Why Sandals Grande Antigua?
Having never done an all inclusive holiday and with plans to visit Antigua we thought it was the place to try it out!
I have always been put off the idea of all inclusive holidays as I like to explore places I visit and don’t like to stay on the resort and since being diagnosed as coeliac, whether I would actually be able to eat anything became an additional concern.
When researching for an all inclusive in Antigua lots of options came up, one of them being Sandals. Having no children we liked the idea of adults only and Sandals conjures up images of luxury and romance and seemed to be the option – or name – I kept going back to. With their website selling me romance with it being voted the worlds leading honeymoon resort with the best and most famous beach in Antigua and with 11 world-class gourmet restaurants there seemed to be no reason not to go with Sandals! Whilst looking into the idea of staying there I also discovered that they had an allergen specialist which then pretty much sold me on their hotel for the trip. We decided on four nights so that would give us three full days before moving onto an apartment for the rest of the trip as we didn’t want to spend the whole week on a resort.
My good experience started with Sandals when I emailed asking about gluten free to which they replied very quickly that they could indeed cater for gluten free and many dietary requirements and that the chef would meet me at the resort. From this communication I didn’t really worry about eating safely on the holiday but still packed some extra emergency food and other supplies to what I needed for the self catering part of my trip. Despite reassurances I think you’re always prepared as a coeliac should an establishment fail to deliver on their promises!
Arriving at Sandals
We weren’t totally sure when we arrived at the airport whether the transfer would be included as we had booked the hotel through hotels.com rather than as a complete package. The email asking about transfers was the only email they didn’t reply to so we had money for a taxi just in case. However, Sandals had its own desk at the airport and we got one of their mini buses to the hotel without any problems at all.
On arrival at the resort we were greeted by such friendly staff, with the phrase ‘welcome to paradise’ being used several times as we were handed cool flannels and glasses of bubbly. We were disappointed though that our room was not ready on arrival which we thought was poor at nearly 5pm. They asked if we wanted to use the time to go and get a pizza if we were hungry, so I said that I was Coeliac and was told that a chef would meet me so they arranged for that in the time instead. Gemma came and met me at reception and was really friendly and helpful. She assured me that gluten free requests are taken seriously and prepared free from cross contamination. She said that they try and make all their menus accessible to all regardless of dietary requirements and that I could eat at any of the restaurants. I felt a lot more at ease with eating at the resort after meeting her so would recommend that you do do this!
Sandals resort is split into two sides – the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. We had chosen to stay in a club level walkout room on the Mediterranean side where we had beautiful sea views from the balcony. The room didn’t seem as big as I thought it would be from the photographs but was more than sufficient with a really comfy huge bed. The mini bar and room service were all included, a strange concept when you never stay anywhere all inclusive and are wary of the mini bar prices!
On the night we arrived we were offered pizza as the quickest meal option. This would be the best option if you do arrive very late but if you have time to go to one of the other restaurants we would advise that as the pizza is so easy to grab during the day for lunch or for food to eat at the pool as they served it in takeaway boxes.
We opted for Mario’s Italian as I was starving from the terrible gluten free food from the British Airways flight from Gatwick. It was also on the Mediterranean side to keep it easy when we knew we would be struggling with jet lag. We made reservations at our meeting with Gemma for 19:30 so after a quick shower and drink on the balcony to take in the views we headed to the restaurant.
The starter was a buffet anti pasti and I was told just to ask when helping myself as to what was gluten free. I did this but they weren’t that helpful in letting me know what was or wasn’t gluten free so I stuck with the naturally gluten free food and asked about a few items if I wanted them but couldn’t be bothered to ask about every item so there may have been more I could have had. Food labels would be helpful at the buffet to help make this easier rather than having to constantly ask staff that weren’t sure or couldn’t be bothered to walk around the whole buffet.
My waitress at the table was much more patient and helpful and I ordered spaghetti carbonara. After my lack of food I couldn’t wait for a big bowl of carbs and carbonara is one of my favourites. However, when the pasta arrived it wasn’t carbonara but instead a tomato based dish. I would have eaten it as I was tired by that point but seeing as though the sauce was wrong I didn’t actually know whether it was gluten free spaghetti. I caught someone’s attention and he whisked it away to check. He came back to the table very apologetic that it was gluten free but it was the wrong sauce so the chef was making me the carbonara. Paul on the other hand had a pork based dish and he said it was awesome and much better food than he was expecting for all inclusive so seemed happy with his meal.
