ST. JOHN'S, Antigua -- All their lives, the kids had heard about this particular stretch of Caribbean beach.
``That's it?'' they asked as we sailed by, disappointed that this was just another beach -- albeit a particularly pretty one with white sand, palm trees and blue-green Caribbean surf along the southern coast of this island that boasts that it has enough different beaches for every day of the year.
This was, after all, the place their parents, still giddy from the last bottle of wedding champagne, had first voiced their hopes and dreams for the children they might have someday. The kids expected more bells and whistles, we realized -- maybe a flashing neon sign saying MATT, REGGIE AND MELANIE'S BEACH.
We had honeymooned on that beach nearly 18 years ago at a small gem of a resort called Curtain Bluff. Now we were back, showing our three kids -- Matt, 16, Reggie, 14, and Melanie, 9 -- Antigua, where our marriage began and the site of such special memories. The trip turned out to be both a much-needed break for our gang together and a chance to step back and take stock of how far we'd come in the past two decades -- and how different that journey has been from what we expected. Not bad -- just different.
Vacations, especially to places visited at another time in our lives, have a way of offering a perspective that frenetic everyday life can't. The kids, we teased, were nothing like what we'd imagined on those long-ago starry nights on the beach.
Nor was this trip anything like that blissful honeymoon. Instead of relaxing at the luxe resort, our every whim anticipated, we had chartered a SunSail bareboat yacht, serving as our own crew, sleeping in tiny cabins, cooking, trying to balance the needs of two sail-loving teens and a less enthusiastic third-grader. To that end, we planned a few days at the modest SunSail Colonna Club on Antigua known more for its extensive fleet of sailboats and windsurfers (among the largest in the Caribbean) and children's activities (even for infants) than stellar accommodations or food.
It turned out to be the perfect combination, despite weather so unseasonably windy we had to alter our itinerary. ``Glorified camping,'' our affable skipper Neville Holloway said as I struggled to make breakfast on the tiny propane gas stove in the closet-sized kitchen. Holloway, a fortysomething British former banker, has been around boats much of his life and relishes junior sailors, though he doesn't have any kids himself. He went so far as to engineer a treasure hunt for our kids (gold chocolate coins the prize), help us find women to braid the girls' hair and suggest the right beach for an afternoon swim. He also taught us a lot about sailing. Because our kids are far better sailors than we are, we couldn't consider a trip like this without a skipper on board. But I was glad that we opted not to have anyone else crew, even if it meant more work -- especially for mom. It was cheaper and forced everyone to help -- like on a camping trip.
Matt and Reggie hoisted and trimmed the sails, steering the boat with aplomb. Even Melanie drove the boat under Holloway's watchful eye. The days had a pleasant we-don't-have-a-schedule rhythm: We breakfasted on local pineapples and bagels brought from home, sailed along the coast, the houses little dots staining the mountains. We snorkeled at a nearby beach. We kayaked. Lunch was sandwiches on deck and dinner at a local beachfront restaurant so casual we just put on shoes. Our favorite evening: grilling steaks brought from home on deck, telling stories about our honeymoon.
These were best times about a trip like this -- the kids content to share time with us, not running off with newfound friends. This isn't for a family that doesn't like to be together.
All of us -- except Melanie -- were a little sad to leave ``our'' boat for the SunSail Resort, where we checked in to a two-bedroom, two-bath villa on the beach. It was comfortable but could have used some sprucing up.
But neither the accommodations nor the disappointing meals -- too bland for our taste -- ultimately dimmed my enthusiasm for the place. Neither did my teens' gripes that there weren't enough other teenagers or Americans (the British are the decided majority here).
Not when I saw Melanie so happy on the small beach and in organized activities with other youngsters her own age and adults and kids alike busy sailing and windsurfing. The club has 50 boats, one of the most extensive fleets in the Caribbean. It promises every guest at the 100-plus-room resort can be on the water at the same time. ``If your family sails and windsurfs, this is great,'' said Kathy Wellburn, a Vancouver attorney and mom of two grade-schoolers.
This is also great for single parents who are immediately welcomed into a congenial group on the beach or at the bar. Parents with young children add they could really relax because the kids' club welcomes infants and toddlers.
``I haven't been anywhere that handles the kids as well,'' said an enthusiastic Emily Lafitte, an Austin, Texas, executive vacationing with her husband and two daughters. She watched as the kids' club engineered a birthday party for one of her children. ``We could be someplace luxurious and be miserable.''
That's because the kids' view of vacation spots and their parents' rarely is the same. For months, I'd looked forward to taking my brood to Curtain Bluff for dinner. I made them get dressed up in their tropical best for the occasion.
The food was as excellent as I remembered, the setting overlooking the fragrant gardens just as romantic. The service gracious. Forget dancing under the stars. The kids were ready to leave before dessert was finished.
IF YOU GO:
Antigua, like other Caribbean islands, may be cheaper for American families in late spring and summer than many traditional U.S. beach towns. The island's annual Carnival, its biggest celebration, is held at the beginning of August. For more information, visit www.antigua-barbuda.org.
We flew BWIA West Indies Airways, which offers nonstop service from New York, Washington, D.C., and Miami. Call 800-538-2942 or www.bwee.com.
If you're planning to sail, bring as much food with you from home as you can manage. You'll save plenty and have a much better selection. Neville Holloway, our affable skipper, has since purchased his own boat and has begun to offer family-friendly charters in Antigua and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Rates average $3,500 weekly for the skipper and the boat, which sleeps six. Provisions extra. Contact Holloway at NevH99@aol.com.
SunSail can arrange a trip like ours, combining a charter with a stay at the Colonna Club. Charter rates with a skipper average $500 a day, plus food. Until the end of June, a family of four could stay at the club in a suite for under $350 a day, including two meals daily, kids' activities, snorkeling gear and use of the sailing fleet. Ask about additional spring deals. Summer prices are higher. Call 800-327-2276 or www.sunsail.com.
For those seeking a more upscale family-friendly enclave, head to the St. James Club. Children's programs are complimentary, and kids under 12 stay free with two adults. Summer rates start at $250 for a room, $500 for a villa. Call 800-345-0356 or www.antigua-resorts.com. Ask about the less expensive Royal Antiguan, which also has children's activities.
The Coconut Grove is the perfect spot for dinner -- excellent local seafood under a thatched roof at the water's edge. The kids can play until the food comes. Call 268-462-1538.
Curtain Bluff is closed from mid-May until the end of October: For those looking for a place to vacation without the kids, children are not permitted between mid-January and mid-March. Many children accompany their parents here at holidays and spring break. All-inclusive rates for two, including diving and liquor, start at $555 a night low season: Kids 5 and older are $160 per night (2-5, $65 per night). Call 888-289-9898 or www.curtainbluff.com. You can book for dinner -- if the men in the gang have brought along a jacket.
(c) 2000, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate