Mango, papaya, sugar apple, breadfruit – our driver Paul reels off the names of the lush medley of exotic trees jostling for space beside the road as we cruise up Fig Tree Drive in Antigua's hilly south.
Like many Antiguans Paul has good grasp of his natural surrounds. After inquiring about the unknown sugar apple (round with lizard-like skin, tastes like custard), my eyes are peeled for the eponymous fig trees.
"Where are the figs?"
I say. Paul slows the car to point out a bunch of little green bananas.
"Aren't they bananas?"
I ask, confused.
"In Antigua we call them fig."
He explains with a smile.
Garden of Eden
With the misconception that the Caribbean island of Antigua is quite flat and dry, it's a fabulous surprise to discover its very own Garden of Eden around Fig Tree Drive where tall established trees and blossoming groves festoon the fertile slopes.
Curiosity leads us to stop at the utterly charming Fig Tree Studio Art Gallery, which displays bright and vibrant Caribbean art and crafts. Silk cotton balls from an enormous Kapok tree, once thought to be the home of the tree spirits, give the place an enchanted air, floating in the sunlight and covering the garden in a snowy blanket. I'm not the only English girl to be bewitched by the place either.
The gallery's owner, Sallie Harker, moved here from the UK 20 odd years ago. Her Antiguan husband Dassa leads walks from the gallery up to Signal Hill every Tuesday and Thursday, which I will definitely try on another trip. Today we are en route to meet a guide from Trek Tours for a hike from historic Wallings Dam through the rainforest to Rendezvous Bay.
First there's time to have a quick nosey around the zip line adventure tacked across the dewy green canopy of Fig Tree Hill. We stop beyond the hump of the hill so that our photographer Jana Crowne can take pictures of the forested valley. But there's surely a better view from the high wooden platforms built around tree trunks, so we climb up and snap a few photos.
On a usual day visitors can strap into a harness and soar between the trees like Tarzan on the high wires that link up the course, but today the zip line is not open so all we can do is whet our appetites. I would recommend booking in advance instead of just turning up.
With a little time to spare we head down Fig Tree Drive to the valley where the legendary sweet Antiguan black pineapples are grown. We pause to let a herd of goats cross the road into the thick bush, they are a shiny well-fed bunch, running wild in Antigua's bountiful "fruit basket".
Cades Bay Agricultural Station sits in the shadow of a high mountain ridge that encompasses Mount Obama (or its less-majestic former name Boggy Peak) and the Sleeping Indian (said to resemble the side-profile of a reclining native Indian chief) that represent the highest points on the island. The wide valley is the only place in the world where the sweet and smooth little specimens can be farmed.
"Take them over the road and try and grow them and they come out with a different shape and taste."
Says highly-knowledgeable Island Safari guide Kenrick.
Here be dragons
We travel back to the start of our morning hike at the top of Fig Tree Drive to meet Rick from Trek Tours and Shamoi from Antigua's tourist board.
The trail head is up an unsealed lane off Fig Tree Drive, at the start of historic Wallings Dam. The area immediately around Wallings Dam itself is intriguing as it is peaceful, and it's little-explored – even locals don't really know about it.
The enormous reservoir is now thatched in green, fat tree roots wrap around the pump tower like a giant anaconda, and the dam run-off looks like the grand Victorian staircase that's been reclaimed by nature. I start to climb down the steps between loose boulders, the still air broken by the chirps and vibrations of unseen insects and birds, and stop to stare in wonder at the high mature trees and lush greenery, groves and vines encroaching on the structure.
However, the only pitfall of a guided walk is not having the luxury of wandering off on a whim. Instead, our hiking guide Rick leads us along the left side of the former reservoir to have a peek inside the curious pump room.
We peer into its dark and seemingly bottomless depths, before heading off up the narrow dirt path and into the cool dewy jungle where dense green walls of foliage and over-arching trees shield us from the full sun.
Almost-ripe mangoes dangle tantalizingly beside the path, and we are introduced to the strange soursop fruit, oval green and prickly on the outside, that should only be picked when "its eyes are open" eg. its prickles are standing on end. Its creamy sour flesh is said to have anti-cancer properties and I do hope this is true, though I seriously doubt it can help the tens of thousands, including my father, who are already battling this truly global epidemic.
I'm reminded again that Antiguans have an unusually good knowledge of the names and uses of various plants, much of which has been passed down from generation to generation. A short time later, Shamoi points out a wide canopied shak-shak tree (calabash), with inedible hard-shelled fruits used locally for maracas and arts and crafts. In fact, back at Fig Tree Art Gallery there is a corner dedicated to halved and beautifully-carved calabash that I had mistaken for decorated coconut shells.
Gazing at the verdant vistas of Signal Hill, Shamoi also shows me the majestic royal palms with crowns standing high above the canopy, a welcome sight after seeing the sad blight of yellowing disease on palms across the island. Coconut water is my second favourite drink (after tea) and I had been planning on guzzling it by the fresh gallon while in Antigua. Shamoi, of course, knows of the Caribbean-wide crisis that causes palm trees to turn yellow, eventually lose their crowns and die.
"There's no cure."
He tells me. Now the crownless trunks of tall Atlantic coconut palms and the yellowing leaves, the lack of coconuts on sale and the scarcity of coconut water that I had noticed across the island all makes sense.
As the trail levels out into flatter ground I notice the path is dotted with cylindrical holes – the dens of tarantulas that only come out at night. Jana and I had noticed these same holes in the lawn of Shirley Heights and figured they had been made by tent poles, so I'm relieved I didn't stick my fingers in them. But Shamoi says that hairy spiders are not that bad, I should be more scared of the biting centipedes!
