"A beach for every degree of the compass," boasted the brochure, "too many for one charter to explore." This was the challenge taken by our expert panel, to circle Antigua's fabled 360 degrees of beaches and answer the eternal question: which one is the best?
The sky dawned grayer than Lord Nelson's pewter for our departure, a minor wrinkle, but weather wasn't the only unsettled factor about this cruise. Our charter, a fast, sexy 138-foot cruising cat equipped for pampering and play, had changed ownership. Arriving from Europe with but a day to prepare, its staggering 5,692 square feet of sail needed cleaning. Stripped of the previous owner's priceless furnishings, the interior awaited refurbishing, while the chef, accustomed to lengthy and personal provisioning, had to make do. So why were we smiling hugely, with six glasses of Pouilly Fumé Duve Magorum raised a la marin? Because great yachts, like great beaches, are apparent under any circumstance, and this was Douce France.
Launched in 1998 as the largest catamaran in its class, the brain child of Marc van Peteghem and Lauriot Prevost remains one of the most popular charters in superyachtdom, so sought after that Forbes FYI reporter Georgia Byrd and I waited a year to get aboard. The appeal was obvious the moment we crossed the gangplank-her beachy teak afterdeck, two guest cockpits and lawn-size trampoline make Douce France everything charterers love about cruising cats, but an order of magnitude more so.
Captain Patrick Moallic stepped up to the flying bridge, raising the massive main, then the foresail and yankee jib at a touch of the controls. As we cleared the harbor, double rainbows cascaded from headlands to sea; guests and crew fell effortlessly into a calypso of laughter and quiet, together and apart. Georgia and husband Joe snuggled with novels and rum coolers. Ten-year-old Kelly alternated between homework and her pet gecko, Peanut Butter, while her mother, the yacht's agent, de-stressed on an air mattress under the Antilles sun. When the last morsels of sashimi tuna had vanished-not to mention the breadbasket on which chef Monique Moallic spends three hours a day-a shock of white sand and ultra-clear water brought every hand to the port deck. Mamora Bay, where the posh St. James Club welcomes cruisers to its waterfront, went down in the ship's log as a four-star contender for the best beach.
But if you measure a beach by its ability to stop time, Green Island on the edge of Nonsuch Bay takes the prize. Accessible only courtesy of the venerable Mill Reef Club, founded by Connecticut society architect Robertson Ward, Green is not just a beach. It's an Eden of delicious coves and gossamer fishes flirting among reefs of giant brain coral a short tender ride away. Even Peanut Butter the gecko found grace on this island, where Kelly bravely released him at mom's urging. Soon she was smiling again with Co-Co, a shipwrecked coconut, her new pet du jour.
Douce France dive master Jean-Baptiste Raignoux needs no gear to dive 165 feet, but he broke out the tanks for us, while a crew of seven and a marine platform loaded with water skis, jet skis, sailboards and fishing gear satisfied every other whim. In Browns Bay near our anchorage, Cornwall-born Annabella Proudlock presided over a West Indian artists' salon at Harmony Hall, whose 17th Century sugar mill-cum-bar is a favorite of the Mill Reef set. One minute, each of us was Robinson Crusoe; the next, Robin Leach.
Fresh langoustine appeared on the Limoge china that night, along with shish kabobs of grouper and mahi complemented by a Laurent Perrier rose champagne. A gourmet from the Bordeaux region, Douce France's original owner created the yacht's signature 250-bottle wine cellar, which continues under the current ownership. Not to be outdone, our captain produced his personal flask of tropical fruits and spices swimming in Bielle, finest of white rums, sun-brewed in the Marie Galant tradition of his adopted Guadeloupe. Many tastings later, we trundled off to our sycamore-paneled en suite staterooms and burrowed under the snowy bed linens, Cheval Blancs and Chateau Palmers dancing in our heads.
Did the pink crescent beach of Half Moon Bay merit a Caribbean top-10? Which was the better picnic stop: the palm-fringed beach on Guiana Island, or the crab-stuffed christophene and fish cakes served in our deckhouse-saloon, where the vertical non-reflecting windows offered 360-degree ocean views?
The question was begged on a screaming sail over North Sound, pushing 15 knots in Douce France's ideal 20-knot breeze. As you'd expect of a cruising cat drawn by a top racing multihull design team, the aluminum structure felt strong, light and rock-stable on fin-keeled hulls straddling a 50-foot beam. Sailing literally into the sunset, we swooped down on Deep Bay overlooked by the ruins of Fort Barrington, within striking distance of our dive master's favorite, Cades Reef. One of the Caribbean's happiest passages lay before us, south by southeast in the island's calm, clear lee.
Putting mass-market resorts behind, we rounded Johnson's Point to a coast of quiet, where salt-of-the-earth Antiguans make their farms and homes. The lonesome Old Road paralleled our course, bursting from the rainforest into sunlit mounds of golden sand. For the beaches less traveled, Dark Wood and Curtain Bluff deserve a best on the Antiguan compass rose.
In English Harbour, where Nelson made his Caribbean base, we came full circle to the 1745 naval dockyard in restored splendor, where multi-tiered megayachts, instead of men-of-war, line the seawall. You would never guess what was here unless you happen, as we did, into Desmond Nicholson, long at the center of Antigua's yachting scene. A 1951 photograph in his study showed an English Harbour of beaches like snowdrifts, empty like the best of anchorages but for the family's schooner, the first charter operating in the Antilles.
After fois gras and Chateau Yquem sauterne, it was time to try our land legs on the uphill trek to Shirley Heights, where the sun sets to an international audience amidst the 18th century ruins. Tourists and yachtsmen-they come for the view: north to Monks Hill and Bethesda, east to Mamora Bay, west to Montserrat and Redonda, and south to Guadeloupe.
What was Horatio Nelson thinking, we wondered, when he called this "a vile place and a dreadful hole?" On charter with Douce France in Antigua, every compass point was heaven.
Contact: Nicholson Yachts of Newport, (401) 849-0344; www.nicholsonyachts.com; in Antigua (268) 460-1530, or any charter broker. Douce France charters for $85,000 per week during the winter in the Caribbean, expenses included, except bar, tax, docking and communications, for 12 people.
Patricia L. Borns is a frequent contributor to Yachting.