Sunset on Sunday at Shirley Heights in southern Antigua and the jump-up is just getting started. The steel pan Halcyon Orchestra is bashing out tropical hits in the sweet salty seaside air; locals and tourists are refuelling with barbecued jerk chicken, rice and peas; and rum punches are flowing at the bar inside a quaint old military lookout post.
The postcard-perfect view across the natural curves of English Harbour – undulating green promontories skirted by slivers of platinum stretching out into the emerald yacht-specked sea – feels almost surreal. As the tropic sky turns wispy pink, my jet-lagged grogginess soon gives way to heady intoxication with Caribbean rhythms, rum and barbecue smoke, and I feel the half-forgotten urge to dance.
I've just arrived and there couldn't really be a better introduction. I can already see that Antigua is a genuine Caribbean sweet-spot with history, beauty, beaches, music and, of course, rum in spades. On the north-eastern outer rim of the Caribbean, the island used to be part of the Atlantic trade triangle much like Barbados. The landscape is studded with the stone shells of old sugar mills, and the curly coastline and deep sheltered bays make for safe harbours that were once fiercely defended by the British colonialists.
From high above English Harbour, I can see Galleon Beach and Nelson's Dockyard, and the flurry of white yachts that Antigua is now renowned for. But, as I am about to find out, Antigua is less commercialised than other Caribbean destinations, while its sister-island Barbuda is almost untouched. Together they have a natural understated charm that slowly works its subtle magic on all who venture this way.
At Shirley Heights an energetic reggae/soca/cover band has taken to the stage and encouraged by the warm locals who have come to lime and dance – in particular three little funky sisters – the crowd is bopping and shimmying in time. By the end of the evening a kind of hastening soca music meets rum-soaked aerobic workout has gripped the hilltop. When a local guy from the capital St John's tells me about a "juvie" party at 6am the next morning I think I must have misheard him over the jubilant soca-robics squad.
Heading out early the next day, I get my first glimpse of the island's lushest quarter. Lined by soaring trees and fruit-laden boughs, Fig Tree Drive runs between the steep tropical hills of south-west Antigua, which I plan to explore later in the trip. We are caught in a jam on the southern coastal road that passes near dazzling white beaches such as Carlisle Bay and Curtain Bluff where the waves create perfect zig-zags along the palm-tufted shore.
I ask our local driver Paul if there's usually lots of traffic and he tells me today is a Bank Holiday Monday in Antigua when there are J'ouvert street parties that go on from sunrise until midday. It suddenly dawns on me that I hadn't misunderstood the guy last night at Shirley Heights at all, morning "juvie" jump-ups are a holiday tradition in Antigua.
Like all good taxi drivers, Paul finds an alternative back street route, but hearing loud echoing music I look across a green to see a crowd of people parading around a large lorry-turned-float complete with jamming musicians and dancers. We ask Paul to park up so we can get a slice of the mini carnival that has taken over Old Road.
A fruit-seller smiles, and says:
"You wan black pineapple?"
While she talks she motions to the little ornamental pineapples on the front shelf of her shack. Displayed alongside there are papaya, coconuts, mangos and bananas all grown in the local area that's known as Antigua's "fruit basket". The black pineapple fields of Cades Bay Agricultural Station where visitors can usually do tours and tastings is just up the road. But it happens to be closed today for the public holiday, making this a serendipitous chance to try some of the sweet stuff.
As I move through the shifting crowd I see little kids bopping to the music, crates of local wadadli beer being doled out and revellers in makeshift costumes – one girl is dressed as a bumblebee, while a guy in full scuba gear is being pulled along on a surfboard and skids across the road. The slow-moving party truck is packed with percussion, dancers hanging off the sides with an MC and music booming from the massive onboard sound-system. It seems everyone has turned out to make this an unofficial carnival and I feel lucky to experience it.
Come on in, the water's fine!
Like many small islands, Antigua and Barbuda are inextricably linked to the waters that surround them. Continuing west along the main road I'm like a kid in a sweet shop as we discover wonderful waters and sumptuous seascapes to die for. Here are some of the best swimming beaches around the island, and that's saying something considering its' perfectly-believably claim to having 365 beaches, one for every day of the year. But in the south-west the soothingly calm water has a bewitching opal luminosity and the pure white sand is powder-soft under foot.
Most of these beaches, particularly Darkwood Beach, Ffryes Beach and Valley Church Bay, have relatively little development, maybe owing to the large lagoons and hilly topography, leaving their raw natural beauty intact. The exception is an inflatable water playground erected in the shallows of Darkwood to cater for the cruise ship crowd, but apparently the tourist board have already received complaints about it spoiling the scenery so it might soon be removed.
Swimming at Ffryes Beach is heavenly. Between the azure sky and the cream sand, the calm water has a phosphorescent quality. The sand slopes into perfect still depths so that you can swim across the bay parallel to the shore with ease, or float on your back gazing at the distant green hills without fear of being sloshed in the face by a wave or pulled away in a current.
