This is the time of year when many people decide they want to unwind, really unwind, in quiet, secluded hideaways -- only to find that by the third day they're ready to talk to the bananaquits and hummingbirds.
Freshmen senators, for example, fired with an urge to change the world may, with no diversions other than sand and sea, develop an urge to change the Caribbean; and lawyers about to face the Supreme Court may, while idling on a beach, have trouble banishing their hereinbefores and hereunders.
For these people, the answer may be not a flaking-out kind of hideaway but a tennis resort where coaches whack balls at you so fast you have no time to think.
Since unwinding can be an expensive business these days, before I pass along some of my favorite Caribbean hideaways, here's a quick questionnaire to help you evaluate your credentials as a hard-core unwinder:
1. Do you mind eating in the same dining room every evening for a week? (No reflection on island cooks -- you might not want to eat in the Jockey Club every evening either.)
2. Do you insist on dressing up for dinner? (An extensive wardrobe just means more luggage to haul, and in any case some resorts threaten to turn guests away if they arrive at the dining room wearing even a jacket.)
3. Do you really need a telephone in your room?
4. Do you really need air conditioning?
5. Do you insist on getting to your hideaway nonstop on a wide-body jet? (Many of the most charming, most relaxing hideaways are a hop, skip and jump by small plane or boat from major airports.)
If you answer yes to more than one of these questions, skip right to Peter Island at the end of this review; if the answer to all of them is no, you're probably the ideal guest for a true castaway hideaway. No room phone. No television. No radio. No nightlife to speak of.
What they also have in common is the kind of room rate you hope will turn out to be a misprint, because in this crowded age seclusion comes with a high price tag. But bear in mind that the rates quoted include most or all meals, use of most or all of the sports facilities -- and at Jumby Bay (formerly Long Island Resort) in Antigua, you even get free stamps for the post cards you're going to mail to friends telling them what a wonderful place it is.
Regardless of cost, nothing begins the unwinding process faster than kicking off shoes, tugging off a tie, peeling off socks or stockings and tossing the whole kit and caboodle into a drawer. Your watch can join them -- you don't need a timepiece to tell you when to slip into the shade for a siesta. Time has no meaning in these hideaways.
(All resort phones listed below are U.S. numbers. Unless otherwise noted, all the winter high season rates that begin in mid-December generally extend through Easter.)
Guana Island, B.V.I. To get here, you first fly to San Juan or St. Thomas, then to Beef Island, then walk a hundred yards to board a 28-foot Bertram cruiser for the 20-minute ride to Guana. If this sounds complicated, it is, but in fact you can leave the States before breakfast and arrive on Guana in time for rum punches on the Sunset Terrace beneath the pink trumpet tree.
This hillock of an island is so private that yacht crews are not allowed above high water mark. It rises 400 feet above the sea and it's scalloped with half-a-dozen beaches, some accessible only by boat. The inn perches on a ridge halfway up, a series of squat, Aegean-like, off-white buildings with green wooden shutters. Showers are activated by pull chains (to conserve water), lights usually go out at midnight (to conserve energy), and the only concession to stylish decor is the recent installation of fancy bedspreads (although the owner is thinking of putting up new mirrors "with frames"). The owner's villa at the top incorporates a few guest rooms with more modern amenities, but the original rustic quarters are the favorites of the loyalists -- lawyers, doctors, playwrights, occasional incognito politicians.
Evenings revolve around the white-washed lounge and taverna-like patio screened by cape honeysuckle and pomegranate trees. The bar (an array of bottles on a sideboard) is on the honor system, dinner is served family style -- that is, fixed hour, fixed menu -- at communal tables, with manager Paula Selby mixing and matching the guests. The Tortolan cooks, Rita and Rose, do such a splendid job with local fare that guests have been known to cart some of their pies and breads back home.
