Johnny Ray bowls his maiden over Aweek in North Wales in February was hardly the sort of honeymoon Marina had in mind when she rashly agreed to marry me all those years ago. ‘I thought you were joking,’ she whimpered as the hail lashed down on our mountainside cottage. I explained that I had been virtually bankrupted by my Venetian marriage proposal: wooing her with business class there and back, softening her up with Bellinis at the Gritti and popping the question over dinner at Harry’s Bar. ‘Well don’t blame me,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know you were poor.’ That was 13 years ago and the other weekend I came as close as I have done yet to making it up to her, celebrating her 40th birthday with the swankiest of mini-breaks in the Caribbean. Marina hasn’t stopped grinning since and, as I write, it looks as if the ghost of Snowdonia National Park has finally been laid to rest.
As a cricket-lover I may have timed it badly, heading back to Blighty (on a plane captained by Ricky Ellcock, once of Worcestershire, Middlesex and — oh, so nearly — England) just as the teams arrived for the World Cup, but as far as Marina was concerned I played a blinder, bowling a maiden over, you might say.
With two nights on Antigua, two on Anguilla and one on Virgin Atlantic we weren’t there nearly long enough, but so blue was the sky, so clear the sea, so white the sandy beaches and so moreish the rum punches that it was more than worth it.
It started perfectly too. Thanks to bucketloads of wine on the flight (Virgin is supplied by Berry Bros & Rudd, at which fine establishment Marina and I first met) we snoozed our way across the Atlantic, were serenaded by a calypso band on arrival and were greeted with iced water, chilled towels and a waiting taxi by Gail, our beaming Caribtours rep.
Half an hour later and we were at Curtain Bluff, a spiffing hotel in the island’s south which claims the largest and finest cellar in the Caribbean.
But it was the secluded beach (of which Antigua boasts 365 — one for every day of the year) rather than the well-stocked cellar that entranced Marina and we headed there even before unpacking.
A waiter laden with cocktails was serving guests slumped in the hammocks that swayed gently between the palms, while a few yards beyond the soft white sands a yacht bobbed at anchor on a cobalt sea. ‘Oh my God!’ said Marina. ‘It’s exactly like my screensaver.’ We had two days of utter bliss. I lounged about reading some of Marina’s chic-lit while she snorkelled. We dozed under palms, waking only when Carlos padded by with more cocktails. We breakfasted on the terrace accompanied by hummingbirds, ate lunch on the beach and at dinner mounted serious raids on Curtain Bluff’s cellar, which was indeed impressive.
We stirred ourselves just enough to visit Nelson’s Dockyard, a remarkable collection of elegant Georgian buildings still in use today. Nelson himself served here as a captain from 1784–87, commanding the northern division of the Leeward Island Station, and we raised an ice-cold rum punch to the great man in the cool and airy Admiral’s Inn.
On the third day, after further rum punches at the Sticky Wicket, the absorbing West Indian cricketing hall of fame-cum-bar sited yards from the airport terminal, we took the half-hour flight to Anguilla.
We made for the absurdly luxurious Malliouhana Hotel and Spa, spectacularly located on a bluff overlooking the sea which, coincidentally, also lays claim to the largest and finest cellar in the Caribbean.
Here we strolled along the mile-long Meads Bay beach, swam in both pool and sea, had massages and pedicures. We ventured as far as Smokey’s on the Cove, nothing more than a shack on a beach, but famous for its curried goat, fresh-as-can-be fish and savagely alcoholic rum punches. In the evenings we dined on the terrace, and drank First Growth claret. Malliouhana just edged it in the ‘Cellars of the Caribbean’ contest with fabulous wines from remarkable vintages: its Chablis alone ran to over 40 examples.
Then it was back to Antigua for our return to London. The airport was heaving and with three hours until our flight, we debated what to do. Our lovely Caribtours girl conjured a car from thin air, shoved us in before anyone in the lengthy taxi queue could complain, and instructed the driver to speed to the capital, St. John’s. We had a fine lunch of grilled mahi-mahi and fried plantain at the Big Banana while our driver happily waited for us.
Everyone we came across during our Caribbean break was laid back, gracious and smiling and although it was 31°C in the departure lounge, standing room only, with the prospect of an eight-hour flight in steerage — albeit in the roomy exit row, for which we had just slipped the check-in girl £50 each — we left grinning from ear to ear.