The Resort Report (TRR) – ANTIGUA
Island Overview: Antigua is a rather large island (by Caribbean standards), somewhat hilly in many areas. This makes for slightly winding roads in some spots of the island, but they are generally in decent condition (again, by Caribbean standards!) and they are not difficult to navigate once you have gotten used to driving on the left hand side.
While the ads for Antigua like to boast that there are 365 beaches (one for every day of the year), none of them are of the pristine, white, endless-stretch variety: Rather, the best of the lot are a maximum of about 3/4 mile in length, usually in scenic coves.
The majority of the better beaches (and resorts) are located on Antigua’s Western coast. The capital city of St. John is also on the West coast, and is a decent place to spend a couple of hours if you’re looking to do some shopping and get some local flavor. You should make the trip to Nelson’s Dockyard and Shirley Heights (the scenic overlook there is a great place for pics). You can go any time, but if you like a party atmosphere, there are afternoon barbeques one or two days a week that get a big tourist crowd. There is also a rain forest in the southwest portion of the island that is nice to drive through.
We like Antigua a great deal for its variety of scenic locations, good beaches, and relative ease of getting around on your own. It is also a convenient destination to get to; depending on where you are coming from, there are several direct non-stop flights to Antigua daily – something you’ll appreciate in lieu of wasting 2 full days of vacation time in airports and on planes.
1) Galley Bay - This resort on the West coast scores high marks in all categories… rooms, food, service and most importantly, the beach. It is on a lovely cove, very quiet. There are only 68 rooms here, so staking out your own piece of beach is never a problem. Even the lowest priced ones, the Gaugin Cottages, are mere steps from the sand, and are of a quite charming design, slightly secluded from the rest of the property on a lagoon – indeed, many couples prefer them to the beachfront accommodations. All other rooms at Galley Bay are pretty much on the beach and are nicely appointed. Over the last decade or two, whenever there has been a natural disaster (as in hurricane), Galley Bay has taken the opportunity to rebuild with a vengeance, adding such niceties as a pool, and outdoor landscaping including waterfalls and a little boardwalk. It is fairly close to St. John, but out of the way enough that you don’t really get any day-trippers here. In all, it is a tranquil environment – no blaring steel drum bands or frat-partying - on what TRR would rate as the 3rd nicest beach on the Island, though the surf here can get a little rough at certain times of the year. This is an all-inclusive property that, while expensive, represents good value considering the quality and the setting; we’ve also seen some very good discount packages offered for far lower than the rack rates, making it an even better value.
2) (Tie) Curtain Bluff; and Jumby Bay Resort – Both of these properties are of the “if money is of little concern” variety. Curtain Bluff is one of the original high-class, all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean. It is in a wonderful, impeccably-maintained setting with magnificent gardens – even the exercise room has a beautiful view of the sea. Some of our editors are a little put off by the slightly more formal nature of this property (demonstrated by jackets at dinner, for example), but most find it refreshingly civil. To be sure, the crowd that frequents Curtain Bluff is more established (read older) than at many other properties, but that has a lot to do with the cost and the fact that many are returnees who started coming here up to forty years ago. The loyalty of their patrons is legendary: Even in times when other resorts might struggle to maintain an occupancy rate over 65%, Curtain Bluff is usually fully booked – and that’s without offering any “deals” off their lofty rates. Among the things you do get for your money here is a restaurant that ranks very high among all-inclusives, complete with one of the best-stocked wine cellars anywhere, though dining times are a tad restricted – somewhat due to the fact that they don’t do the buffets here that many other all-inclusives do. There isn’t a bad room to be had here; while most are not lavishly luxurious, all have terrific views. There has been a recent addition to the property of about 18 rooms which are a bit more posh; especially the bathrooms. As you would expect, the staff here is extremely attentive to your needs: Curtain Bluff has built a sterling reputation over the years with the locals of Antigua, being strongly involved with the island community as a whole and not just concerned with the area within its gates. This translates into a staff that takes great pride in making you happy. There are two beaches on the premises. One is more for lying out than swimming (it also provides great views from the rooms). The other is the more utilized beach, with lovely palm trees lining the shore. We prefer other beaches on Antigua as far as actual “use” is concerned (please see other reviews), but this is certainly a beautiful setting. This resort is located on the southwest coast of the island, which is convenient in that it is about midway between St. John and English Harbor – if you’re ever inclined to leave the property. TRR doesn’t consider Curtain Bluff to be a great value, but we have recently seen a few package deals being offered for this property – especially during off-season, and if we’re not counting our pennies (or thousands of pennies as the case may be), we’re quite content here.
