First Stop Antigua

New direct flights from London to Antigua put the spotlight on one of the Caribbean's most popular destinations

A traditional house, All Saints. Photo by Chris HuxleyA tranquil corner of English Harbour. Photograph by Mary Montague SikesAdmiral’s House Museum, Nelson’s Dockyard. Photograph by Chris HuxleyAntigua Sailing Week, one of the world’s greatest regattas. Photograph by Tropical StudiosFrigate birds at Codrington Lagoon, Bermuda. Photograph by Chris HuxleyGovernment House, St. John’s. Photograph by Chris HuxleyPelican IslandThe Copper and Lumber Store Hotel, Nelson’s Dockyard. Photograph by Chris HuxleyThe twin towers of the Anglican Cathedral soar above St. John’s

If you had to dream up the classic holiday island, it might look pretty much like Antigua. There’s hardly a day without sunshine, the trade winds blow steadily from the north-east, and the island is ringed with glorious white- sand beaches. (It claims there are 365, and perhaps there are worse ways of spending a holiday than verifying that claim.)

There’s great diving and swimming, golf and tennis. You can play blackjack and roulette in the casinos; you can dive into a summer Carnival which is one of the liveliest in the Caribbean, or into one of the world’s biggest ocean racing events. There is duty-free shopping and some fascinating history.

And though for many years Antigua was thought of as a purely up-market destination, these days there are fine resort hotels attuned to every need and pocket. The island has internationally-rated resorts like Jumby Bay, Curtain Bluff and St James’s Club; all-inclusive resorts like Sandals and Pineapple Beach Club; intimate hideaways like Hawksbill Beach Club and Blue Waters Hotel; and large convention and other groups are welcome at resorts like the Ramada Renaissance Royal Antiguan and Jolly Beach.

It’s hard to resist. Within half an hour of leaving V. C. Bird International Airport you can dump your bags, check into a hotel, and be running down a white sand beach into the warm embrace of the Caribbean.

Antigua and its sister island Barbuda lie on the shoulder of the Caribbean island chain, 300 miles south-east of Puerto Rico, 1,300 miles from Miami. By air, Miami is two and a half hours away, New York three and a half, and London eight. BWIA flies direct to V. C. Bird International Airport from North America and from London (Heathrow).

Sports fans first. Antigua is almost completely surrounded by reefs, which make swimming and watersports completely safe. Many of the beach resorts offer their own watersports menu: water and jet skiing, parasailing, snorkelling and deep sea fishing are all widely available, and scuba diving is organised from several hotel dive shops. Jolly Beach has a top-ranking windsurfing school; the Windsurfing Antigua week features long distance and freestyle sailing.

On land, anyone in need of an active holiday could start with tennis, golf or horseback riding. Curtain Bluff hosts the Antigua Tennis Weeks in May and October, which attract leading international players. Several hotels have their own tennis facilities, and the St James’s Club has Martina Navratilova as its touring pro. The 18-hole Cedar Valley golf course, looking over the north coast, hosts the Antigua Open in mid-May, and Half Moon Bay has a nine-hole course. There is plenty of scope for horse- back or mountain bike riding or hiking. And of course Antigua is no backslider when it comes to cricket: the present West Indies captain Richie Richardson and the former captain Viv Richards are both Antiguan.

Antigua is a surprisingly spacious island, its open countryside dotted with ruined sugar mills. In the south-west, the gentle plains and rolling hills give way to steeper volcanic hills, rising to 1,360 feet at Boggy Peak. It has somehow managed to retain a timeless, almost village ambience: brightly painted clapboard houses with verandahs and red tin roofs are as much a part of the rural scene as they are of St John’s, the capital, which has a lively Saturday morning market.

St John’s has made good use of its historic buildings to create international cruise port facilities. Shoppers head for Heritage Quay in downtown St John’s, which carries a wide range of international merchandise, with names like Gucci, Little Switzerland, Benetton, La Parfumerie and Radio Shack.

Down on the south coast, Nelson’s Dockyard and English Harbour are Antigua’s great historical landmarks. Nelson’s Dockyard is the only surviving example of an almost complete Georgian naval dockyard. Here, Horatio Nelson, at the age of 26, long before he swept to fame and glory, commanded the Northern Division of the Leeward Island Station between 1784 and 1787. Steampower and Britain’s waning economic interest in the region allowed the dockyard to fall into decline in the decades that followed, and it was closed in 1889. But a local society called The Friends of English Harbour was formed in 1951 to save it, and after much restoration work it was officially re-opened ten years later.

Now, history has come full circle. Private yachts use the magnificent harbour in place of sailing ships, and many old naval buildings have been restored to service them. You can stay at some of the restored buildings in the area: The Copper and Lumber Store, or the 200-year-old Admiral’s Inn.

History buffs (and anyone who enjoys a great view) will enjoy going on to Shirley Heights, from where the British army defended the dockyard. The old Ordinance Building Lookout is now a popular restaurant; to enjoy the view in peace, go on a weekday–or join in the sundown-watching barbecues with steel and reggae bands at weekends.

English Harbour is the base for Antigua Sailing Week, held in late April/early May, and one of Antigua’s most festive times. It is also one of the world’s top regattas, and celebrated its 25th anniversary this year with record entries from yachts from all over the world, ready to combine some serious sport with some serious fun. For partying, Carnival is the other great time to visit. Held annually in late July/early August, it is a euphoric festival of calypsos and steelbands, street parades and costumed bands.

Antigua’s central position makes it a good base for sea or air visits to other islands like St Kitts, Montserrat and Nevis. But it also has two sister islands of its own: Barbuda, 10 minutes’ flight away, and uninhabited Redonda. A passing Irishman back in 1865 claimed Redonda as a kingdom for his son, and gave birth to a mock monarchy. A later “king”, poet John Gawsworth, nominated literary figures like Dylan Thomas as nobles in his “kingdom”. The present “king” lives in the English county of Sussex, but his subjects today are goats, lizards, seabirds and the burrowing owl.

Barbuda is much more accessible. It lures bird watchers as well as beach addicts and offers two deluxe resort hotels and some private guestrooms. At Palmetto Point there is a 15-mile stretch of unpeopled beach; at Cedar Point the sands blush pink with swathes of tiny shells that are collected and made into necklaces. Spanish Point provides the best snorkelling. At the far end of the shallow lagoon near the main community, Codrington, is a nature reserve for 5,000 frigate birds. The boatmen push their boats through the narrows in the mangrove swamps and approach within a few feet of nests where fledglings in springtime wait for their parents to drop fish into their hungry beaks.

Today, Antigua is one of the Caribbean’s most welcoming and relaxing islands, and one of the most go-ahead too. As fast as it can build new hotels and apartments and condominiums, visitors come to fill them. It must be doing something right.