Essential Antigua: a traveller’s guide

Antigua’s fabled 365 beaches are just the beginning of the attractions of this popular tourist destination, conventionally positioned along the Antillean chain, at "the heart of the Caribbean".Tranquil, rolling countryside dotted with old churches and windmills; the sprawling English Harbour district, centered around an 18th- century navel yard; sailing diving, cricket, and "the Caribbean's greatest summer carnival"; plus miles and miles of pink and golden beaches. And then there is sister island Barbuda, where visitors learn what it really means to get away from it all. Melanie Etherington offers an easygoing introduction to her beautiful adopted island

A painting by Antiguan artist Heather DoramAnchors aweighAt Redcliffe QuayBetty’s Hope WindmillsBlockhouse at Shirley HeightsColourful wraps for sale at Jolly BeachCountryside near Five Islands VillageDevil’s BridgeEnglish HarbourFfryes BeachMap of Antigua & BarbudaOne of Barbuda’s 10,000 frigate birdsSt John’s Cathedral at duskTaking a breatherThe 18th century Martello tower at River FortTradional architecture still adorns the Antiguan landscape

One of the first things people will tell you about Antigua is that the island boasts 365 beaches, one for every day of the year. (This kind of calendrical coincidence is suspiciously common in the Caribbean — other islands lay claim to 365 rivers, or waterfalls, or other natural attractions.) Of course, the exact figure depends on how you count them: how you define a beach, and whether the census includes Barbuda, Redonda, and the dozens of tiny islets off Antigua. It’s impossible to judge from a map. And if, in a spirit of geographical enquiry, you set off to make the circuit of the island and count for yourself, you aren’t likely to get very far.

By your fourth or fifth stop, if not sooner, you’ll be overcome by the spectacle of so much shockingly blue water and pinkish-white sand. You’ll wonder if the gloriously blazing sun is making you hallucinate. You may feel compelled to rest for a few minutes in the shade of a palm tree, perhaps reviving yourself with something cold and sweet and alcoholic. Before you know it, you’ll have given up the beach count; when you’re already in a spot as close as you can imagine to earthly paradise, why bother to keep searching? Like generations of visitors before you, you’ll be happy to take that 365 on faith.

It’s the circular leaf-like shape of the island that gives Antigua its undulating shoreline, within which so many of its famed beaches are nestled. (Some even call it “a beach with an island in the middle”.) Many bays and inlets are totally serene, free from buildings and all evidence of commercialism, while other parts of this creamy sand necklace are graced by fine resort hotels, from the exclusive to the cosy, discreetly hidden among palms and tropical gardens.

The island is part coral, part volcanic, with reefs protecting most of the beaches, though a few, on the east coast, are pounded spectacularly by the Atlantic. The north-east coast is the venue for annual windsurfing championships, and there’s no shortage of other watersports: kayaking and snorkelling, surfing and scuba-diving, for everyone from rank beginners to old hands. Antigua Sailing Week, held around the end of April and early May, is perhaps the Caribbean’s most popular sailing regatta, attracting 250 boats annually.

But Antigua’s attractions don’t end where sea and sand give way to fertile soil. The rolling countryside looks much as it did a century ago. Broad, flat meadows where cattle, sheep, and goats graze gently give way to rising hills, enveloping tall palms, wild fruit trees, pineapple groves, and tropical rain forest. Much of the island’s built heritage is protected, and traditional architecture still adorns the landscape, thanks to efforts at preservation and restoration.

No high-rise complexes, industrial waste, or noisy traffic jams. The island’s population of around 75,000 mostly lives in and around the capital, St John’s, which has become an important centre for offshore banking, but which still admirably retains a laid-back village atmosphere. Antigua is one of the Caribbean’s most popular tourist destinations, yet it manages not to seem crowded or over-developed, a skill that some of her island neighbours haven’t perfected.