This is the first I've ever heard of them but apparently their bite is excruciatingly painful – one more thing to watch out for. Still, I'm pleasantly distracted by serene lemon-yellow butterflies flitting across the path and the silhouettes of black giant termite mounds in the shadows between trees. We have been walking for around an hour and a half and just beyond sight, the sound of surf breaking on the shore grows ever louder.
Like all good walks, this hike leads to a dramatic discovery – Rendezvous Bay – a place for castaways and perhaps secret rendezvous. An American couple have found their way here on a quad bike and don't look too impressed to see our little group emerge from the undergrowth and stroll along the otherwise-empty beach. Shamoi tells me that a date from the American TV show the Bachelorette was filmed here and I wonder if this amorous pair is hoping to capture some of that on-screen romance. It's easy to see why producers would have chosen it for a filming location – the beach is exceptional, a magnificent sweeping curve of white sand, aquamarine waves, windswept palms backed by high green hills and absolutely no sign of civilization.
After any physical exertion in the humid tropics, plunging into the cool ocean is the ultimate refreshment. The swimming is easy in the east of the bay, but as I tread west parallel to the beach, the waves get more powerful and I begin to feel the tug of the undertow pulling me away from the shore. I swim back out of the current but I can see a patch where the water is discoloured with stirred up sand and, sure enough, Shamoi warns me of the rip current as we are facing south-east directly in front of the reef bank. The wind is up and I can see sail-like crests breaking directly offshore.
To the east of the beach we pick our way across the fringing rocks, which are particularly rough and jagged under my bare feet. Rounding the corner, Shamoi discovers Antigua's only black sand beach, formed from erosion of the ancient volcanic rock that helped shape this part of the island. Meanwhile Rick is scrambling up a rocky outcrop to get a better perspective of the bay and Jana is excitedly capturing this patch of pristine paradise on camera.
A couple of quail doves trot along the shady side of the sun-baked path as we turn to head back up the trail. The sun is high and fierce in the sky, and I feel hot and damp with seawater and sweat, and concerned that I have no water left. If I was looking for proof that paradise really does exist, I certainly found it at the bottom of the steep rainforest trail from old Wallings Dam to the immaculate beach at Rendezvous Bay. But it doesn't do to fly too close to the sun, and I paid the price in sunstroke.
A word of warning from the not-so-wise – if you do this walk make sure you take a hat and plenty of water. It is at least a three-and-a-half hour round trip and the heat and humidity can catch you out, especially if you find yourself staying out in the beautiful scenery much longer than you expected.
I was absent-minded and my small bottle of water had run out by the time I started back up the trail in the midday sun. I became sick with sunstroke about halfway from the endpoint, cramped, shaky, covered in goosebumps and fantasizing about giant ice-cold vats of mineral water being poured over my head in the same way I imagine people see mirages of oases in the desert. Thankfully, after rehydrating, a cool shower and a siesta, I was right as rain again.
A pretty sweet spot
My breezy east-facing vaulted room at St James' Club and Villas is the ideal place to retreat to after overheating outdoors. Following a day craving sweet mangos, Jana and I are amused to be given upstairs Mango Suites perched just above the talc-fine beach at this premier all-inclusive in the south-east of the island.
I'm too discombobulated to drink the delicious-looking fruit cocktail I'm handed at reception and instead head straight for the solace of my room.
The silent fan whips around the high wooden ceiling and I leave the balcony door open to let in the Atlantic air as I collapse on the padded queen-sized bed and fall gently asleep to the sound of rustling palms and lapping waves. But we have plans tonight so I rouse myself after a short rest to arrange my salty wild hair and sleepy face into some semblance of respectability.
I've heard good things about Ocean Point's revamped restaurant Sottovento, where we are headed for dinner. Emerging from our rooms Jana and I are simultaneously startled by the marked difference in our appearances. Glowing and groomed we look nothing like the dishevelled, tomboyish hikers of the day, though I still feel a little dazed.
I'm relieved we've made an effort when I meet Ocean Point's inevitably stylish Italian management team, who have brought quality and passion to this intimate beachfront hotel on the north coast of Antigua.
The consummate hosts, Rossana Ferrari fetches me a reviving cuppa when she hears of the day's events, and a platter of Sardinian staple Carta di Musica – "sheet music" in English – a paper-thin crisp bread, as well as tasty vegetable chips graces the centre of the table. Hotel manager Niccolo Bertelli has taken up the mantle of his Sardinian hotelier family and has sprinkled just enough home-grown magic at the hotel to refine its hospitality and style.
He tells us his family were first inspired to come to Antigua almost forty years ago because its untouched white-and-turquoise vistas and friendly local people reminded them of home. They also saw the potential of developing tourism on the island. Niccolo, for one, would like to see the island follow in the footsteps of Barbados, and I could certainly see this happening. He offers to take me to see vibrant St John's market on Saturday morning and recommends Jana and I check out the mineral clay deposits at Half Moon Bay with skin-boosting properties similar to the ultra-expensive Creme de la Mer.
At dinner, the Italian imported wine and rustic gourmet cooking transport me straight to foodie heaven in Italy, though the addition of conch fritters is unmistakably Antiguan. Turns out the yummy bruscetta and freshly-caught snapper with roasted sauteed vegetables, and gelato medley, including mouth-watering mango, have been rustled up by the hotel's Michelin-starred chef. It's a simply delicious, faultless meal with most ingredients sourced from the sea or the local market.
Even the drinking water is better here, with Ocean Point triple-distilling it so that it tastes as good as mineral water, without the chlorine aroma that hotel water has elsewhere on the island. Our hosts are great company too, and I have to be torn away from the table to meet my awaiting pick-up.
To find out more about our adventures in Antigua, look out for First Impressions of Antigua Part IV, when we explore the capital St John's and take a tour of island history, discover the best rum shack ever, and dare to go swimming with stingrays.