At ease in Antigua

You don't have to be rich to visit the celebrity island of Antigua – but it helps to know a little about the fine art of doing nothing. By Mark C O'Flaherty

There's wahoo on the chef's recommendation at Estate House restaurant at the Jumby Bay resort this evening. Wahoo is a rather delicious white fish that's as fun to say as it is nice to eat. It comes with a banana risotto and the option of the local beer, Wadadli, which is similarly smile-inducing to order. Wadadli, which translates loosely as "our own" is the other name by which Antigua – this outrageously pretty island in the West Indies, much loved by honeymooners, cricket aficionados and Eric Clapton – is often known. As palm-fringed destinations go, Antigua gives you more reason to smile broadly than most, from the oh-so-sweet schoolchildren holding hands on their way to school, to a rainbow over the coast of St Mary's and pelicans dive-bombing for their breakfast. It's 14 miles by 11 miles of feel-good paradise, with the kind of scenery left, right and centre that could sell you anything from Lilt to a pension plan.

Part-time Antiguan Mr Clapton owns a house here, as well as a neighbouring detox clinic. If I were that way inclined, I can't imagine a more attractive spot in which to go cold turkey. Clapton's house dominates much of a long stretch of land below Shirley Heights, a clifftop look-out with a bar and restaurant that gets lively every Sunday, buzzing with tourists, locals, alfresco reggae and rum punch. It's a mini-carnival at the close of every weekend, and one of the few reasons to leave your sunlounger while you're on the island.

On any beach holiday there is an ever-present, nagging fear that you're missing out on major cultural riches by crashing out with a book and a piña colada. But to do yourself and Antigua justice, no one save the most avid birdwatcher or slavish historian of the sugar trade need spend more than a day or two on excursions or car hire (the latter being particularly inadvisable as some of the roads really aren't, er, roadworthy). So then, what to tick off before succumbing to the drowsy allure of Piz Buin and your spa treatments?

The area around Shirley Heights, above English Harbour on the south coast, has spectacularly pretty views. And although something of a glorified gift shop, Nelson's Dockyard, below, has splendid Georgian architecture that sits handsomely in its unlikely, tropical environment. If maritime things float your boat, it will be duly floated here, right after you arrive in the little rowboat across the harbour from the Pagopoco restaurant in the marina: there is 18th-century sailor's graffiti above Malone's shop, and in the Dockyard Museum, you'll find two Carronade cannons, the ship's bell from the HMS Tartar and Nelson's Regency-style bed.

Nelson based his Caribbean operations here in the early 19th century, though he wasn't keen. "This vile place," he is reported to have said about Antigua. "This dreadful hole!" But then he didn't have the chance to sample the wahoo, Wadadli or the rather splendid clams and the capricciosa pizza back at the aforementioned Pagopoco. Conditions during Nelson's era, at the hub of the sugar industry, were harsh to say the least – though far harsher, of course, for the slaves than for Nelson himself.

Since obtaining full independence in 1981, Antigua has developed into the most luxurious of the major Caribbean holiday islands. "Do you know Antigua, Iris?" asks the arch snob Mrs Levinson to her cleaner while packing her suitcase in the subversive BBC sitcom, The League of Gentlemen. "Is he the chicken man?" replies the gormless part-time supermarket check-out lady Iris, having been told to expect a delivery in the coming days. "No, love! Antigua – the place in the Caribbean! Sapphire blue ocean, cloudless sky...." Antigua has long established itself as a place for the kind of people who probably turn left on boarding, and who like everyone to see them do it. There are a lot of Mrs Levinsons on Antigua. They aren't shy about spending money, which is just as well as a night in a hotel here – all-inclusive in a mid-range suite – can float, margarita in hand, past £500. For that money, Mrs Levinson expects a lot, and unlike on some other Caribbean islands, she usually gets it. While those in the know complain of Barbados going downmarket, Antigua continues to go up, up, up....

The new wave of destination-in-their-own-right resorts are distancing themselves from the tropical cliché of thatched roofs and petals scattered on the bed on arrival. Carlisle Bay is a sibling operation to One Aldwych in London, and its urbane roots are very deliberately showing. Like its UK partner, it oozes sleek, pared-down Italia modernity, with 101 cool Pantone variations on a grey theme and burgers made from Japanese Kobe beef on the room-service menu. In place of Mr Coffee by the minibar, there's an all-singing, all-dancing, sometimes temperamental chrome Gaggia. As I heard someone say, nay purr, at their sunlounging companion on the beach as various members of staff groomed the sand in front of them, "Some places we've been look expensive; this place feels expensive."

