Antigua and Barbuda are often called the ‘Twin Islands’ but they couldn’t be more different. The first thing you’ll notice stepping out of the airport after the short, exciting flight is how much calmer Barbuda is. Instead of Antigua’s traffic noise and reggae, there are barking dogs, wandering wild donkeys and crowing cockerels – and just 1,600 inhabitants. Barbuda, it seems, is the little sister who had enough of the rat race, quit her job and decided to open a bar on the beach.
The only settlement, Codrington, is a working town and it looks like its been untouched by tourism. Its bars and cafes are roadside shacks while the homes of long-gone residents are boarded up.
But you don’t come here for the town. Like Antigua, this island is all about the beaches. Seventeen Mile Beach has often been described as one of the best in the world. Barbuda also has wildlife in abundance including important bird colonies. I joined George Jeffrey for a boat trip out to Codrington Lagoon National Park.
You’ll see pelicans sitting upright in the mangrove branches but the main draw is the frigate bird. 500 breeding pairs live in one of the world’s largest colonies and they’re crammed together in a small part of the mangrove swamp. The sound and smell was incredible. I vowed to cut back on my seafood snacking in case my breath had the same aroma! The males puff up their red throat pouches to attract females. It’s such an unusual sight – like they’ve swallowed a balloon. You can see them between May and September and when they leave, they always find their way back to Barbuda. “They have the best GPS on the planet,” joked George. Isn’t nature amazing?
Ogden Burton is Park Manager at the Lagoon National Park. He told me that frigate birds can’t get wet! The island is a birdwatchers’ paradise and there’s a chance to view the rare Barbuda warbler, a small yellow bird which is found only on the island. George also told me a little about Barbuda’s past. Everything on the map is apparently named Codrington after the man who leased the island back in 1685 for an annual payment of sheep. Codrington realised that the coral limestone would limit Barbuda’s growing potential, and the island couldn’t sustain any lucrative sugar plantations, only fruit and vegetable production. So he supplemented the root crop income with some robbery. George said passengers on ships that ran aground on the reef were often relieved of their valuables in return for a ride into town. Today, George offers a warmer welcome to arriving boats. He provides a water taxi for yachts and ferries fishermen around.
On the wharf I met Vanetta Burton. She’s come home to Barbuda after decades living in New York. And she prepared some fantastic seafood for me, the sort that you can buy from the few small, hut-like cafes. The snapper fish was served with a tasty but stodgy and filling bread – a cross between a scone and a dumpling that’s baked in a clay pot. George, who is six feet two, had told me that Barbudan’s were known as the tallest people in the Caribbean. Maybe it’s the diet?
I got on another, faster boat, to jet across the lagoon for more seafood, where I was greeted by a smiling blonde woman, Ros. Her accent revealed that she wasn’t Barbudan. Ros had “fallen in love” with the pace of island life and married Arthur ‘Speedy’ Walters. The couple own a restaurant and now manage the Barbuda Belle, an exclusive retreat. As the boat whizzed past the green blur of mangrove swamps, Ros told me that, apart from family, she only missed one thing from her Devon life – crumpets! “I just wish someone would open a Sainsburys here,” she laughed. Ros revealed that she’d tried making pasties but they didn’t work so well in the Caribbean heat. Speedy got his fill of them when the couple returned to England during their holidays.
After fifteen minutes, the blue waters gave way to an expanse of white sand on which stood a wooden, hall-like structure. There was nothing else around except six beachside bungalows raised on stilts. They were the sort of buildings you’d expect in Thailand or Malaysia with wooden shingles cladding the tall, gabled roofs. A boardwalk led from the beach towards the front door.
At the top of the walkway Speedy stood there, smiling and welcoming the guests ashore. Barbuda Belle is a luxury boutique hotel accessible only by boat. Their chef offers fresh seafood with a French twist. The platter of lobster was sweet, succulent and delicious. Why would anyone even think of pasties and crumpets?
The hotel’s remote location lends itself to relaxation; the owners refer to it as a sanctuary. You can snorkel, dive or just unwind with a book on Barbuda’s famous pink sandy beach, just yards away. I felt that Arthur’s childhood nickname of ‘Speedy’ didn’t really fit in this super calm, chilled environment.
