likely because Britain’s vacation-time standard allows for much more time off.
And there’s a lot to do. Three to five nights isn’t enough. With the four days I had, I had a full schedule and still missed quite a few popular activities, like sailing and snorkeling, borrowing a bike for a trek through the city or a personal training session on property.
In addition to some beach time and my market day with the chef, I did sunrise Pilates out on the jetty that stuck out into the bay, hiked the second-highest mountain on the island, ziplined for the first time ever and had a luxury massage.
And that massage was incredible.
After I sanitized my hands, showered and put on a white robe and slippers, I was escorted out of the spa facility and across a pathway out to a square, wooden pavilion with thin white sheets hanging from each side that serenely danced in the wind. In the center was the massage bed tightly fitted with white sheets. Candles lying on large multi-lobed leaves sat at each corner and red flower petals dusted the top of a white mat that read “spa” on the floor of the long side of the bed.
And the actual massage was even better than the scenery. Eve, the masseuse, used deep pressure to relieve every knot from my neck to my calves. I was sore for a little while after, but the next day, I felt like I had new freshly oiled limbs.
With my muscles in working order, I walked back to my room to get ready for another expertly prepared dinner and at this point it was clear that the Carlisle Bay Resort was the luxury trip I never knew I needed.
I can’t say I’m ready to max out my credit cards on my next vacation, but I understand why this might be the type of vacation worth saving up for.