Today the large half moon bay is dotted with locals enjoying an idyllic bank holiday of picnics, kite-flying and beach games in paradise. A group of Antiguan grannies in bright swimming hats and cozzies greet me as I bob up from my first plunge.
"It's an ikkle bit cold!"
One says and I answer:
"It's fine for me, I'm from the UK!"
One of the ladies has family in Leicester and confirms that England is:
"...freezin. You should stay in Antigua."
Another says. And we all laugh.
Tasty pumpkin soup and lightly spiced green goat curry at Dennis' Beach Bar and Restaurant, a wooden open-sided shack tacked onto a little knoll at the western end of the beach, comes just as a tropical downpour sweeps across the bay. Thinking we will linger a little longer we all sample the house cocktail – the Beach Bum made with curacao, malibu, dark rum, melon and pineapple that sums up the totally tropical scene in one cocktail umbrella and cherry-topped turquoise-green glass.
After an unhurried coastal tour of the south-western corner of Antigua, it's surprisingly only 3pm in the afternoon when we arrive at our hotel, the Verandah Resort and Spa, on the east coast. On an island that measures just 14 by 11 miles, it seems that with a good local driver you can see quite abit in a fairly short time.
A little black-and-yellow bananaquit bird flits past my head as a receptionist walks out to welcome me with a cool tea-tree scented cloth and a fruit punch. She points to my hummingbird patterned top and grins:
"Oh you like birds? You gonna like it here, we got lots of them."
My new Caribbean home is one of many suites in semi-detached white-washed wooden cottages perched above the sea. Built on stilts in and around the natural vegetation, the resort is festooned with palms and flowering and fruiting groves. The villa's wooden verandahs front and back put me in mind of white picket fences and the view from the enormous comfortable bed through the glass double-doors is all kinds of brilliant blue.
With the skies clear once again and the tropic sun feeling a little kinder, it's the ideal moment to explore the resort's beaches. Descending the stone steps beside my villa to the flour-fine sands of the Verandah's wide main beach, I see a mongoose disappear into the undergrowth and an electric-blue streaked lizard scuttle over the wall. There's a shack at the beach edge renting free non-motorized watersports equipment, but I'm keen to test the waters first and use my goggles to do some underwater spying.
Coralline sand gently dissolves into the turquoise waters of the sleepy sheltered cove that's partially enclosed by low limestone cliffs and mangroves. Schools of little fish dart into the shallows while bigger fish roam the darker patches of sea grass. There are no coral heads and the water is just about deep enough for a carefree swim. Brown pelicans stalk the bay and little black birds flit between the trees and clusters of palms that gently rustle in the breeze. In the shade beneath them, tan bodies on sunbeds are having a late afternoon nap.
The beach is quiet except for a small group of guests waist-deep in the water playing a ball game, some holding drinks in their hands. As I paddle towards the other side of the bay, I notice that something has caught peoples' attention. Getting closer I realise they are watching a wild donkey and her baby nibbling plants on the higher ground above the beach. The donkeys melt away before anyone except intrepid photographer Jana Crowne, who is my companion for the trip, can get a good snap.
The centrepiece of the resort is a huge lido area surrounded by springy grass. Sunbathing and shaded seating areas are dotted here and there below a large plantation house-style building with the bottom opening out into one long cocktail bar. The resort's main eateries – fine dining a la carte Nicole's restaurant, family-friendly Buccaneers and banquet-style buffet Seabreeze – are on the airy floor above, though the Beach Bar and Grill is certainly the best place for a lazy lunch.
None of the sixty or so resorts in Antigua and Barbuda are squashed together, there's plenty of room for everyone and, of course, more than enough beaches to go round. Unlike other islands in the Caribbean, even the east coast beaches are sheltered from the open oceanic waves by the encircling reefs, leaving Antigua with 360 degrees of resort-friendly coastline. The Verandah village covers such a generous acreage that it actually takes a good 15 minutes to walk to the main reception from my villa on the over side.
Time is rarely an issue in Antigua but when we are running a tad late to meet our morning pickup for the Catamaran Circumnavigation Tour, it's lucky that a man spots us hurrying up the path and goes out of his way to give us a lift in his moon buggy.
Thinking he is on vacation, I ask how he managed to get his own golf cart, and he smiles and says:
"It comes with the job."
Turns out this affable gentleman is Philippe Piacentini, the resort's general manager, and from his demeanour I can see why all the other Verandah staff seem genuinely at ease and always ready to help. Mixed with the spacious simple design of the resort and the naturally beautiful location, there's a blissfully relaxing and benign atmosphere at the Verandah that chimes perfectly with most people's idea of a proper holiday haven.
To read more about my experiences around the idyllic Caribbean isle, look out for First Impressions of Antigua part II.