You’ve probably heard about Jumby Bay as the resort located on the luxurious private isle where the likes of Robin Leach has a residence – it is located about a 15-minute ferry ride off the coast of Antigua. You’ve probably also read that Jumby has had a history of up-and-down, depending on who was managing the resort at the time. We’re happy to report that it is currently in an extreme “up”: We really only have good things to say about this resort, but for the fact that we’ve heard rumblings that the owners of the island are again considering notions of tinkering both with the resort, and other building on the island (there are currently about 40 private residences on Long Island, home of this resort). Right now, this is a non-issue, as Jumby Bay is pretty much an island paradise. Even the most basic accommodations here are quite luxurious. While no doubt, there are levels to that luxury, TRR contributors were perfectly content in the lowest priced category: All units utilize an island wood décor, with air conditioning and ceiling fans, and while the more expensive ones of course boast larger interiors, even the standard size is quite spacious. Some might find the atmosphere at Jumby a bit too sedate for their tastes -- it is pretty quiet here.
Of course, there are a wealth of activities available; from waterfront to snorkeling trips to hiking/biking around the island to tennis, and even a putting green. And of course, you can always take the ferry over to Antigua for a few hours… but frankly, we think this is one of the best places to relax and read a good book. As for food here, again, we have only positive things to say. The food/service here is expectedly superior, and the atmosphere is a little more informal than Curtain Bluff. Jumby is also one of those places that will fix you a picnic basket for the beach if you want. In short, we love this resort, and would probably give it the edge over Curtain Bluff, unless you intend to do a good deal of exploring on the main island of Antigua. And again, if money is of no concern, Jumby would move up to the top slot; but, unfortunately, some of us have to take financial aspects into consideration, and a week at Jumby can run you almost twice as much as a week at Galley Bay.
3) (Tie) Rex Blue Heron; and Pineapple Beach and Tennis Club – To be honest, we liked Blue Heron better a few years ago, before Rex Properties took it over – there was a little more quaint charm to it. The main draw, however, is still here: It is on the best beach on the Island. They’ve added a pool and some more rooms, and turned it into an all-inclusive (serving just adequate fare). The rooms are not large, but they are comfortable and nicely accented with wood panels and ceiling fans. We strongly recommend Beachfront units here (preferably upper level), as many of the other accommodations have somewhat limited views. Also, the standard category rooms do not have air-conditioning, if that is important to you. Located towards the South end of the West Coast, Blue Heron is a moderately priced property that occasionally offers slight discounts for package deals. In all, it is a very good value, and again, there’s that great beach.
The Pineapple Beach and Tennis Club is another resort that has changed hands a few times in the last few years. This property is on the Northeast coast of Antigua, a little farther away from other attractions on the island, but not prohibitively so (it will take you a good 40 minutes to over an hour to get to other points of interest). The Allegro chain, which recently ran the property, added more rooms and expanded the bar areas, along with sprucing up the place a bit in general (fortunately, they left the bar/shack at the top of the property alone – a great perch to hang out and watch a sunset). There’s a little more activity here than at either Blue Heron or Galley Bay, but it’s still pretty peaceful. TRR would rate this as the 2nd nicest beach on Antigua; nice sand and beautiful, calm water. Go for the water-view rooms rather than the higher-category beachfront; they have better views, more privacy, and are close enough to the beach. The food at Pineapple Beach is a level above Blue Heron, and while it is priced several hundred dollars more (about $500/pp per week), Pineapple often offers packages that bring the figure closer to $200-300. Note: This report/rating is based on Allegro’s operation of Pineapple Beach. Elite Island Resorts (which also runs Galley Bay and St. James Club, among others) has recently taken over this property, and while outside appearances remain the same, staff members of TRR will be visiting Pineapple Beach in the near future to update information.
4) 4. (Tie) Blue Waters Antigua; and Hawksbill Beach Hotel – Blue Waters is a charming resort, located towards the Northern end of the island. Our editors like a lot about this place even though it falls somewhat below our first and second choices above in overall quality: Rooms/grounds very pretty; food/service very good. There is one area however, where we feel Blue Waters comes up a good deal short: The beach here is simply not as accommodating. It is pretty to look at, and they offer a very good selection of non-motorized crafts, but there simply is not that much room to lie down outside the earshot of other guests. There is a spit of land that juts out from the beach with a gazebo at the end (again, it is quite scenic)… often times you’ll have more room to yourself if you have a lounge chair on this spit, instead of on the main beach. Many will find the beach quite adequate, however, and like the fact that there seems to be more activity on the waterfront here than at the properties listed above. And, even without any package discounts (we’ve recently been seeing more discounts available for this property), Blue Waters is somewhat less expensive than Galley Bay.
The Hawksbill Beach Hotel is located on a peninsula on the west coast of Antigua, only about 20 minutes from St. John. The property is very scenic with pretty landscaping and four beaches, all very good but none great, each getting progressively less crowded (and offering less amenities) as you walk further from the main buildings of the resort. The last beach you come to is the only designated nude beach on the island. It’s never very crowded – often there are more goats around than people, and honestly, if that’s why you’re going to the Caribbean, you’re probably better off on one of the French Caribbean islands. The accommodations are not of the luxe variety; rather they are cabin-like cottages, lined up parallel to the beach. They are sparsely furnished with window slats and ceiling fans, no television or air conditioning. It kind of feels like a summer camp environment – granted, a darn nice summer camp. Food/service are quite good, though nothing extraordinary. Hawksbill is a very laid back, tasteful beach resort that tends to get a bit more of a European crowd. You can find some very good package deals to Hawksbill, making it a good value.
