Is finding the right family holiday something you should throw money at?
As we haul our suitcases to Heathrow for the long, expensive flight to Antigua, it feels a little risky. The stakes are much higher when you're billing this as "the holiday of a lifetime"; a dud week in a cottage in Suffolk might be disappointing, but you're not still paying off your mistake six months later.
With a truculent teenager and a high-maintenance little madam in tow (I love them, but we've had some memorably bad holiday moments), finding the right place for relaxation, exhilaration, discovery and serenity is a lot to ask. Hence the big-ticket destination. What we're aiming for is sun, sea, sand – and sailing. Something for everyone.
Meanwhile, I do want to put my own stamp on this holiday: I've chosen a resort that has rooms and cottages with fully equipped kitchens, so that I can experiment with local ingredients. Whether or not I get the hang of tacking, I know I'll find the cooking relaxing. Food is more my passion than activity, if I'm brutally honest – but I've yet to find the learn-to-cook holiday that would entrance our four desires.
I ask our taxi driver to stop off at the island's main grocery store – surely an abundance of tropical fruit and salads, and gleaming fresh fish awaits. Rookie mistake, it appears. The shelves are filled with American imports and faintly dusty canned tuna: everything fresh has been exported. This will be a challenge.
Also a challenge is getting to our resort, Nonsuch Bay. It is less than a year old and when we arrive, the drive up from the main road is not quite smooth tarmac – we, and our groceries, get a really good going over down the bumpy track. We're dusty, saucer-eyed with tiredness and unsure what to expect, but all that fades away when we reach the brow of the hill and see the bay.
It's a picture-book image of white sand, blue sea and grey shingled plantation-style buildings – oh, and a couple of infinity pools for good measure. It's also eerily quiet, because the season hasn't quite kicked off yet. The only sound is the metallic tick, tick, tick of sail hooks against masts. Down on the bay, a neatly arranged row of q'bas, hobie cats and elites await us (not that I know their names at the time ...).
Experience has taught me that the family that learns together, laughs together. (Well, there was that circus skills debacle at Club Med, but that's another story.) So a week of sailing instruction seemed like a good idea when we booked. As we put down our cases in the cool of our giant dark-wood bedrooms and skitter over the hot sand to meet Richard Chadburn, our sailing guru for the week, a tiny prickle of unease goes down my neck. I'm not great on boats.
Luckily, Richard's a first-class graduate from the school of laconic instruction. Unflappable in a wide-brimmed straw hat (which does flap; Nonsuch Bay is non-stop breezy), and with the kind of tan that only comes from living in the sun all the time, rather than lying in the sun for two weeks, Richard surveys his motley new crew.
"What do you want to achieve?" he asks. We um, we aah, we rub our toes in the sand. "All right, then. Let's start tomorrow at 9am and see how we get on."
Richard has sensed the mood and decided to Take Control. We've had a knot masterclass, been kitted out in life jackets and learned how to rig out boats before we've had time to consider backing out in favour of a sun lounger and the new Philip Roth.
Over the next five days (with one day off for good behaviour, which we use to tour the island – of which more later) I reckon I capsize, fall overboard and generally hit the surf more than a hundred times. I didn't think it was possible to turn a boat wrong
side up so often: sometimes I'd go from a left to a right-handed capsize without pausing. The bruises around my upper arms look alarmingly like domestic violence; they're actually from hauling myself back aboard.
Meanwhile, the children are zooming across the bay like naturals, and because there are no other sailors anywhere in sight, they can take off and tack back at will – under the watchful eye of Richard and his sidekick Leslie, a man dry in every sense of the word. I never see him get wet above the ankle and his expression when I fall in (yet again) is of long-suffering bemusement.
This "Swallows and Amazons Go Tropical" adventure is a brilliant way to pass the time and gives the day structure. For busy people, a truly restful holiday is one in which choice is limited. We sail, we rest, we read, we eat. Because we are visiting in low season, we have an infinity pool each much of the time – and run panting from the boats to the cool, fresh water for a dip, then take to the rangy balcony of our beachfront cottage to rest our battered bones. Or, in the case of the teenager, stand in front of the Cadillac-sized fridge, door wide open, and ponder what cold drink to choose.
