Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA
With a white sandy beach for every day of the year and waters licked by the steady northeasterlies, these islands, set in the heart of the Caribbean, are a haven for beach lovers and sailors.
English Harbour and Nelson’s Dockyard
Half Moon Bay
Barbuda’s palm beach
Barbuda’s Frigate Bird Sanctuary
Relaxing on the beach, Antigua.
Glyn Genin/Apa Publications
Shaped like a heart, the Leeward island of Antigua (pronounced An-tee-ga) shimmers in the heat of the Caribbean sun as the airplane comes in to land. For many, landing on this 108 sq mile (270 sq km) flat island of volcanic rock, coral, and limestone is their first taste of the Antilles as they wend their way to other islands. At the heart of the Caribbean archipelago, Antigua, with islands Barbuda and the uninhabited Redonda, is edged by a beautiful coastline abundant with bays, coves, and natural harbors. There are 365 white sandy beaches in all, so the tourist brochures say, and water sparkling in every shade of blue and turquoise between the Caribbean and the open Atlantic.
Hobie Cats, Jolly Beach Resort.
Antigua & Barbuda Tourist Office
The vegetation on Antigua is limited to low scrub and dry grassland, and the only real scenic variety is provided by a few green hills and scraps of forest in the southwest. But water sports enthusiasts love Antigua. Divers explore the barrier reefs surrounding the island, while windsurfers and sailors enjoy the steady trade winds. Every April, the international yachting set breeze in for Antigua Sailing Week, when partying vies with sailing. The gentle Caribbean Sea on the leeward side is perfect for swimming and once, during a state visit, even enticed the queen of England into its warm, soothing waters.
An experienced nation
Antiguans can look back on a lot more experience than most of their neighbors where tourism is concerned. During World War II, the USA used Antigua as a base for reinforcements and air power, building a modern airport that created a suitable infrastructure for tourism after the war. By 1965, there were more than 50,000 visitors to the island, and, today, around 250,000 people arrive by air and some 540,000 come on cruise ships each year, contributing about two-thirds of the country’s revenue. Most of the population of 90,000 today make their living from tourism.
When Horatio Nelson was based in Antigua for 3 years in the 1780s, he was not enamored with the island or the heat, calling it “a vile spot” and “this infernal hell.”
Wadadli and its “rulers”
In 1493, on his second journey to the New World, Christopher Columbus sighted the island and named it after a church in his home town of Seville in Spain: Santa Maria de la Antigua. It was first named Yarumaqui, meaning the island of canoe-making, by the Tainos, and then the Caribs called it Wadadli, meaning eucalyptus oil, after the trees which the British cut down so that they could plant sugar cane. The name can still be seen today on the bottle caps of a local beer.
The British established a settlement on Antigua in 1632. During the Anglo-French colonial wars in the 17th and 18th centuries, Antigua served as the Caribbean base for the British fleet. In 1666 the French briefly captured the island, after which it became a British sugar colony. The first sugar plantation was cleared by Sir Christopher Codrington, who leased Barbuda to grow provisions for his slaves. Barbuda’s settlement is named after him. When sugar prices dropped in the late 1800s, and then dramatically collapsed in the late 1960s, the plantation owners’ houses fell into disrepair; now, only the ruined windmills are left.
The big Birds
Part of the crown colony of the Leeward Islands until 1956, Antigua was given associated status with full internal self-government within the British Commonwealth in 1967, and in 1981 it finally became independent with Vere Cornwall “Papa” Bird as prime minister. From 1946, Bird and his Antigua Labour Party (ALP) had steered the fortunes of the island, and in 1994, he was “succeeded” by his son, Lester.
The Bird clan has a huge private fortune, and critics have accused the “family business” of a level of corruption that is unique even by Caribbean standards, involving fraud, arms smuggling, drug running, money laundering, and so on, interlaced with the fierce rivalry between two of Papa Bird’s sons, Vere Jr and Lester. In her story A Small Place (1988) the Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid provides a particularly vivid account of this corruption. The Bird dynasty retained power until 2004, when unease about corruption and vice finally led to the election of Baldwin Spencer, leading a coalition of opposition parties, the United Progressive Party (UPP), which won 12 of the 17 legislative seats. Spencer’s party was defeated in the 2014 general election by the Labour Party and Gaston Browne became Prime Minister.
St John’s - a thriving town and harbor
St John’s 1 [map] (pop. 81,000) in the northwest is Antigua’s capital and is set around its largest and most important natural harbor. The streets in the center are lined with typically Caribbean wooden houses; most of the historic buildings date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, because a large part of the town was destroyed by a seaquake in 1843.
