Cotswold Travel: The colours of Paradise Island
PUBLISHED: 10:15 15 August 2017
If you want a stretch of paradise, head out to the Keyonna Beach resort in Antigua. Katie Jarvis did
Busybody fingers of butter-yellow light, sent by a day itching to get started, are sneaking through gaps in the curtains, tippy-tappying over to prise our lashes apart as we lie, lazily sleeping, covers thrown back on our four-poster bed. But it’s not the sun’s rude rays that finally force my eyelids open; it’s a noise. Not a gentle, early-morning noise; but an insistent pounding. Like a speeding truck slamming past the bedroom window. It’s always there – day and night – so that my brain filters it out, like the smell of fresh coffee when you walk into a room: an aroma that captivates for a few fickle seconds, before abandoning you for the next more interesting newcomer.
Sometimes I don’t hear it at all, this all-powerful conversation between Earth and Moon. And sometimes, such as now, in the newness of morning, I listen; loving its insistence. Billions of shimmering droplets; pure aquamarine – filling the air with a cook’s ladle of salt – that lightly fall in the most deafening of roars.
Yesterday, the sun commandeered the whole beach – like mythical German holidaymakers bagsying recliners with their towels – forcing bathers under the cover of the outdoor beds (proper double beds, with soft mattresses and net canopies!) that line the soft sands.
The forecast for today is less intense. Being a Leo – a sun-worshipper – in contrast to Ian’s pallid auburn, I’m slightly disappointed.
“It’s only going to be 20 degrees this morning,” I say, stretching.
“They’re probably out there now, de-icing their cars,” Ian replies.
At breakfast, over the wooden tables just above the blue-meets-white of Turner’s Beach, the yellow-breasted bananaquits are insistently singing (demanding), ‘Sugar! Sugar!’ As soon as they think guests are distracted – by the cooling play of a trade wind; the swirling wake of a passing millionaire’s yacht; by the distant view of drowsy Montserrat – the little birds take their chances. Their curved bills are perfect for extracting nectar from showy red hibiscus or delicious heliconia; but how much easier to dip a beak into the ready-made ginger jam that’s more properly meant for guests to spread on warm bread brought in from the village (where the baker is up in the small hours, cooking it in his fragrant wood-oven). The emerald lizard on the post next to us watches disapprovingly, still as a statue apart from a throat that inflates and deflates like the slow tick-tock of a clock.
It’s Sunday morning on Antigua, and Lorraine, the chef, is preparing us a traditional local breakfast.
“This is creole salt fish,” she says, adding bell-pepper, onion, garlic and tomato to meaty pollock that’s been soaked overnight. And then she makes the vegetable accompaniment – aubergine, okra, spinach and pumpkin – mashing it with a little salt and pepper in her small kitchen that produces huge flavours (where I’ve snuck in to watch). Johnny cakes are next: baking powder, flour, a little sugar and some butter, deep fried; and then plantain – savoury bananas – peeled and fried again.
Not much chilli in Antiguan cooking?
“No, not much,” Lorraine says, as she chops and mixes. “Onion, garlic, fresh herbs, cinnamon, mainly.”
Keyonna Beach is that rare animal: an all-inclusive food heaven. It’s an all-sorts of heaven, it’s true: a couples-only paradise of rustic simplicity and luxury solitude, where the clear-blue waves lap almost to your door over one of the island’s best sandy stretches. There are no televisions, no radios; (the wifi, generally consistent, can be blissfully intermittent, too). The smiled-on entertainment is yoga with Charlotte, the pool and massage area, and rows of novels to borrow while passing staff bring out cocktails, wine (and coconut cream, my favourite drink) to wherever you’ve chosen to sprawl.
I say ‘staff’. They begin as staff, and then morph, quickly, into friends. Into Sandy, with her magnificent family (14 of them at home); “The kids aren’t like me,” she sighs, as mothers everywhere sigh. “I like Carnation milk. They have to have the pasteurised.” (Within five minutes of meeting her, I know I would confide in lovely Sandy all of my deepest secrets.) And then there’s O’Deal, Donato, Clint and Wilmer (and many others), who work in the restaurant, behind the bar, at reception, or run the resort, each with a ready smile and a Caribbean welcome.
And even though we’ve eaten our fill at breakfast – prepared-to-order yogurts, omelettes, pancakes, bacon, fruit, pastries – we still turn out for the a la carte three-course lunch. And then the a la carte dinner, under a roof of twisted sea grape with its strong roots that stop the sea from washing the decking away.
Tonight, as the sun dips and the restaurant is bathed in its own low lights, we choose from seafood consommé, an aubergine and blue cheese mousse, or a marinated chicken and parmesan potato salad. For mains, it’s beef ravioli, freshly-caught snapper with rice and vegetables, Cornish hen forestière, or a vegetarian risotto packed with colours. And for dessert, there’s chocolate tart, a coffee-cream concoction, ice cream, or exotic fruits piled high. This is how it is every lunchtime; every night.
And the wine? I’ll tell you about the wine in a swirling soupcon of a moment.
But tonight, as dusk falls, I’m relaxing, not working; listening to the invisible sea rushing like wind through the trees.
