Curtain Bluff turns 40, reaches for new markets

Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers got tired of hearing about Antigua's Curtain Bluff resort from others and decided to see for herself what the fuss was about. She's glad she went. Here is her report:

OLD ROAD, Antigua -- Curtain Bluff is a resort that frequently tops the charts in consumer travel surveys. It's a resort that agents love to sell.

The repeat-booking factor is above 85%, and commissions are promptly paid, even if a client books direct the second time around.

Now that I have sampled its hospitality, slept in its rooms, sipped its wine and soaked up its views, I understand why.

The dramatic setting on a high bluff bordered by two stretches of sand, the manicured gardens and the genuine friendliness and professionalism of employees and staff were immediately obvious.

What was less obvious to me at first was what was missing. The rooms have no keys, radios, televisions or air conditioning. The beaches have no vendors, boom boxes, kids or kids' camps.

There are no tank tops in the main restaurant, no aerobics in the pool or fire dancing in the courtyard. Tipping is not permitted. Curtain Bluff has no noise.

"Here guests can hear the sea and the tree frogs," Rob Sherman, managing director, said.

Guests also can see that management has listened to their comments over the years. Curtain Bluff now has a freshwater pool, tucked behind gardens; state-of-the-art squash courts; a spa and fitness center; a small business center with computers and Internet access, and televisions in the library.

Although kids under age 12 are not allowed from January to mid-March, they are welcome the rest of the year. Those from 2 to 5 years old get a discounted rate and a small playground.

"This is our concession to kids and our acknowledgment of the strength of the family market," Sherman said. He pointed out that Curtain Bluff needs new and younger target markets.

"We have our loyal client base, but there is a whole genre of agents out there who do not know us and some 40-year-olds who think we are a rest home," he said.

What guests experience is a resort whose wheels are so greased that service is seamless and professionalism the norm.

Behind this well-oiled machine is a resort whose founder and owner is as hands-on now as when he opened Curtain Bluff in 1962 with 22 rooms and an overnight rate of $35 that included breakfast, dinner and snorkel gear.

Legendary cigar-chomping Howard Hulford and his wife, Chelle, live on the bluff at the top of the resort and regularly entertain Curtain Bluff guests in their home.

Hulford, together with Sherman and general manager Cal Roberts, is well aware that Curtain Bluff's successes should not be taken for granted and market trends not be ignored. Quite the opposite.

"We're not stuck-up, we're not pretentious and we're not a stodgy country club just because we have shuffleboard, croquet and a dress code in the evening," Sherman said. "Curtain Bluff is 40 years old, and we have guests who return year after year."

Why are they so loyal and why do they return? After all, the rates are high, jackets are required most nights in the restaurant, the location on the south coast is not exactly central and airlift to Antigua not direct. I asked the guests themselves.

"This is a family; we know these waiters and maids and bartenders and managers. They greet us by name each year," a Michigan couple told me.

"Service, service, service," was the refrain from other guests, who added that the rooms are large, the menu gourmet and the two beaches absolutely perfect for doing absolutely nothing.

Curtain Bluff's room count will never exceed 70, according to Hulford's mandate, but the style and design of those rooms reflect the changing market.

"We need the 40-year-olds," Sherman said. "We need new blood here. We attract honeymooners, especially in April and November. We perform more than 1,000 weddings a year here, and we want to increase these markets as well as the family market."

Seven pairs of the 18 new junior beachfront suites, for example, connect and can accommodate families.

The units are airy, spacious and light-filled and include a bedroom with a king-size bed, a marble bathroom with a walk-in shower and separate tub and a lower-level living room with sliding glass doors and a beachfront terrace.

Repeat guests who had voiced concern that the new suites would change the character of Curtain Bluff were delighted when they saw the final result this winter, Roberts said.

Wicker, rattan, tiled floors, louvered windows, high ceilings and ceiling fans figure prominently in the decor of all rooms, which Chelle Hulford oversees.

In the Crow's Nest Suite on the bluff, where I stayed, strategically placed colorful pottery emphasized the white walls and the blue sea. The whole place had a feeling of Greece.

Sherman said 22 more suites will be built during the summer of 2002 to replace more of the older beachfront rooms.

Curtain Bluff, which always closes from mid-May to mid-October, will close next year through October but will extend its season until July 1, 2003, instead of closing in mid-May.

Plans this summer include an expansion of the fitness center and the addition of computers near the lobby for guests' use.

The tennis courts will get a $1 million resurfacing, as they do every summer; the menus will be redesigned; the food service will be tweaked, and the 25,000-bottle wine cellar restocked.

It all sounds like icing on the cake, like taking a good thing and making it better. In Curtain Bluff's case, there's not a whole lot left to ice.

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