This is the real deal in dream destinations
Sailors, lovers and sun-seekers will be captivated by Antigua and Barbuda
Nelson’s Dockyard, Antigua: gateway of the Caribbean in the 18th century, and now the perfect holiday hideaway
A swaying palm tree, the gentle lapping of the waves, warm sunshine, dazzling blue sky - in the dark days of British winters, these are the images we conjure of the perfect escape.
If the Caribbean region has written the book on the must-have holiday ingredients of sun, sea and sand, Antigua and its sister island Barbuda - which boast 365 beaches between them - have perfected the formula.
With average temperatures ranging from the mid 70s to mid 80s in winter, these are the sunniest islands in the eastern Caribbean.
But their beaches have inspired more than daydreams - JK Rowling finished one of her Harry Potter books here and Antigua hosts an International Literary festival each November.
When you drift away from the beach, there are plenty of activities to occupy you here, too, from swimming with stingrays and eco-kayaking through the mangroves, to a stroll around some of the island's historical sites.
Lighthouse Bay on Barbuda, the island’s newest five-star resort
Unlike many of the islands, Antigua's history is less about slavery and more about its role as a strategic port and valuable commercial colony.
Thanks to its location as the most easterly of the Caribbean islands, by the end of the 18th century Antigua had become the "Gateway of the Caribbean". Admiral Nelson found himself there in 1874 to develop British naval facilities at English Harbour and his construction, Nelson's Dockyard, survives as the world's only remaining Georgian fort.
But the stately architecture of Nelson's Dockyard hosts a more pleasure-seeking crowd these days - the international racing boats, recreational yachts and classic sailboats of Antigua's annual Sailing Week which is one of the world's foremost maritime events.
Antigua Sailing Week takes place in April and celebrated its 42nd year in 2009 - again, attracting yachts and yachtsmen from all over the world.
Because of its rich marine tradition, boats of all sorts can be hired in Antigua. Even staunch landlubbers can be lured onto the water and I was seduced by the prospect of a catamaran sail around the islands. Although I was determined to count as many of the 365 beaches as possible, I was distracted by the sight of what seemed to be almost as many fabulous villas. Italian designer Giorgio Armani, among others, is building a luxury home here.
We also saw, up in the hills, the house of cricketing legend Sir Viv Richards, and the historical Fort Barrington, captured by the French in 1666.
A couple of curious turtles popped up to watch us enjoying some locally made fruit juices and rum punch while the captain cooked up freshly barbecued fish. After stopping en route for a snorkel around reefs teeming with colourful fish, the boat dropped us at a secluded white beach for a few hours relaxation before taking us back to St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.
The capital, which is dominated by the white baroque towers of its eponymous 19th-century cathedral, is a lively hub for shopping and dining. As well as its colourful cruise ship dock and hotels, attractions include the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, housed in the colonial Court House built in 1750
Other key attractions on the island include Shirley Heights, the partially-restored fortifications of the harbour's colonial observation post. From here, the view extends out over the harbour and far across the Caribbean to Montserrat and Guadeloupe. On Sundays, there is a barbecue and live music at the bar at Shirley Heights.
For the adventurous, the Antigua Rainforest Canopy Tour is a must-do; a unique eco-tour through the island's lush rainforest, it is an unforgettable 21-element journey through the verdant forest, high above the trees.
For those who want to experience something less commercial, the next destination has to be Barbuda, Antigua's pretty little sister island, a 15-minute flight away. Barbuda is just eight miles by 14 but contains beach after beach of exquisite pinky-beige sand with nothing to disturb your dreams but the birds.
Newly opened here is the fabulous Lighthouse Bay Resort, with just nine ocean-front suites offering the perfect retreat. Drinks and meals can be taken at leisure in the lighthouse itself, prepared by chef Lennox whose claim to fame is that he cooked for the late Princess Diana and the Princes William and Harry when they stayed at Barbuda's now closed K Club.
The rich and famous aren't the only ones to make these islands their exclusive habitat - Barbuda is home to the Frigate Bird, which has its largest sanctuary in the world here, only accessible by boat across the lagoon.
Back on Antigua, accommodation ranges from family-friendly to super all-inclusive couples-only resorts. The relaxed Grand Pineapple on the east coast seemed a happy medium. Owned by the Sandals group - but not one of its couples resorts - it offers a slightly old fashioned take on the all-inclusive experience, with pretty rooms in pastel colours, mostly with spectacular views out to sea. The location is idyllic and there are two restaurants practically on the beach, serving freshly cooked food to suit all tastes and offering a wealth of delicious tropical fruits and vegetables.
A short walk from the resort finds you in The Outpost, perched on a hill overlooking the sea. Here, Miss Mary cooks and serves cold drinks with typical island humour. Visitors leave carved messages in wood for future travellers to read.
Elsewhere on Antigua, the sky is the limit: the Nonsuch Bay Resort, 20 minutes from English Harbour, is new for Antigua in that the accommodation is made up of 62 luxury apartments built around a secluded beach and 18 waterfront and hilltop villas. It is also the only luxury resort in the Caribbean to offer specialist sailing facilities.
Two square miles of enclosed waters are protected from the open sea by a barrier reef and the bay faces the consistent (and warm) trade winds, making it ideal for sailing small boats.
Guests can book sailing as an inclusive package, which allows as much time on the water as they want, as well as group tuition, technique clinics, trips and activities for all ages and abilities.
Alternatively, you could choose Sandals Grande Antigua which sits on 19 acres of Antigua's Dickenson Bay beach and caters for couples looking for indulgence.
A one-bedroom villa is complete with a private butler, on hand to deal with those onerous tasks, like booking excursions or arranging candlelit dinners on the beach. Not surprisingly, it has earned the title "World's Most Romantic resort" for 10 years' running.
But you really don't have to be in love to fall for Antigua and Barbuda.
British Airways (www.britishairways.com; 0844 493 0787) offer return flights from London Gatwick to Antigua from £555 per person. Nonsuch Bay (www.nonsuchbayresort.com) offers seven nights from £425 per person room only.
One week on half-board including sailing from £800 per person. Prices based on two sharing a one bedroom apartment.
Virgin Holidays (www.virginholidays.co.uk; 0844 557 3859) offer seven nights in Antigua at the 3V+ Grand Pineapple on an all inclusive basis with flights and transfers from £1,119, per person based on two sharing. Virgin Holidays also offer seven nights at Sandals Grand Antigua on an all-inclusive basis, including flights and transfers, from £3,699 per person based on two sharing a Lux ocean villa with pool.