In With the In Crowd on Antigua - Page 2

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It would have been easy for Nicholson to adopt the Grand Old Man stance, sweep his hands across the 270-degree panorama that is the spectacular view from his terrace and take family credit for all he surveyed -- the fleet of expensive boats, the vital place that English Harbour and its environs have become -- but that's not his style. Rather, he said the Nicholsons simply came along at the right post-war moment: "We didn't restore the Dockyard, we just made it come alive. If we hadn't done it, someone else would've." And while fond recollections of events catalogued in his photographs obviously exert a strong emotional pull, he seemed to have eluded the nostalgia trap. "I like to see the progress and the betterment of the people," he said, pointing to the community of homes and businesses around Falmouth Harbour. "The only thing I mind is the loud music at night -- the boom-booms go right through your body -- but it's important to entertain the yachtsmen."

Argh, Matey! It's important to entertain the yachtsmen!

That would certainly be the battle cry heard 'round English Harbour these days.

"Last night there were 30 people dancing in the kitchen with the girls and jumping in the water at 2 a.m. -- for the third night in a row!" said Catherine Ricard, a striking Frenchwoman of a certain age who for the past 21 years has been operating Catherine's Café. It's a no-frills dockside bistro where the wine list gets more attention than the menu. While Catherine and "the girls" fortified themselves with supper before the evening rush, a French boat crew who were all on a kissy-kissy basis with Catherine fortified themselves with serve-yourself rounds of ti' punch, the French West Indian cocktail made with rhum agricole, raw sugar and lime. This night's festivities were in their preliminary fueling stages.

Antigua (pronounced Anteega, by the way) can have few boosters more vehement than Catherine, and her appreciation starts with the people. "They have a sense of fairness, honesty, gentleness -- there's no racism like you sometimes find in the French West Indies -- and it's safe," she said. "They just don't know how to cook!"

Catherine sets her seasonal clock by the international boating events held here, beginning with the Antigua Charter Yacht Show in early December, when "the harbour is covered with the most beautiful yachts in the world." The Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta ("the créme de la créme") is held right before Sailing Week, and after all that, she's off to France for a rendezvous with her "lover."

It goes without saying that the kind of people who can afford to go around the world sailing big blingy boats make an attractive clientele for someone like Catherine. "It's not a cheap or common destination, there's not really any mass tourism," she said. "I would say Antigua is elegant."

It's also a bit Euro-groovy, a stop on the Ibiza-Antibbes-Mallorca circuit, according to Adam Fitzmaurice, a manager of Abracadabra. Located near the entrance to Nelson's Dockyard, the evening hours there are dedicated to very well-executed, serious Italian cuisine -- the mouthwatering menu recitations are positively operatic -- and the late nights to serious raging, with deejays from London and New York, not to mention the odd Argentine juggling performance artist. "I kicked 50 people out at 6:30 this morning," said Fitzmaurice.

It made me happy to know that people were partying their brains out every night, but I guess I take a more voyeuristic approach these days. I like being around the action more than neck-deep in it -- and the same goes for sailing. Riding on boats is fantastic, but this is one Navy brat who can't tell port from starboard. So the next morning's sail aboard the 50-foot ketch Sentio was perfect -- a pure pleasure cruise with a blarney-filled raconteur of a captain named John Frazer from New Jersey, who took us right into the heart of the day's race.

With their boldly designed spinnakers puffed by healthy 15-knot winds, the 80- to 100-foot racing craft were a sight to behold as they skirted along the reef off the hilly south coast. Sailing downwind, they all looked sleek and powerful. Even for a neophyte, however, it was easy to distinguish the amateurs from the pros when it came time to round the marker where Frazer positioned us; the casual sailors were the ones flailing around, desperately trying to haul their deflated, soaking sails out of the water.

"We should have some action now," said Frazer eagerly. "There's four boats aiming for this little marker. They should be very close together." And right on cue, two of the boats collided with a sickening crunch of costly fiberglass.

"Totally FUBAR!" Frazer brayed. "You don't see that every day!"

Frazer picks up his guests at Curtain Bluff and Carlisle Bay, two of Antigua's finest resort hotels, which just happen to be rivalrous neighbors. "They're exact opposites," he explained to his guests, all of whom were staying at Curtain Bluff. Curtain Bluff is all-inclusive, Carlisle Bay is a la carte; Curtain Bluff is breeze-cooled and the rooms TV-free, Carlisle Bay is air-conditioned and equipped with in-room entertainment centers; Curtain Bluff is tropical-traditional, Carlisle Bay minimal-mod. "Take your pick," said Frazer.

He might also have mentioned that the owners of the two hotels could hardly be more unalike: Howard Hulford, the American who founded Curtain Bluff in 1961, is a rotund, bald, gravel-voiced octogenarian with a white moustache clamped over a big cigar -- a benign Mister Big. Gordon Campbell Gray, the Scotsman who opened Carlisle Bay in 2004, is a dashing, silver-haired middle-aged designer with vaguely aristo airs who is rapidly building a hip hotel empire based on the success of his state-of-the-art London flagship, One Aldwych. Both men enjoy the same staggering view of Montserrat's silhouette across the true-blue sea, but they see the world through wildly different lenses.

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