24-Hour Room Service: Curtain Bluff, Antigua
Saturday 18 September 2010
It is nigh on half a century since the American horticulturist Howard Hulford took a fancy to a small promontory at the foot of the rainforest on the coast of southern Antigua. He applied to the island's planning authorities for permission to build a home. To his surprise they said no. Hulford was undeterred. "Fine, then, I'll build a hotel," he said, and did.
When Hulford died aged 86 in March last year, Curtain Bluff had become a cherished institution, not only in the appreciative eyes of returning guests – an impressive 65 per cent of its custom is repeat business – but also to the villagers of nearby Old Road, from whom it draws most of its staff, and over whom Hulford loomed as a benevolent sugar-daddy.
The hotel's financial controller, Emil Brown, is a dynamic whizz-kid seemingly from America; but he is Old Road born and bred, put through college in the US by Curtain Bluff's ongoing commitment to the local community. Hulford's legacy is protected both by his engaging widow, Shelley, and Curtain Bluff's general manager of many years, Rob Sherman. Sherman is a force of nature from Oregon whose daughter's godfather is Eric Clapton. Indeed, anyone famous who has ever set foot on Antiguan sand seems to end up on his speed-dial.
When he found out that I write about sport, he whisked me off to the Jolly Harbour boatyard and introduced me to the grizzled fisherman from whom he buys his seafood – a bare-footed old chap by the name of Anderson Montgomery Everton Roberts. A lifetime ago, he went by the name of Andy and scared the wits out of some of the world's best cricketers as the most hostile of the feared West Indian pace attack.
But Sherman is first and foremost a hotelier, and his vision, combined with Hulford's, has yielded great things at Curtain Bluff, not least an all-inclusive policy that draws the sting right out of that painful moment when you settle the bill.
It was Sherman's idea, 23 years ago, to build not only all meals but also alcoholic drinks and sporting activities into the cost of a holiday. That meant our daughter could go water-skiing whenever she liked, and that we could order a speedboat to take us snorkelling at the coral reef a mile offshore without baulking at the extra cost.
It also meant that 11.30am never seemed too early for cocktails; a perfect preparation for the excellent buffet lunch in the hotel's beachside restaurant, my wife and I lay on our sunbeds sipping the cocktail of the day, a Miami Vice (half pina colada, half strawberry daiquiri). Our 11-year-old had the same thing but without the alcohol. Naturally, we christened it a Miami Virtue.
It is said Antigua has 365 beaches, one for every day of the year, but many of them are in the over-developed part of the island. Curtain Bluff is on the more scenic south coast, and enjoys a notable geographical distinction: one of its two beaches is lapped by the Caribbean, the other by the Atlantic.
The volcanic island of Montserrat looms on the horizon, and to the south you can see Guadaloupe. Hulford developed the site with great expertise; the site's lush vegetation, which includes 80 varieties of palm, looks like it's been there forever. In fact, there was only a single tree when Hulford first set eyes on the place – a tamarind, which continues to thrive.
Our two adjoining rooms were large and simply furnished, and immensely comfortable. Among the pleasing touches were the miniatures of rum beside the bath, and an ice-bucket replenished daily.
There are 72 rooms at Curtain Bluff, most contained in two adjacent low-rise blocks – ours opened directly on to the Atlantic beach – each with its own hammock strung between two palms, but sadly no instructions for exiting it gracefully.
The extensive main reception area is typical West Indies-colonial, with a large restaurant and live music most nights. Other than eat, drink and dance, there's not much to do at night, which suited us fine. There is also a top-notch spa, added four years ago. I've been to swankier hotels in the Caribbean, but never one so conducive to both relaxation and recreation, whichever is your thing.
I should add, however, that there are friendlier islands than Antigua. Having just come from neighbouring Nevis, where everyone seemed delighted to see us, many of the staff seemed slightly taciturn.
Happily, there was the smiliest of exceptions in the wiry form of Lenroy, one of the beach hands, who led us on a memorable snorkelling expedition, and admitted that the one thing he likes about hurricanes is that "neighbours who never talk are suddenly having cups of tea with each other".
Curtain Bluff Resort, Antigua (001 268 462 8400; curtainbluff.com)
Doubles from $825 (£550), all inclusive. Curtain Bluff reopens for the season on 23 October
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