A string of opal bays outlined in platinum sand indent the exotic hills of southern Antigua. Travelling west through the island's fruit basket around Fig Tree Drive, Carlisle Bay is the first of these sandy coves to come into view. A private enclave, it was claimed long ago by an exclusive resort of the same name.
Showing no sign of the storms that wreaked havoc on this region in September, the resort is immaculate with neat paths winding through tropical gardens scented with lemon grass, white villas facing the ocean and arching coconut palms framing a quintessential picture of paradise.
It's clear from the outset of my stay that this is a high-end five-star, but it's far from flashy. Meeting me at the resort's lobby inside an airy plantation-style Great House, down-to-earth Guest Manager Michael showed me around, telling me in French tones that they like to think of themselves as shabby chic.
The resort prides itself on pared-back luxury and discreet anticipatory service. Regulars say Michael is the soul of the place and goes out of his way to cater for everyone's wants and needs. Recent guests have included Cameron Diaz and the Duchess of Cornwall, though this is not Barbados' starry Sandy Lane, and most people prefer to go incognito.
The Caribbean's coolest library
There are a few things that Carlisle Bay does differently, somehow marking itself out as exclusive without being at all snobby. For a start, its library has to be one of the coolest in the Caribbean, stocking books hand-picked by travel writers and beautiful coffee table glossies.
Mood lighting and boutique furniture make it a pleasant spot for a relaxing read. Its stock of patterned penguin classics is scattered throughout the resort. I found two of them planted in my room - Treasure Island and The Ebb Tide by Robert Louis Stevenson seemed particularly apt for the setting.
Originally built as a specialist tennis resort, it's no longer marketed as such but there are still five courts hidden within Carlisle Bay's tropical grounds. An expert coach offers 30-minute weekly clinics for guests to sharpen their skills, as well as private lessons at additional cost. All rackets and balls are available to guests for free. Although I didn't like the idea of slugging it out in a game of tennis beneath the hot eastern Caribbean sun, I saw some easy rallies being conducted under flood lights after dark.
For a water baby like me, the on-site aqua-sports shack with complimentary gear was a real bonus. Reliably informed that the best coral reefs and snorkelling was to be found around the rocks to the east of the bay, a group of us took some kayaks out to a slim stretch of sand hidden behind a bluff, littered with marine debris and mounds of coral crowned with bleached queen conch shells. Beaching the kayaks, we took our snorkels and went for an underwater safari - spying canyons haunted by napoleon fish and puffer fish, giant brain corals bulging from reef heads and purple and pink soft corals gently fanning in the current.
Though the kayaks seemed the best mode of transport for a mini snorkelling trip, the calm waters and unspoilt scenery of Carlisle Bay also make it a great place for paddle-boarding, which the watersports centre also provides free to guests. For those with a little sailing experience, there's a weekly Sailing Clinic.
Of course, total immersion in the warm, calm bay is one of the resort's simplest and most enticing pleasures. A gently sloping sandy seabed with water turning teal and turquoise in the sunlight, the distant silhouette of Montserrat, and the lush island scenery create a heavenly environment for swimming.
There are other appealing activities in the hotel's programme too. Even after a rum punch-fuelled Sunday evening at the popular Shirley Heights Lookout (which every visitor to the island should do at least once) the sun-dappled bay is so beautiful in the morning that I was tempted out onto the jetty for a complimentary sunrise Pilates class. Though I felt a little mal-co-ordinated, staring at the fish beneath the dock as I attempted the next exercise was surprisingly soothing, and put a positive spin on the rest of the day.
Along with garden nature walks and a private cinema with daily films and on-demand screenings, Carlisle Bay does unusual extras exceptionally well. But it also pays special attention to its traditional five-star facilities. Its award-winning Blue Spa has marine-inspired treatments of the highest calibre and the attached yoga pavilion is sublime, surrounded by exotic foliage and looking out to sea. Even the Cool Kids Club has gone the extra mile to provide unique and interesting activities for kids such as the lizard hunt to search the resort gardens for its vast variety of colourful resident lizards.