Old warehouses by the Deep Water Harbour have been converted into shopping centers within reach of the cruise ships: Heritage Quay offers a Las Vegas-style casino and duty-free shopping, and Redcliffe Quay, which used to accommodate enslaved Africans before they were auctioned off at the market, has been restored, retaining many of its historical features, and now has restaurants and souvenir shops. Both are pleasant places in which to relax in air-conditioned surroundings. A third quay, Nevis Street Pier, can accept the latest mega-ships.
Food City, Antigua’s largest and most modern supermarket, is on Harbour Road in St John’s. It is open daily from 7am to 11pm.
At the southern end of Market Street a block or two up the hill, is the colorful Public Market where produce from the island is sold right on the street. The busiest days are Friday and Saturdays. There is also a covered market here. No stroll through St John’s would be complete without a visit to the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda (tel: 268-462 4930; www.antiguamuseums.net; Mon-Fri, 8.30am-4.30pm, Sat 10am-2pm; donation) on Long Street, at the other end of Market Street. Located in the Old Court House (1844), this collection of oddities provides an insight into local cultural history. It ranges from Siboney and Taino excavation finds to steel drums that you can try out for yourself. The most attractive items are in the geological section and include large coral skeletons.
Stocking up on beachwear in St John’s.
Antigua & Barbuda Tourist Office
The finest view of the busy capital is from the Anglican Cathedral of St John the Divine, two blocks eastward on Church Street. Its distinctive twin towers can be clearly seen from all over the old town. This Anglican episcopal church is actually the third structure to be built on the site. The first church, built in 1682, was made completely of wood, while the second (built in 1789) fell victim to the quake of 1843. The present structure dates from 1845-8 and, despite its exposed location, it turned out to be sturdy enough to withstand hurricanes that devastated the rest of the island. The two statues of St John on the south gate were actually planned for a church in Guadeloupe, but an English warship stole them during shipment.
Across the road, the Antigua Recreation Ground is the hallowed home of Antiguan cricket, and the spot where local hero Sir Vivian Richards, the “Master Blaster,” knocked off the fastest century in cricket. The new ground built for the 2007 ICC World Cup and subsequent Test matches is named after him.
The harbor entrance is protected by two 18th-century bastions: Fort Barrington to the south, and on the northern promontory Fort James, which still has cannon dating from the colonial era and has wonderful views. The beach in the bay below is St John’s local beach and popular for parties at weekends. Otherwise, the impoverished-looking huts along the northern suburbs make it clear that not everyone on Antigua has profited from tourism; and, ironically, the luxury cruise liners are within full view, creating two worlds that could scarcely be more different from one another.
The waterfront at St John’s.
The white beaches of the north
When driving in Antigua you need to get used to amazingly fast minibuses, whose drivers prefer to hoot rather than brake. There are no buses in the north, however, nor to the airport. Bumpy tracks included, Antigua has no more than 60 miles (100km) of road altogether.
The stretch of coast to the northwest of St John’s provides perfect conditions for Antigua’s premier industry, tourism. Runaway Bay and Dickenson Bay both have good, sandy beaches with a clutch of hotels, restaurants, and beach bars. Dickenson Bay is well equipped for water-based activities, with glass-bottomed boats, various diving schools, jet-ski rental, and other water toys. The farther north you go, the quieter beach life becomes.
St Peter’s church.
On the north and northeast coasts there are long stretches of sand, but this is the Atlantic coast and it is windy - great for kitesurfers and windsurfers - and there are a couple of schools for beginners and advanced surfers.
Quiet coasts and Betty’s Hope
Broad, sandy bays nestle between weathered limestone crags along Antigua’s eastern coastline, which is pounded by the Atlantic. Parham 2 [map], tucked away in a sheltered harbor, is where, in 1632, the first British colonists from St Kitts arrived. The village church of St Peter’s, built in 1840, is an unusual octagonal shape. Nearby, the shoreline is bordered by several mangrove swamps which are now, owing to development, a rarity on Antigua. From Crabs Peninsula to the east, you can look over to Guiana Island, 100yds/meters offshore.
About 4 miles (6km) away to the south and east, in the middle of dry bushland, on the other side of the small village of Pares, stands the remains of Betty’s Hope 3 [map] (tel: 269-462 1469; Mon-Sat 9am-4pm), the first sugar plantation to be established on a grand scale in Antigua, in 1674, and now an open-air museum. In the midst of such a barren landscape, and plains dotted with husks of sugar mills, it is not that hard to imagine vast fields of sugar cane here. The plantation was developed by the British officer Christopher Codrington, who came to Antigua as governor of the Leeward Islands. His family lived in the Great House, named for his daughter, for many generations until 1921 when they abandoned sugar and moved to the US. The mill has been restored and occasionally grinds in full sail. Other plantation buildings remain in ruins for lack of finance, but there is a small visitors’ center.
