ANTIGUA – I didn’t find what I had hoped for in my shower. But I found a new, favourite hotel.
I spent a few days on this lovely Caribbean island last week. The first few nights were at a very nice place called Sugar Ridge. The last night was one of the top places I’ve ever laid my head. And that includes a lot of incredible hotels, folks.
The road to get to Hermitage Bay Resort is rather, um, unassuming; a bouncy dirt track with potholes big enough to hold a Smart Car or, as one local told me, big enough for a goat to bathe in. But it’s not long, and pretty soon a giant gate swings open and you’re suddenly ensconced in a tropical paradise; an entirely different world with flowering bougainvillea, bananas trees, towering palms and luscious, dark wood suites that rise up a hill and offering stunning views of a white-sand-and-shell beach and ribbons of green and blue water stretching out to green hills. There’s nary a building in sight other than the ruins of a solitary sugar mill tower across the bay that looks as imposing as a thimble.
My cab pulls up and I’m immediately offered a scented, cold towel to wipe my brow. I was tempted to strip down to my skivvies and wipe the rest of myself down, but somehow held back. I was escorted into the lobby, a dark wood affair with delightful, striped pillows and comfortable sofas and black and white prints of Bob Marley on the wall. Outside I can the blinding glare from the hot Caribbean sun bouncing off the bay and the beach.
I’m offered a refreshing mojito while the front desk completes my paperwork. I don’t have the heart to tell them I really don’t care for mojitos (sacrilege, I know) so I sip away and try to pretend I don’t taste the pungent mint.
My paperwork finished, I’m taken up a very small incline to a set of stairs that winds up the hill to my unit, which looks like something out of Swiss Family Robinson crossed with a luxury hotel. There’s a polished wooden deck and a blue plunge pool and a large, covered verandah with a pair of lounge beds and two deep, black chairs and a table, plus another small sofa-like spot near the pool. The view from the verandah takes in bright pink bougainvillea and thick green jungle and that perfect Caribbean bay, flanked by rounded green hills.
I’m taken inside to a dark room with more deeply polished wood and a nice-sized bed and all the amenities; an iPod dock and coffee maker and fridge/mini-bar and two large closets. I notice there’s no art work on the walls, or at least none I can see. It seems a tad odd until the hotel worker, Ryan, walks over to the giant sliding doors that are maybe three feet from the end of my bed and slides up the shutters to reveal that view. Who needs a painting on the wall when you’ve got that bay to look at?
Next is the bathroom, which appears to be nearly 200 square feet. There are his and her sinks, a makeup bench and a full-length mirror. But it’s the bathtub that I really notice, a free-standing, white tub in front of a large window you can open to reveal a perfectly framed tropical photo. It might be the best view you’ll ever see from a bathtub.
The floor is so finely polished that if I sat on the toilet I’d be able to see my reflection. Not that I’d want to. I’m just saying.
I’m shaking my head and taking the first of a dozen photos of my bathroom (not the toilet, just so you know), when the worker walks over to a door and says, “Guess what’s behind here?”
I look closely at him and reply, “Penelope Cruz?”
He bursts out laughing and replies, “Unfortunately for you, no. But you might like this.”
He opens the door to reveal an outdoor shower with the forest canopy overhead and just enough of a clearing that I can look at and see the sea while I do my scrubbing in the morning.
The worker retreats to show another guest their suite and I decide I really need to try that plunge pool (see photo below). The suites are all carefully designed with thick forest growth around them for privacy, so I figure there’s no need to dirty my bathing suit for a quick dip. I slip off my clothes and literally plunge myself into the pool; a cool and welcoming dip on a hot, summer-like day. I reach the end of the pool and rest my elbows on the side, drinking in the view of the bay.
I then turn around to see that the deck on the unit that’s 40 or 50 feet up the hills above me has something of a view of my pool and that the maid is out on the verandah cleaning up. I don’t think she really wants to see a guy with a Caribbean tan and a bright, white butt so I retreat back aways where I can’t see the balcony above me.
Later I tear myself away from the suite and wander down to the beach, which is several hundred metres long. The water is lovely and the views are great, but there are a lot shells that can make it slightly uncomfortable for walking without sandals.