The menu at the Nonsuch Bay restaurant, meanwhile, is a conundrum of a different kind. The resort obviously wants to appeal to, and cater for, a discerning visitor, people who, I assume, are used to fine dining and the menu reflects that ... but I don't want Asian or International in Antigua. I'd hoped for luxe Caribbean, not seared tuna, warm foie gras or moules marinières. It's delightful for a couple of nights but an active family might prefer to kick back with a bowl of pasta and some salad – I know we do. The staff couldn't be more charming, though, and when my daughter ventures into the kitchen they have her making her own smoothies and eating rice and peas with the staff, to her delight.
In just a few days – and despite my woeful wobbles – we've learnt a great deal about sailing and can rig our boats, race across the bay and play follow the leader. Richard rewards us with a high-speed trip over to Green Island, an uninhabited paradise where the snorkelling is breathtaking and the colours of the sea, sky and plants even more vibrant, if that were possible. Whether you're a veteran scuba nut or a first-time mask-wearer, seeing sights like a lobster taking a stroll or a fleet of squid flying past is magical.
On the way back, Richard entertains us with local gossip and tales of notable residents. We sail past a small yacht abandoned on the reef (drug deal gone bad is the considered opinion, because anyone going back to claim the boat will get arrested, so there it sits) and the millionaires' houses that cling to the prettiest of the bluffs.
It's with some reluctance that we leave Richard and Leslie and pile into a car for our island tour. (The memory of that bumpy road is still fresh.) But once we hit the tarmac proper it's a smooth ride – Antigua's roads and street lights are being revamped, largely through Chinese investment, our driver tells us.
We see the natural phenomenon of Devil's Bridge and the abandoned commerce that was Betty's Hope sugar plantation. We coast past pineapple fields, wind through the capital, St John's, past the Viv Richards cricket ground – and Mr Richards' front door – and end up at Nelson's Dockyard. For a tourist cliché, this is actually rather pretty – the museum, merchant houses and work areas which were so important to the Royal Navy. If the guide's patter is a bit over-rehearsed, we don't mind.
On the way back to Nonsuch Bay, we plead with our driver to take us to a local restaurant, somewhere unfussy. He delights us – once we assure him that we mean really untouristy – by delivering us to a tin hut behind the road outside English Harbour (which looks like it might well have a Starbucks, I don't venture in to find out).
The ladies who runs the stand, meanwhile, talk us through the menu. Conch water and goat water (both soups), jerk chicken, rice. One of everything, please. It's piquant, hearty and delicious, and the entire meal, of course, costs us less than one entrée at Nonsuch Bay. I wouldn't want to be without either experience.
Back on the boats for one last day of sailing, I manage a whole hour upright. The sense of achievement is pathetically enormous and I'm even wearing my bruises with pride. Or perhaps that's because they've been joined by another war wound – the scarlet scorch mark where a jellyfish wrapped its tentacles around me while on a morning snorkel (me, not it).
As I reflect on the week while having fresh aloe vera from the garden administered and a cooling smoothie in the shade, it strikes me that this holiday has been a triumph. I've had the genuine justification to shout "land ahoy", and I've allowed my children to beat me at something. (What can I say? I'm competitive.) I've eaten conch and experienced the hottest of hot sauces, the local legend that is Suzie's Teardrops. We've had a real laugh and learned something.
Who's to say we wouldn't have done so on a sailing course in Cornwall? Well, the sun, sea, sand and sailing are in a different class here.
How to get there
British Airways (0844 493 0787 ba.com) flies to Antigua from £591. Nonsuch Bay Resort (020-8090 4978; nonsuchbayresort.com) is offering Independent on Sunday readers 10 per cent off bookings made before 31 January 2011. Quote Independent on Sunday. One week in a two-bedroom apartment costs from £400 ($630) per person, based on four sharing, including accommodation only, private transfers, tax and service charge. The price, with access to sailing included, rises to £642 ($1,010) per person.
Antigua and Barbuda Tourist Board (01245 707471; visitantiguabarbuda.co.uk).