I returned to Curtain Bluff resort in the village of Old Road on Antigua's southwestern coast last month.
The visit marked my third to the resort. I was last there in 2005 with my husband, so I knew this trip, my first since he passed away, would be bittersweet with memories.
I also was a bit worried that the resort's recent $13 million renovation would glam up this classic Caribbean property to the extent it would snuff out its character and traditions.
I was wrong on both counts. Yes, the memories flooded back, but they were all good ones, and my return to Curtain Bluff felt much like returning home after a business trip, exhausted but happy to be back in familiar surroundings, free of airport or travel hassles for a time.
"The resort may have a new, updated look, but the one element that has not changed is the family welcome [guests] receive when they arrive," said Rob Sherman, long-time managing director.
And, thankfully, not much else has changed, either.
Curtain Bluff remains a 72-room all-inclusive resort that serves afternoon tea in the library/lounge, greets guests at breakfast with a different fruit smoothie each morning and offers a large TV in one of the public rooms but none in the guestrooms. Other features include the Sea Grape and Tamarind restaurants; four championship tennis courts; two beaches and one pool; the complimentary Cee Bee Kids Camp; a spectacular spa set on the bluff; and a resort staff of 210 employees, whose average length of employment is 30 years.
What the renovation did do was to "freshen, lighten, brighten and update our public spaces," according to Sherman.
A junior suite at Curtain Bluff.
The resort entrance was redesigned, the guestrooms sport a new palette of colors with fabrics in Caribbean hues on the couch pillows, retiled floors and phone chargers added at bedside tables.
The four signature Hulford Collection suites, named after the resort's owners and founders, now feature an infinity-edge plunge pool on the terrace overlooking the sea.
WiFi is fast, reliable, complimentary and resortwide. Both the surf beach and the calm beach have new chaise lounges and a beach concierge service to serve drinks and set up activities and water sports.
The massive tamarind tree, there since the resort opened in 1962, still dominates the newly retiled Tree Terrace, where guests sip coffee in the morning, enjoy cocktails at sunset and dance after dinner.
"Our renovation underscores our commitment to providing a signature luxury experience paired with the utmost level of service that keeps our guests coming back year after year," Sherman said.
The 60%-plus repeat guests who fill Curtain Bluff's beds from mid-October to August each year like it just like that. It is why most of them return, season after season, and why many of their kids and grandchildren have grown up there, season after season.
Long-term repeat guests are given a silver tray for every 10 years at the resort.
"We've given out 690 10-year trays, 46 30-year trays and one 50-year tray," Sherman said. "I gave the 50-year guest a free stay for the following year, and he booked us from November straight through to April. We had to alter that slightly.
"Our biggest market is the U.S., followed by the U.K.," he said. "More than 40% of our bookings come through agents, with commission set at 15%."
Sherman said that "2016 was a down year for us, primarily due to the Zika fears and the U.S. elections. We're up 20% this year, partially due to new bookings from visitors who switched from the hurricane-impacted islands."
All-inclusive rates from Jan. 3 to April 2 start at $1,350 per night, double.
Although a romantic location, Curtain Bluff usually averages just one wedding a month. "It's easy to get married in Antigua, and we have a wedding staff here and several venues, but we are not interested in cranking out two to three weddings a day," Sherman said. "We're not that kind of resort."
Hulford Collection suites feature infinity plunge pools. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers
Howard Hulford, a character as colorful as the shirts he wore, opened Curtain Bluff in 1962 with 27 rooms on a 15-acre site with two trees and a goat pasture.
Hulford, who died in 2009, and his wife, Chelle, lived in a villa perched at the top of the bluff and regularly hosted the weekly cocktail party for guests in their home.
That tradition still stands, the party now hosted by Chelle.
Another tradition still very much alive is the Old Road Fund, founded by the Hulfords in 1974 to assist the community that sits outside the resort's gates. It began as a way to supply basic necessities to the village's neediest families.
It quickly outgrew those modest goals, thanks to support from Curtain Bluff and its guests.
Through the fund, local kids are taught the game of tennis at Curtain Bluff and sent to tennis camps in the U.S., and more than 65 have received full university educations.
The money raised also provides medical relief to Old Road residents, computers to the primary school and equipment for village soccer and cricket teams.
"We are as committed to the Old Road Fund as we are to our guests, many of whom we consider friends," Sherman said.
"We're always tweaking our product to keep it fresh, although this recent renovation did a bit more than just tweak," he said. "It's difficult to position Curtain Bluff. We're unpretentious, we offer value, we're elegant but not over the top."
Just my kind of place.