I tried to order a glass of rose wine but was told that this was an additional cost – the only wine included in the all inclusive package was the house red or white, typical when I normally drink rose!
We decided to have dessert to try and keep us awake for a bit longer so I asked about gluten free. There was only one choice, so panna cotta it was! The waitress told Paul not to look at the menu as she had the perfect dessert for him and her bubbly personality was infectious so he went along with her suggestion. This meant he ended up with an amazing melt in the middle chocolate sponge pudding that I was eyeing up jealously as although at least I had a pudding there wasn’t much flavour to the panna cotta.
The food was generally very good at Marios and despite a few hiccups the serving staff were excellent and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal. I think that first meal off the plane always tastes amazing!
You have to wait a while for pizza, but that is because they cook it in a separate oven to keep you safe so I was happy to wait (Paul was not so happy when lots of people came and went with pizzas whilst he was still waiting to eat!) We helped pass the time with a couple of pina coladas and the pizza topped with jerk chicken and plaintain was awesome when it came!
Breakfast at Marios
We ate breakfast at Mario’s as it was the closest restaurant to us so kept it nice and easy! They had gluten free bread and after asking for it the first day I was asked about it as soon as I went in by the staff who remembered me on the other days.
The breakfast was a typical good buffet – cereals (none gluten free), pancakes (not gluten free), meats, cheese, fruits, and a baked goods section (none gluten free). They had an omelette station with lots of choice of toppings and where you could also get eggs cooked to order so this station was my go to all holiday! I had some delicious breakfasts of omelettes or poached eggs on my gluten free toast with a side of spicy potatoes – my favourite item off the breakfast buffet! I managed to eat a good amount to set me up for the day (nothing in comparison to what I saw some people pile onto their plates!) However I do think more could have been done for gluten free – even some cereal or a couple of cakes or muffins would have helped. After the first morning I took to taking a wrapped Tesco chocolate Madeleine with me each morning so that I had something sweet for whenever Paul moved onto the muffins and pastries!
Cafe de Paris
On the Caribbean side was Cafe de Paris, a cafe serving coffee and hot drinks, icecream and shelves of Spectacular looking cakes. This was open all day for round the clock cake or dessert after a meal! There was one gluten free option a day which I was grateful for and was served using separate tongs. However it was a plain cake topped with a different icing each day so pretty much the same cake and was nothing compared to the selection of gluteney cakes! I didn’t really expect much in the way of gluten free cakes, I think the biggest disappointment was that the ice cream wasn’t gluten free, so although I had the mango sorbet on one of the days in a tub it just wasn’t the same!
There are two restaurants that need reservations so we opted for these for our two meals, one of these being Kimonos. As Japanese food is notoriously hard to find gluten free I was intrigued to see what I would get.
The reason for booking is that it is a teppanyaki style restaurant with all the food cooked at the table. We had a choice of four starters, only one of which was gluten free so I ended up with something I wouldn’t normally order – a ginger salad. I watched on enviously as everyone else ordered scallops! Fortunately there were lots of cocktails to choose from which meant I didn’t worry about it for too long!
For the mains we had all sorts cooked on the grill – prawns, Chicken, salmon, beef and fried rice. The chef checked for allergies again before he started cooking and I was able to eat all of it, the only difference seemed to be the dipping sauces where everyone got given three dips depending on what food they were given so that they could have the accompaniment that best matched the food whereas I had the same dip for all of them which was fine by me.
At Kimonos we had a lot of fun, the group we were with were friendly, loud and up for a laugh and made the evening enjoyable. As there was no gluten free dessert out of the the three options available though we didn’t wait around for dessert and left earlier than the rest of the group.
The food was nice, the atmosphere fun but I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend this restaurant. I thought due to the reservation that was required the food would be amazing but the reservation was more down to the way the food is cooked at the table for a group of people I think rather than popularity for the overall restaurant. The main meal was excellent for gluten free but apart from a salad for starter there were no other starter and no dessert options which could be improved.
We were excited to try Eleanor’s as this was advertised as Caribbean food, something that had been somewhat lacking up to this point. We headed to our reservation and found our table for two next to a table for six. This wouldn’t normally bother me but they had to be the noisiest group of people all drunk and over the top trying to get everyone’s attention which somewhat took from the relaxing atmosphere for our meal.
There was lots of choice for gluten free on this menu and with help from the waitress I picked a seafood cerviche starter followed by prawns for the main. My starter was served – prawns and a white fish in a lime dressing which was nice. The main course however was the best meal – prawns served with a spicy sauce and rice and I’m not sure whether the portion size was big enough as Paul and I both ate it all very quickly!
