Doing Antigua by the book

Rest, relaxation and learning to read are all on the agenda for a family holiday to Antigua, discovers Richard Jones.

Antigua
Antigua

The warm Atlantic Ocean lapped gently at our feet as Isla memorised My Sister Is An Alien, little sis Evelyn picked up her Peppa Pig Mini Library for the umpteenth time, Rachel sped through her racy romantic novel and I glanced over at my newspaper supplement.

Many people say that a relaxing holiday is not complete without a good piece of literature, and at St James’s Club on the Caribbean Island of Antigua, the focus is all on books this coming summer.

Following last year’s stint alongside fellow author Rachel Bright, Curtis Jobling, the original creator of Bob the Builder, will be Puffin’s artist in residence at the resort’s acclaimed Kidz Club.

Jobling, whose other books include Raa Raa The Noisy Lion and Frankenstein’s Cat, will be overseeing a fortnight of live events from July 26 especially tailored for different age groups ranging from three to 10 years.

He kicks off with a week for younger children, followed by a week for older kids alongside his Wereworld books.

“The emphasis is on fun, reading for pleasure, and the world of possibilities that can be explored through creativity,” Jobling explains. “The ocean and the paradise setting of the Caribbean are a fantastic inspiration for the Puffin events which the children love.”

So while mum and dad soak up the sun, or snooze in a hammock under a palm tree, the kids can be entertained and, dare I say it, educated, by one of the world’s leading children’s writers, in between other fun activities like crab racing, nature trails, swimming and arts and crafts.

Jobling is spot on about the setting; the 100-acre secluded resort of St James’s is inspiring and magnificent.

There are six pools for families to splash around in, including two adult-only areas and one exclusive for kids.

But despite a recent 20-million dollar renovation of the facilities and the activities available, the real pull of St James’s will always be its two stunning beaches - the millpond-like Mamora Bay complete with watersports centre, stalls and bars, and the breezier Coco’s Beach, looking out into the crystal-clear Atlantic Ocean.

The food at many all-inclusives can tend to get a bit samey as the days drift by.

However, at St James’s Club, all evening diners need a reservation (this can be easily booked at Guest Relations).

In return, delicious fresh food is served in a traditional restaurant-style atmosphere from a menu, rather than as part of a plate-filling buffet.

Breakfast at the Rainbow Garden includes a wide range of continental and cooked dishes, while on an evening, The Docksider is the place to be with steel bands regularly performing in the adjacent bar.

Caribbean Night was our favourite thanks to its large selection of steaks, ribs and the local delicacy, curried goat, surprisingly going down a treat with the girls.

There’s also a wonderful a la carte restaurant on resort - the elegant Piccolo Mondo - where guests can sink their teeth into the local lobster and steak cooked by award-winning chefs.

Throughout the day, Coco’s Bar and Grill at the side of the pool and beach is an ideal way to grab a quick bite and cocktail without having to get changed out of your beachwear.

Then, later on, the Jacaranda Lounge bar acted as an air-con-cooled haven away from the sweltering heat in which Isla, Evelyn and their friends danced around under the disco globe before bedtime.

Nothing was ever too much for the staff at St James’s, and Antiguan people have a reputation for humour, hospitality and a ‘no problem’ attitude which makes holidaymakers return to the island, reputed to have 365 beaches, year after year.

But even with a setting as perfect as St James’s, not everyone wants to spend their entire holiday on a resort, and there are many excursions available away from the complex.

The four of us found the best to be a catamaran sailing trip around the island on the Verandah.

A half-day excursion on board Captain Anderson’s vessel took us around English Harbour and Rendezvous Bay, and included sights such as Nelson’s Dockyard, Falmouth Harbour and the Pillars of Hercules, as well as peek up at Eric Clapton and Timothy Dalton’s residences and the island’s rainforest.

About an hour into our trip, the crew dropped anchor, and Isla and I dived into the Atlantic and snorkelled amongst the brightly coloured fish.

A truly memorable daddy-and-daughter experience, and a highlight of any holiday.

On the voyage home, the line on the fishing rod at the stern went tight and Captain Anderson pulled in a large mackerel, which rounded off our daughters’ action-packed day perfectly.

A word of warning for prospective sailors though - Captain Anderson and his crew won’t let you sit with an empty glass for long, and after four hours’ worth of beer and rum punch on the high seas, Rachel and I started to feel wobbly-legged!

Other excursions, which can both be booked at St James’s Guest Relations, include a trip to Shirley Heights to dance along to steel band, reggae, soca and calypso music on Sunday afternoons, and a day out at Antigua’s capital, St John’s, for a spot of shopping.

St James’s sister Elite Islands complex, The Verandah Resort and Spa is just a 20-minute drive away down Antigua’s east coast and is also well worth a trip.

Here, the kids club is just as impressive as St James’s, and we found it refreshing to check out the different pools, restaurants and beaches, while Isla had a round of mini-golf.

The Verandah is bordered by the Devil’s Bridge National Park which can be visited via a series of hiking trails.

Back at St James’s, our Pineapple Room accommodation was pristine, and the maids made sure all traces of sand from our long days on the beach magically disappeared and that the dirty towels were immediately replaced by fluffy white ones folded like seashells.

Outside the rooms, the lawns and palms tress were manicured to perfection by the friendly gardeners, while back on the beach, one of the resorts real characters, Alfred, would do his rounds from 10am until sunset serving thirsty sunbathers ice-cold beverages from his customised golf-cart-come-mobile-bar.

Also ideal for families is the on-resort shop, which stocks a wide range of holiday essentials, including nappies and medicines.

This came in very handy when those pesky sand flies and mosquitoes took a liking to Rachel’s legs and she was left crying out for ointment.

Thankfully, Isla and Evelyn also made friends (but of a more friendly type!) at St James’s.

And the Puffin events at the Kidz Club were ideal for them to do that - proving that the art of storytelling is a sure fire winner when it comes to getting the little ones gathered all in one place for interactive fun and entertainment.

However, a holiday in Antigua is not all about ‘palming your children off’, as some would see it.

There is also a lot for families to do together - whether it be donning lifejackets and heading out to sea on a pedalo, strolling up and down the soft sandy beaches looking for shells and crabs, or even lying by the sea together with a good book.

It’s always a challenge to find a family summer resort holiday that is equal parts relaxing, adventurous and educational.

But it seems the people at St James’s and Puffin are re-writing the rulebook.

Travel facts

:: Kuoni offer seven nights on an all-inclusive basis at St James’s Club, Antigua, in a Club room, including flights with British Airways from London Gatwick with transfers in resort from £4,674 for a family of four (based on two adults/two children aged 2-11 sharing, and departing 2 August 2013). For reservations call 01306 747 008 or visit www.kuoni.co.uk.

:: Overnight hotel and seven days’ parking at Sofitel Hotel at London Gatwick (www.sofitel.com) from £262.