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On Tuesday March 3rd, 2009 Stuart and I traveled to the Cleveland Hopkins airport to set our journey afoot. On the drive to the airport, I noticed on this day in March, like many past, the city of Cleveland looked dirty and gray. There was a bone chilling dampness in the air typical with March in Cleveland Ohio that the car heater just could not seem to compensate for. The grass was a muddy brownish green that appeared as though it had been pressed flat by a steam roller due to the heavy snow and ice that laid over it all winter. The streets were littered with soggy scraps of paper, dirty salt stained shredded grocery bags and crushed soda bottles that had been pushed onto the muddy brown tree lawns by the snowplows. All the while I kept thinking that it was going to be good to be getting away from this place and into the sun.
After checking in with our airline at the Cleveland airport, we checked our luggage, all the while praying that it would not be overweight. It wasn't thank the lucky stars, so Stuart and I were able to breathe a sigh of relief. While I was packing, he kept asking me why I needed six pairs of shoes when he was only bringing two, what he didn't understand is that a girl never knows what she'll need, nor can she be sure just what goes best with the dozen or so necessary outfits. This kind of packing I thank my mother for, she taught me that more is always better when traveling. Thinking back now, I am surprised that I didn't forget my wedding dress and Stuarts wedding clothes, for all the things that I packed. From our airline check in we made our way to the long and winding security line. We had arrived in enough time though that the line was of no concern, at least not until we actually reached the section where we had to remove everything from our pockets, our shoes and belts. When I reach this portion of the security line there is this urgency. I begin to hurry and sweat as though there is an imaginary fire monster behind me and I must hurry to get everything in the little bucket before he breathes fire breath on me. Meanwhile I'm imagining this fire monster to have a timer in its hand and once the time runs out the flames threaten to singe my hair. This would just ruin the wedding photos! Once out of the security section, we rush over to the small benches provided to put our shoes back on and replace all of our belongings to their rightful places. Once this part is over the fire monster retreats back behind the security gates and I am able to breathe another sigh of relief.
We made our way down the long corridor to wait to board our plane to fly to Newark, New Jersey to catch our connecting flight. While sitting waiting for about a half hour we boarded our plane and were on our way. The reality of our final destination continued to sink in and wash away the stress, until we arrived in Newark. Once in Newark the fire monster returned. We had to run to claim our luggage from baggage claim, which seemed to take an eternity. I kept watching the slot that spits out the suitcases onto the shiny steel carousels. When our bag was finally on the carousel, Stuart grabbed the bag and we were on to our next challenge. My over packing at this time had made Stuart slightly irritated, he scowled, however he remained the consummate gentleman as he pulled our giant suitcase from the baggage claim to customs. Once near customs we encountered another winding line that seemed to wrap through the area like a multi colored ribbon dotted with more irritated scowling travelers schlepping their own giant suitcases and carryon bags. There seemed to be hundreds of people. I felt like sitting on the floor and crying because at this time we had 30 minutes to get catch our final flight to make our way to Antigua. The anxiety of missing our flight and the entire trip being ruined was looming. Miraculously we made it, sweaty from running and exhausted from the anxiety we made it to our gate with moments to spare. We boarded our flight and were finally on our way.
It is almost a five hour flight from Newark to Antigua and once I calmed down from all of our rushing and the threat of that angry fire monster, the excitement of our destination began to sink in. Five hours of sitting in a cramped airplane seat, breathing in the stale, dry, recycled air did not seem so bad especially after the flight attendant made her first pass with the drink cart that resembled some sort of bad 1980's science fiction android, I was even more relaxed. After about two or three Dixie cup sized drinks my troubles started to melt away, until the need to use the restroom. I always seem to wait until there are people in the tiny isles. And the number of people with the same thought as me, to use the restroom, I was surprised that the plane did not shift to one side. After waiting for what seemed to be an eternity, it was my turn. I locked myself inside the space of what seems to be two feet by two feet. With the flickering light and the pungent smell of urine and the, not so pretty blue water among other things, I wanted to be as fast as possible in this small space. As I was hovering over the Barbie playhouse sized toilet, I hoped with all hope that there would be no turbulence. The dread of my behind touching that seat was almost more than I could bear. As I hovered over the toilet my legs began to shake. Apparently I wasn't in the appropriate shape to have run through airports let alone perform squats in a tiny, poorly lit, smelly restroom. As I made my way back to my seat, we began to experience turbulence and I thought to myself, "just in time, just-in-time!" By this time Stuart had fallen asleep, I had to wake him to get back into my seat. He kindly obliged. The crabby mood had been replaced by the thought of the beauty that we would soon be surrounded by.