Christopher Codrington Jr (1668- 1710) was a leading slave-owner whose family established Betty’s Hope - the first sugar estate on the island. In 1702, he founded a theological seminary in Barbados and a year later he tried (and failed) to recapture Guadeloupe from the French.
Devil’s Bridge 4 [map], nearly 5 miles (8km) away at the most eastern tip of the island near Long Bay, is a natural rock bridge with several blowholes formed by the incessant pounding of the Atlantic surf.
A good beach is Half Moon Bay in the southeast; because of its perfect, almost circular shape, many consider it to be the finest on the island. Just before you get there, take a left turn to Nonsuch Bay 2 miles (3km) away, to Harmony Hall 5 [map] (tel: 268-460 4120; www.harmonyhallantigua.com; daily). A former plantation house, it is now known for its art and crafts gallery and boutique (10am-6pm), a small hotel, and an excellent Italian restaurant. The bar is tucked away in the old stone mill tower and moorings are available in the bay. A ferry will take you to the beaches on Green Island, just offshore.
Nelson’s Dockyard and English Harbour
The quickest way to reach the southwest coast from St John’s is to take the much-used All Saints Road. The first small town you pass is Liberta, which commemorates the first slaves who settled here after they were freed by the British in 1834.
A 30-minute walk takes you up Monk’s Hill to the ruins of Great George Fort and panoramic views across Falmouth Harbour, splattered with white sails. English Harbour is tucked away inside the bay, and was made a National Park in 1985. The potential of this magnificent, protected, natural harbor was realized as early as 1671, and while tropical storms damaged numerous Royal Navy vessels in most other parts of the West Indies, here in English Harbour and Falmouth Bay they were protected from the worst. Completely hidden from the enemy out at sea, the dockyard was a safe place in which to repair the ships. Admirals Hood and Rodney stayed at Admiral’s House on several occasions during their battles against France toward the end of the 18th century, and from 1784 to 1787 the young Horatio Nelson, commander of HMS Boreas, was based here.
Nelson’s Dockyard, one of the Caribbean’s iconic sights.
Today, the former naval base, Nelson’s Dockyard 6 [map] (www.nationalparksantigua.com/visiting/nelsons-dockyard; daily 8am-6pm) is a picturesque yachting harbor. Warehouses and powder magazines have been restored with an affectionate eye for detail and transformed into a museum, romantic restaurants, and nostalgic hotels. The Admiral’s Inn and the Copper and Lumber Store are two sensitively restored and atmospheric hostelries, with walls of brick brought over from England as ships’ ballast. A lively place at the best of times, Nelson’s Dockyard really comes into its own during the big regattas, such as Antigua Sailing Week, when the bars and restaurants stay open all night and there’s dancing till dawn.
Antigua & Barbuda Tourism Authority
Antigua Sailing Week
Arriving in Antigua at the end of April you won’t see many suitcases on the luggage bands, just bulky sailors’ bags by the hundred. Antigua Sailing Week (www.sailingweek.com), more than four decades on, is one of the top five yachting events in the world, attracting more than 200 yachts, 1,500 participants, and 5,000 spectators - from the world-class cup-winners to the amateur sailing enthusiast. Alongside the 5 days of racing off the shores of Antigua are 7 days and nights of intensive partying.
Two days are wholly set aside for organized fun and frolics in Falmouth’s shallow harbor waters: Lay Day falls after 3 days of racing, when climbing a greasy pole, tug-of-war, and a wet T-shirt competition judged by a “bishop” and other honorary majesties are all part of the festivities; Dockyard Day celebrates the finish in an even more raucous fashion.
Although to some sailing is just a sideline of the week, there is serious racing all around the island for a range of classes. All sorts of boats join in from the small (with a handicap) to the high-tech 58-footer (18-meter) with fiberglass sails and a crew of 20-plus. And at lookout points, it’s a wonderful sight to see the boats turn into a westerly course and release their colorful spinnakers.
Across the harbor, high up on the hilltop, stand the ruins of the once protective fortress of Shirley Heights. At the foot of the hill is Clarence House, built especially for Prince William, the duke of Clarence, when he was transferred to Antigua in 1787 as commander of HMS Pegasus. This typically Georgian colonial building, with a pretty verandah and shuttered windows, now serves as the British governor’s guesthouse and country residence. But official visitors don’t get exclusive access, as the rooms full of period antiques are open to the public when the governor is away (tours are free, but a tip is appreciated).
There’s a perfect, 360-degree panoramic view from Shirley Heights 7 [map]. In 1781 Governor Thomas Shirley instigated the construction of the fortifications to protect the harbor, and on clear days the excellent view extends as far as Montserrat, 28 miles (45km) southwest, and Guadeloupe, 40 miles (64km) to the south. The observation point and restaurant at the top are both called The Lookout and every Thursday and Sunday there is a barbecue and live music here - steel bands from 4pm followed by reggae on Sunday after 7pm.