But if you’re one of those restless souls who tire eventually of spectacular scenery and endless sunshine, long, lazy days on the beach and the intricacies of suntan cultivation, Antigua will get your adrenaline flowing again with its year-long series of festivals and celebrations, tournaments and cultural events, of which the Carnival season — starting in July and leading up to the big day itself on the first Monday in August — is only the biggest and best known. For sheer excitement, the only thing that rivals what Antiguans call “the Caribbean’s greatest summer carnival” is a Test cricket match at the Antigua Recreation Ground. Cricket is a secular religion in most of the English-speaking Caribbean (in Antigua its patron saint is the “Master Blaster”, Sir Vivian Richards), and during a Test match the entire island seems to boil over with the zeal and enthusiasm of thousands of fans, both locals and visitors.

Exploring the town . . .

“St John’s, the Capital, is esteem’d the most regular Town in the West Indies, and has the most commodious Harbour of any, belonging to the Leeward Islands.”
— From an 18th-century map of St John’s

Near the north-western tip of the island, located on a sheltered bay, St John’s is one of the oldest trading ports in the Caribbean, founded in the late 17th century. Today, the sailing clippers of yesteryear have been replaced by some of the largest, most luxurious cruise ships in the world. Here you find the old and the traditional side by side with the new, yet without a clash of cultures.

A stroll around St John’s, small enough to explore on foot, is an ideal introduction to Antigua’s historical heritage, and your expedition will be livened by visits to local markets and duty-free shops, street vendors of delicious fruit drinks and snacks, and a variety of watering-holes for drinks, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and all stops in between.

Its 18th- and 19th-century buildings, many constructed of wood, give St John’s an old-world charm. Within the limits of the original bustling 18th-century town — with its broad avenues and narrow cross-streets — lies the main shopping and commercial area. Most visitor activity is centred around two waterfront developments: quaint, gorgeous Redcliffe Quay, a redeveloped historic warehouse district, and nearby modern Heritage Quay. Both boast the world’s finest china, crystal, jewellery, linens, watches, fragrances, and designer clothing, all at duty-free prices, plus local crafts and souvenirs.

But shopping is just the start. Head out into the town, and look for the Cenotaph, a war memorial unveiled in 1919, in High Street; the Court House, built in 1747, on Long and Market Streets, serving today as the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda; and the Ebenezer Methodist Church, on Redcliffe and St Mary’s Streets, completed in 1839, but damaged by earthquakes and repaired in 1982. Imposing St John’s Cathedral with its twin cupolas, on a small hill between Long and Newgate Streets, is one of Antigua’s most captivating national monuments. After the previous cathedral was destroyed by the 1843 earthquake, the present structure was rebuilt in stone, with an interior encased in pitch pine. The white-painted bronze figures of St John the Baptist and St John the Divine atop the pillars of the south gate are said to have been taken from one of Napoleon’s ships.

On Factory Road, just up from the Cenotaph, is the National Archives, a modern building housing documents of the life and history of the islands. These include the famous Codrington Papers, a priceless record of social and economic life on the island from 1680 to 1870, returned to the island in 1999 thanks to a friendly benefactor.

. . . and country

Tours of the island are easily available, of course, but chances are you’ll do it yourself by rental car. Using St John’s as your starting point, you can either head south by two or three major roads, head north and back round the island to join any of these routes, or go east towards the Atlantic coast. Don’t be put off by the fear of getting lost — it’s a small island, and you can always ask a passer-by for directions en route.

Moving north from St John’s, you’ll come upon one of the island’s oldest fortifications at Fort James, on a promontory defending St John’s Harbour and the north-western part of the island. Most of the buildings seen today date from 1739, and ten of the original 36 cannon are still in place. The beach here, named after King James II (who reigned at the time the fort was first built), is also a favourite of locals.

Further north, just past the long sweep of Runaway Beach, is Antigua’s best-known resort area, Dickenson Bay, a striking half-mile stretch of beach, home to hotels like the Siboney Beach Club and an assortment of restaurants, bars, and watersports and dive shops. By day this stretch is full of action, and at sundown it’s a lovely place for a stroll — music fills the air as the bars and restaurants come to life.

