The phrase "tropical idyll" is sometimes overused in travel literature, but Antigua definitely has the potential to fulfil the brief. Positioned at the top end of the little sweep of islands that rim the eastern Caribbean Sea, it appears to have the sun-dappled shores, sapphire waters and dazzling white palm-tufted beaches that the front covers of exclusive travel brochures are made of.
I've been fortunate to visit quite a few tropical islands. None have been completely idyllic because, for me, seclusion and undisturbed nature are indispensible aspects of paradise, and there a few islands left like that in the world. I have found little pockets of paradise if I looked hard enough though.
In a region known for its paradisiacal beaches, Antigua is said to be the host with the most. The island's greatest claim is that its coastline is indented with 365 beaches so that you could spend an entire year beach-hopping around the island and never visit the same spot twice. This also means that beaches are more likely to be empty than crowded, so I have high hopes for finding my best slice of paradise yet on my upcoming trip.
I'm not usually the type of traveller to spend all day on a sunlounger, but there's little I like better than a beautiful natural backdrop for swimming, snorkelling, hiking and reading in the sun. If you really wanted to switch off and relax, I imagine Antigua would be good for a proper do-nothing holiday. The two beautiful beachside resorts that I'm staying at during my trip – The Verandah Resort and Spa and St James Club and Villas – certainly look perfect for unwinding by the sea.
But there are lots of water-based activities and excursions that I'm looking forward to too. I'm interested in finding out what else there is to do on the island besides loafing about. Are there lots of outdoor activities like hiking and scuba diving? Are there any good cultural and historical spots? I couldn't help but do a little research to find out what's in store.
My closest point of reference for Antigua is another Caribbean island, Barbados, which I'm fairly familiar with. Each island has its own character but in terms of geography and history, they have quite abit in common – they are both eastern Caribbean islands, both colonized by the British and turned into sugar plantations worked by slaves who later found freedom and independence. And like much of the Caribbean they have both become modern day beach holiday destinations.
I'm imagining a slow-paced, rum-laced isle, with dazzling sunshine and humid nights, strong Atlantic winds in the east and languid stillness in the west, bountiful white sand palm-tufted beaches, friendly polite folks, a sort of English-Creole fusion, cricket, colourful chattel houses, impressive plantation pads and steel pan bands. From the international fame of Sir Vivien Richards I would say that Antigua is probably a nation of cricket-lovers. I seem to remember cricket being pretty popular in Barbados too, and this likely has something to do with British heritage as well as the successes of the West Indies cricket team.
I'm expecting Antigua to have less tourist development than Barbados with more secluded spots and sheltered waters in the east. I have heard that Antigua has held on to its authentic Caribbean charm, and at the moment its beach resorts appear to be unobtrusive and spread out. But I know of at least three new major resort developments in the works with locals battling to conserve natural habitats like mangroves. Sister-island Barbuda seems to be experiencing something of a boom too with new developments including a major resort owned by Hollywood actor Robert de Niro.
Fit for a princess
I have heard Antigua name-dropped by yachties and it was apparently Princess Diana's favourite holiday destination, so I had the premature notion that it would be some kind of expensive and exclusive country club-on-sea. However, the island has earned its reputation among the sailing community with its superb natural harbours and boating festivals that are the best in the Caribbean. In fact, Antigua has been one of the region's top sailing destinations for centuries, all the way back to Admiral Nelson.
Today, it has the most prestigious sailing week in the Caribbean, it's a great charter destination and its Falmouth Harbour is one of the world's top megayacht havens. I suspect Princess Diana's love of the twin-island nation was as much to do with the islands' seclusion as its beauty. That definitely bodes well for the notion of Antigua as a tropical idyll.
Nelson's stomping ground
Antigua was once part of the British Empire and its plethora of safe natural harbours led to it becoming a major shipyard where Admiral Horatio Nelson was stationed early in his career in 1784. It's difficult to imagine now but according to historical documentary, Nelson's Caribbean Hell-hole, Antigua was a far from hospitable place during early colonial times with the interior virtually unexplored and polluted harbours full of ships and sailors cramped together in sweaty insanitary conditions.
Those days are long gone, but there is a perfectly preserved Gregorian fragment in the form of Nelson's Dockyard, part of English Harbour. In terms of sightseeing on the island, this is top of my list. There's also an exhibition I want to see in the Admiral's Inn heritage hotel beyond the dockyard – a collection of artful shots of the island taken by British aerial photographer Tommy Clarke while hanging out of a helicopter. While I'm on the heritage trail I might try and check out Betty's Hope Sugar Mill that dates back to the 17th-century, and Fort Harrington overlooking Deep Bay.
