A Caribbean gem for your special group holiday

Date Posted: 19/02/2013

Rock Cottage view from Bluewaters, Antigua

Philip Graham reports back from his visit to Antigua and the Blue Waters Resort, which has recently won the island’s Queen’s Jubilee Award and continues to develop its position as one of the best hotels in the Caribbean.

There is an impression about group travel, in particular amongst some suppliers to the market, that group business and interest is all about price, day trips and cheap deals. It emphatically is not.

In making this statement, not for one moment am I suggesting that all group travel organisers have a bottomless pit of money, neither am I suggesting that all groups are contenders for long haul visits or luxury accommodation.

Naturally there are those whose only interests will cover short visits at the lower cost end of the market, but there is also a significant sector which is very much in the  long haul destination market and happy to pay for a high standard and new experiences. Group Leisure’s Reader Club which has taken groups all around the world is testimony to that.

This article covers the happy situation where those who enjoy and can afford long haul can visit a destination offering sunshine, wonderful surroundings and British history – yes that’s British history. I am talking about the Caribbean island of Antigua.

Antigua: sunshine, wonderful surroundings and British history

Antigua and its sister island Barbuda are located in the middle of the Leeward Islands in the eastern Caribbean, roughly 17 degrees north of the equator. To the south are the islands of Montserrat and Guadaloupe, and to the north and west are Nevis, St Kitts, St Barts, and St Martin. Normally a flight of around eight hours from the UK will get you there; so it’s not onerous, and flights from British Airways and Virgin Atlantic service the island very well. It is also a favoured destination of many cruise lines.

Cove Suites at Bluewater, Antigua

Originally discovered by Christopher Columbus, Antigua is actually a former British colony which gained its independence in 1981. Famed for its 365 beeches (one for every day of the year) it became Britain’s most important Caribbean base in 1784 when Admiral Horatio Nelson, arguably Britain’s most well-known sailor and hero of Trafalgar, sailed to Antigua and established a naval base. Little did he know that over 200 years later the same unique characteristics of warm, steady winds, a complex coastline of safe harbours, and a protective, nearly unbroken wall of coral reef which originally attracted the Royal Navy, would transform Antigua and Barbuda into one of the Caribbean’s premier tourist destinations.

Visit the English Harbour

These days, the English Harbour, Antigua’s most graceful and historic district, is the core destination inside the 15 square miles of Nelson’s Dockyard National Park. When first developed as a base for the British Navy in the great age of sail, the harbour served as the headquarters of the fleet of the Leeward Islands during the turbulent years of the late 18th century. However, it was gradually abandoned in the 19th century and was closed in 1889. Today however, Nelson’s Dockyard has been completely restored, and it is now claimed to be the only Georgian dockyard in the world. A visit is a must, even for those who are not history buffs.

Further above the harbour, at Shirley Heights, are the partially-restored fortifications of the harbour’s colonial observation post; the view from Shirley Heights is fantastic and extends out over the harbour and far across the Caribbean to Montserrat and Guadaloupe. On Sundays the vista is greatly enhanced by a lively barbeque and music at the bar (Steel Band music from 3-6pm & reggae from 6-9pm). You will find that Shirley Heights is an easy cab ride from most places and many hotels organise excursions. It can also be reached via the Lookout Trail; a nature walk that rises from the harbour through a forest of trees, although descending the trail is not advisable after dark or, in particular, after a few too many rum punches taken at the famous Sunday barbecue.

Cove Restaurant at Bluewater, Antigua

St John’s, the island’s capital

Another gem and a must visit is St John’s, the capital and largest city of Antigua and Barbuda (although in the UK we would classify it as a small town). It is dominated by the white baroque towers of St John's Cathedral. Built in 1845, the church is now in its third incarnation, as earthquakes in 1683 and in 1745 destroyed the previous structures. In fact, the towers are often the first sight of Antigua for about half of the island’s visitors each year, many of whom arrive by cruise ship. With its recently completed cruise ship dock and several hotels, St John’s is a lively hub for shopping and dining.

Somewhere special to stay

Talking of hotels, like most Caribbean destinations there is plenty of choice in all budget sectors, but for me the best is the family-owned and run Blue Waters Resort, which has won many top awards over the years and has a well-earned reputation as one of the best places to stay in Antigua. To really make the most of your time you should look for a base offering great food, a relaxing ambience, a good range of accommodation, and the friendly service you should expect from lovely people who want you to feel at home.

Depending on the time of year, deals can normally be done to suit a range of budgets and the hotel offers many accommodation options and packages. There are specialist agents that can also help with bookings, often offering the best value. Full board with an all-inclusive option means you can enjoy your visit without budget worries and no concern over the extra cocktail pre-dinner, or indeed at any other time.

Just 15 minutes from VC International Airport and 45 minutes from English Harbour and Nelsons Dockyard, Blue Waters enjoys a prime setting in one of Antigua’s most exclusive residential areas, Soldiers Bay. Guests enjoy unrivalled privacy as well as having easy access to the island’s many attractions. On the cusp of the Caribbean Sea, the hotel’s bay also provides calm and quiet waters for swimming. The west facing orientation means you get the sun’s rays all day, as well as some of the Caribbean’s most breath-taking sunset views.

Rock Cottage Lounge at Bluewaters, Antigua

Although all beaches in Antigua are actually open to the public, due to Blue Waters’ unique location, wrapping itself around Soldiers Bay, it is practically as private as if you were on your own island. It really is very special.

With its seven freshwater pools, 17 acres of lush gardens, peaceful beach coves, gently swaying palm trees and deluxe beachfront rooms, suites and luxury apartments, holiday destinations do not come much better. In fact, Blue Waters is one of the longest established hotels in Antigua and first opened its doors for business in 1960 as a 16-bedroom hotel. At that time it was owned and operated by Osmond Kelsick who had the distinction of being the only Antiguan Squadron Leader in the Royal Air Force in World War Two.

By 1984 Blue Waters had grown to 45 rooms, when it was sold to Mr Ron Randall, an entrepreneur from England who fell in love with the property having stayed there many times previously with his family. To this day Ron is involved in every aspect of the property, he takes great pride in personally being the architect behind the hotels gardens and landscaping. Together with his sons Tony and Gary, who have also become integral in the evolution of Blue Waters, they all take responsibility and a keen interest in the day-to-day operation of the hotel.

It’s clear that as a result, the refurbishment and redevelopment of Blue Waters has not lacked imagination or financial resources making it into the superb property it is today. And the recent addition of a spa and the new Cove Restaurant (one of three restaurants to choose from) where guests dine beneath the stars in a restaurant elegantly framed by impressive palm trees, enhanced by the relaxing sound of the sea breaking on rocks below, confirms that the property continues to evolve and meet everyone’s expectations.

Despite this development and from direct personal experience over many years, I can confirm that Blue Waters has lost none of its charm and friendly feel, which is why so many guests return and then, return again. This is one guest who certainly plans to return soon.

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