Strictly come to the Caribbean: Dancing star Sophie Ellis-Bextor has family fun in Antigua
I was exhausted and I needed a break. After my stint on Strictly Come Dancing I was heading off to the St James’s Club in Antigua – and I was really looking forward to it.
This trip registered a number of ‘firsts’: I’d never been to the Caribbean and this was the first time we’d ever been on a family holiday in January. There was a family connection too – my father learned to scuba-dive here in the 1980s and I knew it had a fantastic reputation.
A well-deserved break: Sophie, with husband Richard, slips off her dancing shoes at St James’s Club, Antigua
Ordinarily we’re summer-holiday kind of people, but midway through Strictly it became obvious to me that it would be great to have a family break on the horizon, just so that we could spend some proper time together.
Strictly was a lovely experience but totally draining. It just seemed to take over all my brain cells. My stint started in August and I had no idea how long I would be in it for. As it happened, I ended up participating right up to the weekend before Christmas.
On top of all the training, the rehearsals and the show itself, I had a new album coming out.
So things were full-on and it was a relief to know that after New Year, the five of us – me, my husband Richard Jones, who is a member of the band The Feeling, and our three children Sonny, nine, Kit, four, and 20-month-old Ray – would be packing our bags and heading off for some us-time.
All I wanted was one of those holidays where the only thing you have to plan each day is which restaurant you’re going to eat in and how long you’re going to spend in the pool or on the beach.
The St James’s Club is on a secluded 100-acre peninsula on the south-eastern coast of Antigua and it caters for families, singles and couples. The resort has excellent sports facilities and the energetic can choose from six swimming pools, six tennis courts and a fitness centre. For families, there is a special children’s area and a children’s club.
There is also a good choice of places to eat, with four restaurants serving everything from casual to continental cuisine.
Rays of light: Sophie encountered local wildlife at Stingray City – though not all her children were impressed
I was delighted to find there were also two fabulous white-sand beaches: Coco Beach, which has been described as an aquarium for snorkellers, and Mamora Bay, which is perfect for swimming.
When we discovered that beach at Mamora Bay, everything fell into place and our holiday really got started.
It was probably the most family-friendly beach I’ve ever been to: perfect for young children because the sea water is so calm. And the weather was just gorgeous – there was sunshine all the time.
It made us ask ourselves why we’d never been on holiday in January before. The weather had been so dismal at home and now here we were in Antigua having a good dose of Vitamin D and getting sand everywhere!
Usually our family holidays are a real last-minute affairs. With two children at school, we stay faithful to the school routine and feel we have to get away in the allotted six-week summer holiday.
Our breaks often involve staying with friends or hopping over to Europe.
And even when we do get away, one of us may have to pop back to the UK for gigs or recording. It’s the nature of the way we earn our living.
And, of course, Richard and I also have to travel for work. I try to make my trips abroad as short as possible for the sake of the children. I’ll take the last possible flight out and the first flight home.
Antigua was the first proper family break we’d had in a long time – just the five of us for seven nights, with nobody disappearing in the middle of everything to go to work.
What particularly pleased Richard and me was that things worked out almost exactly as we’d hoped. The food was a bit stodgy sometimes, but because the restaurants offered buffet services, it was all incredibly easy. The children loved it. There was no hassle – they just turned up and got plates of food in front of them straight away.
We also met some lovely people. One night, one of our boys got a bit wheezy and we had to call out a doctor. He was completely lovely.
A bolt from the blue: St John’s, the capital of Antigua, is a pretty place for a day trip beyond the resorts
Mind you, we were warned to take care of ourselves, because there are only three ambulances on the island and we were told that it would take them an hour to get to St James’s.
Entertainment at the resort included a steel band and our expeditions took in a couple of trips to the island’s capital, St John’s, and a visit to the port of English Harbour, which is a big yachting centre.
Perhaps our best outing was to Stingray City.
This involved a snorkelling adventure with Southern Rays. You are able to touch and feed the rays, and they seem very friendly. I picked up a stingray and I fed one, but I must admit I had to put on a show of bravado so that the children would be fine – I couldn’t help thinking of Australian TV naturalist Steve Irwin, who was killed in 2006 when a ray stung him.
We all loved the experience except for Kit, who screamed at the top of his voice: ‘Kill them! Kill them all!’ He didn’t like the rays at all. Had our children been a little older, they could have had a lot of fun enjoying all the water-sports on offer. There’s sailing and scuba-diving, but we happily settled for something gentler – pedalos and kayaks.
The part of the holiday we were really dreading before we left was the eight-and-a-half-hour daytime flight out to Antigua. It’s a long time to keep young children entertained and happy, and we had a couple of hairy moments. The Virgin Atlantic staff were brilliant. They kept very chipper and were incredibly easy-going. On the flight back, the children mainly slept, except for poor Sonny, who tearfully informed me that he hadn’t slept a wink and could only watch films the whole way back.
While there was a kids’ club at the resort, we didn’t use it. It was nicer just to have the children with us the whole time. Towards the end of the holiday, Sonny met some other boys to play with, which he liked.
Visiting Antigua was such a positive experience for us that we are thinking we might try some other Caribbean islands next time. I fancy Barbados, or St Lucia. Our break really worked and was exactly what we were looking for. We could walk from our little villa down to the beach within two minutes, so even our toddler was able to toodle his way down to the sand with us, and that was really lovely.
Saturday night fever: Sophie, with dance partner Brendan Cole, did better than she expected on Strictly
The nicest thing was that everybody at the resort was very relaxed about children behaving as children – they could run around and nobody would tell them off.
While the children are small, we would be hard pushed to find something that works for us as well as Antigua did.
Travel Facts: Plan your own family escape to Antigua
Virgin Holidays (www.virginholidays.co.uk, 0844 557 3859) offers seven nights all-inclusive at St James’s Club from £1,355 per person, including return flights from Gatwick. The price is based on a departure on June 24, 2014.