Carpe Diem, Caribbean style

A palm tree on a beach in Antigua
A palm tree on a beach in Antigua
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I’m sinking my toes into white sand, as the turquoise Caribbean Sea gently laps centimetres away. A gentle breeze cools my face, and I have rum punch in my hand.

Four days of this heaven stretch ahead.

And then it happens.

Without even consciously making the shift, my mind takes me back to damp, grey Blighty. I’m thinking about, in no particular order, sewing name labels onto school uniforms, buying worming tablets for the dog, and the realisation I’ve left a bottle of wine in the freezer...

I’ve just lost precious minutes of this extraordinary experience. If not for the rum, I’d be absolutely furious.

But this trip has a trick up its sleeve.

I’m at the beautiful Galley Bay Resort & Spa in Antigua, to learn how to holiday properly. This means learning how to be in the moment - and staying there. For four days. And I will achieve this though wholesome activities like yoga and sketching. (Not by being permanently drunk on rum.)

The Elite Island Resorts Group, a collection of beachfront locations in the Caribbean, is offering new activities designed to ensure every moment of your holiday is actually spent holidaying, with the help of relaxation and mindfulness skills that can be used back at home too.

In my room, I find a beautiful Colour Me Calm colouring book, co-created by Puffin illustrator Adam Stower and existential psychotherapist Dr Nicole Gehl; her private practice is based in London but she spent her formative years on Antigua, and returns regularly.

Galley Bay offers the book to guests as part of its reassuringly named ‘Ink & Drink’ sunset colouring sessions, which for me involve settling down on a charming wooden rocking chair on the resort’s beachfront deck with a Coco Loco (a Pina Colada with a twist), and colouring in Stower’s sketches of the various resorts’ views and landmarks.

Colouring in for grown-ups is quite the thing at the moment but, as Dr Gehl notes, it’s worthy of more than just a passing fad.

Its therapeutic potential is based on it being tactile and creative but not draining, and process-driven rather than outcome-driven. The repetitive motion of colouring in a picture of a gazebo on the beach in front of me is regulating my breathing, and lowering my adrenaline and cortisol production, apparently.

Stower visits Elite resorts throughout the year to guide guests through sketch workshops. He has us focusing our eyes and minds on the palm trees in front of us on the beach and, after two hours of single-minded creative pursuit, we’ve all turned out surprisingly good watercolour impressions of the view.

Yes, there’s rum involved, but I post my painting on Facebook to near universal acclaim, a suggestion I frame it, and only a little gentle mirth from my seven-year-old daughter.

Also tucked among the pages of the book are Dr Gehl’s tips for simple mindfulness habits, widely recognised by health experts as an effective way of reducing psychological and physiological stress.

I grew up near a beach, but Dr Gehl’s suggestion to “listen to the texture and shapes of the sounds present, the soothing rhythm of the waves”, and “observe the silences between sounds” is probably the most relaxing thing I’ve ever heard.

And if that’s not enough to add a little Zen to proceedings, I can also recommend her suggestion for the most mindful swim you’ll ever take: “Feel your feet sinking into the sand, the water on your skin. Stretch your arms in front of you and allow yourself to be completely accepted and held by the ocean. Take a deep breath, and glide forwards into the sea, refreshed and renewed.”

This holiday is about taking care of the body too, in the form of Floatfit Caribbean classes: 20-minute high-intensity interval training (HIIT), or stretches on Aquaphysical’s Aquabase boards, which are effectively solid floating yoga mats.

I try out a session at the St James’s Club & Villas lagoon, down the coast from Galley Bay. It’s at this point that all my carefully curated mindfulness goes straight out the window, in front of a bemused group of tourists, who clearly realised early on that we would be providing the afternoon’s entertainment.

It’s about as hard - and fun - as it sounds to exercise on a floating board, but that’s the genius of it.

Not only are you putting your body through lunges, squats and planks, but your core is getting a double workout by simply trying to stay out of the water.

And then there’s the laughing when the inevitable happens and you topple in. That works the stomach muscles too.

With a couple of days left to practise our newfound skills of mindfulness and living in the moment, we take a catamaran trip down the coast to a spot called Pigeon Point, where we swim ashore and settle on the beach to sketch the view of the bay in shades of blue and green.

The last page of my little colouring book has a note on returning home from this paradise and suggests taking just 10 minutes a day to keep this “place of centre, this island-like quality within yourself to draw on in times of stress”.

Dr Gehl suggests that once back home, we “deliberately take the long way round or get into the long queue” and notice the frustration that arises, but then “imagine the feeling as a surfboard on which you’re able to stand and ride it out”.

There. Simple. I get home, rescue the wine from the freezer, order the dog’s tablets and get those name tags sewn on school uniforms.

And embark on a plan to get back to Galley Bay for a refresher course next summer.