The undulating and deeply notched coastline of Antigua, protected from strong ocean currents by a shallow encircling coral reef, is one of the island's main draws today just as it was in the times of marauders and colonialists. I'm really looking forward to hiking along the coast to discover the lush terrain on foot and seek out some secluded coves and beaches such as Half Moon Bay in the east, Rendezvous Beach in the south and the 17 miles of pink sand at Low Bay.
I'm sure circumnavigating the little island, which is only 14 miles long and 11 miles wide, by boat with an experienced local guide will also give me a brilliant perspective. There seem to be a few sailing tours offering different day packages including the Xtreme Circumnavigation tour, and Ellie's Eco Tour with an on-board marine biologist that's likely most suited to me. As a snorkeler and diver I can't wait to check out Antigua's encircling reef to see what kind of colourful life is lurking beneath the cerulean waves.
Home for the holiday
My time will be split between two resorts in Antigua. I'll be spending three nights at The Verandah Resort and Spa followed by four nights at St James Club and Villas. The Verandah has lots of little villas perched right above the sea, so I'm hoping to rest my head in one of them. The first thing I'll want to do when I'm checked in to the 4-star resort is head straight for the sea, which looks incredibly inviting from the pictures on the website.
Enclosed by low cliffs and an outer reef, the wide turquoise bay and white talc beach should be perfect for a relaxing dip. Clear, calm waters will be ideal for fish-spotting with a mask and snorkel, paddle-boarding and kayaking, which is all available from the resort free of charge. Another very appealing aspect of the resort is its spa. I can think of few better ways to kick off a holiday than with a massage and pampering session in luxury exotic surroundings.
Set in another sheltered and secluded enclave on the south-west coast, St James Resort and Villas has similar features to the Verandah. The expansive site is like a self-sufficient settlement studded with palms. Hotel rooms and private villas peep out from the foliage fringing two spectacular beaches – gentle Mamora Bay and the wavier Coco Beach. There's an on-site watersports centre with two wooden jetties offering a wide range of aquatic activities from mini catamarans to pedalos. This sounds like a good place to immerse myself in the underwater world too, with diving and snorkelling available from Mamora Bay Divers.
As you would expect, much of the fun in Antigua seems to take place out on its brilliant blue waters. One experience I'm keen to try is swimming with rays in the shallow clear waters of aptly-named Stingray City just a short walk from the Verandah Resort. I'm not sure how this is possible as I was given to believe that stingrays were called that for a good reason – that they can impale you with their stinging tails – but I intend to give it a go and hopefully live to tell the tale.
The island's most famous natural attraction, Devil's Bridge, is also in the area. A coastal feature of weathered stone forming a bridge above the crashing waves, it is said to offer some of the island's most dramatic scenery. I'm hoping there will be some decent dirt tracks around the promontory so I can explore on foot.
Besides coastal sights and water-based fun, the island has a few other places I'm keen to discover. I want to explore around Fig Tree Drive and Fig Tree Hill, which is meant to offer some great hikes and some of the best-preserved rainforest tracts on the island. There's the chance to whizz across the tropical canopy too at a zip-line adventure course.
I won't miss a chance to lime with locals and other visitors at Shirley Heights on Sunday nights either. Island views, sizzling street eats, rum and steel pan at sunset sounds like an irresistible cocktail. For more of a take on island life, I'll have to head to Antigua's capital, St John's, to browse the market, stroll the streets and visit the National Museum.
Looking at potential tours and excursions, the most unique experience on offer – and the one that has me the most excited – is the helicopter ride over the neighbouring volcanic island of Montserrat. The island's southern Soufriere (Sulphur in French) Hills have been erupting since the early nineties, covering more than half the island in a thick layer of ash and resulting in a huge no-go area that includes the now-abandoned capital Plymouth. The helicopter ride takes you over the Exclusion Zone to see the volcanic dome and eerie landscapes created by years of molten ash and pyroclastic flows.
I'm particularly curious to see the post-apocalyptic scene left behind in part-destroyed Plymouth, which apparently now has a small thriving population of wild cattle. It has been described as a modern version of Pompeii. But as it's still within the designated danger zone I will have to suffice with views from the helicopter or from observation points in Richmond and Garibaldi. If the helicopter tour is a little too pricey, I think it will be well worth taking the ferry and spending a day exploring this lost little corner of the Caribbean, which once boasted Sting among its home-owners.
Go to Antigua now!
Unsurprisingly I'm super excited about my first foray into this unknown slice of the West Indies and I'm pleased to be travelling just ahead of the anticipated tourism boom. My advice for other travellers curious about Antigua is to go now before it gains more popularity because travel experiences are usually better when you beat the crowds.