Not far from Giorgio Armani's holiday home up the coast is the newest haute spot: Hermitage Bay is a swanky, all-inclusive operation but on a tiny, boutique scale. Twenty-five dark-wood villas have been built into the hillside. It's all designed to feel like your romantic holiday à deux is taking place miles from the nearest Mrs Levinson. Hermitage really is a thing of loveliness: once you've braved the scary motorised buggy drive to your room (the paths are narrow and the drops are substantial) and have been shown through to your terrace, you'd have to be made of ice not to draw breath at the view. Then you can shut the doors, slap your iPod into the docking station and jump into your private pool while you wait for room service to arrive with a tray of cocktails.

Splitting your time between two or three resorts is a great way to mix things up a little in Antigua. But no matter what you are tempted to do in your days off the beach, it's worth knowing in advance what absolutely not to do. The capital, St John's, should be avoided unless you're passing through it at great speed en route from your cruise ship or are intent on scoring a fake Rolex. While two-thirds of the population live here, don't expect to happen upon any charm or local culture. Redcliffe Quay, an old slave colony compound now turned into an open-air mall, is of passing architectural and historical note, but for the most part St John's consists of air-conditioned, duty-free shopping and sterile burger joints.

A far better afternoon can be spent at Devil's Bridge on the Atlantic coast, a natural limestone crossing formed by the erosion of the rock underneath by the sea. There's something cinematic in the experience of standing here, as the waves churn and thunder up beside you, and there's added poignancy in the fact that Devil's Bridge got its name because so many slaves took their own lives by throwing themselves into the water below. While Redcliffe Quay may have been rehabilitated into commerce, the violence of the elements at Devil's Bridge is harsh, evocative and moving – and has remained a constant, from the end of slavery to the arrival of celebrity villas.

With the arrival of those villas has come a radical cultural shift. A Hamptons-style influx has made an unlikely partnership with traditional island life, and billboards for luxury private compounds are as evident on the streets as posters for Wadadli. To visit some of these most exclusive parts of Antigua, you either have to own part of one of these luxury compounds, or be a guest at somewhere like Jumby Bay, the resort that allows guests into the 40 villas it owns on a tiny private island otherwise populated by $15m celebrity homes. Robin Leach, the nasal presenter of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, resides in one of them. At all-inclusive Jumby, staff address you accurately by title and surname from arrival to departure. There are no locks on the doors. Jumby is intended to have a what-you-want, when-you-want-it feel. Glass of chardonnay for breakfast? Coming right up... No signature required, no bill to follow, all taken care of.

The resort sprawls across its 300 acres. You have the option of a lift from a motorised golf cart to and from the focal points of activity on the island (drivers materialise eerily within seconds of calling for them), or you can make use of your own American touring bike. For the uninitiated, the latter can seem an untameable beast. The handlebars appear designed for double-jointed wrists, and to brake you need to back-pedal. If you don't know this, and I didn't, you can find yourself careering down an incline at speed, disrupting the overall hush with what can best be described as very audible blind panic. I'm not alone: one recent visitor to Jumby cycled straight off the main pier.

On a catamaran excursion around the coast you get a comprehensive overview of Antiguan resort life. On the whole, the island is upmarket, but levels of exclusivity vary. I took a boat heading north up the west side of the island, enduring what can most generously be described as coffee-table reggae (Bob Marley and UB40, with the CD skipping on "Red Red Wine" at precisely the same point on each of its three plays). After u o we passed peaceful bays with waterfront chalets, the catamaran pulled up at Dickenson Bay, home to Sandals resort as well as a cluster of bars, restaurants, watersport vendors and small hotel operations. It felt like a different island entirely. This is where you'd come in Antigua if you really didn't want to get away from it all. Sandals looks like it's been transplanted from off-Strip Las Vegas – and it has the throng to match. The holidaymakers here certainly wouldn't appreciate the nightlife back at Jumby, which consists of candlelit brandies after dinner and an invitation to come and search for endangered hawksbill turtles by torchlight.