After Dickenson Bay the road climbs a gentle hill, affording glorious views over the Caribbean coast, then descends via residential Hodges Bay to pristine Jabberwock beach, and then the V.C. Bird International Airport. Turn east on Factory Road if you want to pay a visit to Parham, Antigua’s first town, dating from the 17th century. Archaeological finds provide evidence that sea-faring Amerindians lived in this area around 2,500 years ago. Today, imposing Georgian remnants of the old colonial port can still be seen within the sleepy village, dominated by St Peter’s church. Its octagonal shape, ribbed wooden ceiling, and richly decorated stucco make it one of the finest churches in the Caribbean.

South-east of Parham, along Collins Road, you’ll see the signs directing you to historic Betty’s Hope Estate. Established in 1674 by Christopher Codrington (who named it for his daughter), Betty’s Hope with its distinctive twin windmills was long renowned for its skilled craftsmen. The estate is now enjoying ongoing restoration, including archaeological excavations, and a visitor’s centre tells the story of its history and the men and women who lived and worked here. The restored 17th-century north mill is the only historic windmill still functioning in the Caribbean, housing magnificently renovated crushing machinery from the early 1800s.

Past Betty’s Hope at the end of Long Bay, near the easternmost point of Antigua, you’ll find the dramatic scenery of Indian Town and Devil’s Bridge, where Atlantic breakers sweep in at the end of a 300-mile fetch from Africa, producing enormous swells. Over centuries, these have carved out the natural limestone arch of Devil’s Bridge, creating blowholes through which geysers of spouting surf crash with spectacular results. But for many visitors the ultimate destination on a drive along the east coast of Antigua is celebrated Half Moon Bay. This beach has been voted the best in the Caribbean — and even in the world — in numerous polls, yet despite its popularity the mile-long crescent-shaped bay is too large ever to be overcrowded. At the eastern end, quiet, calm waters are ideal for families with children or those wishing to loll in the shallows. The western end is for those favouring “rollers” — perfect for bodysurfing.

Safe harbour

The most famous part of Antigua must be English Harbour, home of Nelson’s Dockyard, once the centre of British naval power in the Caribbean. With 12 square miles of the rugged south coast, stretching from Mamora Bay to Carlisle Bay, this national park deserves a whole book to do it justice.

Nelson’s Dockyard, named, of course, for Admiral Horatio Nelson of the Royal Navy, is the world’s only surviving Georgian naval yard. As far back as 1671, the almost landlocked harbour was recognised as a hurricane haven for ships, which could lie protected in the basin formed within an old volcanic cone, with one narrow passage to the sea. It was used as a royal dockyard from 1725; warships assigned to the thousand-mile patrol of the British West Indies sugar islands were brought here to be repaired and take on water and victuals. The dockyard was at the height of its strategic importance in the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic Wars; it was never actually attacked, because it was so well protected by its fortifications, including those in the surrounding hills.

At Nelson’s Dockyard, history has come full circle. Instead of repairing old naval vessels, the harbour is now used for private sailing yachts, and it is the centre of activity for Antigua Sailing Week.

Surviving buildings, such as the Admiral’s Inn and the Copper and Lumber Store, have been restored and transformed into restaurants, bars, boutiques, and an enlightening museum, creating a setting straight out of a historical novel. The fringe of stunning boats moored along the shore only adds to the romance of the scene.

Be sure that your visit to Nelson’s Dockyard includes a detour to Shirley Heights, at the pinnacle of the hill standing sentinel over the harbour. The awesome panoramic views — extending as far as Montserrat, and even Guadeloupe on a clear day — and daily sunset-watching ritual are celebrated, as is the traditional Sunday barbeque party, with six hours of non-stop music.

Named for General Shirley, governor of the Leeward Islands in the 1780s, the fortifications include barracks, blockhouses, batteries, and powder magazines, scattered all over the hillside. The lookout gun battery, once a main signal station, is now a handsomely restored bar and restaurant, and an ideal vantage point from which to survey the whole historic district spread out below.

On Fig Tree Drive

To experience yet another side of Antigua, plan an excursion along Fig Tree Drive, the single, much-travelled road along the island’s south-west coast — a picturesque route through lush rain forest and groves of wild mango, guava, orange, and banana trees.