Learn more about English Harbour on an historical boat trip (departs noon, daily from outside the Copper and Lumber Store), or during the multimedia show at the Dow Hill Interpretation Centre (daily; charge) on the way to Shirley Heights.
The feared attack by the French, which the bastion was supposed to prevent, never actually materialized. Most of the soldiers who died at English Harbour did so from tropical diseases rather than in battle. A marked path leads from The Lookout to the cemetery in which they lie buried; the ruins of several barracks, stables, and cisterns can also be seen, giving some idea of the harshness of garrison life. Galleon Beach, right beneath Shirley Heights, is an ideal place for a subsequent swim, accessible by car or water-taxi from English Harbour.
The Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in North Sound outside St John’s was built to host the Super 8 matches in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2007. The large stadium has seating capacity for 10,000 people, with an additional 10,000 temporary seats.
Green hills and soft sand
Just north of Liberta, Fig Tree Drive, the most scenic road on Antigua, winds down toward the southwest coast. The figs are not figs at all but wild banana plants which, together with a few giant trees and lianas, provide a vague idea of what the rainforest here was once like. At Old Road, the trip continues north, hugging the coast all the way, and soon Boggy Peak (1,319ft/402 meters), the island’s highest point, comes into view.
Two of Antigua’s finest beaches, Cades Bay and Darkwood Beach, which each have a bar and restaurant, have astonishingly few visitors. In contrast, just around the next point, Jolly Beach 8 [map] (plus the yacht-filled Jolly Harbour) is lively and busy, with hotels, villas, restaurants, a supermarket, a golf course, and lots of entertainment.
Down at the pier, Codrington.
Antigua & Barbuda Tourism Authority
Beautiful Barbuda beaches
Barbuda, 25 miles (40km) to the northeast, offers a desert island remoteness for those who want to get away from it all. The population is only 1,300 and its attraction is Palm Beach, the seemingly endless, shimmering, slightly pinkish coral beach on the Caribbean side. The landscape on this 68 sq mile (170 sq km) island is flat as a pancake and scrubby apart from the eastern “Highlands,” which rise to a maximum height of just 128ft (40 meters).
There are at least two daily 10-minute flights from Antigua to Barbuda and you can arrange an all-in day trip with a visit to the frigate bird sanctuary, and to caves containing Amerindian drawings, plus lunch and some time on the beach included. Alternatively, take the catamaran, Barbuda Express (90 minutes from St John’s; www.antiguaferries.com), which also offers tours of the island.
Situated on the eastern edge of the 8-mile (13km)-long lagoon, Codrington 9 [map], the main town (or village really), where most of Barbuda’s inhabitants live, is named for Sir Christopher. The sugar baron was leased Barbuda by Charles II in 1685 and the family kept it as a source of provisions and labor for their sugar estates on Antigua. The village is mostly made up of single-story houses on the edge of the lagoon. There is very little of note except the well, where people used to draw water until the 1980s, and the remains of parts of the stone walls used to demarcate the boundary of the settlement within which everyone had to live until 1976. After emancipation in 1834, the ex-slaves were left with no jobs, no land, and no laws, as everything belonged to the Codringtons. After many years and many disputes, Antiguan law was applied, but although Barbudans may own their houses, all land now belongs to the government.
The Frigate Bird Sanctuary ) [map] to the north of Codrington Lagoon is truly impressive and the largest outside the Galápagos. Nesting sites of the unusually tame frigate birds are mainly located in the mangrove swamps, and can be reached by boat. It is a breathtaking sight to see some 10,000 frigates in courtship displays and raising their young on the tops of the mangroves.
A frigate bird nesting site.
Redonda - a fantasy monarchy
The third island in this small nation, Redonda, 24 miles (38km) southwest of Antigua, is uninhabited - except for birds. This half square mile (1 sq km) rocky island, where guano was collected until the middle of the 20th century, has a history of its own. In 1865 an eccentric Irishman named Matthew Shiell celebrated the birth of his son by landing on Redonda and claiming it as his kingdom. Although Britain annexed the rock in 1872, the title was not disputed and Shiell abdicated in favor of his son, a novelist, who took the title of King Felipe in 1888. On his death in 1947, the title was passed on to the poet John Gawsworth, who “reigned” as King Juan I from 1947 to 1967 and liberally appointed new members of the Redondan aristocracy, such as Dylan Thomas, both Lawrence and Gerald Durrell, Diana Dors, and Dirk Bogarde. Nowadays, the monarchy is hotly disputed, with at least one king living in England and another in Spain. To discover more about this fantasy monarchy, check www.redonda.org.