Once our plane finally landed, I could hardly wait to get off that stuffy plane and out into the warmth. We got off the plane and had to walk across the tarmac to the terminal. I love this about tropical destinations, it gives you your first real taste of the climate here. It was warm, humid, and beautifully sunny. The sky was such a beautiful ultramarine blue fluffy white clouds scattered throughout. The air felt heavy with humidity and this relieved my dry sinuses and skin. Smiling at each other, Stuart and I walked into the terminal to claim our luggage. Once we retrieved the giant suitcase, we encountered another long and winding line that seemed to be moving very slowly, something like watching a drip of honey run down the bottle after it pouring it into your tea. Although initially I was happy to be in the humidity, it started to get to me at this point. I was sweating in places that a woman should never sweat in and my clothes were sticking to me. I had dressed in layers to avoid this however, there was nothing that I could do with the layers once I removed them. Although I had left that fire-breathing monster behind me in New Jersey I his younger less threatening relative, the humidity monster had found me.
There is something daunting about going through customs in another country. The agents seem to scrutinize your photo. They scowl at your passport and ask you questions like, "What is the purpose of your visit to Antigua?" and "How long you will be staying?" It makes you feel as though you had better answer correctly, because they may actually be checking on you and if you weren't completely honest you would be in trouble. Like if you left out that you would be getting married and only said you would be vacationing, or if you forgot to mention you would be shopping, what were the consequences?
Once we finally made our way outside of the airport we were asked where we would be staying by kind ladies at stands. From there we were ushered to a bus to transported to our resort. Antigua is a British Caribbean island and has been for hundreds of years. In fact in "1784 the legendary Admiral Horatio Nelson sailed to Antigua and established Great Britain's most important Caribbean base" (Antigua and Barbuda , 2011). The streets are very narrow and the drivers drive as though they are in a rally race. They quickly swerve through the curvy streets while, driving on the wrong side of the road, to an American, honking their horns at anyone that gets in their way. On our bus were people staying at several hotels and small resorts along the way. We made brief stops along the way to let these visitors off and continue on our journey. The windows of the buss were open and the warm breeze blew in along with the smell of the ocean. We approached the most beautiful resort I had seen in a long time. There seemed to be nothing on either side of it or across the street from it. We drove up to a gate that surrounded with large lush deep green plants, some with spiky leaves and some that looked like elephant ears. Among the deep green foliage were flowers the colors of fire red, fuchsia and orange like the sky of a summer sunset.
We stepped off the bus to be greeted by a very friendly woman holding a tray with two glasses of Champagne on it, which she offered to us. Another woman approached us with cool damp cloths to wipe the sticky grit of sweat from our faces and the backs of our necks. We were asked to sit down and relax on the big overstuffed sofas in the open air lobby, while another friendly lady took our information to check us in. We never had to step foot near that registration desk, which seemed unnatural because in a normal hotel setting this kind of guest care is not taken. While we relaxed and laughed about the trials and tribulations of our trip there, we were told that our room was ready. A kind man approached us and asked if we were ready, he would show us to our room. We followed the man to an elevator and rode up to the third floor. We exited the elevator and followed the man down a long open walkway overlooking the beautiful large pool and numerous water fountains below. The warm ocean breeze was gently blowing, making the palm trees dance back and forth. The gentle sound of the leaves rustling together made such a calming sound that any stress left from our traveling melted away.
We walked into our beautiful suite. It was decorated with a lovely four-poster mahogany bed with crisp white bedding. Our bathroom had a large raised Jacuzzi tub and a separate walk in shower stall with a raindrop shower head. Beyond the bed was a beautiful little balcony that had a wrought iron table and chairs. We had full view of the extraordinary grounds of the resort and just beyond the grounds, laid a white sandy beach and the pale clear blue ocean. It was very breezy that day so the waves were rushing up on the beach and the sound was invigorating. As the kind man left us and gently closed the door behind him, Stuart and I ripped open our suitcase to find some cooler clothes to throw on and our camera, so that we could leave the room to go explore the beautiful grounds of the resort.
As we walked the grounds the beauty was breathtaking, it truly was a" seaside garden oasis" (Sandals Grande Antigua Resort and Spa), with impeccably manicured landscaping. In the many hibiscus trees that were dotted throughout the property occasionally, I would catch a glimpse of a humming bird hovering near one of the bright orange and pink blossoms. Beyond one of the many restaurants on the property continued a tile walkway where the sun was beating down. We looked down to find several little chameleons sunning themselves. As we approached they quickly scampered away much to my dismay, as I tried to photograph them. The pools were warm and crystal clean. The main pool had a large swim up bar in the center. Around the perimeter of the pool, there was a shallow area that a lounge chair could be put directly into the pool. This would enable you to lie in the sun and if the heat became too much you could just dip your feet or a lazy hand directly into the cool water without the bother of walking from the lounge chair to the pool. This was what I imagine to how a king or queen would live, everything at your fingertips, including the pool, and all surrounded unimaginable beauty.
The day of our wedding arrived. On that day we awoke early, we were both a little nervous, not because of what we were doing or whom the other was marrying but that we wanted it to be perfect. We had a feeling that it would be just because every other part of our stay in Antigua. Stuart was given instructions to meet the woman that would be performing our ceremony at 12 noon, and for once, he was on time. I was to wait for the wedding planner to meet me at our suite and we would walk down to the location that we had chosen to have our ceremony together. I arrived on the stone walkway and was preparing to walk down to the beach, I could see Stuart standing in the sand waiting for me. I slowly walked down the path and made my way to the sand. I removed my shoes and walked down to the arch of flowers where my soon to be husband was standing. The sand felt so soft and warm and soft between my toes. The waves were crashing up in the background and the air was refreshing.