5) Sandals Antigua Resort & Spa – Dickenson Bay is the location of Sandals Antigua, a very calm stretch of beach on the Northwestern Coast with gently lapping waves. At least, it’s calm as far as the natural environment is concerned: As far as the “people environment” goes, this area is the most active beach on Antigua, with several hotels and timeshares lining the shore here. And of those properties, Sandals Antigua is the best of the lot, occupying the widest stretch on the beach. Dickenson Bay is where you go if you want the jet skis and banana boats and all the other varieties of watercraft. If you’ve been to any of the Sandals properties, then you pretty much know what to expect here. You get fairly good bang for your buck at this all-inclusive for couples only, with rates being determined by size/location of unit. The grounds are nicely kept, and the accommodations are generally quite comfortable. While being closer to the beach might be convenient, you might want to note that those units are also closer to the main dining/entertainment facility, with it’s activity, and piped in or live music. Food is generally quite good here. Many of the meals are served buffet style, which along with fostering a general informal nature to dining, eliminates some of the “island time” service that occasionally happens here. TRR editors have encountered somewhat spotty responses to various requests made to management - for room change and maid service, for example - especially when visiting during crowded peak season. There’s a little more going on at Sandals than at the other properties listed here, but one can easily just lie out on the beach and vegetate. Sandals does offer a host of activities, along with non-motorized watercraft (if you want the jet skis, you go to one of the beach vendors – or they, of course, come to you). In short, if you want a very good all-inclusive on the most active beach/area of the island, Sandals is your choice.
6) St. James Club Antigua - If we’re traveling with children, St. James Club probably moves up a few notches in our rankings. This resort is located towards the Southeast part of the island, about 15 minute from English Harbor/Nelson’s Dockyard. There are regular, comfortable hotel rooms here, appointed nicely, most with water views. Also on the property are time-share units consisting of 2-3 bedrooms (which also can be rented by the hotel; you don’t have to be a time-share owner). These larger units make for excellent family accommodations, and St. James is a very good host for them. There is a big pool, and a good deal of activities for kids here, and since the whole resort is isolated from the rest of the island (there is only one winding road to get here), it is a safe area to let older children ‘do their own thing’ within the confines of the large property. There are two beaches here, both very scenic, neither one we would call great. One faces the Atlantic, with a constant comforting breeze, and while it is indeed a great beach to lay out on, the water is often somewhat choppy and seaweed laden. It is very swimable, but not the beautiful water you probably think about when you think Caribbean. St. James does provide waiter service on this beach, which is a very nice touch. The other beach is only 100 yards away or so on the bay side (Mamora Bay), but a world of difference. It is extremely calm. The time-share villas all overlook this tranquil bay, which does look more like the picturesque Caribbean beach (with a large boat or two moored in the turquoise water). Unfortunately, it is usually a little bit too calm here, almost stagnant, and the heat can be somewhat stifling without the breeze. It is, however, a perfect beach to bring young children to. There are 3 main restaurants at St. James Club, generally offering just better-than-adequate fare. They charge a rather high price for either all-inclusive or pay-per-meal. Frankly, it’s not worth it, and we feel it is a bit of gouging of guests who are somewhat restricted to the resort: The only other choices are to take a cab to English Harbor where there are a few good places to eat (but the cab will cost $20), or rent a car. In all, while couples can certainly be content at St. James, finding a quiet spot on the beach (but not in the pool area), we feel this property is one of the better places for families. One can almost always find package deals with fares far lower than the published rates for this property (often substantially lower - more than 35%), making it a pretty good value, even with the inflated food prices.
Budget Pick: Sunset Cove is a lovely small condominium property on Runaway Bay (just 3 minutes south of Dickenson Bay, on the West Coast). The beachfront here is nothing exceptional – indeed, depending on the time of year and time of day, there may be no beach at all right in front of Sunset Cove. There is a nice pool area at the center of the property, but no watercraft or planned activities. The main selling points here are the apartments themselves: Bright, spacious nicely designed units that are very reasonably priced. You’ll want to have a car if you stay here.
Miscellany: As stated on our Intro page, all else being equal, the contributing editors to TRR generally prefer properties that are not all-inclusive: While it is sometimes nice to be able to forget about additional costs for food or what have you, all-inclusives damper ones ambition to sample other restaurants in the area. With the exception of Hawksbill and the St. James Club, however, all of the properties listed for Antigua are all-inclusive (though the St. James Club does offer all-inclusive as an option, and we’ve recently seen Pineapple Beach and Blue Waters offering non all-inclusive plans during the off-season months). Our Editors do not seem to mind the all-inclusive meal plans on Antigua however: Honestly, it is not that great an island as far as dining out is concerned. There are a couple of very nice restaurants around Nelson’s Dockyard (Admirals Inn and the Copper and Lumber Store) and a few good places to eat in the Dickenson Bay area, but in general, you’re not missing too much by being on a meal plan; you’ll probably only want to go off it once or twice at most during the course of a week – not a terrible thing to do.