Antigua: The Big Easy

A luxurious winter break in the Caribbean provided the perfect opportunity for Julie Burchill to indulge her passion for hotels

Maybe it’s something to do with being one of Mother Nature’s runaways, but I’ve never understood why so many otherwise sensible people have a problem with hotels - more specifically, why people who could afford to stay at gorgeous hotels choose to hire villas instead.

I grew up in a working-class family, yet when we went to the seaside it was to a B&B - never a flat - and when we went to Butlin’s it was full-board, never self-catering. My parents regarded those who chose to do their own cooking on holiday as uptight, penny-pinching freaks, and as in all things they were so right.

Hotels - soulless? Hardly. With so much of the distracting drear of daily life removed - paid work, housework, slaving away over a hot stove, or, in my case, a hotline to the tandoori - hotels leave our souls free to breathe, to look themselves in the eye and decide if they like what they see.

And maybe this is why certain types of sad souls are unsettled by hotels and the freedom they offer us; they make us face ourselves (and our relationships) by removing the banal building bricks of domestic drudgery that prove such effective diversions from really admitting how dismayed we are by our lives/loves. Without meals to organise and floors to vacuum, how many apparently cosy houses of cards might come tumbling down! Hence the villa holiday.

But because I am quite profoundly unafraid to face myself, and quite inappropriately pleased with myself, I love hotels with a passion. But beyond this, I am the sort of hotel-whore in whom the idea of the “destination hotel” finds, paradoxically, its most profligate punter; I set out for Reid’s Palace rather than Madeira, and Pink Sands rather than Harbour Island, Bahamas, and somewhat shamefully only discover incidentally how delightful these countries are. 

Though, to be fair, this obsession applies even to my own country, so it’s not like I’m being a filthy colonialist. Ever since I left London for the seaside a decade ago, I have loathed going back - and more than the lure of my gorgeous friends or the promise of big-bucks deals done over lunch at The Ivy, the one thing that gets me there when absolutely necessary is my chosen London hotel, One Aldwych.

The Blade Runner-type swimming pool with the underwater music, the lift that changes colour, the Dirty Martinis, the amazingly central location - a place so thoroughly excellent it even makes our ratty old capital seem civilised. So when I heard that a sister hotel had opened in Antigua, I was very happy to go there.

I was also happy to put my oar in the Caribbean vs Indian Ocean/Arabia debate. My views on the Islamic world are well-documented, and long before the bomb in Malaysia, it occurred to me that I do not wish to take my ease or spend my money in a country that has no respect for my religion or my hard-won democratic political tradition, but which is happy to turn a blind eye to the decadent ways of the filthy infidel in exchange for more dirty cash.

I fell about helpless with laughter a while back when I read in Tatler about the Sultan of Brunei’s - the richest man in the world - new hotel. To see some clown cooing that, “The Arab world is hurting right now”, and implying that yet another hotel with solid-gold taps was in some way “healing” this hurt, real or imagined, would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

The debate is actually about ease vs servility; those who prefer the Indian Ocean and Arabia do so, frankly, because they feel that those who serve them in the Caribbean simply don’t grovel enough - don’t scatter frangipani blossoms before them, don’t run their baths and generally kiss their white butts in a way Whitey has become accustomed to. 

This says more about us than it does them - only people with chronically low self-esteem get anything from being fawned over. I much prefer the Caribbean way of doing things. I don’t mind waiting longer for something when it’s brought to me by someone with such a natural, unforced smile and such a cool way of walking. I have good self-esteem, so bowing and scraping I can do without.

The popular snob wisdom is that the Indian/Arabian Ocean resorts are elegant, and the Caribbean funky fading into shabby, but this misses the fact that the islands have a natural elegance - probably part of the reason, tax breaks aside, why stuck-up old screamers like Noël Coward were so attracted to them - and their people a natural poise which the insecure traveller can mistake for insolence. In the past, certain Caribbean resorts have not played to this aesthetic strength, dousing their rooms in frills and chintz in migraine-beckoning colours.

But Carlisle Bay is a symphony in restraint - and in grey, the most gorgeous colour known to man, on the doors, balconies, towels on the loungers, grey piping on the Frette pillows and even on the long net curtains.

The greys employed here - and the creams, fawns and beiges - are not a killjoy denial of the Caribbean’s bright beauty, but an elegant shrug of admission that it would be mad to try to compete with it. Antigua is not Jamaica - loud, frenetic and in your face, where a sunset swim is an invitation for a drug dealer in a kayak to chase a girl, yelling, “Hey baby, you English, you like Jamaica, you like cocaine?” (Yes, yes and thrice yes - but not right now, mate.)

There is something above all appropriate about Antigua, retro without being kitsch, like the election posters that offer “Quality Representation”, and the road signs that chide “Buckle up - you’re expected home!” 

The same sweetness - used in the strong sense rather than the sappy - of the people can be seen in the way that, despite the mandatory oppression of the Empire years (by 1774, 93 per cent of the population were black, ie, slaves, and we presume that the other 7 per cent were evil, exploitative bastards), Antiguans volunteered wholeheartedly to fight in the Second World War.

The photographs of Antiguan men arriving in London already wearing uniform and ready to be shipped off to battle make you smile and cry at the same time. Even enslaved, their spirit shone through - “1701: Mayor Samuel Martin, Planter of Greencastle, Denied His Slaves Their Christmas Holiday and was Murdered,” says one sombre sign. Serves him right.

What a shame that modern Antiguans don’t do the same thing to those uptight white freaks who insist on coming to the laid-back, chilled-out Caribbean and then march around screaming orders down mobile phones. It takes a really sad paleface to get stressed in Antigua, when you could be swimming with the fishes in Carlisle Bay, or watching five bananaquit birds balancing on one apple as they try to eat it from under their feet, or sucking up a lethal cocktail called the Journalist - gin, two sorts of vermouth, triple sec, lime juice - in the Pavilion bar.

In Antigua, decent and laid-back don’t mean boring - as the sign in the street said, apropos of nothing, “Say yes to something new and do it today!” And leave your mobile at home, why don’t you; the work - and the bananaquits - will be there long after you’re dead.