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The couples-only, all-inclusive resort, Sandals Antigua, is now even more luxurious with the recent opening of the Mediterranean Village, a $775-million expansion.

The couples-only, all-inclusive resort, Sandals Antigua, is now even more luxurious with the recent opening of the Mediterranean Village, a $775-million expansion.

Photo of a resort in Antigua and guests lounging about the pool.
I

t is a fool's errand -- the business of romance. Never has there been anything so complex and yet unscientific, so very real but unwilling to bend to even one hard and fast rule. It might seem then, that to build a resort empire with the sole aim of creating romantic bliss would just be asking for trouble.

As it so happens, Gordon "Butch" Stewart is the type of bold entrepreneur who enjoys a good challenge.

Stewart is the owner of Sandals, a chain of couples-only, all-inclusive resort hotels peppering the Caribbean. After getting his start in air-conditioning, Stewart bought and renovated a hotel in Jamaica's Montego Bay, turning it into the Sandals flagship. Other resorts soon followed and a decade later, the New York Times was musing that the man might be more influential on his home island than Jamaica's prime minister. Which is as fine a way as any of saying that Stewart had been a great success as a hotelier. Foremost among his talents seems to be a virtuoso's skill at branding -- Sandals has become synonymous with Caribbean honeymoons and idyllic getaways. The company mantra is simple: Come here to be in love, in paradise and celebrate "all the good things" -- leave the details to us.

This mentality has worked well; Sandals hotels are considered the pinnacle of no-hassle, all-inclusive vacations. Stewart comes from the new school of entrepreneurship, in which the goal is not to create a new concept, but rather to implement an old concept (in this case the all-inclusive model) better than anyone else. Although he didn't invent the notion, he has certainly refined it and with his new Mediterranean Village, at Sandals Antigua, he seems poised to take "all-inclusive" to its furthest reaches. Instead of buffet dining, guests have the choice of a dozen gourmet restaurants. To drink, the company offers premium liquors and has forged an exclusive relationship with Beringer Vineyards. Stewart considers this all to be part of what he's dubbed the "Luxury-Included Experience" in which guests can go so far as to have their own white-gloved butler to answer their every beck and call.

Last October, I was in Antigua for the opening of the Sandals Mediterranean Village, a $775 million expansion to the already sprawling Sandals Grande Antigua. There I was in one of the Mediterranean Village's 180 suites, complete with a four-poster bed and a showerhead the size of a tennis racket. My door opened out to a marble pathway that wound past an ornate fountain, from there it was only a few steps to a sprawling pool (the largest in the Lesser Antilles). A dozen or so feet further was the biggest pool of all: the rich turquoise Caribbean Sea, ringed by sand that could have doubled as baker's flour in texture and color. After being picked up at the airport (another part of the Luxury-Included Experience) and downing a glass of champagne at check-in, I tossed my bags on the bed and made a beeline for the bathtub. I do enjoy a good bath and the spread of amenities from Sandals Red Lane Spa meant that I had a wide variety of salts and scrubs to choose from.

The bath was short-lived though; soon the room was filled with the sound of throbbing reggae, which, tired as I was from a

An oceanview suite at the Sandals Antigua.

13-hour day of flying, was enough to get me out of the tub to investigate. From my porch I saw the multi-platinum R&B/reggae artist Shaggy playing a concert at the pool in honor of the grand opening. This goes a long way toward illustrating another of Stewart's strong points: style. You see, Stewart doesn't just open resorts, he opens them with concerts by the Caribbean's biggest performers (Sean Paul, another Grammy winner, came on stage the next night). He invites government officials and keeps the white sand lined with celebrities, flown first class to Antigua on his dime. It is hard to tell if this is all a part of the Sandals marketing plan or if it's done because Stewart and his children (both chief officers in the company) enjoy a good party.

Either way, the result was undeniable: When Sandal's Mediterranean Village opened, people took notice.

I recognize the flair and appeal of opening a hotel in such a way, but for me it wasn't the most notable thing about my three-day stay. What I liked most was the bottomless Cokes. To me it's not very "luxurious" to stay in a five-star hotel and pay five dollars for something that I can buy for 50 cents from the vending machine outside of the IHOP down the block. In fact, to me that's the opposite of luxury. Given that mentality, you can see how charmed I was in Antigua by Stewart's "Luxury-Included" philosophy. Want to go for a SCUBA dive? It's included. Want to eat a fifth meal at midnight?

