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Destination: Caribbean

One-Price, Many Pleasures : At a growing number of island resorts, everything is included in the prepaid cost, leaving vacationers free to . . . do nothing

August 11, 1996|MARJORIE ROBINS | NEWSDAY; Robins is Newsday Travel editor

MAMORA BAY, Antigua — I glance out the back window of the cab crossing the threshold of the St. James's Club in Antigua and watch as the gates come down behind us. We are locked in for five days, trapped in paradise, trying not to feel too smug but hardly containing ourselves.

With four teenagers giving us a run for our money this year, we have taken what little money is left and run for the Caribbean.

Our goal, by the way, is to do nothing, something we have never done before.

That's why we've gone "all-inclusive," the new wave in Caribbean vacationing that leaves stressed-out vacationers free to contemplate their tans rather than their plans.

The St. James's Club, a graceful, bougainvillea-trimmed property with 105 rooms, 73 villas and two brochure-perfect beaches, is having a half-price sale on most of its accommodations through Dec. 19. For an extra $100 a day per person, there are three meals, all alcoholic beverages, water sports, horseback riding, tennis, a fitness club, taxes and service charges. St. James's even has HBO, air-conditioning, telephones and Calypso Joe, a singer of Caribbean love songs.

Our glee at being here and getting such a bargain, however, is tempered with guilt. We have just been driven 12 miles through the heart of Antigua, a littered and tattered land scarred both from last year's hurricane season and from the island's dependence on tourists in a soft season. There are empty lots filled with rusty litter and sad-looking vegetables wither under roadside umbrella stands.

But we are determined to enact our fantasy: to bob in the water and air-dry in the trade winds. And if "all-inclusive" includes a little guilt, so be it.

Besides, we are assured by staff members as the days go by that without tourist dollars they are without bread. The sugar cane and cotton farming of years ago has dried up on Antigua, and vacationers keep the islanders and their families fed and clothed year-round. Just to ensure our vacation karma, however, we tip everyone extra, even though it's included.

One of the first things we notice is how tranquil the resort is. Situated on a 100-acre peninsula, the club is set with Mamora Bay on one side, where the water is calm and the air still, and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. There are hardly any other guests around, a distinct benefit of the Caribbean in summer. But even when the club is filled, it hardly feels that way, says Martina, who works at the front desk. "Everybody just goes their own way and seems to disappear."

We check in around 3 p.m. and are offered a free upgrade to one of the two-bedroom villas facing the bay. We also have two bathrooms (one with a bidet and Jacuzzi), a living room/dining room with fancy bamboo furniture, a kitchen and, best of all, spacious upstairs and downstairs patios facing the water.

*

First, a swim in the bay, followed by a swim in the ocean, followed by a nap in the hammock between the palm trees. Then a shower, a pina colada on the porch and a hand-in-hand stroll down the flower-lined paths to Docksider, the club's open-air dinner restaurant overlooking the marina.

We are braced for mediocre food. The St. James's is a British club, owned for the past 12 years by a Saudi Arabian, Sheik Amin Dahlawi. And while the first night's fettuccine and basil is just passable, dinners improve as the vacation goes by, both at Docksider and at Rainbow Garden, the club's main dining room overlooking the sea. From grilled Caribbean lobster to stir-fried beef filet, the food is well-prepared and presented, the desserts surprisingly creative. And yes, the liquor and wine served as part of the package deal is drinkable.

Breakfast is a buffet affair in the main dining room, with mounds of fresh fruit, cold cereals, muffins, omelets, potatoes and even a hot fish salad. But it is lunch that we like best. We eat each day at the Coco Beach Bar, an outdoor deck right on the sand that serves seared swordfish in caper sauce and salad with balsamic dressing. It doesn't get better than this.

Except at night, when the stars come out. While there is a small gambling room at the club, the Casino/Jacaranda Bar, there is not much evening spunk at St. James's except, perhaps, trying to figure out which couples are the honeymooners. But this and the blackness of the night suit us just fine.

Over the next few days, we sink further and further into slo-mo. We spend an afternoon watching a pelican dive for fish in the ocean. The next morning, we take a lazy horseback ride on the beach and over the surrounding hills. About as ambitious as we get is to hire a taxi to take us outside the St. James's gates over to Shirley Heights, an old British maritime lookout high on the bluffs 15 minutes away.

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