The main beach, a quarter-mile sweep of the whitest powder, is a stiff hike down the hill. Transportation is either by four-wheel-drive Toyota pickup with padded seats or on the not-too-padded backs of Jack and Jenny, the island's mules. Sad to say, even in this demi-paradise things disappear: Apparently, Jack and Jenny have developed an appetite for books. They're especially partial to the flavors of paperbacks with glossy covers.
(Guana Island, P.O. Box 32, Tortola, B.V.I. Phone: 800-535-9530. 15 rooms; doubles are $215 from now through Dec. 14, including meals and most water sports; $295 beginning Dec. 15.)
Rawlins Plantation, St. Kitts. A bumpy dirt road through fields of sugar cane is an unlikely introduction to a trim-and-tidy, English-mannered country inn, but there it is, behind a white picket fence enclosing 25 acres of well-tended lawns and tropical blossoms, shaded by African tulip and gum trees. Beyond the cane, the hillside rises to Mount Misery's imposing 4,000-foot peak and, in the opposite direction, slopes away to a shimmering sea, with the island of St. Eustatius looming in the background.
In many ways, Rawlins is the tropical version of a small country house hotel in Devon, run by a personable young English couple named Philip and Frances Walwyn, whose ancestors established this very plantation back in the 1700s. What was once the boiling house, where molasses was made, is now a lovely stone patio where guests sit down to dinner surrounded by bougainvillea and poor man's orchids; what was once the windmill that turned the gears that ground the cane is now a duplex suite with a white, cast-iron bed. Other quarters are located in former managers' cottages with hibiscus-draped latticework, white-and-yellow porches, ceiling fans and mosquito nets (more decoration than protection).
Guests enjoy meticulously prepared and presented meals accented by island delicacies like rice with ackee or spiced guava. Between meals, you can walk up the hill, down the hill, ride one of the inn's three horses, or go swimming (the beach is five minutes away and the Walwyns will drive you there). On Sundays, join Philip Walwyn, an accomplished transoceanic racer, on his new 75-foot schooner-rigged catamaran for a picnic sail to Nevis.
But surrounded by sugar rather than humans, you soon lapse into a state of idle euphoria. Even a dunk in the tiny pool is an effort. This is a heavy-reading place. Even a biography by Edmund Morris would be almost frivolous here; instead, here's your chance to catch up on Macaulay, Gibbon, Melville. Or Proust. In French.
(Rawlins Plantation, P.O. Box 340, St. Kitts, West Indies. 617-367-8959. 8 rooms, doubles $160 through Dec. 16, including breakfast, dinner with wine, riding and transportation to the beach; $230 beginning Dec. 17.)
Nisbet Plantation Inn, Nevis. Nevis itself -- tiny, hilly and lush, the very picture of a somnolent Caribbean island -- is a place for unwinding, and that goes for any of its small, sophisticated inns: Golden Rock Estate, 1,000 feet up on the edge of a tropical forest; Montpelier Plantation, farther down the hill in the village of Fig Tree; Croney's Old Manor Estate, where they grow lettuce and spinach in the former settling tanks. But I'm proposing Nisbet because it's beside the beach.
Well, more or less beside the beach, because it lies at the end of a long avenue of lawn lined by tall coconut palms. There's a beach bar for refreshments and lunch, but after a strenuous day of sun and aquatics, 200 yards can be a long walk back. The 60 guests are housed in bungalows situated among the coconut palms -- mostly two rooms to a bungalow, the newer ones with screened porches, all comfortably, tastefully (but not lavishly) furnished. The prizes are two tiny self-contained cottages with antiques and four-poster beds.
The great house is a handsome reconstruction of a two-story stone-and-timber plantation manor, with wraparound verandas (bar on one side, library on the other) and two petite dining rooms, cozy with candles flickering on polished mahogany. Socializing, dinner and more socializing are really the main activities of the day (it's another inn where you'll probably be seated with other guests). By day, some guests play tennis, some go for walks in tumbledown churchyards, others circumnavigate the island by car -- about one hour nonstop at the speed limit of 40 mph -- but most people stop off for lunch at Golden Rock or Montpelier, and dutiful visits to sites associated with Alexander Hamilton and Horatio Nelson. But these are all activities to put off until tomorrow. Today, just lie back and watch the coconuts falling off the trees.
