Wake up. Stretch. Open eyes and look around. We’re in the most comfortable bedroom imaginable, physically and aesthetically. A great bed, soft sheets, pastel grey woodwork, white upholstery. Through the open French windows is a dream beach: a perfect crescent of pristine sand lapped by clear blue water and shaded by tall palm trees. A barefoot 50 paces across tightly mown grass and we are in the warm sea. It doesn’t get any better than this.
How different it was for Patrick Leigh Fermor and his companions 56 years ago. With Joan Eyres-Monsell, the woman who was to become his wife 20 years later, and Costa, the great Greek photographer, spent six months travelling through the Lesser and Greater Antilles. Then, the many islands they visited were thoroughly run down. The great buildings of church and state and planters’ wealth were mostly ruinous and rotten. The future in the depressed economic climate just after the Second World War looked bleak and, indeed, “King Sugar” was about to die, as it had on the abolition of slavery – only this time as a victim of sugar beet and the macro politics being played out between America and Europe.
Yet, Leigh Fermor still managed to reveal the romance and the magic of the archipelago and so start the obsession so many have since had with visiting the “Friendly Isles”. His vision saved them by helping to create a climate in which tourism could grow, and tourism has been the salvation of the Caribbean ever since.
In those immediate post-war days, the few hotels and boarding houses were grim. The tourism industry was embryonic and only when they stayed in some of the grand privately owned great houses, built by rich planters, “were we redeemed from the usual squalors of our island sojourns”. Most of these have now become hotels or “plantation inns” and they are delightful places to stay, combining old-world elegance with modern luxury.
Earlier this year, my wife, Louella, and I decided to follow in Leigh Fermor’s footsteps to see how much the islands had changed. Our pace was less leisurely than his and we were able to visit only 10 of the 15 islands he saw, but with his books as our vade-mecum we found our eyes, ears and all our senses opened and enhanced.
We started in Antigua and headed straight for the Carlisle Bay hotel. There, Gordon Campbell Gray has achieved the same understated excellence on a Caribbean beach as in his highly regarded One Aldwych in London.
Antigua has changed radically since Leigh Fermor’s day. Then, Nelson’s dockyard was in ruins. “The timbers were so eaten away,” he wrote, “that we had to step from beam to beam, for the boards between them had fallen to powder, or still hung from rusty nails in rotten fragments.” English Harbour, the great 18th-century naval base favoured by Rodney, Cochrane and Nelson and perhaps the prettiest and safest harbour in the whole Caribbean (the view of it from Shirley Heights is without equal), had no facilities whatever.