Sunday, November 06, 2011

Antigua Antics: MLF's October Half-Term Holiday

After hearing multiple glowing reviews (not least by fans such as Oprah, the Duchess of Cornwall, John Travolta and Boris Becker) about the chic and luxurious Carlisle Bay, located in St Mary's in Antigua, after a few wet weeks of October, MLF decided to fly over and try it out for half-term.

Set amongst hilly rainforest on a magnificent private sandy bay, Carlisle Bay promises to be one of the best luxury family hotels in the Caribbean.  Boasting a small number of fabulous literally-on-the-beach family suites, a 17,000 ft spa, a private children's cinema, multiple tennis courts, a fun-packed kids club schedule, a fully-equipped watersports centre, a sophisticated pan-Asian restaurant "East" as a well as a charming and laid-back beachside restaurant, "Indigo" and, its very own mangrove lagoon with heaps of rare and endangered species, MLF couldn't wait to try it out. 

And, leaping out of the airport transfer, with a welcome watermelon mocktail in hand, MLF Juniors found their holiday sweet-spot immediately - the glorious sweeping beach.

The beautiful white sandy beach in Carlisle Bay, a British-owned hotel (also a member of the "Leading Hotel of the World" group), is very much the heart and soul of the place.  Peaceful (motorised water-sports fans are taken around the corner), sheltered and, very much the warm bath the typical Caribbean blurb sells, this really did live up to the promise.

With wide glass bedroom suite doors that opened up directly to the beach, MLF had its very own personal uninterrupted seafront and, with lovely staff offering delicious complimentary fresh fruit kebabs, lavender-scented cold towels, afternoon tea, cake and canapes at 4pm and a very extensive cocktail list all day long, the MLF juniors were not the only ones to be enticed (if not glued) by this silky soft sandcastle mecca.

Having decided to limit the normal ridiculous amount of blackberry/iPhone red flashing bleeps whilst on holiday to a minimum, MLF fell easily into the very relaxing pace of Carlisle Bay for the first few days.   

Early morning yoga, pilates and gym sessions were followed by long, leisurely breakfasts (the smoothies are to die for) at Indigo, watching the lizards scuttle around, reading the wide range of complimentary daily British newspapers on offer and overlooking the golden sand and aquamarine sea. 

Swims came next, only to be interrupted by beautiful lunches which you can choose to have either on your terrace, on the beach or in Indigo. The children's menu is fantastic: over 25 delicious mains to choose from (they also do a sublime banana split) and the menu for grown-ups offers a wide variety of delicious fresh fish, salad and Caribbean mains, with mouthwatering sushi and sashimi as a speciality.   Trips to the wonderfully cool private cinema followed in the early afternoon, a great way to avoid the midday sun and, simultaneously sleep off the Rose...

After several days of building multiple Princess Tower sand empires, getting the opportunity to actually finish a book (!), watching the locals haul a huge fishing net in (and, much to everyone's delight, getting the chance to see Mum and baby turtles, blowfish, sting ray and multiple fish close up) and having worked through much of the cocktail list (they know how to mix a sharp Mojito), MLF decided it was time for some activity. 


And there was certainly heaps of interesting things to do....such as mountain hiking, reef fishing,  a fully-stocked gym, multiple tennis courts, an impressive fun-packed schedule at the kids club (including trips to the nearby Sting Ray City where children get the opportunity to swim and touch the rays),  reef snorkelling and exploring and private sailing tours to historical points of interest, such as the world's only remaining original Georgian dockyard - Nelson's Dockyard, to name but a few.

First up was a private reef snorkelling and fishing trip. 

Bordered by a shallow, submarine shelf, much to Aussie MLF Man's delight, Antigua has the most extensive coral reef habitat of any Caribbean island east of Hispaniola and offers excellent opportunities for shallow snorkelling (ideal for children of all ages). Sitting on a limestone base, the water temperature averages a perfect 25c with underwater visibility ranging from 50-140 ft - perfect to see the beautiful fringing reefs and lagoon islets.

MLF Juniors couldn't wait and absolutely loved snorkelling and coming up close to Blue Tangs, Yellowtail Snappers and even the odd Barracuda.  

After a yummy and very generous picnic, set up opposite a pristine empty beach complete with just a crumbling 18th century stone English military outpost, MLF embarked on fishing...or as MLF Juniors kindly put it:  time to meet the fishes we just swam with...

After an hour and a half of fierce competition, MLF man had to concede defeat with MLF catching an assortment of very pretty large fish (tip: extra large bait and sitting in the "lucky" fishing position next to Captain Prince seriously helped).  MLF Juniors cast out too and managed to catch a couple of little fish as well as some pretty sea coral.   One of the most exciting moments, however, was seeing a very cheeky Barracuda jump out of the air and grab the fish caught on the line.

After a wonderful day at sea, and with supper sorted (should you wish, you can organise for the kitchen to cook your fish any way you fancy), MLF headed home.

Next up was tennis with all of MLF on the court.   With 9 immaculate tennis courts and special guest and resident pros, the experience was fun, informative and very helpful, igniting a forgotten love for tennis.  MLF juniors loved their coach, Ken, and after every morning surf, wanted to go back every day.

