Antigua, 2013 - Sandals Grande Antigua

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Holiday resort Report for our two-week stay at Sandals Grande Antigua in June/July 2013.

Getting there

The eight-hour flight from Gatwick on a BA Boeing 777 was not good.  We were two hours late leaving as a fuel filter needed replacing, then we discovered that my seat wouldn’t recline, so we moved to some empty seats at the back of the plane, to find that the seat’s display wasn’t working.  To cap it all, by the time the food reached us, they’d run out of what I wanted, and I had the last, extremely battered container of a vegetarian meal, which was all they had left.    Must do better, BA.

The Sandals rep at Antigua airport showed us to a minibus for the short ride to the hotel on Dickinson Bay at the north-west corner of the island, and we were quickly taken to the concierge desk to check in and then to our room.

Incidentally, this was a reasonably cheap holiday for us, thanks to Sandals' 'Hurricane Guarantee'.  Last October we were staying at Sandals Royal Bahamian when Hurricane Sandy hit.  Sandals gave us a credit note for the value of our entire 14-day stay (flights excluded), even though Sandy only really affected the first week of our holiday.  We could use the credit note against any future Sandals holiday (though there were some date restrictions such as Christmas/New Year).  We'd just have to pay for our air fares.  We decided to use the value of the credit note, and chip in a bit more, to go to Antigua at an earlier, slightly more expensive, time of year (importantly, when we're less likely to suffer another hurricane!).  Thanks, Butch!

Our room

A good big room, number 121, grandly titled “Grande Luxe Beachfront Sunset Concierge Room” in the older, quieter, “Caribbean Village” section of the hotel, on the upper floor of the two-storey Frangipani block.  There are some small quiet pools dotted around the block.

Things we liked about the room:

  • a massive comfortable bed
  • effective aircon
  • comfortable seating
  • a well-stocked bar (you get ice from a container at the end of the block) and tea/coffee making kit
  • plenty of drawer space
  • a few spare US-style sockets for recharging stuff
  • a good-sized room safe
  • a massive TV (BBC World News was one of the channels) with HDMI and AV input sockets at the back
  • large sliding doors onto the balcony with a good view of the Caribbean sea.

Things we didn’t like about the room:

  • the large umbrella shade on the balcony didn’t provide sufficient shelter when it rained
  • the bathroom only had one washbasin – two would be better
  • unreliable Wi-Fi internet connection, especially as you are charged US$43 per week for this at a supposedly all-inclusive resort which markets itself as “luxury included”
  • relatively small space for hanging dresses in the wardrobe
  • on the aircon control panel next to the door there were buttons marked “Do Not Disturb” and “Please make up my room”, with little LEDs which lit up next to them when you pressed them.  We thought this was a great idea, until half-way through our stay when we found out that they don’t actually do anything outside, and we should have had a conventional cardboard sign to hang on the door handle (we didn’t, and it took several requests to the Concierge and Reception desks before we eventually got one)
  • The bath/shower was relatively small (especially if you wanted to share it), and the shower screen was so small as to guarantee that the bathroom floor ended up covered in water
  • Some of the areas around the block (and elsewhere) were paved with smooth tiles, which were extremely slippery when wet in the frequent rain showers, considering that most guests were padding about in flip-flops with zero tread.

We were alarmed to see that the guests in the room next to us moved out and their wooden balcony was then propped up with Acrow props and partially dismantled and rebuilt.  The Caribbean village is the oldest part of the property, it was a hotel before Sandals bought it, and the wooden balconies must be showing signs of age.

The first few days of our stay in June were mixed, breezy with sometimes low grey clouds, and rain, sometimes sunshine.  The second week was calmer with more blue sky, but there were still occasional tropical showers.  At least we weren’t hit by a hurricane this year (see our St Lucia and Bahamas holiday reports).

Other facilities

The beach was good – wide and sandy, with plenty of Sandals sunbeds and some sunshades.  It’s a public beach, so Sandals post security guards at the gates through the wall onto the beach, and, once on your sunbed, you are interrupted every few minutes by vendors selling trinkets, hats, t-shirts, massages, trips etc etc.  A polite ‘no thanks’ generally works. 

There are lots of pools in the hotel grounds, some small and quiet, others larger with swim-up bars and entertainment.  Plenty of sunbeds and some sunshades.  You get beach towels in your room, and there’s a further supply next to the water sports centre.

The gardens are beautiful.  The gardening staff are to be congratulated for the colourful displays of flowers, shrubs and trees, and the neatly-kept grass.