Our ceremony began as I stood in front of Stuart and looked as his sun kissed face and eyes as blue as the ocean. The lady that performed our ceremony had a beautiful English accent, she spoke so eloquently and the words she said were so lovely. Everything was perfect. At the end of our ceremony we released butterflies. We were given a basket of a dozen or so Monarch butterflies, we opened each side of the basked and as the brave little butterflies emerged, they fluttered down the breezy beach as though they were living, animated flowers. While some of them went freely others had to be coaxed out of the basket to their freedom. I believe that they are said to carry a secret once they are given their freedom, a secret that can only be heard in a whisper. Our secret was that this was the first day of the rest of our lives together and it was the most perfect beautiful day of our lives.
After our ceremony we walked around the grounds of the resort to have our photographs taken. With so much beauty surrounding us our photographer was able to capture some lovely images, ones that we will remember for the rest of our lives. We had some taken in the garden near the beach that we were married on while others were taken as we walked hand in hand on the beach along the water. My favorite photograph is of Stuart holding me as though we were about to cross the threshold of our new home as newlyweds. We are on the beach with the beautiful blue water and a sailboat behind us. It looks as though we are preparing to dive into the water and swim to that boat to start a journey to sail around the world.
We went back to our room to change into cooler clothes, have a little bit of champagne and some fruit and then we headed back out onto the beach. We were walking along the water and I noticed a little crab in the sand. Stuart was searching for shells along the shoreline like his father did. I think this was his way of sharing our moment with his father who wasn't able to be there with us, as he had passed away years before I met Stuart. I interrupted his search and asked him to come and see what I had found. I told him that I thought this was the spirit of his father letting us know that he was there, watching over us. Stuarts father loved the ocean and the beach. Although this was a little crab and the association of a crab with his father seems odd, I thought this was endearing. This was the only crab we had seen since we had been there and on what seemed to be miles of beach. I pushed my sandal up to the little crab in hopes that I could scoop him up to take a photograph of him. He reached out both of his little arms to try to look intimidating. It was as if he was "throwing a gang sign", it was so funny. He would not get on my sandal and then was washed away by a wave. I think we laughed about it for ten minutes.
Later that evening we decided to take a sunset cruise. The cruise left a couple of hours before sunset so we were given the opportunity to explore more of the island. We sailed past what a beautiful seaside homes owned by Oprah Winfey as well as one owned by Georgio Armani, they were incredible. I joked with one of the people working on the boat that they homes looked empty and that we should stop by and enjoy these beautiful places. As we were sailing out into the open water, out of the corner of my eye I saw what looked like a bird flying just along the water. One of the men working on the boat said that they were flying fish. He then pointed out an entire school of them jumping out of the water. We had never seen this before, it was truly amazing. Their flight process is astonishing it "begins by gaining great velocity underwater, about 37 miles (60 kilometers) per hour. Angling upward, the four-winged flying fish breaks the surface and begins to taxi by rapidly beating its tail while it is still beneath the surface. It then takes to the air" (National Geographic). We continued out into the open water away from the island. The boat stopped and we watched the sun set, as though it was a bright hot iron from a fire melting into the ocean.
The next day we spent at the pool enjoying the warm sun and being lazy. On our way back to our room Stuart, always looking for activities, found a brochure about a weekly festival held at Shirley Heights. "The heights were named after General Shirley who was the Governor of the Caribbean Leeward islands" (Paradise Islands). It was that evening and sounded fun, so we made arrangements to attend the sunset festival. From this area, there is a beautiful view of the ocean and harbors below. There was steel drum band playing, barbecue being cooked and a very busy bar. There were several very official looking military men standing on guard around the site. My husband is very talkative and will chat with anyone. I was a little nervous about this because these men seemed to be all business and didn't seem interested in talking with tourists. Stuart persevered and convinced one of the men to allow us to take a photograph with him. He was very steely and did not crack a smile in the photograph, yet he indulged Stuart and allowed us our photograph. The festival was very crowded but we made the best of it. The view of the ocean was breathtaking, so we tried to take as many photographs as possible. The sunset was even more breathtaking. It was just as beautiful but on a different perspective than the sunset cruise. It area is quite elevated at "490 feet above sea level" (Paradise Islands) so no matter where you were standing, there was a perfect view of the sun setting into the ocean.
Our trip to Antigua was the most wonderful memory filled trip that I have ever experienced. With our many beautifully vivid photographs it is one trip that will not be forgotten and will most likely be difficult to duplicate. The Sandals Grande Antigua has a renewal of vows ceremony, perhaps on day Stuart and I will make the journey back to Antigua to renew our vows and create more beautiful lasting memories.