Picture this: Fun for all in Antigua
A resident children's book illustrator helps bring a Caribbean beach resort to life for Jane Anderson and her family.
Saturday 02 April 2011
"Can you guess what it is yet?" The children's book illustrator Adam Stower deftly draws what looks like a giant's nose but turns out to be a rabbit being fired out of a cannon into a huge wobbly jelly. Twenty or so kids squeal with delight as they shout out "nose!", "rabbit!", and "jelly!". Their excitement mounts as the turquoise Caribbean sea crashes on to Coco Beach just outside, and warm salty trade winds breeze through the open door of the Kids' Club at St James's Club in Antigua.
"It's impossible to fox you lot," says Adam in his smiley English manner to the children here on a February half-term Caribbean break. There's Paul, aged 10, from New York City; Jack, five, from Twickenham; Harrison, eight, from Canada; and Maya, seven, from Scotland. Along with my two, Scarlett, seven, and four-year-old Fin, all are revelling in the simple, therapeutic pleasure of watching someone draw.
In this age of Nintendo Wii, it's heartening to see that something as simple as a black felt-tip drawing on a large sheet of white paper can whip children from age four to 10 into such a state of euphoria. I'm transported back to my childhood, watching Rolf Harris and Tony Hart. These days, Mister Maker on CBeebies has taken up the mantle, albeit in a rather more manic way.
Adam is hosting five days of hour-long storytelling and drawing workshops, a concept that has brought together Puffin Books, Elite Island Resorts and Virgin Holidays. The idea is to offer kids something a bit different during school holidays, and it also gives Puffin the chance to get its books talked about. The publisher has a small library of children's books in the Kids' Club at St James's Club.
The whole thing panders to a parent's quest for getting something educational into their children's holiday time, and infuses it with traditional values: there isn't a computer screen in sight. For Adam, himself a dad from Brighton, the appeal is straightforward. "All parents like an hour here and there on holiday to lounge by the pool, safe in the knowledge that their kids are enjoying themselves. And I think anything that encourages children to read and draw is good. It's quite difficult for staff in kids' clubs to keep levels of enthusiasm up, so I'm here to inspire."
Adam has illustrated many successful Puffin books including Mungo And The Picture Book Pirates and its sequels, along with Bottoms Up!. He's a natural with kids and has tricks up his sleeve to keep everyone calm. "These are very special felt tips," he says. "They only work when everything is peaceful."
After the guessing game he settles the children down and reads one of his books aloud. Mungo And The Picture Book Pirates lends itself wonderfully to the Antiguan setting – and Adam lets the children in on some of the nuances of his illustrations and the liberating idea that in picture books you can create anything.
The workshop now begins in earnest as the kids get creating. Adam has prepared a huge underwater scene for the children to add their drawings to. He has drawn some fish templates for the younger ones to colour-in and encourages the older ones to create their own sea creatures. Fin comes up with a crazy idea of an underwater van and Adam draws a submersible chip van driven by a failed pirate called Dave who has been forced to find an alternative career.
Each of the five sessions follows the same pattern, but the theme and activity varies. Paper plates take centre stage as Adam demonstrates how to make jellyfish one day and masks the next, offering up insider drawing tips such as how to get great expressions with eyes and eyebrows. Maya's mum tells me her daughter doesn't usually like kids' clubs, but this has been a breakthrough.
The club itself is a fairly modest affair, just a room with a table and some chairs, a sandy play area at the back and front, and a plastic Wendy house. Of course there are palm trees all round and a stunning beach in full view. Children can come here any time from 10am to 11pm for no extra charge; dinner is served at 5pm if parents are prepared to pay US$15 (£10) per hour for a babysitter, and dine without their children later.
St James's Club is a four-star resort, though by no means the slickest family resort on Antigua. It offers an all-inclusive option – which, these days, puts it in good company. Perhaps the worldwide economic downturn has done the reputation of all-inclusives a good turn: chi-chi hotel groups that previously shunned the all-in option – Les Pavillons in Mauritius and Constance Moofushi Resort in the Maldives among them – have now embraced it.
