Antigua: A beach for every day
Picture perfect. In some places in the world, that phrase isn't a cliche. It's an accurate description.

The beaches of Antigua, for example, are picture perfect.

Located in the heart of the Lesser Antilles' Leeward Islands, Antigua boasts 365 beaches ("one for every day of the year," as the saying goes) — a sandy parallel to lush Dominica, 100 miles south, which claims 365 rivers.

But while Dominica's waters act as if they're charting their own courses, twisting, turning and entwining themselves — sometimes violently — within dense jungle paths, Antigua's beaches, especially on the southern and western shores, lie still and serene.

Antigua's sand is the stuff of hourglasses: perfectly smooth, almost sparkly in appearance. Where the Caribbean Sea reaches ashore to lap it up, it begins to look even brighter under that perfectly clear, clean, bluish-green water, whose pallid color appears increasingly intense as your eyes follow it out to the horizon. But as soon as you drive south of the airport into the island's interior, away from the multimillion-dollar resorts whose property lines divide and define the beaches, a very different landscape unfolds. Paradise and poverty become neighbors. At least that's what I discovered on my second day here, in search of Hermitage Bay.

The stretch of gravel that leads to the all-inclusive Hermitage Bay resort is unmarked and easy to miss, thanks to dozens of indiscernible, pothole-laden roads veering off from Valley Road on the island's west side. About 4 miles southwest of the capital of St. John's, Hermitage Bay lies due west of the village of Jennings.

Guests are received via explicit directions from town, recited over the telephone by the resort's front-desk clerk. They go something like this: "Down the road from St. John's near Jennings, there's a restaurant called Hometown, and you'll want to turn left down that road. Once you get to the very top of that street, it's only a right or a left turn. Take the left to the dirt road, which is a very long and winding road that's a bit bumpy, and we would be the very last stop."

After 15 or 20 minutes of blind navigation and several false turns, there it was: an oasis in the form of a neatly landscaped roundabout guarded by a single attendant and, behind him, a simple, elegant, open-air lobby through which shone a stretch of white sand and horizontal stripe of turquoise sea.

After parking my economy-size Toyota and allowing the attendant to open my squeaky door, I straightened my sundress and approached the sleek, low-slung monolith that is the Hermitage Bay resort.

Once in the lobby, I approached the concierge desk and asked if I might have a word with the co-owner, Andy Thesen, whose name had been passed along by a host at my lodging a few days before. I was in the market to swap hotels and wondered what the rates were for this oasis in the dust.

A few minutes later, when Thesen emerged from his property's wings, he appeared just as one might expect an owner of a multimillion-dollar luxury Caribbean resort to appear: of indeterminate age, evenly tanned, casually yet elegantly dressed down to his leather flip-flops, and talking with a thick British accent. He was pleasant enough in answering my questions and, after consulting briefly with a member of his staff, humored me with a quote for a slightly discounted two nights' stay: $1,200. Per night. In U.S. dollars. It was about $150 less than the average nightly price of the least expensive of the resort's 25 private suites — each of which, it should be noted, is outfitted with private plunge pools and top-of-the-line amenities.

Trying not to look horrified, I thanked Thesen and politely declined his offer, excused myself, strolled as casually as I could back to my economy Toyota that the parking attendant was so carefully watching over and returned down the dusty road from which I'd come.

The 10-mile drive over the island's hilly southwestern sprawl back to my own hotel — the modest Copper & Lumber Store Hotel in English Harbour on Antigua's sleepy southern coast — took so long over the curvy, unmarked roads that I found myself navigating the last half-hour in pitch-black night. All the while, I was lost in thought about what it meant to stay in a resort like Hermitage Bay in a tiny country like Antigua.

The contrast of economy is startling.

Along the western and southern coasts, wealthy Americans, Britons and French sip bottomless mojitos surrounded by isolated, man-made beauty, graciously waited on by local staff who likely live in or near the shacks that line those secluded dirt roads. Oprah has a home here, as does Robin Leach.

The island is fueled by tourism and populated in spurts radiating from St. John's, which, like many Caribbean capitals, is built around a cathedral, a market and a handful of luxury malls. There are a few very good restaurants, dozens of gleaming resorts, two universities and a half-dozen intimate inns.

But there isn't really a middle class.

This sharp contrast between the privileged and the impoverished is hardly unique to Antigua. It's apparent throughout most of the Caribbean; tourists only see the side of paradise that has been carefully groomed in anticipation of their arrival. But unlike eco-conscious resorts more popular on adventure-tourism islands such as Dominica and even some remote stretches of the Bahamas, Antigua's hotels tend to be too big to hide their enormous carbon footprints or too small to have the means to do anything about it.

Most months, Antigua's hundreds of beaches are dotted with international vacationers soaking in 80-degree temperatures, lazing about under the shade of the mangrove hugging its patches of sand. There are about 69,500 residents on this 108-square-mile island, but more than anything, this is a magnet for tourists and tourism, and it's outfitted accordingly. It's apparent from the moment one lands at the airport, whose grounds are as plushly landscaped as some of the westside resorts. Which begs the question: What did this place look like before the tourism industry had its way?