I was happy to be told that the gluten free dessert was creme brûlée, one of my favourite desserts. The top was a bit burnt in places (as a coeliac I have eaten a lot of creme brulees!) but the base was thick, creamy and indulgent and the perfect way to round off the meal.
I drank the house white wine and Paul had beer, something that took a while to come as strangely it didn’t seem to be stocked in this restaurant! The second beer he asked for never even arrived so that is a glitch that needs to be rectified as he can’t be the only person wanting to drink beer. Wadadli, the local beer that he got a taste for as it was stocked in the mini bar then didn’t seem to be stocked in many places at all. Not a problem if you’re gluten free but it makes my life easier when he’s happily drinking a beer whilst waiting on me to sort my gluten free requirements!
We ate lunch at Bayside, a cafe with a gorgeous view of the beach. This was buffet style lunch and on the day we went it was Indian. Now this would not be my first choice food in the hot weather, but it was a cuisine that I thought wouldn’t be too bad to try and eat gluten free. I asked about my options and was told to wait by the buffet and someone would come out and show me around. The wait for this was about fifteen minutes with me standing around the buffet food feeling a bit stupid! Again labelling could help prevent this as I’m sure they will regularly have the same dishes for this not to be too complicated to implement. When the chef arrived I was told I could eat most of the hot dishes and could have the salad. However none of the Bread/side type items were gluten free and nor were things like the nachos. There were quite a few items on the buffet that with a bit of effort could easily be made gluten free or gluten free options bought so that was again a bit disappointing but at the same time I managed a plate of curry and rice.
None of the desserts were gluten free either so we headed to Cafe de Paris from here to stop for tea and cake.
We didn’t visit Barefoot by the Sea restaurant, which I think is the thing I’m most disappointed about! We were going to go on our last day but we ended up near Bayside and with our transfer due at 14:00 we thought we would be cutting it too fine to get to Barefoot and eat. For those reasons we had the buffet lunch again despite being a bit underwhelmed last time, with the cuisine this day being Mexican. Again the wait for the chef was slow, although quicker than last time and I could eat some of the hot dishes. Again I couldn’t eat any of the extra dishes that were being prepared such as tacos and nachos. Mexican food with minimum effort for corn based dishes can easily be made glutenfree so was not that impressed with the buffet offerings but I managed to eat a plate of food and not leave hungry.
Private Dining on the Beach
For our last night I paid the surcharge for private dining on the beach. We turned up to our table for two on the beach lit up by flames where we were greeted by a table with a rose and with bottles of bubbly and wine.
We had been given a menu in advance with lots of options to choose from that we had to hand in at reception. There was no dietary information on the card so I opted for options that I thought would be easy to do glutenfree and wrote my requirements on the card (and had noted that I was Coeliac on the reservation which I had made in advance from the UK).
The starters arrived extremely quickly, having barely had time to relax. Normally you get a bit of time at the table with a drink looking at the menu, but with the choices having been preordered the food was there pretty much instantaneously. It was getting dark and I didn’t take any photos of the meal.
We then had a funny salad course and the portions were massive! This course wasn’t really required and I tried not to eat too much as knew I had other courses coming. I had ordered grilled vegetables with feta and it felt almost like a main course in its own right. It was nice to get four courses but for me it didn’t need this portion size!
For main I had the salmon which with prawns and sweet potato was delicious. Paul barely gave the menu a second look once he saw he could get filet mignon topped with lobster and he thoroughly enjoyed it! This was definitely the best course of the night!
The desserts were somewhat disappointing, with my meringue being pretty dry and lacking much flavour. It was small in size which was fine after the size of the meal but I’ve had a lot better quality meringue desserts. Paul had opted for the burnt peaches which he also said was flavourless so they might want to rethink their dessert options!
The meal was extremely expensive and we aren’t sure it really justified the extra cost. The wine served was just the house wine I had been drinking in the other restaurants and the bottle of bubbly the same as the one in the room mini bar. It would have been nice given the cost of the meal to feel like we had been given something special at least in the way of the drinks. The location though was beautiful and after the extremely noisy restaurants of Kimonos and Eleanor’s Paul said it felt like we were paying to get a meal with some peace, quiet and exclusivity!
