by Liz Fleming
Antigua boasts a rich history steeped like a fine tea in British tradition. Add to that a beach for every day of the year and people friendly enough to make you feel welcome for all 365 days and you might have the perfect Caribbean getaway.
When he raised his spyglass and looked out to sea, the islands of Monserrat and Guadeloupe were the first things that came into Lord Horatio Nelson’s view. It was the great age of sail, Britannia ruled the waves, and what better place than English Bay to become the base of the British Navy in the Caribbean? Antigua was then and is still a tiny British gem in the turquoise Caribbean Sea.
The fifteen square miles that now make up Nelson’s Dockyards on the sunny island are alive with the great man’s presence in each of the stately buildings of the only Georgian dockyards in the world. First established in 1745, the dockyards are Antigua’s top tourist draw. Though abandoned in 1889, in recent years the site has undergone extensive refurbishments and the Dockyards Museum in the former naval officers’ residence offers a fascinating collection of tidbits about life on the island centuries ago – both in the dockyards and in the fort. A telescope once used by Nelson is displayed and though admittedly a bit touristy, a visit to the Dockyards is an important element of an understanding of Antigua.
Courtesy of Antigua and Barbuda Department of Tourism
Equally charming are the streets of St. John’s, the island’s picture-perfect capital. Offset by the brightly painted houses of the downtown area, you can’t miss the stunning spires of St. John’s Cathedral, now in its third incarnation, thanks to two earthquakes that destroyed it in 1683 and later in 1745. The rebuilt version, which appeared in 1845, still stands and makes a great meeting point if you should become separated from your friends. You can’t miss it.
Wander the streets, shop in the craft market where vendors with their heads wrapped in scarves of vivid red, blue and yellow, smile and laugh and offer rum cakes that taste like Christmas and smell like heaven. The best news? According to the locals, there isn’t a single calorie in a rum cake!
The culinary treats won’t stop there. All over the island, little restaurants, cozy inns and small but luxurious hotel dining rooms celebrate the sea with menus bursting with fresh grouper, mahimahi and shrimp. Desserts featuring the island’s signature sweet pineapples are dangerously plentiful so be careful or you won’t fit into your seat for the flight home!
Colonized by the British in 1632, Antigua was originally an island of sugar cane plantations that supplied the United Kingdom. Though now independent, Antigua and her two sister islands of Barbuda and tiny, uninhabited Redonda remain members of the Commonwealth and British traditions continue.
You might be splashing in the waves in your bikini under a blazing Caribbean sun at 3:20pm, but you can be sure you’ll be having high tea at 3:30pm. No need to add any extra clothing for the occasion – as white gloves aren’t part of the Antiguan dress code. Your bathing suit will do nicely and you’ll find that the table that divides your beach lounger from your sunning companion’s is just the right size for the tray of tiny sandwiches (no crusts, of course), scones, and a couple of pots of tea delivered by your smiling beach steward. All very civilized, don’t you know.
By Mattinbgn - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16327766
If by any chance, cricket is your passion, you’ve come to the right island. You’ll be hard pressed to find any Antiguan who doesn’t adore the game. The season lasts from January to July and official matches are held on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. If you’re lucky, you might be on the island for a regional or international match so be sure to check out the lineup at the Antigua Recreation Ground, arguably one of the most exciting places in the world to observe a match. You might be hot watching as the game stretches over four or five or even six days, but you can always head for the bar or the beach at the end of the day.
If it’s a Sunday night, you’ll want to head to Shirley Heights Lookout, an outdoor cliff-side party where the barbecue is as hot as the music, and the drinks are as cool as the crowd. This isn’t necessarily where the locals hang out, but it’s where every island guest looking for a Caribbean jam will end up. The view of the sunset is the biggest draw, and you’ll be sure to find new friends ready to help you watch for the elusive ‘green flash’ when the sun makes its final dive below the horizon.
Michael Utech / istock
You can’t talk about Antigua without mentioning her beaches. Every Caribbean island tour guide you’ll ever meet will tell you the same thing: “This island (or that one, or the other one…) has 365 beaches…one for every day of the year.” The difference is this: Antigua really has the goods.
The 171 sq. mile island is ringed with perfect white sand beaches, each punctuated with just the right lineup of palm trees and lapped by exactly as many turquoise waves necessary to create the ideal Caribbean ambiance. If you’re looking for superb sun, surf and sand, all mixed together with an island vibe and a brisk hit of British formality, you’ll find Antigua is the hybrid of your holiday dreams.
From a British naval base and colony to a luxurious beach destination for well-heeled international guests, Antigua has enjoyed an evolution that would have set Admiral Nelson back on his heels. My guess is, however, that were he with us today, the great man would put down his telescope to observe the transformation, then pour a glass of fine local rum and raise a toast to the continued good health and success of this beautiful island.