Rooms with a view
My Ocean Suite on the top floor of a three-storey wooden villa was impressive. Set behind the pale palm-tufted sand at the east end of the bay, it's accented in marine tones, with a split level living area, giant walk-in shower, huge tub looking out over the rainforest to the rear of the resort and a wide balcony facing the beach. It's the perfect place to spread out and cool off, and happily, the resort's penchant for little extras extends to the rooms.
There was a jar of candied pineapple, fresh bottled water and mini bar full of juices, a kettle, coffee maker and most importantly artisan teabags plus milk in the fridge. Organic citrusy products in the bathroom negate the need to bring any toiletries bar toothpaste. At night I pulled the curtains and left my balcony door open to hear the sound of the waves and soft chirrup of tree-frogs that seem omnipresent after dark, though I've yet to actually see one. With nature all around, I was visited by more than one stray bird - a banana-quit bobbed into my room on one occasion and on another I found a swift pecking at the wax in the candle on my balcony.
The Ocean Suites are ideal for couples and solo travellers (who will be pleased to hear there's no single supplement) but the beach terrace suites opening onto the soft sand to the west of the bay are perfectly pitched for families, travelling friends and anyone who wants the ultimate easy access to the sea. Though the main suites are smaller, each has a second bedroom and porch just steps from the inviting waters of the Caribbean.
Appropriately for a barefoot luxury resort that attracts rich and famous guests, dining here feels abit like having a private chef. In an open-sided Caribbean-style pavilion beside the beach, Indigo acts as the resort's main eatery for meals, casual bites and drinks. Unusually for a resort, it's here you can find a la carte breakfast, serving up everything from smoked salmon and freshly-cooked omelettes to luxury yoghurt and vegetable smoothies that taste super healthy and rejuvenating.
I sampled all four of the resort's dining venues during my stay. Sophisticated oriental restaurant, East, manages to perfectly recreate cuisine from multiple Asian countries including Japanese sushi, Thai curry and Korean sesame chicken. In a shaded area by the pool, Ottimo is a great place for lunch with an authentic Italian menu including antipasti, wood-fired pizzas, fresh salads and gelato. At the far end of the beach, the peaceful Jetty Grill serves up the catch of the day with wine by the carafe. At sunset, as the bay shimmers silvery pink under the sky, tiki torches lead to the jetty where a private table can be set up for sundowners.
When in the Caribbean it would be almost rude not to enjoy a rum cocktail at sunset, and Carlisle Bay has that covered too. The resort's cocktail menu utilizes local rum in a range of bespoke drinks ranging from the fruity "Caribbean Swizzle" to the "Refashioned" (replacing the whiskey in an Old fashioned with rum) that can be enjoyed at the Jetty Bar; in a cushioned rattan chair, feet in the sand at the Indigo Bar; propping up the large pool-side bar; or in the romantic lantern-lit Coconut Grove.
Close to Antigua's Old Road with verdant slopes rising all around the turquoise bay, the scenery is the main attraction at the resort, and an extra reason to spend plenty of time on the beach. I alternated between wide hammocks strung between palms, shady cushioned cabanas and sunloungers inches from the surf. Each had a cooler filled with bottled water, but the amazing subtly-attendant staff will bring you anything you'd like - even if you hadn't realized you wanted it.
Lounging in the morning I was offered a perfectly-timed skewer of cool kiwi. Later on casually asking for a cup of tea, I woke from dozing in the sun to find a lovely member of staff had quietly set a pot of tea and lemon cake on a small table beside my hammock.
Carlisle Bay, my verdict
More than an accident of geography or a resort cornering the market in castaway chic, I was left feeling that Carlisle Bay is a definite catalyst for bliss, and offers a beach holiday in its purest sense.