On the Mediterranean side is a large pool with a fab pool bar serving a variety of drinks and a vast array of cocktails, which I had a good attempt at trying to work my way through. We found that the pool bar was our favourite part of the all inclusive – cooling off in the pool with a drink without having to worry about the cost! The pool area was quiet in the mornings and livened up during the day with activities and music.
The biggest problem as is the norm it seems with resorts is people bagging sun loungers by leaving their towels out and not actually using the lounger at that time. Although it said towels would be collected if not being used I never saw this happen and the butlers put out towels for their guests so it is a practise that is going to happen. I don’t mind this as feel those with butlers should get something additional for their money! The biggest issue actually seemed to be umbrellas. There were in fact sun loungers available all day long but those with umbrellas are the ones that got reserved. I learnt this to my cost of the first day when there was no lounger available after breakfast with an umbrella and I had to leave the pool early as I felt dizzy and sick by lunchtime from too much sun. The next day I made Paul join all those others doing it and put towels out for us so that we could be guaranteed an umbrella. I just don’t understand why when everyone clearly wants umbrellas that they don’t put more out!
There were other smaller, quieter pools as well but we liked being by the pool bar and in a bigger area. Some of the small pools looked like they had large groups using them which felt a bit like we would be in the way so we chose not to use them. They were available though for those wishing for a quieter or smaller bar than that on the Mediterranean side.
The beach was beautiful – I absolutely love beaches from the gorgeous white sands to the crystal blue sea and the sound of the waves. Our room offered amazing views overlooking the sea and spectacular sunsets could be seen from our balcony. However, despite what I thought before heading to the Caribbean we didn’t actually spend much time sunbathing on the beach. We struggled to get loungers, even more so with an umbrella and we got hassled for jet skis. I don’t actually mind this the first time as know they have to make their money but being by the pool (and the bar!) ended up being an easier option. We had our private meal on the beach, as well as some photos taken by Sandals photographers at sunset and went for an evening stroll along the beach so made the most of it being so close by but made little use of it during the day. Water sports were also included but I hate being under water so didn’t use them, but gave Paul an option of something to do if he wanted to if he had got too bored!
There were other activities like croquet and tennis courts available around the resort which we may have used if we had stayed the week but didn’t feel the need to in our few days of downtime! We did however use the spa, I had booked us in for massages on our first full day and they were absolutely amazing. Such a fab way to start the holiday and really unwind. Paul was a sucker and ended up buying the products that his masseuse tried to sell him. Fortunately the lotion he bought could be used as a cooling after sun so we actually got some use out of it! My masseuse didn’t look so happy when she didn’t get any sales out of me!
On the last day we decided to have the morning on the resort. We packed and checked out and had some time reading by the pool before lunch and our transfer back to the airport at 2pm. From the airport though rather than getting a plane elsewhere we picked up our hire car and drove onto our next destination in Antigua, a self catering apartment on the south coast so that we could spend the next five days exploring the island and going to the cricket! Read all about the rest of my trip on my blog post The Sightseeing Coeliac in Antigua.
Would I go on an all inclusive again? Yes – if we did it in the same way and did it for a few nights at the start or end of a holiday to relax in the sun. However, I still don’t think all inclusive one or two week package holidays are for me as I really like eating out locally and visiting as much as I can of the local area in the time that I have.
In terms of food, I didn’t get sick which generally now is my main priority on holiday. The evening meals were very good but I wasn’t so keen on the buffet style meals as personal choice. There was plenty of food offered gluten free and I didn’t go hungry. If I did an inclusive holiday again I would look to make sure the evening meals at least were not buffet style.
I am extremely glad that Sandals could cater for me, but I don’t agree with Sandals that they are doing everything that they can to ensure that their menus are as accessible as possible for those that require a gluten free diet. Some simple additions to the breakfast buffets – things like cakes and cereal would open a lot more options and not that difficult to do. The same goes for the lunch buffets they could easily swap things like the nachos to corn based tortilla chips to give more variety. Again offering a gluten free dessert would make a big difference. Cafe de Paris could have more variety than the one style of cake although I was extremely glad of it, but the biggest disappointment there was the icecream. I can’t understand why a chain proud of being able to provide gluten free food would pick non-glutenfree icecream. Again this is something so simple that they could change to give coeliacs more options so easily.
Overall for anyone looking for an all inclusive holiday I would recommend Sandals Grande Antigua, there was a variety of food and I didn’t get ill at all. I would just advise taking a couple of cakes or muffins and some tortilla chips in your suitcase!
Go and have fun in Paradise!
The Sightseeing Coeliac x