Travel review: Antigua

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Size isn’t everything when it comes to Caribbean islands. Tony Gardner explores the small, but beautiful Antigua.

Despite its diminutive dimensions, Antigua packs plenty of punch.

The Caribbean island is only 14 miles by 11 miles, but is a heavyweight when it comes to options for exploration. A week-long stay offers plenty for thrill seekers, history buffs, sports fans or those simply seeking some stress-free sun.

Islanders never tire of reminding visitors that Antigua boasts 365 beaches – one for each day. We found a great way to explore this Leeward islands paradise was by jeep safari. The driver provided a well informed tour – with regular stops to top his passengers up from his jerry can of rum punch.

The tours incorporate many of Antigua’s popular tourist stops but are flexible enough to accommodate those keen to tread less well-worn paths.

Nelson’s Dockyard near English Harbour is in the south of the island. It was here that Admiral Horatio Nelson set up his Caribbean base in the late 18th century and is a fully-restored working port and national park area. The officers’ quarters is now a restaurant that offers an excellent menu and a great view of the bay.

Back in February, Yorkshire left its own imprint on the dockyard’s rich history. The Yorkshire Rowers ended their 3,000 mile trans-Atlantic journey here, to become the oldest team of women to row an ocean.

During Antigua Sailing Week, at the end of April and beginning of May, the annual world-class regatta brings many sailing vessels and sailors to the island.

Our driver was also happy to accommodate one cricket fan on board by stopping for a tour of the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium and the Antigua Recreation Ground.

The islanders are cricket mad. The tiny population had produced some of the all-time greats including Sir Viv, Curtly Ambrose, Andy Roberts and Richie Richardson. Each high school and community has a pitch and everybody claims some connection to a test star.

At Betty’s Hope we stopped for lunch under trees – washed down with more rum punch. Once a sugar plantation, Betty’s Hope was established in 1650, shortly after the island became an English colony.

The site gives a insight into the darker side of the island’s history and serves as a reminder of the back-breaking work and appalling conditions once endured by the islanders’ African ancestors.

St Johns feels like a typical Caribbean capital, with its blend of new and old architecture, market stalls and modern shops. Locals mingles with tourists from the many exclusive resorts on the island and day-trippers from the mammoth cruise ships which dock in the harbour.

The climax of any visit to Antigua has to be the calypso party at Shirley Heights – the highest point of the island. A rocky mound that was once a fortification for Royal Marines, there now stands a bar and garden area dedicated to partying.

Another fixture at the Dockyard is the Seafood Friday event held weekly at the Copper and Lumber Store. Scores of people from all walks of life come together on the lawns beside the harbour for a night of seafood under the stars.

A trip to the southern shore was rewarded with a kayaking trip through the mangroves at the South Coast Horizon centre. On the less energetic days, there was plenty to savour at the two all-inclusive resorts where we stayed.

St James’s Club sits on the 100-acre peninsula at the southeast point of the island – a ten minute drive from Nelson’s Dockyard. It is flanked by two white-sanded beaches – Mamora Bay and Coco Beach. One is given over to watersports including kayaking and sailing.

The other is reserved for the simpler pleasures of enjoying the ocean breezes and pretty surroundings – ideally with a local Wadadli beer in hand. The resort has five lounges and bars. Dining options are equally as varied, with four restaurants offering a range of cuisines. A range of guest rooms and suites provide direct beach access and private terraces. Forty residential-style villas also occupy the hillside above Mamora Bay. The villas provide 1,600 sq ft of living space with views of the bay, offering families and wedding parties more privacy.

The Verandah Resort and Spa occupies 30 beachfront acres on Antigua’s northeast coast, bordered by the Devil’s Bridge National Park. Accommodation is also varied, with rooms which carry the feel of a Caribbean cottage, each with balconies from which to enjoy the beaches, gardens and tropical views. The tranquil inlets around the resort provide ideal spots for windsurfing, kayaking, paddle boarding and hobie cat sailing on turquoise waters.

Trained staff are on hand to offer novices their expertise in safe surroundings.

The stillness of the waters around the Verandah contrast sharply with the drama of nearby Devil’s Bridge.

It is well worth a meander off site to visit the natural rock arch which features several blowholes which shoot up the waves and briny spray of the Atlantic.

GETTING THERE

Signature from Thomas Cook offers seven nights at St James’ Club, Antigua from £1,309 per person, all-inclusive. Based on two adults sharing, includes flights from Manchester on December 6. stjamesclubantigua.com/

Thomas Cook offers seven nights at The Verandah Resort & Spa, Antigua from £1,259 per person. Departs Manchester November 29. verandahresortandspa.com/uk/

For more information on Antigua & Barbuda visit: www.visitantiguabarbuda.com

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