Each year the X Factor judges whisk their top singers off to a stunning location for the Judges’ Houses stage in order to whittle them down to the final teams they’ll take to the live shows.
It’s become a Judges’ Houses glam-off as each year the locations get more and more exciting. From the often drizzly UK auditions, acts are whisked off to locations such as Dubai, Las Vegas, New York, Barbados, Saint-Tropez – offering up a weighty holiday wish list for viewers.
So, with the pick of the bunch, Nicole Scherzinger’s choice to head to the Caribbean island of Antigua with her Girls category last year is a pretty good indication of its worth for a sun-drenched break.
But why let Nicole have all the fun? Before we see where the judges go this year (with rumours of Nice, Mexico and Bermuda among the bunch) I wanted to set up my own X Factor hotel-off, and so set out to try three hotels in Antigua to pick the best – my Resort Factor champion if you will.
It’s hard work, but someone has to do it, right?
First up: Galley Bay Resort & Spa
I almost don’t want to tell you about this resort, which says it all really. I’d like it to be my secret. My little hotel to pootle off to that no one else knows about. If I had a piggy bank (or 20) to smash open to get me back there, it’d be bye bye Percy.
It’s an adults-only resort, located in the west almost entirely laid out on its own three-quarter-mile nook of pristine sand.
After a champagne or cocktail reception, you’re whisked off to your room, the majority with a sea-view. Mine had a tub I could have disappeared into and, enjoyably, private sun loungers neatly popped outside the room. No six am towel drops needed.
There’s complimentary hotel-branded plastic bottles to fill up with water around the resort – a handy, and from my experience, quite unique, touch. Plus, for tea lovers like myself, good-size matching mugs for use in the room, which were also laid out at breakfast.
The pace is slow at Galley Bay. The beach remains untouched but for posts to keep you away from the turtle eggs doing their thing just below the surface. The view is worthy of any coffee table book.
There’s no music around the rock-themed pool (a relief for those who don’t fancy listening to the same album on repeat), which houses a refreshing waterfall and hammocks alongside the loungers.
Several bars keep the drinks flowing, while lunch and snack times overlap enough to keep hunger far from the mind. The Barefoot Grill was a favourite, with Mexican-style snacks, burgers and hotdogs made to order on a shady chunk of sand. A priceless view of just beach and sea.
The prime spot for an afternoon drink is the terrace of the main bar, which is filled with chunky pastel-coloured rocking chairs. Just one post of a picture on social media was enough to spark comments from fellow Galley Bay-ers who’d been before and were itching to get back.
Non-motorised water sports are available, including paddle boarding and canoeing. Bicycles are also available to hire as well as a gym, tennis court, library and Wi-Fi facilities, depending on your tastes. A 7am yoga class (suitable for beginners like myself) with the waves crashing in the background was a highlight.
Evenings are filled with jerk chicken and curried chips and rather than big shows or karaoke sessions, steel bands and fire eaters set the tone.
Bookable restaurant Gauguin has no additional cost for all inclusive diners, but seats each group under an individual canopy on the far end of the beach. Great for an extra special meal. Be sure to check what you’re skipping in the main restaurant though, as each night is different.
For an extra touch of glamour during your stay, check out the spa which offers massages outside in the bird sanctuary that surrounds it.
Second up: Verandah Resort & Spa
Located on the other side of the island, the instant difference is the size. Although, the pastel-coloured rocking chairs I’d begrudgingly waved goodbye to were in attendance.
But back to that size; you absolutely want to accept the buggy round to your room. I braved walking in on the way back to reception, and it’s more effort than a holiday requires. I recommend heading to the bus stops.
The walk was a good insight into the resort of course. There are two different beaches to tempt you to a sunbed, as well as a large family pool and an individual adults-only pool. There’s also a miniature golf course, table tennis tables, and plenty of non-motorised sports to keep you active, with a spa on hand to do the opposite.
Top tip for the beach: head out to the sea hammocks. They’re like mini floating trampolines, but are there simply for you to melt into and enjoy the sun while in the cooling water.
Once you’ve done too much of that and find yourself in the spa with a sun burn (OK, yes that was me), you’ll find the beauticians are not just good at their jobs, but caring too. A soothing aloe vera gel was added to my back to soothe my burnt skin after a dreamy full body massage.
If you can snag a room overlooking the beach, you’ll be treated to a great show by pelicans in the evening, thundering into the sea to catch their dinner. Waffle bathrobes, tea/coffee making facilities, a fridge and a safe are available, plus the bathroom is well equipped with toiletries.
The restaurants aren’t quite as inviting as Galley Bay’s beach-based breezy offerings. But paying the extra surcharge for an evening in Nicole’s is worth it. Luck was on my side, with lobster the special to tuck in to, with cheery staff and wine glasses big enough to be classed as buckets to accompany the meal.