Each day was a wonderful blend of taking it easy in a gentle routine of: early morning swim and surf, delicious breakfast, yoga, tennis and gym, big play on the beach or tour, yummy beachside lunch, family film in the delightfully air conditioned screening room, sailing, afternoon tea and canapes, pool swim, children's supper (every afternoon 4-5.30pm consisting of a complimentary 3-course supper should little ones be hungry or parents want some grown-up time in the evening - lots of babysitters readily available), cocktails and finally, a candlelit dinner on the beach.  

With all of this activity, it was no surprise that suppers were early and bedtimes never later than 9.30pm, with all of MLF collapsing into peaceful sleep.   A sure sign of a great family holiday...

MLF Scoring Philosophy
To provide a full insight into the MLF end-to-end experience, 8 key categories have been created to rate experiences.  Each category scores a rating between 1- 4:
1= Loved, 2=Liked, 3=Take it or Leave it, 4=Never Again

1. Introduction and communications
2. Beautiful welcome
3. Design style 
4. Warm and highly professional people
5. Picture postcard truth
6. Consistency of experience 
7. Kindness and thoughtfulness
8. Family box of tricks

Introduction and Communications:  MLF books direct with the hotel always so is aware of how the hotel starts, manages and finishes its end-to-end customer experience.  It also enables MLF to identify any special customer "touch point" moments, or any moments that make the experience stand out  and  are different to other offerings.   Communication was on the phone and via email and guest services were friendly, polite, articulate and easy to talk to.  MLF received several efficient-sounding confirmation emails regarding the booking and the organisation of airport transfers.  Pretty standard stuff for a LHW.  An "Even Better If.." would have been a proactive email asking how best the hotel could help tailor MLF holiday experience by finding out early on what we are interested in doing/experiencing and presenting (in a non-pushy way) some ideas of activities.  By crafting a hand-curated holiday experience (and also enabling the hotel to organise their own logistics in advance, MLF would have thought), it would have scored a 1=Loved.
MLF Score: 2=Liked
Beautiful Welcome:  Warm welcome from the Ralph-Lauren-clad British manager who empathised with the very lengthy wait experienced in customs, and consequently, ensured beautifully cool watermelon cocktails and mocktails and lavender-infused cold towels were immediately there. MLF had no lengthy check-in but instead taken straight to the beach suite with a lovely quick introduction to the room.
MLF Score: 2=Liked
Design Style: The hotel has been designed with large, voluminous ceilings everywhere with simple, barefoot chic fittings and oversized furniture that are in keeping with the climate and location.  The design is similar to the Campbell-Gray hotels which claim: "we must be ready for the intelligent guest" and focuses on original, individual and intelligent design for families. The library was the most contemporary room from a design perspective, the pan-Asia restaurant "East" looked the most "hip world city" with dark blood red chairs, dark wood, sort of a big room in Hakkasan.  The main dining area, Indigo, is simply designed underneath a huge temple-like roof, but then the star attraction is clearly the beach position and the amazing views. Design clues provided MLF with a feeling of space, relaxation and reassurance that the hotel was genuinely "family luxury" rather than pure luxury.  
The Beach Suite: Ground floor with floor to ceiling glass doors directly to the beach and dedicated 4 loungers, heaps of soft towels, very wide umbrellas and big ice-box filled with ice/mineral water.  The suite itself was long and spacious with a separate children's bedroom (twin beds but could easily accommodate a third single bed), mini white waffle dressing gowns and slippers for the MLF Juniors, very large bathroom stacked with REN toiletries.  The main living area and the master bedroom faced the sea with a massive coffee table (which, like most families, ended up being the equivalent of the stuffed drawer at home with everything from collected shells, magazines, paintings, sun cream on it).  The suite design was tasteful but not excessively luxurious and very practical for families (think the lux level here could be upped slightly but it is in keeping with the laid-back barefoot chic feeling of the hotel).
MLF Score: 2=Liked
Warm and Highly Professional People: everyone, without exception, was lovely.  From staff walking around the hotel to guest services, people were warm, friendly and very helpful.  Nothing is too much trouble and therein lies what families love about the hotel - it is all about creating the easiest and most relaxing family holiday.
MLF Score: 1=Loved
Picture Postcard Truth: absolutely.  From the sea colour to the wide stretch of the beach.  No photoshop here...MLF felt that, in fact, the hotel could have provided more images of the hotel on the website to do justice to the space of the hotel and the activity options it provides.
MLF Score: 1=Loved
Consistency of Experience: high, throughout the entire stay.  Service was great.  The food was delicious, cocktails fabulous every time,  the suite cleaned beautifully twice a day.  Not one blip.  Every single question or issue was dealt with and rectified with speed and efficiency.
MLF Score: 1=Loved
Kindness and Thoughtfulness: The genuine warmth and kindness of the people definitely shone through.  Having booked a manicure/pedicure, MLF decided that the MLF Juniors might like their nails painted too.  The spa were great and quickly made sure they were squeezed in - the MLF Juniors were ecstatic with their very sparkly and girlie nails!  However, one particular moment stood out when our wonderful, bubbly waitress called Kennisha was even so kind to give MLF Juniors a farewell card and two little presents for the plane journey home. 
MLF Score: 1=Loved
Family Box of Tricks: Updates about family activities and the kids club were popped through the door every day, all looking very enticing and interesting.  However, a small detail (but an important MLF Junior one) was, given that the beach was the true holiday hero,  a "family beach kit collection", consisting of bucket and spades, armbands, child's surf board and googles (all the things that MLF regularly forgets!), ready on the terrace on arrival would have been a wonderful welcome touch.
MLF Score: 2=Liked

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