The ‘Mediterranean Village’ end of the resort is more modern and noisier, with a huge pool, bar, sound stage, entertainments etc.  There are some shady ‘cabanas’ reserved for ‘Butler’ suite guests.

There are gyms and exercise machines if you’re that keen.

Weddings are big business at Sandals and there are wedding gazebos dotted around the grounds (also temporary ones for erection on the beach).  Sandals have photographers roaming the grounds who will sell you wildly expensive photos of yourself.

There’s a ‘Colombian Emeralds’ jewellery shop with cheerful sales staff, and a resort shop selling touristy clothes and trinkets.

In the Caribbean Courtyard area are the following:

  • Reception/Front Desk
  • the ‘Soon Come Back’ desk for booking return visits
  • the ‘Island Routes’ desk where you can book trips and excursions
  • a car-hire desk: we hired a car for a day and drove around the island, through St John’s and then visiting Jolly Harbour, Nelson’s Dockyard, Shirley Heights, Devil’s Bridge etc
  • a small cage containing a couple of beautiful scarlet macaws
  • most nights there are noisy live bands, games and quizzes in this area.

Food+Drink

There are several restaurants – we tried most of them.  Some of the restaurants are open air, which is great for atmosphere, but means that birds can fly into buffet areas and perch on the food, pecking at it, and/or descend on abandoned tables to fight over the left-overs on the plates. 

Bayside

Right next to our room block, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Overlooking the beach.  A good buffet choice, but marred for us by the birds pecking at the food.  We ate breakfast here before they opened (see 'Underwater'), and this meant that the food was still covered over - better.

Barefoot on the Beach

Great atmosphere with tables on the sand.  Waiter service.  Some good tasty choices.  Spoiled by the large seagulls that will steal food right off your plate while you’re eating it, and which noisily fight over scraps left on tables.

Mario's

The same buffet choice as Bayside for breakfast, but a good Italian restaurant in the evening.  Indoors, and set back from the beach so the birds are less of a problem.

The Cricketer’s Pub

Confusingly being slowly and gradually renamed the Drunken Duck while we were there – called by different names in different publications.  Somehow lacking in atmosphere and customers.  Good pub lunch menu, but confusingly only open in the evenings.

Café de Paris

Patisserie, serving cakes and chocolaty stuff, tea and coffee.

Eleanor’s

A smart open-air restaurant, concentrating on Caribbean and seafood dishes, overlooking the beach.  Good menu.  Flavoured rum sample tasting.  Atmosphere a bit spoiled by the noisy Courtyard events in the evenings (live bands, quizzes, games etc) right outside.

Kimonos

Oriental stir-fry as spectacle.  The chef shows off his cooking skills to a small group gathered around his big square griddle.  Worth a go.

Soy Sushi Bar

Next to Kimonos.  Does what it says on the tin.  Didn’t try it.

Bella Napoli Pizzeria

Good pizzas, freshly cooked to order.  Ideal for a light lunch.  A few tables with sunshades on an outside paved area next to Mario's.  Feels a bit of an afterthought, but we used it a lot.

Courtyard Bistro

Take-away bar in the courtyard, providing sandwiches, burgers, salads, fruit, all ‘to go’.

OK Corral

Tex-mex food in an open-air dining area two stories above the beach and the entertainment area.  Also open for breakfast, which you share with the seagulls.

Beach Party

One evening a week, there’s a big beach party, with bbqs, tureens of hot food, dozens of tables and lots of music and entertainment all set up out on the beach.  We turned up at this but the whole thing was drenched by a sudden prolonged torrential downpour – such a shame when the staff had spent all day setting it up.

 

Annoyingly, there is a limited restaurant choice at lunchtime: just Bayside, Barefoot, and the Pizzeria.

The house wines (two red, two white) are very acceptable.

Dress Code

Sandals have this irritating dress code at their restaurants.  At ‘Barefoot on the Beach’, the dress code says ‘no bare feet’.  At this resort called ‘Sandals’, you aren’t allowed to wear sandals in many of the restaurants.   In one restaurant, the code stated short-sleeved shirts without collars were allowed, but t-shirts weren’t.  Duh.

The worst thing is, there’s no consistency.  The web site, the brochure, the folder in the room, the daily newspaper: they all give different rules for each restaurant.  And the rules are mostly ignored anyway – you frequently see blokes wearing singlets/shorts/flip-flops in a restaurant which stipulates shirts with collars, long trousers and closed-toed shoes.