I have dinner that night with general manager Rachel Browne. We dine on good coconut shrimp and I have a nice Cajun grilled sirloin steak with roasted beets with goat cheese. It’s not amazing, but it’s quite good.
It’s an all inclusive place given its relative isolation, but the shops and restaurants of Jolly Harbour are less than five minutes away if you want a chance of pace.
Browne tells me all the landscaping is indigenous and that they have a nice vegetable garden and a pretty spa I should check out the next morning. They offer free pilates and yoga classes.
“We try not to make it manicured,” Browne tells me. And they do a great job. Aside from a small lawn under some palm trees at one end, past most of the beachfront cottages, it’s pretty jungle-y.
“Each time someone checks out we go in and look for obstruction of views,” Browne says. It only takes the trees or bushes a couple days to grow enough to go from perfect framing of a view to hiding it, she explains.
“We’re not overly fancy,” Browne continues. “We understand that people who stay here probably have all the bells and whistles at home.”
After a morning swim and another skinny dip in my plunge pool, I wander into the restaurant for breakfast. There’s eggs and back bacon (hooray for Canada) and other bits, including “Antigua chop up” with eggs and chopped, local veggies and local salt fish. But I spot something called an “Antigua cinnamon and cashew sandwich,” and I can’t resist. I’m served two pieces of bread with dark cinnamon and ground cashews between them, topped with bits of roasted pineapple soaked in local rum and honey and with toasted coconut on side. And maple syrup should you, you know, choose to indulge. It’s not only a dish I’ve seen nowhere else, but it’s darned tasty to boot.
I scoot over to the garden, where Henry, one of the hotel workers, shows off their mangoes and soursop and arugula and eggplant and hot peppers and papaya and banana trees, and way more than I can possibly list. He explains how a banana tree only produces one bunch in its lifetime and explains how different herbs in the garden can be used to combat everything from sleeplessness to itchy skin to fever. He also points out giant mushrooms, which locals call Jumby Umbrellas.
I only have a couple minutes to look at the spa, which uses Dorissima products. They have seven treatment colours, I’m told, which match the seven chakras. I pretend to know what the spa lady is talking about. The main thing I gather is that we all have different force fields, or something like that, and there are colours that match. If you have a green chakra they’ll beam a green light into your treatment room. If you have a blue chakra, you can bask in the colour of Toronto’s hockey team. They also herbal teas that match up with your chakra, because you wouldn’t want your charka fighting with your herbal tea, would you?
Dezi Banhan, the head chef, finds me in the hotel lobby and explains he likes to keep things simple.
“This is an all-inclusive resort. Guests eat at the same restaurant every day for a week. Sometimes three or four weeks. It can be boring. So I don’t tell people what’s on the menu. I try to do a comfort food and a seafood and a vegetarian dish and a meat dish. But I won’t tell you what’s on the menu. It’s a surprise.”
Dezi explans he has studied they psychological side of eating. As much I wanted to sneak away ot the beach, his talk is fascinating so I encourage him to keep going and I jot down notes.
“I don’t build skyscrapers. II don’t like food that looks terrible as soon as your fork hits it. The food is its own presentation. If I tell you there’s Snake River Rarms ribeye cooked to perfection or something with some exotic asparagus you get a picture in your mind and then you can be disappointed. With me, you look at the menu and there’s a list of ingredients. That’s all. You don’t form a picture in your mind and then, if it tastes great, you’re like, ‘Wow.’ I’ll do foam of some kind now and then but I like to under-promise and over-deliver.”
I go back to my room for one final dip in the pool and get to packed up. I go back to the restaurant and order an ice cold caiprinhia (cachaca cane sugar liquor with simple syrup and lime; one of the great drinks of all time) while I wait for lunch. The menu pronounced it as something like pan roasted grouper with tomato, onion and olives. It sounds okay.
True to Dezi’s word, however, he has under-promised and over-delivered. It’s absolutely stunning fish; cooked perfectly with a swirl of lovely ingredients on top and a small pool of olive oil for a bit of fat and taste. Not an ounce of foam in sight; just great, honest food smartly presented and perfectly cooked.