Locals call Antigua and Barbuda the ‘Twin Islands’ but the midwife must have switched one of them at birth. They couldn’t be more different. There’s just thirty miles of sea between them but they’re worlds apart. Barbuda is mostly flat – Antigua has big hills. Barbuda is hot and dry – Antigua has a rainforest. Antigua is developed – Barbuda is developing. What they have in common is stunning, white sandy beaches.
I started my visit in Antigua, home to around 85,000 people. Part of the Commonwealth, the island is just 14 miles long and 11 miles wide, but islanders say there are 365 beaches, one for each day of the year.
You can find places to flop on the warm, white sand just a few hundred meters from the airport. In fact, the wonderfully named Jabberwock Beach is perfect if you’re waiting a connecting flight! But if you’re seeking peace and solitude you might have to drive for a while. Many online reviews have claimed Dickenson Bay, around 25 minutes from the airport, is the best spot on the island. It offers the most options for soaking up the sun, cooling off and ‘liming’ in the shade of the trees.
The beach is fronted by a string of resorts and bars including a restaurant on a pier hanging over the water. And if you fancy doing more than sipping a cocktail, you can find your own level of thrill to seek. I chatted to Yemi, who relocated from Nigeria to work as a lifeguard here. He gave me a run down of the activities on offer, from snorkelling, horse riding and glass bottomed boat rides to adrenalin-pumping thrills like jet skiing. And Yemi told me people will be here from 7am until the sun goes down.
Dickenson Bay was a bit too busy for me so I drove on for another thirty minutes, past more resorts, to Ffryres Beach. It’s a curl of sand that’s so white it almost seems to glow. And this beach has a famous attraction – Dennis Cocktail Bar and Restaurant. It is in a beautiful spot with views across the picture-perfect Ffryes Beach and adjacent Coco Beach. When owner Dennis Thomas walked with me to the bar’s best viewpoint, I could understand why so many couples choose this place for weddings.
Dennis has worked for his success. He was stifling yawns when I met with him at 6pm as visitors and ex-pats filed in for their sundowners. He’d been up since 3am catering for a wedding party. He’s trained many staff over the years, but just can’t take a step back. “It’s all about consistency,” he told me. I was surprised to learn that he’s not had formal training. “My mum taught me how to cook,” he told me with a smile. His main course speciality is goat and he’d like Brits to be a little more adventurous and try it. “It’s similar to lamb,” he told me, “but a bit less fatty because the goats are running around the hills all the time.” And he serves his mum’s special bread pudding recipe, containing coconut.
Dennis clearly loves this spot and I could see why the panoramic views would be the perfect place for his home and business. But as we chatted he revealed that this beautiful scene is also tinged with sadness. His fisherman father disappeared off Ffryes Beach when Dennis was just a boy. Dennis still remembers his dad and says the restaurant is built on the spot where he and his five brothers lit a bonfire on the night his father went missing. And he keeps a light on continuously at the restaurant as a memorial.
You could spend your entire break in one of Antigua’s all-inclusive resorts like those at Dickenson Bay, moving only from the beach to the bar and your bedroom. And there are resorts catering for most visitors’ needs and budgets. The well-known Sandals chain, for example, claim that their resort is the most romantic in the world. But I think you’d miss out on places like Dennis’ Cocktail Bar if you stayed entirely within their walls.
I wanted to see the real Antigua, so I picked the locally owned Anchorage Inn. Nena Nanton runs it with her two sisters and a close friend whom she’s adopted as a sister. The four women used to manage a retail business and internet café. It was a big success and they wanted to put something back into the community so they started a Christmas party for underprivileged kids. After ten years the attendance had risen to 100 youngsters but the event’s existence was suddenly threatened when the hotel where it was held was put up for sale. The women were unable to gain assurances about the event, so they decided to bid for it themselves. There were no other bidders and they got the building at a great price!
Nena says she’s stayed in the hotel business because she loves meeting people. The sisters have expanded the hotel, adding an additional wing since they bought it. I enjoyed my stay at The Anchorage. Each room is different, named after a different Caribbean island, and with a mural depicting that islands’ name on each door. It was a special touch that hints at the extra care and attention these women have shown the business. “We could have named the rooms after flowers but everyone does flowers,’” laughed Nena. “It’s not a posh hotel,” she told me. “It’s an inn and friendliness and cleanliness is our motto here.” Nena used to be a hostess on LIAT Caribbean Airlines and she had me in stitches recounting the safety briefing.
