By Ann Anbel
Simple is dead sexy at Carlisle Bay, Gordon Campbell Gray’s outpost in the Caribbean. I’d suspected it would be—I’d heard the English hotelier speak to journalists several years ago about the weird excesses invading five-star resorts. Why would anyone find it luxurious, he’d asked, to step into a 62-degree guest room with the TV blaring the “resort channel” that welcomes you by name and loops images of the hotel you’ve already committed to staying at? Who wants to wrestle with unfamiliar technology? Who needs all the beeping and flashing distractions? Better to give the crashing waves and palm-fringed skies the starring role, and then get out of the way.
And that’s exactly what he’s done with this 82-suite beachfront enclave in Antigua. The oversize suites (around 800 square feet) are a study in elegance, with cool white tile floors and soft linens, abstract black-and-white nature photography, and splashes of watery blues and grays in the throw pillows and walls. The only real color you see is the fuchsia bougainvillea
tumbling down over your balcony.
At nine years old, Carlisle Bay wears its age well; it makes you see the futility of chasing the latest trends. And thankfully it was outfitted before our current age of tyrannical tech: There’s a terrific Gaggia coffeemaker in each room and you can play your iPod through your TV, but you can still adjust the lights with switches, the temperature with a wall thermostat, and the drapes with your hands—bliss for those of us over 30 who are fed up with trying to navigate unintuitive touch-pad consoles.
The multitalented staff is comfortably seasoned too, doing their duties with a gracious confidence and smiling constantly—even when leading me on a three-hour hike, addressing my hopeless tennis backhand, and helping me cover up as they drove a snorkeling boat out of a rainstorm. The service—delivered with seeming effortlessness by a team of about 250—is uncommonly good for the Caribbean, and no doubt one reason that Carlisle Bay’s repeat-guest rate is high and increasing.
Another reason is the attention it pays to families, and the way it does so without sacrificing any of its considerable romantic-hideaway charm. A strict family-couple divide is assiduously maintained, with families given rooms on only one side of the property and even designated family nights or family hours at the three restaurants, ensuring that no one is bothered or feels guilty about bothering anyone else.
About those restaurants: They’re fantastic. Again, simplicity prevails, and London-trained chef Pieter Fitz-Dryer wisely selects top-notch local ingredients and then moves out of their way. “After being in the sun all day, people just want grilled fish and vegetables,” he told me as he diced a fresh mango for his exquisite tuna ceviche in a demonstration class.
The menu at his flagship restaurant Indigo on the Beach includes a long list of “simply grilled” meats and line-caught fish (as well as plenty of less-virtuous options); the other choices are wood-fired pizzas at Ottimo! Or to-die-for pan-Asian at East, where one of the sous-chefs is Balinese. And if your ideal meal isn’t on any of those lengthy menus, just ask and the kitchen brigade will try to make it anyway—there’s a refreshing lack of ego. (Same goes for when and where you eat: there’s 24-hour room service and a long list of options for private beach and jetty dinners—guests can stay two weeks and not have the same dining experience twice.) It’s easy to understand how guests become enthralled with the menu options; I was one of those that became desperately in love. And if I stayed any longer I know I would have gained too much weight!
The food, in fact, is so good that I cut short a night at the most happening steel-drum party on the island (and this during the celebrated Antigua Racing Week, making it exponentially more happening) so that I could make it back in time for the resort’s Caribbean barbecue, which concluded with a gingered pineapple carpaccio that I’m still dreaming about. Trust me it was well worth it. That sort of behavior is typical, it turns out. “Most guests book lots of activities before they arrive,” said sales executive Maria Douglas, explaining Carlisle Bay’s siren song as she showed me around the property. “Then they get here and start canceling everything.”