Unwinding in Antigua
Self-confessed stress junkie Gabrielle Fagan tries an all-inclusive Caribbean resort that aims to make your troubles melt away
Being suspended hundreds of feet above a tropical rainforest in Antigua, held up only by an apparently flimsy harness, seemed an unlikely place to consider one's well-being.
Normally my hectic lifestyle juggling work and a family excludes the luxury of dwelling on that 21st century fad of ‘personal wellness'. But on a dreamy Caribbean island, attached by my zip-wire, I was feeling a surge of extreme, if rather surprising, joie de vivre as I jubilantly conquered my fear of heights and swung and swooped, getting a bird's eye view of the lush treetops on the Rainforest Canopy Tour.
“I knew you could do it!” said Michel, my guide, as I bumped down to earth.
He was probably secretly relieved that after all my fuss about hurling myself into space — well, you do cross a gorge 300 feet across with a drop of 350 feet — it had been as pleasant as he’d promised.
Swooping around like a bird was just one of the surprising moments during a break designed to help people kickstart a healthier lifestyle, launched at Antigua's new Verandah Resort and Spa.
On arrival at the small airport near the capital of St John's, I was serenaded by a steel band and greeted by a local who welcomed me to “our paradise island” and boasted that there are 365 beaches, one for each day of the year.
The island, smaller than the Isle of Wight, is home to some of the most exclusive resorts in the Caribbean. Tycoons and celebrities flock there for sun and sailing, while stars such as Oprah Winfrey and Eric Clapton use it as a winter retreat.
After a short drive along windy roads, past forests of mango trees and villages full of brightly painted houses, I arrived at the Verandah Resort perched high on a cliff with spectacular ocean views.
I was in one of its private, white-painted bungalows with a sea-facing balcony that tiny, colourful local birds used as a landing strip.
My expectation that the health and wellbeing programme would involve lots of ‘umming and aahing' on yoga mats, vegetable juices and detoxes was swiftly banished.
In a laid-back atmosphere, you are invited to join a sunset yoga class, an aqua aerobics session in the warm sea, or to stretch your muscles with tennis, water sports or walking, but there's no compulsion to do anything.
Eating healthily is delightfully easy, as a health bar in the hotel's main restaurant offers salads, fruit and delicious freshly cooked calorie-conscious meals. But if you want to break out, there are plenty of meals on the normal menu, featuring Caribbean dishes that include freshly caught fish that aren't too sinful.
While low-sugar cocktails are offered, I was able to treat myself every night to the island's signature drink — a punch made from rum with lime juice and brown sugar, as well as enjoying wine with my meal. Well, the booklet presented on my arrival by British nutritionist Suzi Grant, who's helped set up the programme, does say that ‘80% good lifestyle, nutrition, plus 20% of what you fancy, equals optimum health and well-being’ ...
It probably helps the unwinding process that an all-inclusive package allows you to wander around like the Queen, without any thought of money, and you are frequently greeted by ever-helpful, friendly staff.
As tensions slipped away I felt energised enough to sample the two pools, and gently jog along to the far end of one of the resort's beaches to see Devil's Bridge, where the sea thunders under a natural outcrop of rock. Some mornings I strolled to Long Beach — a swathe of golden sand ideal for snorkelling.
I also had a luxurious pampering session in Verandah's Spa Tranquility. A caviar and pearl facial promised a youthful look, and after 80 minutes I felt like a different person and vowed to make sure my body matched my face, and continued the daily skin brushing to eliminate toxins and stimulate circulation.
I'm not sure whether it was my newly toned body that made me appeal to a large stingray at Stingray City. You reach this attraction by boat and climb off a floating pier into the shallow waters encircled by a coral reef. As you do, the water comes alive with large rippling dark shapes tempted by the handfuls of calamari you're carrying. It was an extraordinary experience to have Martha lie docilely between my arms, although I kept a wary eye on her lethal tail.
While I was only too aware that on my return I'd soon slip back into my wicked ways of coffee-on-the-go and an addiction to stress, the break showed me how just great I could feel.
I am determined to maintain some of the good habits that I learned, even though some of the wellbeing highlights — flying like a bird or snuggling with a stingray — will have to remain a hugely enjoyable memory.
Getting there: Thomas Cook Signature offers seven nights’ all-inclusive at the four-star Verandah Resort and Spa ex-Gatwick with return BA flights from £1,199 on deps through May and June. Same package ex-Manchester starts at £1,259, ex-Glasgow from £1,259.
More information: Reservationscan be made on 0844 879 8014 and ThomasCookSignature.com.
Thomas Cook Publishing travel guides, including Antigua, from £4.99, are|available from 01733 416 477 and|thomascookpublishing.com.