This part of the island is dominated by Boggy Peak, Antigua’s highest point (at 1,319 feet), and is home to the Wallings forest, which gives an idea of the moist evergreen vegetation that covered the island until European settlers started clearing it three centuries ago. Cool forest walks, with a series of lookouts and picnic sites, invite exploration, and about half a mile along the trail from John Hughes village you’ll come upon the wide-stepped spillway of the Wallings Reservoir dam. A magnificent example of Victorian industrial architecture, with water tunnels dug through solid rock at least 50 feet underground, it is an extraordinary sight in such surroundings! Just north of Swetes and John Hughes villages, hidden behind the verdant foothills, is the unexpected delight of Body Ponds, a series of small bamboo-fringed reservoirs, flanked by meadows of tall lemon grass. Threading their way through the valley, they create a sense of ethereal beauty, particularly in the early morning or late afternoon.

The narrow, winding road passes small villages, farms, and pastureland as it climbs up and down hillsides, affording stunning views across the island and down to the scenic coast. Eventually, these glimpses of the astonishingly blue sea are bound to provoke a beach-craving. Luckily, the coast here reveals one interesting small bay after another: Carlisle Bay, overlooked by the village of Old Road; Cades Bay, where the large reef system is popular with snorkellers and divers; or the soft, sandy stretch of Turners Beach near Johnson’s Point, popular on Sundays and quiet during the week, great for strolling and with the ruins of a small fort to investigate.

At unspoilt Dark Wood Bay you’ll find Orange Valley Nature Park, with 30 acres of hiking trails and a variety of flora and fauna. The indefatigable Hugh Pigott and his wife created this dream project, and they welcome visitors who stop and share the peaceful environment.

After a relaxing day spent exploring these shady backroads and tranquil bays, you may be hankering for a bit of excitement. As you head north, on your way back to St John’s, you’ll come to Jolly Beach, a modern Mediterranean-themed resort of over 500 acres, home to the largest marina, golf, shopping, and beach development in the Caribbean. Here you’ll find boutiques and art galleries, bars and restaurants, and everything you need to bring your west coast excursion to a glittering conclusion.

Basking on Barbuda

Thirty miles north of Antigua, Barbuda is just isolated enough to have developed its own, very laid-back, way of life. For complete peace, and literally miles upon miles of uninhabited, pinky coral sand, the 15-minute air hop to the sister isle is more than worth it. With just 1,700 people inhabiting its 75 square miles, most of them in the quaint town of Codrington, in Barbuda you’ll find fewer footprints per acre than in any other place you’re likely to have visited. Barbuda is a coral atoll, surrounded by protective reefs, now home to several centuries’ worth of shipwrecks — over 200, by one count — much to the delight of divers. Forested with corals and teeming with marine life, Palaster Reef is a national marine park, where fishing is not permitted.

Many species of waterfowl flourish in the island’s lagoons, creeks, and mud flats, which attract many migrating North American species. The mangroves in Codrington Lagoon are home to the world’s largest colony of frigate birds, perhaps 10,000 in all, carefully protected by local residents. Striking black birds with a tremendous wing span of up to six feet, they are particularly fascinating during their mating season from September to January, when the male birds develop massive red pouches under their beaks, inflating them like balloons to attract mates. Each female lays a single egg, which the male bird incubates; the chicks remain in their nests for eight to ten months before they are fully fledged.

Barbuda is often called one of the Caribbean’s best-kept secrets, as so few people seem aware of this gem of an island’s quiet pleasures. Many islands boast of secluded beaches with no other people for miles around; here this can be literally true — Barbuda’s west coast is practically all one long beach, stretching for an unbroken 17 miles. You won’t find beach bars or restaurants, vendors or watersports operators — here it’s just you, the bright blue sea, the sky above and the warm sand below. Sounds a little bit like paradise, doesn’t it?