No problem, there's someplace still serving food and you won't be presented with a bill. To me, it was a great privilege to be able to eat and drink whatever and whenever I wanted without having to constantly pull out my wallet, or wonder what the profit margin was on a three dollar bottle of water. I respect that at Sandals, you know exactly how much you are spending going in and that number isn't likely to vary (the waiters and chambermaids don't even accept tips). "Luxury-Included" at Sandals means that you don't pay more for the extras -- be it a sail in a catamaran or seconds on the rocky road ice cream next to the pool... and that does feel luxurious.

But before I sound like I was just there to gorge myself on sushi and soda, let me offer a few other thoughts on the expanded resort. The grounds were impeccably kept, and did as passable an imitation of the Mediterranean as you could ever expect in the Antilles. And, more notably, the staff took a personal interest in the overall experience of every guest (though at the time of my visit they too were just getting the lay of the land). An interesting note on the staff here: During my stay I ended up chatting with some of the famous faces and when I asked one of them what they thought of the service, a starlet responded: "It wasn't the treatment I expected. No one gave us priority seating or treated us different from the other guests." Her comment left me overjoyed. A resort where all guests stand on the same pedestal?

The resort pushes their spa pretty strongly, and with good reason. I'm not typically one to gush over a spa but I will say that I particularly liked the fact that the signature treatments felt exotic and original -- because who wants to go to Antigua for a massage that you can get back home at The Sports Club/L.A.? In order to actually feel like I deserved a massage, I went zip-lining through the rainforest canopy, one of the many trips departing daily from the hotel lobby, and loved it. There's nothing like jumping off a wooden platform over an abyss and finding you can fly. But speaking from the perspective of a highly active person who found himself skipping a SCUBA dive a day later to soak in the mineral pool, let me offer this: Another cornerstone of the Sandals experience is relaxation.

A couple takes a romantic walk along Dickenson Bay.

This means that most guests spend their time in that aforementioned spa getting the signature West Indian massage or on the beach alternately basking in the sun and diving into the water to cool off rather than ziplining or taking in a wine tasting. I actually skipped not one but two wine tastings in order to lay on the sand. I'm not much of a grape man myself; if I am a connoisseur of anything it's beaches -- the stretch of sand outside of Sandals Antigua is one of the best I've seen. Beaches like the one at the Mediterranean Village seem dreamt up (and are often handpicked) by Stewart himself -- providing the perfect backdrop for hand-held walks or secluded dinners. It is a beach made for couples -- bringing us back to Stewart's most central pursuit: romance.

Since the early days, Stewart's association with romance has been official and on the books. From day one, the resorts were created exclusively for couples and built with couples in mind. I later learned that the word "couples" has often caused controversy for the company, but the definition of "couple" was broadened to include gays and lesbians in August 2004 (making the resort truly all-inclusive). The Antigua property was voted the World's Most Romantic Resort for seven years in a row before the recent additions.

Like all guests, I arrived at Sandals with a significant other so that I would be motivated to peruse the menu of couple's massages and rose petal turn-down services. My girlfriend and I have traveled to 20 countries together and Sandals wasn't the adventurous travel that we're used to, but as I mentioned, it didn't take us long to get into the relaxing rhythm. Forget the mini-adventures of finding transport or a place to eat; at Sandals the staff does it all so that two people in love can maximize their "whispering sweet nothings into each other's ears" time.

Which is sort of the whole point. You see, the grand opening lasted until Sunday and we were at the resort until Monday. And what replaced the highly touted music acts once things went back to normal? Lionel Richie and Enrique Iglesias covers mostly. Because Stewart's Sandals empire isn't defined by glamorous openings, celebrity guests or reggae stars. At the end of the day the fact is that although saccharine sweet love songs played on the steel drums with some light keyboards in the background may not be ideal for a 5 a.m. power jog through Newport Terrace, they make sense at the Sandals Mediterranean Village in Antigua, with your feet sunk into the powder soft sand and the perfectly turquoise water lapping onto shore, sitting next to someone you love and drinking all the Cokes you want.


HOW TO GET THERE
Sandals Mediterranean Village, Antigua
RATES January through December 2008, from $673 per person, per night, for a Portofino Suite to $1,304 for a luxury ocean villa with private plunge pool.
FLIGHTS Continental Airlines and American Airlines both offer flights between Los Angeles and Antigua's V.C. Bird International Airport. There are no direct/nonstop flights between LAX and Antigua.
WEB SITE www.sandals.com
NOTE To book a room at Sandals stay up to date on deals and deep discounts. The Sandals Web site offers non-peak discounts as big as 50%. Checking travel Web sites like Orbitz and Hotwire is also recommended.


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