Jamaica Magazine

A "Grande" Vacation – An American Retiree in Jamaica

Ann and I were married on October 1, 1994, and honeymooned at Sandals Inn in Montego Bay. Each year we celebrate our anniversary at a Sandals resort. This year was no exception. The plans were made a year ago to return for our 3’rd vacation to Sandals Antigua. Three years ago, we renewed our wedding vows at this resort. It was a very special time for us. This romantic escapade was done the same as if it were a wedding. The preparations included picking out flowers, a special evening meal, and even breakfast in bed the morning after. We have wonderful memories of our stay at this property.

Since our last visit, the resort has been expanded to include a Mediterranean Village, hence the name has been changed to Sandals Grande Antigua Resort and Spa. The opening was originally scheduled months before our booking. But as with most construction projects a variety of reasons delayed the opening until the first week of October.

A month before our arrival we received an email from our travel agent offering an alternative to all the disruptive activities planned for the grand opening hoopla. The offer was very attractive. We would be sent to Sandals Regency in St. Lucia. The accommodations would be on the bluffs in the highest room category complete with butler service. These accommodations include a two floor suite with private plunge pool not to mention a spectacular view from atop the bluffs. After much discussion between us, we turned this fantastic offer down for two reasons. The major reason is we are booked to go to St. Lucia in March and hadn’t been to Antigua in three years. The other reason was we would probably never get to see another grand opening. We weren’t concerned about the planned activities or the top Sandals staff mulling about the property. Actually, we looked forward to seeing these executives again as we have seen most of them many times during our numerous vacations at Sandals.

Our arrival was a few days before the three night festivities were to begin. During those preceding days, I spent a lot of time asking how much of the activities we would be able to witness. I particularly wanted a picture of the ribbon cutting. It seemed everyone I asked had a different opinion. It ranged from, “not being allowed in the area because it was a private function to, as a paying guest, I could go and do whatever I wanted.”

The official opening day of October 4th was filled with what seemed like hundreds of workers all over the property setting up their part of the program. The lobby was extra busy providing champagne and cold towels for the visiting dignitaries as they checked in. Every tree and bush on the lawns were decorated with strings of clear Christmas lights. Canopies were scattered all over the vast lawn to provide food and drinks for the invited guests. Staging was set up in the main pool and on the restaurant patio for the special entertainment. Colored spotlights with images of palm trees were directed to numerous locations on the face of the high rise room blocks. Most of the Mediterranean Village property was closed to the guests during these preparations, which included three restaurants and the pool. These minor inconveniences were dwarfed by the anticipation of the magnificent evening presentation.

As time was getting near and we still didn’t know what we would be able to see, we dressed and went to dinner in one of the restaurants on the original property. After a delicious gourmet meal, we headed over, with camera in tow, to see what, if anything, we could see. Our timing was perfect! The ceremonies were just getting started. The special patio chairs were filled to overflowing with all the guests and visiting dignitaries. The place we found was in the very back with only one spot with a clear view of the platform. Ann being shorter than me, I gave her that spot while I stood behind a six foot plus man who constantly shifted his weight from one foot to the other. It might have been very annoying had it not been for all the excitement on the platform. And excitement there was.

The program was under the expert leadership of The Hon. Gordon “Butch” Stewart, Chairman of the board of Sandals Resorts International, and his son, Adam, CEO of Sandals Resorts International. “Butch” introduced a long line of tour operators from the US, UK, and Canada and numerous political figures from Trinidad and Tobago to Turks and Caicos. They included a prime minister, a former prime minister, travel and tourism ministers, and other dignitaries. Each one lauded Mr. Stewart, Sandals, and the beautiful property. Towards the end, “Butch” introduced Preston Bailey, one of the world’s top wedding planners to the stars. As soon as Mr. Stewart introduced Mr. Bailey, I turned to my wife and said, “Preston Bailey is here too?” To my surprise, it was Mr. Bailey who was standing in front of me all this time. As he turned around he gave me a big smile as he made his way to the platform.

Shortly after Mr. Bailey finished speaking, “Butch” said, “Is there any paying guest who would like to say a few words?” Ann nudged me to go up and so up I went. Because of the distance of my vantage point from the platform plus the fact that the bright spotlights made it difficult to see more than a few rows back, “Butch” had started to move on with the program. It was then that his daughter, Jamie, saw me and yelled out, “Daddy, daddy, a guest wants to say something!” I made my way up to the platform shaking hands with Adam and then Mr. Stewart. I don’t know how long I spoke but I do remember stating that Ann and I had been coming to Sandals for 13 years with 38 bookings and 292 nights, and saying how much we loved Sandals. As I left, I shook hands once again with “Butch” and Adam and got a big hug from Jamie.

The end of the festivities was near. As I mentioned the one picture I wanted to get was of the ribbon cutting. Mr. Stewart made the announcement that he wanted this to be one of the biggest ribbon cuttings ever. The ribbon appeared to be about 50 feet in length and 1 and half feet wide. All the dignitaries and special guests were called up to be part of this auspicious occasion. I raced down to get a good vantage point to take my picture before the myriad of photographers took all the choice spots. But it was not to be! The woman who was sitting next to Jamie handed me a pair of scissors and told me to hurry to be part of the cutting. Well, I didn’t get the picture but I did get a two foot piece of the ribbon as a souvenir.

It was now time for dinner. As you remember, Ann and I had already eaten because we didn’t think we would be allowed to mingle with the special guests. This turned out to be a good thing, I thought, as it gave us an opportunity to find the perfect spot to watch the big show. On stage on this opening night was one of Jamaica’s most famous reggae recording artist and entertainer, Shaggy!

The wait was longer than we thought. Standing on cement for over an hour was hard on the feet. Ann decided to go sit on one of the pool chairs until it was show time. While she was relaxing, Mr. Zellner, the man responsible for coordinating all the events for the three day opening ceremonies, approached Ann and said he had been looking for us. Mr. Stewart had invited us to watch the show with him on the patio high atop the swim-up pool bar. We were delighted to accept his generous offer which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The “choice” spot I picked out would have been the worst spot. We would have “heard” Shaggy but not “seen” him.

It was after midnight when Shaggy ended his fantastic performance much to the delight of the big crowd. But that wasn’t the end of the entertainment. Another band, Itchy Feet, performed into the wee hours of the morning. They also played during the dinner on the lawn. To add even more excitement to dinner was a “Carnival” parade with traditional costumes, dancers on stilts, and one person wearing an outfit that looked a giant six foot peacock.

The next day was the end of our vacation. We had packing to do plus we wanted to try to get a few hours sleep before our early morning departure. As we rushed to have breakfast the next morning before our taxi took us to the airport, I received another surprise. The opening ceremonies were televised live on Antiguan TV, as nearly every staff member we saw mentioned how they saw me on TV. Had I known I was going to be on national TV, I never would have gotten on that platform to say my few words.

As a matter of fact, if I hadn’t said a few words, no paying guests would have been represented, I wouldn’t have been part of the ribbon cutting, and I wouldn’t have “seen” Shaggy. But most of all I would have missed my best Sandals vacation ever!

About the author

John Casey