But I did both, in gloriously fun fashion, at Curtain Bluff and Hermitage Bay, two resorts on Antigua in the Leeward Islands of the West Indies, where the rich and famous have homes, such as Georgio Armani, Richard Branson and Eric Clapton.
Hermitage Bay, a small resort of 25 rooms spread out in beach-front cottages and villas on a flower-dappled hill behind them, is where you’ll get down and dirty in the name of culinary adventure. Go with Chef Desi Bahnan to a nearby salt lagoon to slog through knee-deep mud in search of cockles, tiny clams you’ll take back to the resort and learn to make into “cockle water,” a delicious broth of clams, resort-grown veggies and spices.
That’s just part of Hermitage Bay’s allure, much of the rest decidedly more upscale and luxurious. Our cottage was spacious and airy, its dark-wood frames and molding offset by cream walls, with giant louvered doors opening to a deck with lounge chairs, perfect for morning coffee or early evening cocktails. The room’s lower level was outfitted with comfortable rattan furniture, and the king bed ringed with mosquito netting, more for design than keeping bugs away. Best to open the doors and let the breezes in, mindful of the colorful songbirds that dart in looking for crumbs.
The beach was top-notch, with cooling shade courtesy of palm, sea grape and turpentine trees, a half mile or so crescent not so much silky sand but unending sea-worn shells and coral that makes it feel like foot massage when you walk it. On each side are verdant, sparsely populated hills, a framework of green land and turquoise sea that leads to a sense of blissful isolation.
In the next bay is a villa owned by fashion designer Armani, who, it is said, can sometimes be seen walking along the sand. We didn’t, but on our beach, we saw extraordinary amounts of sea glass, most of it common green, but also the occasional brown, ending up with a huge bag to take home for designs of our own.
All meals are had in the sole restaurant, an open-sided wooden structure with ocean views. This is not run-of-the-mill all-inclusive fare. Bahnan and his cooks turn out breakfasts like saltfish served on Antiguan chop, a sauté of eggplant, pumpkin and okra, and Antiguan cinnamon and honey-roasted black pineapple and toasted coconut.
Dinner is spectacular, and during our stay included confit of duck leg, beet root and fennel, cauliflower and green pea soup, seared yellow fin tuna with cumin-stewed lentil wrapped in bok choy, and seafood, peppers and farfalle pasta, teeming with chunks of lobster, squid and mussels..Nightlife includes soft music by area musicians that never interrupts the gentle night, but augments the romantic mood. For more romance, there is nothing better than a post-meal walk on the moon-splashed beach.
Nature provides her own music in the form of cacophonous crickets and tree frogs, which at night could be disturbing to city dwellers, but it’s just best to let the nocturnal symphony lull you to sleep with its calming cadence, as well as the gentle lapping of waves on the beach.
Hanging by the pool is a good option as well, surrounded by green heartwood decking by the open-air lounge, where you can get things like the “Antiguan Smile,” a fruity concoction of light rum, banana liquor and pineapple juice. Most wood here is Guyana heartwood, green and purple, rock solid and durable; Hermitage Bay’s owner, Andy Therrien, a soft-spoken South African native, comes from a lumber family, and the man knows his wood.
Or get down and dirty with Bahnan on a cockle-fishing trip, where you root about in muck with your toes to come up with the little creatures. The day I went, we were accompanied by his friend, a local musician and renowned cockle fisherman, Dion Harrigan. I got but a few, trying mainly to keep my balance in the inertia-impairing mire, but they came up with a bag full. I accurately deemed them “the clam whisperers.”
Curtain Bluff is where owner Chelle Hulford hosts weekly cocktail parties in her spacious digs high atop the bluff, doing so with a grandmotherly warmth and charm, greeting guests like old friends and inviting them to check out her home, giving them free reign to wander about while noshing on appetizers and sipping drinks.
The resort was created in 1962 by the late Howard Hulford, and Chelle, and that sense of family remain; it’s no surprise it has a 65-percent guest-return rate, many of them generations of families.
Curtain Bluff has a sprawling feel for one set on a smallish 22 acres, with 72 rooms and suites on both the quiet harbor side and the blustery surf location below a bluff lined with buildings, all with ocean views. The surf side has a much more private feel. We had a first-floor room in the off season, and had the long beach pretty much to ourselves. Rooms have no TVs, but the break from the “real world” is refreshing.
Food here is very good, from the kitchen of French-born Chef Christophe Blatz, who shares his expertise with guests at a weekly cooking class. All meals are served al fresco in the Tamarind Tree restaurant, with European and Caribbean fusion. Lunch is taken at the Sea Grape, with a pretty extensive buffet, and where every Wednesday there is a beach barbecue lunch with steel pan music and dancing.While Curtain Bluff is a great place to relax, you can stay active. Included in the rates are squash, sailing, water skiing, scuba diving (for certified divers), snorkeling, sea kayaking, deep-sea fishing, bocce, shuffleboard and basketball.
But it’s tennis that is a main draw here, with four championship courts hard by the harbor-side of the resort, ideally located for the cooling breezes and killer views. Curtain Bluff regularly hosts a variety of tennis tournaments and camps, enlisting the help of legendary figures such as Tracy Austin, Fred Stolle, Johan Kriek and Tom Gullikson.
One terrific place to unwind (at added cost) is the spa at the resort, located on the bluff with views of the Caribbean and island of Montserrat, a 5,000-square-foot facility with five treatment rooms, one just for couples. The spa has open-air walkways, waterfalls and a relaxation room with water views and a 10-person hot tub. Treatments here run the gamut, from champagne and caviar facials, a water lily wrap and green coffee wrap.
It is also a place with a keen, long-standing social conscience. In 1974, the Hulfords started the Old Road Foundation, named after the nearby village, which started out to help needy families, but quickly grew due to support by the resort and guests. It has spent more than $1 million on university scholarship assistance, college expenses, sending local children to America for summer camp or to work as counselors, and providing medical and emergency relief to the community.
It is a green resort as well, earning certification from Green Globe. Curtain Bluff installed a membrane bioreactor to replace its water-treatment plant, and a salt-chlorinator in its pool that softens the water and inhibits algae growth.
Getting down and dirty in one resort and partying with the owner of another? At Hermitage Bay and Curtain Bluff, it’s a way of life.