(Nisbet Plantation Inn, Nevis, West Indies. 218-722-5059. 30 rooms; doubles $55 to $85 through Dec. 14, room only -- MAP $32.50 per person; $215 to $260 from Dec. 15, with breakfast and dinner.) Jumby Bay, Antigua. This is another private island off an island, a 20-minute ride on a 28-foot launch, during which you sign in (it's a fairly calm passage) and drink rum punch, compliments of the manager, David Brewer.
Like Nisbet Plantation, the focal point of the resort is also a restored manor, this one in Spanish style with red-tiled roofs and arches, balconies and patios, which have been transformed into a gracious bar/library/lounge suite above a dining patio. At its namesake, Jumby Beach, there's a second bar/restaurant for beachside lunches and afternoon tea; and if you walk across to the windward side of the island, you'll find another bay, another beach and coolers with more drinks and ice on the house. Now, if you want to unwind, this is real windswept, untramped castaway territory -- coolers and a few sunshades notwithstanding. (Also, on this side of the island you don't hear the occasional jet taking off from the airport across the bay.)
The original six octagonal cottages (two rooms per cottage, each with porch and/or alcove with day bed) have been augmented with 16 new rooms in a Spanish-style complex known as Cottage Eight, at the far end of Jumby Beach. The newcomers have slightly more extravagant trimmings, like Canadian redwood doors, wicker and rattan furnishings, tiled bathroom with tub and shower (rather than shower only, as in the cottage rooms). There's a minibus to shuttle guests from the new wing to the beach bar and dining room, but since shuttles, mini or otherwise, are not my idea of unwinding, I'll stick with the original cottages if there is any choice -- they still accommodate only 56 guests.
When you tire of browsing through the library's 1946 Britannicas, grab the walking stick in your closet and set off to explore some of the island's 300 acres. Or hop on a bike and go for a spin to the field with the pre-Columbian relics. Whatever, before coming here be sure that you don't mind the sun, because the island is flat and has little natural shade. And be sure you're comfortable with your companion, because there is not much diversion beyond each other -- unless you take the boat back to the mainland andgo on a sightseeing tour to English Harbour and Nelson's Dockyard.
(Jumby Bay, P.O. Box 243, St. Johns, Antigua, West Indies. 800-437-0049, 28 rooms (with maybe another six to come this winter), doubles $340 through Dec. 19, including all meals, water sports, boat transfers, laundry, stamps; $425 to $475 from Dec. 20.)
*Palm Island Beach Club, St. Vincent-Grenadines. There are few hideaways more dedicated to the philosophy of shoeless/tieless vacations than this, for the simple reason that owner John Caldwell hasn't worn more than shorts and shirt in 20 years, except for one trip (hastily aborted) back to his native Texas.
The allure of Palm (known as Prune until Caldwell came along and planted 8,000 coconut palms and casuarinas) is its beachcomber ambiance, beautiful uncrowded beaches and coral gardens practically at your toes. The comfortable bungalows (with louvers, screens, patios, sunshades, refrigerators) are exactly right for this casual life style; dining in the soaring Polynesian-style longhouse is relaxed and pleasurable, even if the food makes no claims to being "gourmet."
Alas, once a week a cruise ship noses into the channel and passengers swarm ashore for a beach barbecue. Not your beach, fortunately, but a spare beach on the other side of the island, with rope fencing to indicate the boundaries for day trippers. You can retaliate by boarding their cruise ship for lunch (compliments of the captain); or you can ask Coconut Johnny to ship you off for lunch at Petit St. Vincent, my next suggestion.