There are four restaurants to choose from at St James's Club. We avoided Coco's as the ambience and food were below par, but the Rainbow Garden Room was reliably good, and Docksider was an above-average al fresco restaurant by the lagoon, with à la carte and buffet dining. The real culinary treat is Piccolo Mondos which charges a US$35 (£23) per-person supplement, worth it for a treat but easily avoidable if you're watching your holiday pennies. One family of seven I spoke to clearly weren't: they were heading off-campus to Catherine's Café at English Harbour, a French restaurant where a party that size could spend £500 in a night.
Some of the all-inclusive aspects were curious. You pay for drinks if they are by the bottle – but who would do that when you can order a decent sparkling wine by the glass all night?
At the tours desk, there was a healthy trade in paid excursions. Family-friendly island activities included a zip-wire experience through the rainforest, a snorkelling trip to Green Island, and what was ambitiously billed by Adventure Antigua as an "Eco Tour", even though it involved a 52ft power catamaran.
So, how much does this cost? Looking ahead to next February half term (without the Puffin offering), the week's package price for a family of four is about £5,350. But this is in the middle of the Caribbean peak season. Off-season Antigua, despite the storms that can blow in between June and November, is still delightful. And while summer prices in the Med rocket, in the Caribbean they actually fall. Flying out on 20 August, a family of four will pay £4,860 – hardly bargain basement, but excellent value compared with a European all-inclusive. With Ed Vere, the author and illustrator of Puffin's Mr Big (as you surely know, a gorilla who can play jazz piano), it could be a storybook family holiday.
* Send them sailing down zip wires for a day through the Fig Tree forest. The Antigua Rainforest Canopy Tour company takes children aged five and above on a 300ft-high course of nine overhead lines. The 90-minute adrenalin-raiser costs US$50 (£31) for kids; $89 (£55) for adults. It runs every hour between 9am and 11am, Mon to Sat ( antiguarainforest.com)
* A boat trip to the uninhabited Green Island takes you to deserted beaches and offshore coral reefs, teeming with tropical fish. Ferries leave at 11am and 1.30pm daily from the jetty near the Harmony Hall hotel. If you eat at the Italian restaurant there, the five-minute boat trip is discounted from $20 (£12) to $10 (£6) per person. ( harmonyhallantigua.com)
* A visit to "Stingray City" is an exhilarating excursion, bringing you up close with rays. Departing from Mercers Creek Bay, you're ferried out to Barge Reef, where you can swim with these exotic fish for an hour. Free for under-fours; otherwise $50 (£31) per person. ( stingraycityantigua.com)
* Another waterborne adventure is available through Wadadli Cats. This company offers three different catamaran cruises around the island – all of which are suitable for children over five. Trips include an al fresco lunch and a rum-stocked open bar for grown-ups. Prices start at $95 (£59) for the full day. Children under 12 go half price. ( wadadlicats.com)
* Segway tours are also available. These odd-looking devices will scoot you and your truculent teenagers around the island, making the process of instilling a sense of enthusiasm about historical and cultural sites that little bit easier. From $65 (£40) per person for a half-day. ( segwayantigua.com)
Travel essentials: Antigua
* Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859; virginholidays.co.uk) offers a Puffin Storytelling Week at the St James's Club in Antigua, departing Gatwick on 20 August, for £4,860 for a family of four. The price includes Virgin Atlantic flights (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) from Gatwick, transfers and all-inclusive accommodation in a "standard club" room. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) competes on the Gatwick-Antigua route.
* St James's Club, Mamora Bay, Antigua (001 954 949 2133; stjamesclubantigua.com).
* Ed Vere, creator of Puffin's 'Mr Big' and the forthcoming 'Bedtime for Monsters' has been confirmed for 20-27 August at the St James's Club.
* Antigua Tourism: antigua-barbuda.org
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