 

In the mood

Moods of Pan, a steelpan festival organised by Antigua’s Gemonites Steel Orchestra, is among the most anticipated activities on the island’s social calendar, attracting some of the top names in pan music from around the world. As its name suggests, the festival takes the Trinidad-born instrument through all its genres. Over the years, Moods has attracted the likes of Len “Boogsie” Sharp, Ken “Professor” Philmore, Andy Narell, Robert Greenidge, and the Samaroo Jets, to name a handful. It has also scored top Antiguan soloists Victor “Babu” Samuel, and Aubrey “Lacu” Samuel, and groups like the Harmonites, the 2001 Antigua Panorama champions.

At any of the late November or early December concerts, patrons will be taken on a wild ride through laughter, reflection, joy, and many other feelings in between, as pan virtuosos perform everything from classical music to calypso.

For the Gemonites, there’s no doubt that the idea has grown bigger than even they had anticipated. As captain Joseph “Juwato” Henry says, it started as a lark. “I remember one day we were in the panyard, and said, let’s have something, as nothing was going on for Gemonites, really.”

Actually, nothing was going on for pan in Antigua at all, the popularity of the instrument having waned to the point where the Panorama competition was dropped from the Carnival calendar after 1995. Panorama was reintroduced in 2001, a fact for which Gemonites can take some credit.

As they look forward to Moods 2004, the band promises an event just as magical as in past years. Pan fans have no reason to doubt.

Joanne C. Hillhouse

 

JUST THE FACTS

Geography

Antigua and Barbuda lie at the northern end of the Leeward Island chain, near the point where the Greater and Lesser Antilles meet. Antigua’s 108 square miles consist of gently rolling terrain with 95 miles of indented coastline. Barbuda, 27 miles north, is the 62-square-mile sister island. The nation of Antigua and Barbuda also includes Redonda, an uninhabited half-square-mile volcanic rock, 35 miles west of Antigua.

History

• Antigua was first inhabited by the Siboney, who were established on the island as early as 2400 BC. It was later settled by Arawaks and Caribs. • Columbus landed on Antigua in 1493, on his second voyage to the Caribbean, naming the island Santa María de la Antigua. Attempts by Spanish and French colonists to establish settlements were unsuccessful.

• In 1632 Antigua was successfully settled by the English. The first large sugar estate was established by Sir Christopher Codrington in 1674, and the Codrington family continued to play a major role in the island’s colonial history. He also leased the entire island of Barbuda from the British Crown. Under British rule Antigua’s forests were cleared to make way for sugar plantations, and African slaves were imported to provide labour.

• In the 17th and 18th centuries the island was a major station for the Royal Navy, thanks to its sheltered harbours and strategic location.

• In 1834 slavery was abolished, but a lack of surplus land meant that most of the population continued to work on the sugar plantations. Poor working conditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to a thriving labour movement, which turned eventually into a movement for political independence.

• In 1967 Antigua and Barbuda won full internal self-government, leading to full independence in 1981. In the 1960s and 70s tourism replaced sugar cultivation as the country’s main industry.

Towns

St John’s, the capital (population 21,500) is located on the north-west coast of Antigua. The island’s population is concentrated in the city and its suburbs. The capital of Barbuda is the small town of Codrington (population 1,500).

Getting there

BWIA West Indies Airways operates direct flights between
Antigua and Trinidad, Barbados, Jamaica, London, and Toronto, with convenient connections from other Caribbean destinations and New York, Miami, Washington, Manchester, and Caracas.

Entry requirements

Citizens of the UK, US, and Canada need only photo ID and proof of citizenship. Passports are required by nationals of all other countries. Commonwealth nationals and citizens of most European countries do not require visas (visitors should confirm whether they require a visa at the nearest Antigua and Barbuda embassy or consulate, or at a travel agent). Visitors arriving by plane require an onward ticket.

Departure requirements

A departure charge of approximately US$30 (US$15 for children) must be paid at the airport. Cash only.

Currency

Eastern Caribbean dollar (EC$2.70=US$1). Credit cards are widely accepted by most hotels, restaurants, car rental agencies, and tour operators. US dollars are also widely accepted. Always verify whether prices are being quoted in EC or US dollars before agreeing to a purchase.

Time

Atlantic Standard Time — four hours behind GMT, one hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time.