(Palm Island Beach Club, Palm Island, St. Vincent-Grenadines, West Indies. 800-535-9530. 24 bungalows, doubles $175 through Dec. 14, with all meals; $220 from Dec. 15. Also a few private villas for rent.)
*Petit St. Vincent Resort, St. Vincent-Grenadines. If I had to rate great places to vegetate, on a scale of one to ten, "PSV" would be a nine.
Out of the way, completely private, fringed by reefs and lagoons, its 113 acres are the preserve of only 44 guests. One of the most expensive island resorts, it's not one of the plushest (that distinction probably goes these days to the new Malliouhana on Anguilla), although the cottages have new color schemes and now come equipped with fluffy bathrobes sporting the PSV crest.
But what you get here in addition to all that seclusion and privacy, is space, glorious space. The 22 stone-and-timber cottages are set apart and screened from each other by walls and foliage. Each is designed for unabashed lazing: living room, bedroom, a wooden deck for reading. And, if your cottage is beside the beach rather than on a breezy bluff, you also have a driftwood bench-for-two shaded by a palm-thatched bohio.
Here's how to organize your days here, with the connivance of the room-service stewards: breakfast on the sun deck before the heat comes; a jog on the beach; a dip in the lagoon; a good book; lunch on the shaded terrace; siesta; afternoon tea under the bohio; dip in lagoon; stroll on beach; dinner in the knoll-top pavilion when the steward comes to fetch you with his Jeep-like "minimoke."
There are no room phones at PSV: A bamboo pole outside your cottage signals the roving stewards (the yellow flag means you want something, the red means "Do Not Disturb"); if you want to call your office, there's a phone box at the front desk, but it's usually occupied by Samson, and it's your decision whether or not to disturb the siesta of a yellow Labrador.
There are the usual opportunities for exertion: tennis, assorted water sports (including a wind-surfing trainer), trips by trimaran to the Tobago Cays. If you want to explore a fresh beach at PSV, signal the steward to transport you and your lounger to another corner of the island. Or order a picnic basket and have Chester sail you over to an offshore sandspit the size of a yacht with just one tiny palm tree and one thatched sunshade. Even in the Grenadines, islands don't come quieter than that.
(Petit St. Vincent Resort, St. Vincent-Grenadines, West Indies. 513-242-1333; 22 cottages, doubles $240 through Dec. 19, with all meals, most water sports; $450 from Dec. 20-March 16, with the exception of Jan. 6-24, when the rate is $375.)
*Peter Island, B.V.I. For vacationers who hesitate about really, really unwinding situations and might prefer something less remote than the Grenadines or less rustic-charming than Guana Island, here's a "play-it-safe" alternative. You have options here -- air conditioning or ceiling fans, dressing for dinner or staying casual, room phones, stocked refrigerators, a variety of sports facilities.
I never really warmed to the original Peter Island Yacht Club (and said some quite testy things about it in one of my guidebooks), with its sometimes noisy marina and dreary Norwegian-style chalets on the breakwater. Now that it's plain Peter Island (still privately owned, but new owners) and with the opening last winter of 20 new beachside rooms, it has a lot more going for it.
The new rooms must now rate with the best in the islands -- comfortable (wicker sofas and chairs piled high with color-coordinated cushions and scatter pillows), efficient (I counted 15 light switches in each room), practical (one set of louvered doors opens all the way back for a wall-to-wall post-card view of beach and bay). These rooms are cooled by breezes and ceiling fans (two per room), but if you prefer air conditioning you can still check into the chalet rooms, now redecorated and restyled (and less expensive).
Peter Island also has two stunning hilltop villas available for rent, three bedrooms each, at rates that are exorbitant for just two people. But share with friends, and the prices are reasonable -- and you won't have to talk to the hummingbirds.
(Peter Island, British Virgin Islands. U.S. phone: 800-562-4451. 52 rooms, doubles $215 at Harbour Houses and $265 at Beach Houses through Dec. 14, including all meals, most sports facilities; from Dec. 15, $340 and $410, respectively.)