We could get a taxi into town, but the local bus – a minibus with extra seats that fold down in the aisle – stops right outside Keyonna’s gates. We clamber on; somehow – I can’t remember how – knowing that we pay when we get off, a couple of dollars to work our way 20 minutes out to the island capital of St John’s. The driver is either trusting or photographic of memory. He never looks round; never asks for fares; they’re pressed into his hand as passengers climb out.
And then we sit, nostrils not-unpleasantly suffused with stale tobacco and diesel - rap music blaring from the speakers. And we quietly people-watch the locals: a smartly uniformed young man with epaulettes (police?); another with dreadlocks and necklace, in a lime-green t-shirt, headphones on despite (because of?) the ubiquitous hip-hop; a gaggle of students, who exit at the Antiguan State College.
Round the lanes we surge, past the donkey sanctuary and the plots of scrubby land for sale; past the old Bristol bus parked in a roadside bar (“A low-decker, to be precise,” Ian says, helpfully); past the old and scrawny road-side vendor of sweet potato and water melon (the only Antiguan I see who makes me fear for his welfare); past the wrought-iron fences splashed with bougainvillea, and the beauty salon/house where you can get your nails and eyebrows done. Past the buy-local food signs, where Antiguan farmers – captured in digital pleas – rightly state, “I want to live, not just survive.”
To the bus terminus by the public fish market, where vendors swat buzzling flies from huge fleshy-scales, using short-handled brushes of twigs.
If Antigua is an island of joyful primary colours – which it is – then St John’s is a slightly scruffy celebration of that bursting life. We pour off the bus and make our way through the shouting men (are they fighting or joshing with each other?), beyond the hopeful dogs lapping at the run-off from the fish, and into the streets beyond the bandstand, where the young woman on the PA is quoting 1 Samuel 12:18, in an inaccurate weather forecast: “So Samuel called to the LORD, and the LORD sent thunder and rain that day.”
There’s nothing much to buy – pink stilettoes with teetering five-inch heels; Bob Marley bags; Shoul’s Chief Store (like FW Woolworth from the 70s), with its Jesus clocks and Caribbean condiment sets.
But I love the life. There’s the beautiful tall girl, skinny as a palm tree, to whom the outclassed guy driving past in his white transit gives a hopeful, hopeless, shout-out. The hordes of taxi-drivers and tour operators, waiting for the cruise-ship passengers like patient fishermen watching for shoals of yellowtail snapper.
“I love your bag!” calls a local, as she passes me.
I wonder – signed, ‘Cynical from England’ - what she wants. But, after a few similar encounters, I realise she was saying that she loved my bag. So the next time a passer-by shouts, “How do you like Antigua?” I yell back, “Love it!” And we grin at each other.
And I do. The barber shop with ‘To God Be The Glory’ emblazoned on it; Tanner Street, where the water-gully has collapsed; dusty beer bottle tops that gather like autumn leaves; beeping trucks, music blaring, swapping greetings; the tickle of the street-side steel drummer playing ‘This Old Man’; the restaurants selling stew fish and bake chicken; the men wearing woolly bobble hats in the blazing heat.
The beautiful black girl selling bananas, with the amazing red hair like a sunset halo.
And when the bus (it only leaves when it’s full) snakes its way back, past Darkwood Beach, past where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean Sea, we drive by a yard filled with scrap.
And there on a clothes line, above the carelessly strewn rubbish, hang four immaculately washed shirts.
I need to tell you about the wine, before I finish. It’s small and wonderfully boutique, Keyonna Beach (owned by Andrew Michelin, an islander with proud Oxfordshire connections: his great grandfather once owned the punt-concession at Magdalen Bridge). And, even though it’s all-inclusive, the food and the wine are of magnificent quality. In fact, it even has its own dedicated sommelier, Rohan Jarvis, whom Andrew can barely persuade to take an evening off. His passion for the wine he chooses and serves each night is legendary.
Andrew has sent Rohan far and wide to study his craft. In the early days, to Switzerland, “Oh man! At that time, I had never travelled so far before; it was really an eye-opener. The sommelier in Switzerland was awesome.”
Two years ago, Rohan went to tour French vineyards: to Ay for the Bollinger; to Louis Latour and Georges Duboeuf. His favourite red is a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. “And my favourite white is right here: a Sancerre Les Rochettes,” he says, pouring us liberal glasses.
He loves French wine; and he still loves his island. He lived in the States for 16 years; though when he came back, much had changed.
“Back when I was born, in 65, little Rohan used to run out of his gate, through a little alley and into the sea, where he learned to swim. Now we can’t do that because, after they dredged the harbour, they made a road out of the material. So now the sea, from where I grew up, is maybe about half a mile away.
“That’s just one of the changes.”
Economically, things are better, in many ways; but – like so many places – the sense of community has diminished. “I remember, one time as a child, my neighbour whooped my tail because I said something bad. These days, you cannot do that. The discipline within the village is not there no more.
“Oh yes, it was a feeling of shame I’ll never forget! When you go back onto the playing field, you have the guys saying, ’Oh, Miss Iris whooped your tail!’”
He grins. “And when I got home, I got another whooping.”
And then he pours us another glass.
So back at home, in the cold of England, I play back recordings of interviews I did on Antigua. And there, amongst the voices, I hear other sounds.
The breakers on the shore;
The cheeky lesser-Antillean bullfinches twittering;
The tree frogs, like squeaking bicycles, calling to each other of an evening.
And I picture the clouds turning the sea white without me.