The Anchorage is affordable and just a few minutes from Dickenson Bay. Conveniently it’s also two minutes stroll to First Choice Foods, one of the island’s biggest supermarkets. You can relax in and dine at in the adjacent, separately owned restaurant.
So what’s there to see in Antigua? Most people suggested a trip to English Harbour, where Simon Le Bon famously fell off the pier in Duran Duran’s video for Rio. But the main attraction is Nelson’s Dockyard. The legendary admiral once lived there and the fort buildings now contain a nautical museum with ships’ figureheads, craft shops, bars and hotels set alongside a marina.
Tour guide Maria Bradshaw told me it’s the only Georgian dockyard still in operation in the western hemisphere. Six years ago Maria quit her secretary job to work as a tour guide and she told me she’s loved learning all about her home country during her time with Rendezvous Tours. Tourism is well developed in Antigua and a number of companies offer a full menu of daytrips. If you’re going to spend a lot of time on the beach, you probably won’t need a car to take in the sights. Every operator will take you to the Dockyard. Try and get to Shirley Heights to take in the best view down across the waterway.
I met Maria for lunch at one of St Johns’ busiest restaurants, Big Banana, alongside the bustling Redcliffe Quay. It’s open-sided, so you get the benefit of the breeze while watching the cruise ship visitors take their big portions of chicken, shrimp or pizza. I selected the excellent seafood – a massive meal of mahi-mahi – safe in the knowledge that I’d need this calorie boost for my two-hour long tour of the town. Our discussion, unsurprisingly, got onto food.
Maria’s company offers a local food and farm tour and with the increasing interest in provenance, it has become very popular. One stop gives tourgoers a chance to see Antigua’s black pineapple, brought to the island by the early Arawak inhabitants and said to be the sweetest in the world.
My earlier drive around Antigua had only exposed me to its multiple beaches and scrubby, sandy, higher ground. But Maria said it was worth travelling to some of the more unusual sites, including her favourite – the rainforest on the southern side of the island. It’s known as the ‘Foodbasket of Antigua’ because it’s so wet there. Maria told me the area, “calms you’” because it’s so lush and green. You can also fly through the treetops on a zipwire, which is not so calming!
After lunch, Maria and I walked and talked through St Johns’ busy traffic, sometimes shouting to be heard over the decibels of dancehall, reggae or dub music that blared out of passing trucks and vans. The capital is an unusual mix of working town meets cruise ship shopping mall. One minute you’re facing duty free and jewellery, then turn the corner and you’ll see roadside vegetable stalls or card tables stacked with dodgy-looking DVDs.
The fish market is a full-on sensory assault, with shouting salesmen and the sound of chopping, mixed with the strong smell in the midday Caribbean heat. Maria took me around the corner to the wharf, to see the catch being brought ashore in boats, not all of which appeared very seaworthy. She told me some of them have been in use for years, often owned originally by the fishermen’s grandparents, so they’re not very modern. “They need to use a lot of sweat and labour to get things done,” she told me.
As our tour continued we entered a large covered craft market where the local seedwork art is on sale. Mimosa plants produce small seeds, like tiny coffee beans, that are worked into a range of goods, such as earrings, belts, bags, coasters and bracelets. But the craft’s days are numbered. “Youngsters haven’t got the patience,” Maria told me.
During our walk I also got an overview of the island’s darker past – Antigua’s slave trade and it’s villains and heroes. And we toured churches and historic buildings damaged by a massive earthquake back in 1974.
“Nearly every family was affected,” said Maria. Locals believe that there’s a big shake every 50 years. I noted that there was some activity this spring, but thankfully nowhere near as damaging as that 70s shaker. I’d recommend the tour. If you want to explore on your own, St Johns appears relatively safe by day, although I wouldn’t take a visit after dark.
Antigua has produced some superb West Indies cricketers. Viv Richards has a stadium named in his honour and Rendezvous Tours can introduce you to some of the region’s sporting legends – their cricket tours include the chance to meet one of Antigua’s sporting legends, who’ll give his views on what’s going right and wrong for the West Indies team. And after the sports walk you get to taste the four rums of Antigua.
If Hollywood star spotting is your preferred game, Antigua offers some A-listers. Pierce Brosnan and Eric Clapton love the island and my taxi-driver Greg told me many stars hang out on Long Island. If you fancy playing paparazzi in paradise, there’s a boat to Long Island that departs not far from the airport.
Now I’m at the airport, ready for a short, twenty-minute flight to the other half of this tiny nation – Antigua’s ‘twin’ Barbuda.