Evenings are a bit livelier than Galley Bay, with karaoke and live bands dominating the action of the main bar. Depending on your taste, you may wish to escape to the quieter beach bar, but this isn’t open quite as late.
There’s a bit of exploring to be done from the Veranda. A short 10-minute walk from the larger of the two beaches takes you out to Devil’s Bridge. The erosion of the soft limestone by the notably rough waters has created the natural bridge. The area, now a National Park, earned the addition of the word Devil after many slaves were said to have taken their lives on that part of the island.
A wander around Nelson’s Dockyard is also an ideal way to get a sense of the history of Antigua. Filled with museums, boats and restaurants, you pay only a small entrance fee to enjoy an educational day out.
A drive out to Shirley Heights is considered a must by most who have visited. It’s deemed the best lookout point on the island, where guides will happily point out local areas of interest and the celebrity inhabitants – including Eric Clapton’s eye-popping pad.
On a Sunday, this becomes the place to hang out, with food stalls and bands attracting people from all over the island for a party. Be there or be square, by all accounts.
Third and finally: St James’s Club & Villas
Rounding out the candidates is the hotel Nicole herself stayed in. Bigger once more, there’s an instant feel of exclusivity about the place. Not in any way unwelcoming, but big enough to make you feel you might need a day or two to find your bearings.
Choice is the main thing on offer at St James. There are two vast beaches (one smaller, but not small by any means), various pools, and an adult-only tiered pool tucked away by one of the many bars.
The sea hammocks made a welcome return. Plus at St James came the addition of a beach cart with staff dishing out drinks, meaning moving from your sunbed was basically optional.
Rooms varied from being high up on the hill to down on the beach, with my beach-based room once again equipped with personal sun loungers (a treat I’m now going to hope for everywhere I go).
The real icing on the cake, of course, was to set up camp for the day on the pontoon that housed Nicole and her girls for filming. It’s the ideal elevated spot for a bit of sunbathing, within easy walk to one of the many beach bars. Scherzinger and co used this space to hear her top six acts battle for a spot in the live shows. But it’s much more relaxing to simply take in the activities of St James, from those enjoying the various water sports (paddle boarding, sailing, canoeing) to those having a game of beach volley ball and football.
An impressive number of tennis courts are on offer, as are lessons, plus aqua aerobics in the main pool. The on-site spa is a dream, with those massage beds outside you always see in brochures but never imagine you’ll get to try out for real.
The Docksider Grill restaurant is the real triumph here. It’s not often a hotel’s buffet option is the main attraction, with the bookable or surcharge restaurants, in my experience, taking top billing. But with its tranquil blue and white theme and breezy sea view, it was an instant hit. The food is worth writing home about, with its dishes from around the world the stand out night for me.
Entertainment comes courtesy of the adjoining bar, which had some of its own X Factor-worthy singers, more steel bands and a fab vibe that saw plenty of guests up on their feet dancing.
Beach-side burgers and mouth-watering seafood by day, only add to its culinary successes. As do the rum cocktails, but that’s another story.
Had I only visited Verandah, I’d be pleased as punch with a resort that happily caters for families and couples alike. But alongside Galley Bay and St James resorts, it falls just shy and takes third place for me. If pushed for a reason, I would say the difference in the restaurants, in that they’re closed in and not near the beach, made it less impressive than the other two resorts.
St James and Galley Bay battle for top spot. St James feels like there’s more going on, while at the same time, its size and brilliant use of space allows you to find the peace to make your own holiday.
But ultimately Galley Bay has the ‘never again’ quality – the feeling that you’ll never holiday quite like it again, never have that tranquillity and you’ll certainly be pushed to find that view again.
I could get used to this X Factor lark. Any jobs going, Simon?
Hayes & Jarvis (01293 735831, www.hayesandjarvis.co.uk) is offering:
1. A seven night holiday to St James’s Club, Antigua for £1,299 per person on an all inclusive basis. This offer is based on return international flights from London Gatwick with Virgin Atlantic.
2. A seven night holiday to The Verandah Resort and Spa for £1,099 per person on an all inclusive basis. This offer is based on return international flights from London Gatwick with British Airways.
3. A seven night holiday to Galley Bay for £1,799 per person on an all inclusive basis. This offer is based on return international flights from London Gatwick with British Airways.
Emma travelled to the Caribbean with support from British Airways (ba.com) and was hosted by the hotels above. When Radio Times contributors receive assistance from travel providers such as tourist boards, airlines and hotel to conduct first-hand research, we retain our editorial independence at all times, and never accept anything in return for positive coverage.
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