Speedy told me that they had been careful not to affect the ecosystem when building the hotel. They had to use small, slow barges to bring all the materials in, which Speedy described as “quite a feat.” Because of its secluded location the hotel also has to be sustainable, but that doesn’t mean comfort is sacrificed. The solar-powered bedrooms are chilled by a unique air conditioner that just cools the area around the four-poster bed.
Barbuda Belle’s simple design, using quality, natural materials gives it a special character of understated excellence. Furnishings were imported direct from Bali and the centrepiece is a wide dining table, at least thirty feet long. Peace and pampering comes at a price. Barbuda Belle can cost £800 or more a night. This would be the place to stay for a very special occasion.
I clambered aboard the speedboat, along with some visiting yachties, to head back across the lagoon. There I met with Kelsina Burton-George, who has created the self-catering Barbuda Cottages, available from £200 a night. They are set 12 feet off the ground for good ocean views. As I looked around the tastefully furnished lounge area and thoughtfully well-stocked kitchen, I noticed she even provided sunblock for guests. I imagined how much fun it would be to rent one of these remote retreats with a group of friends. Kelsey says she’s had authors stay there frequently because the scenery and beachside setting is inspiring.
The cottages are quite a way from town and are remote, but Kelsey says everyone in Barbuda is willing to help and the island is a very safe place to stay. Barbuda Cottages are not far from Princess Diana Beach, the stretch of sand she enjoyed the most during her time staying at Barbuda’s exclusive K Club. Taxi tour operator George Burton recommends that beach as the island’s finest.
Set a few hundred feet across from the shoreline is ‘Uncle’ Roddy’s Bar. He told me that one of his career highlights was serving Diana during her visits to Barbuda, when he worked at the K Club. Roddy worked away in Toronto for a while. It’s a place to which many Barbudans have relocated for work. He hated the cold and twelve years ago came home and fulfilled his dream of opening his bar opposite the beach. Roddy is famous for his rum punch and offered me a mixology masterclass.
After a drink, (just the one!) I asked Roddy about things to do in Barbuda other than soak up the sun and rum. He recommended seeing the birds, a trip to the island’s caves and watching the Atlantic waves breaking on the shore. Tour driver George recommends a trip to the highest point on the island, just 125 feet above sea level. You see both the Atlantic and Caribbean sides of the island.
The small Codrington museum documents the settlement of the Arawaks, the first Amerindian inhabitants of Barbuda. There’s also the round, windmill-like stone structure of a defensive Martello Tower on the road to Princess Diana’s Beach.
You might hear locals talk of the ‘river’, but don’t get confused – it’s their nickname for the main road. I guess that, on an island where most goods are imported by sea, it’s appropriate to give a watery-name to the main conduit.
I had mixed feelings about Barbuda. If you go in a group to Kelsey’s self-catering Barbuda Cottages you’ll have a great time in beautiful surroundings. If you visit the Barbuda Belle, you’ll be pampered possibly more than you’ve ever been before. But compared to Antigua, tourism is in its infancy. You can see that from the tiny airport where a departing visitor appeared miffed that she had to check-in to go airside in order to use the toilet!
Personally I wouldn’t stay in Codrington town again. My accommodation was poor, the promised WiFi access didn’t materialise and there was no way to access the internet publicly. And there really was nothing to do – the beaches that make Barbuda were too far to walk to and the taxi fares to outlying restaurants or beaches are steep. One driver had an annoying habit of asking me, “What do you think it is worth?” whenever I used his taxi and asked for the fare. They don’t use meters. Barbudan locals are really friendly, but the bars and café’s in town are small, often lean-to shacks and I really felt that it was their place and that I was intruding.
You can compare and contrast the two islands on a day return boat trip from Antigua for around £60 return. Or you can fly – it’s worth it too see how different the two sides of this one country are. And I’ll never forget the comical appearance of the frigate birds – one of nature’s treats!
Getting To Antigua and Barbuda
Fly the nine hours from Gatwick to Antigua direct with Virgin from around £550. You might get a better deal with a charter holiday. The Barbuda Express ferry takes 90 minutes and costs around £60. You’ll have five-and-a-half hours on the island.