Underwater

Snorkelling

There’s no point snorkelling off the beach as there’s nothing to see except sand.  Sandals’ Watersports centre organises snorkelling trips out to a reef a couple of miles offshore.

Diving

Sandals have a 46 foot and a 36 foot Newton dive boat at Antigua.  Unfortunately while I was there, one of the engines in the larger boat (‘Twi Twi’) was out of action, and the boat disappeared to have a new engine fitted.  It never reappeared, so we were limited to the smaller, slower boat (‘Stargazer’).  This meant either concentrating on the nearby reefs, or longer journey times (1 to 1½ hours) to the better Cades Reef at the south of the island.  The fact that it’s a smaller boat didn’t matter, because there were rarely more than half a dozen divers on board.  Indeed, on one day I was the only customer, with the three-man crew exclusively at my service.

There’s no jetty, so the boat backs into the shallows next to the beach, and you have to wade out chest-deep to reach the stern ladder, holding your kit bag above your head.  This is a bit amateurish, but presumably Sandals can’t get permission to build a jetty. 

There’s a two-tank dive departing nominally at 0800 (but more usually 0815), and a one-tank afternoon dive.  You get two dives per day included in the holiday cost - I did 13 dives in all.  More than half of the dives I did were around Sandy Island, a 30 minute boat ride away.  Dive depths were between 9m and 15m, and dive times were generally 40 to 55 minutes.  Nitrox isn’t available, but with such restricted depths and bottom times, it doesn’t matter.  I only briefly dipped below 20m on one dive at Cades Reef.  The bottom consists of coral and sandy patches.  Visibility varied from poor (5m) to good (25m).  Water temperature was 28°C.

You are asked to check in for the morning dives at 0745, but none of the restaurants open until 0730.  With a 5-minute walk to the dive centre, that leaves just 10 minutes for breakfast.  This isn’t enough, and I complained to Gerald, the resort manager, at a party.  He lowered his voice and said ‘just turn up at Bayside at 0715, I’ll make sure they let you in’.  And so it transpired - the staff at Bayside were prepared the following morning.  This meant not only 25 minutes for a reasonably leisurely breakfast, but, best of all, much of the buffet food was still covered in clingfilm, so hadn’t been pecked at by the birds.  Thanks, Gerald.

Underwater, there isn’t much to see – pretty soft corals, sponges and sea fans, a few fish, and the occasional unusual critter found by the dive leader.  I saw two sleeping nurse sharks under outcrops, a brief glimpse of a Caribbean Reef shark in the distance, an octopus, lots of big lobsters, several tiny shrimps, a few lionfish (not as many as at the Bahamas last year, where they are considered a pest and are speared), quite a few barracuda, and some remora.  Some other divers spotted a turtle in the distance, but I missed this.  Not a patch on the Maldives, but at least it’s free (well, included in the holiday price, and the hundreds of non-diving guests are presumably therefore subsidising the cost of your dives).  We also visited the ‘Jettias’ wreck a few miles offshore from Sandals – a 95m ship which sank in 1917 in 7m of water, now very broken up, but visibility wasn’t good, and the dive leader got lost, so we had to swim 300m back to the boat on the surface.

The dive staff are cheerful, helpful and professional.  The Watersports centre has a big rinse tank and space to hang up your wetsuit to dry.  You can borrow good quality BCDs and regs for free, also snorkelling kit, but wetsuits cost US$10 per day to hire.

Thanks to dive leader Ray and his colleagues for some good dives.

Photos

A dozen or so photos per page for your enjoyment, each page totalling around 4Mb:

Conclusion

There’s a good beach, with plenty of sunbeds and we always managed to get a sunshade.  The room is good, with some nice touches.  The rooms in the newer ‘Mediterranean’ section of the hotel are probably better.  The older, ‘Caribbean’ section of the hotel, where our room was, is quieter than the ‘Mediterranean’ section, apart from the evening Courtyard entertainments.  Food and drink were generally good, but we were put off certain restaurants by the birds and the noisy entertainment next door.  The staff were smiley and helpful.

Sandals is an acquired taste.  Their resorts are big, noisy and brash, but at least the diving is included.  As we had a late flight home, we asked to keep our room until 5pm, and were not happy to be charged US$100 for this.  As previously stated, Wi-Fi is ruinously expensive at this “luxury included”, “all-inclusive” resort.

Would we go back?  Probably not – there are so many other places to see.

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