The oldest luxury resort on the island is Curtain Bluff, described as a "super luxury all-inclusive operation". Curtain Bluff awards commemorative silver trays for milestone visitors on their 10th, 20th or 30th visit – and they keep local silversmiths in solid business doing it. The decor is so classically Caribbean as to be heavyweight kitsch; the interior looks like a pastel-coloured sketch from the cover of a Seventies Mills & Boon bodice-ripper set in the West Indies. Meanwhile, the predominantly American residents all dress the part in the style of a particularly glossy Aaron Spelling production from the late Eighties: designer cruisewear for the ladies and Hawaiian shirts for the gentlemen. It sounds tacky, but it isn't and US celebrities flock here time and time again. Rob Sherman, the manager, is godfather to one of Eric Clapton's children and, on showing me around his house, points out a variety of pictures of himself hanging with Keith Richards and other assorted rock legends.

If you do want to leave your resort gates to graze, there are good restaurants on the island, most notably The Cove, which serves New York strip steak with confit onions and madeira alongside freshly harvested seafood. Main courses clock in at around the EC$90 (East Caribbean dollar) (£17) mark, and the Sunday lunch is always booked solid. There is also, beside the airport, Andrew Knoll's Pavilion restaurant, arguably the most expensive in the Caribbean, where jackets are essential regardless of the stifling heat outside, the Belgian waffle starter comes with foie gras, the wine cellar contains 8,000-plus bottles and the bill comes with surplus zeroes: you'll be looking at a least £100 a head for a night to remember. It's so over-the-top that locals chuckle when they mention it, but for the sheer performance and pretension alone, it's worth witnessing the quasi-Ducasse theatre of pomp, square ceramics, bow-tied sommeliers and imported rose arrangements.

At the other end of the scale is OJ's, which is as good a reason as any to brave a taxi ride from your hotel. Unlike The Pavilion, you'll at least be sure that you're in the West Indies. It's situated near Darkwood Beach, an unfussy, undeveloped locals' beach that is at least as pretty as any of those with five-star resorts on them. This is a low-key barefoot bar, where you can chow down on a thrifty lunch of grilled snapper and rice and enjoy the view of Montserrat smoking away on the horizon. You have to wait a little longer for your drink than you would do at Claridge's, but it's a hassle-free place, whether you're a Stones guitarist popping in to hang out with mates en route to your house in Jamaica or Roman Abramovich checking on your new villa.

There's a huge expatriate community on the island. Over lunch at Pagopoco I asked an Italian chef and his wife (a relative of the Windsors, no less, who crafts the flags for most of the tycoons' yachts that sail from the island), what it is they do here. "Most of the time we do nothing... and we love it." They pondered for a moment: "We play golf! And go deep-sea fishing."

You don't come to Antigua for a high level of activity, you come here for a very high quality of life and to hone the fine art of doing nothing. Lie on the beach and be hypnotised by tiny crabs popping in and out of their holes, watch idly as yellow-breasted birds land on the rims of frosted wine glasses, or groups of smaller, spikier, black ones – glossy as if groomed with pomade – fight over the remnants in your bread basket. Stare out past the butterflies dancing around the palm trees, across to the horizon and an ocean that looks like molten bleach-dipped denim. Sometimes "nothing" can be the most spectacularly beautiful thing on earth.

Traveller's Guide:

GETTING THERE
The writer flew with BMI (0870 60 70 222;
www.flybmi.com), which offers direct flights from Manchester to Antigua; return fares start at £634. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

STAYING THERE
Jumby Bay, Long Island (001 268 462 6000; www.jumbybayresort.com). Doubles start at US$932 (£491), all-inclusive.
Curtain Bluff, Old Road Village (0800 051 8956; www.curtainbluff.com). Doubles start at $717 (£378), all-inclusive.
Carlisle Bay, St Mary's (001 268 484 0000; www.carlisle-bay.com). Doubles start at US$932 (£491), including breakfast and afternoon tea.
Hermitage Bay, Jolly Harbour (001 268 562 5500; www.hermitagebay.com). Doubles start at US$687 (£362), all-inclusive.

EATING & DRINKING THERE
Pagopoco, Antigua Slipway, English Harbour (001 268 562 5012; www.pago poco.com).
The Cove, Boons Point, Soldiers Bay, St John's (001 268 562 2683; www.thecove-antigua.com).
The Pavilion, No 7, Pavilion Drive, Coolidge (001 268 480 6800; www.thepavilion antigua.com).
OJ's, Crabb Hill, St John's (001 268 460 0184).

MORE INFORMATION
www.antigua-barbuda.tv; 020-7258 0070

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