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First impressions of Antigua part IV: Sugar and stingrays

Holding the bucket of squid the nice man says to me:

"Just relax."

Though I asked his name a few minutes ago, it has vanished from my mind completely. I'm distracted by the stingrays swarming in the clear shallows all around us, pushing against my body, spiny tails whipping against my legs, flapping out of the water and launching at the bucket in an over-zealous effort to get at its contents. The man pats them down and calls a few of them by name, they are like alien puppy-dogs at feeding time, he says:

"Oh Mottle. Where have you been?"

One of the large brown mottled females is a favourite of his. I reluctantly take a squidgy little squid from the man.

"Hold it in a closed fist under the..."

Whoosh, a ray instantly sucks it into its mouth along with one of my fingers. It feels hard like a bird's beak but leaves barely a scrape.

"Ha, you got a love bite!"

Says the chap.

"Animals do tend to 'like' me."

I remark, half-jokingly. It's not the first time on a trip that the wildlife has tried to take a nibble.

Do the shuffle

I have failed at one of three vital instructions for an incident-free experience at Stingray City. My hand had barely time to close on the squid before a hungry southern stingray gobbled it up. The lesson:

Don't stand next to the nice man with the bucket, no matter how engaging he is!

But seriously, if you feed the rays make sure all your fingers are tucked in. However, the most important rule for Stingray City is pretty simple: do the shuffle. Climbing down from the jetty moored on a shallow sand bank in Mercer's Creek Bay, you must shuffle your feet along the silky seabed to disturb any sleeping or bottom-feeding rays and avoid stepping on their tails.

Although I've been lucky enough to see stingrays, eagle rays and blue-spotted rays before, I've always kept my distance. On the speed boat ride out to the jetty I ask our dreadlocked driver Scooby Doo about the wisdom of getting up close with them. He must get tired of being asked about Steve Urwin, the crocodile hunter who was famously impaled and killed by one.

"It was a freak accident. They spooked the ray. The cameraman was in front and Steve Urwin was behind and the ray swam backwards into his chest. Rays are not aggressive and they only sting out of self protection."

Says Scooby. This explanation, plus the knowledge that this professional operation has been running safely for several years, reassures me just enough to get into the water.

Gracefully gliding through the calm translucent sea, the rays seem gentle, so long as you aren't in possession of their lunch. I'm not sure I want to "hold" one – they aren't puppies after all – but it's part of the Stingray City experience, providing an interesting photo op for visitors. This is where rule number three – don't lift a ray out of the water – comes in. Their gills are on the top of their head and so exposing them in the air is uncomfortable and ultimately suffocating. I stroke one instead – he doesn't seem to mind. Then Scooby encourages me to stand in front of one with my hands placed on the soft white underside for a nifty photo op. Standing on the dock, our photographer Jana Crowne immortalises the moment, before I apologize to Mr Ray for imposing on his space and swim off to snorkel around the fringing corals.

Back at Stingray City's headquarters on the edge of north-eastern Antigua's deeply-notched coast, the crew dole out the fruity rum punches at a small bar. The colourful wooden building has a neat briefing area, changing rooms, showers and toilets, and a wide lawn with picnic benches where you can tuck into barbecue food. Combined with the empty platinum sands and aquamarine waters of this unspoilt part of Antigua, it would be a neat place to spend the afternoon.

I meet friendly operations manager, Bernie Concepcion, who had given the group a fun and thorough induction before we boarded the small motor boat out into the bay, and runs the place like a professional dive centre. I mention to Scooby that we have to head off soon, as we're on a four-by-four island tour. He asks who my guide is. Kenrick from Tropical Adventures' Island Safari I tell him.

"Oh, he's a really good guy. Tell him Scooby says hi."

Of course they know each other, it's as if everyone in Antigua went to the same school. It's another example of the warm island camaraderie, where most people seem genuinely fond of one another.

Bitter sweet

Kenrick's enthusiasm for Antigua is infectious.

"Am I talking too much?"

He asks as we listen to him bring the island's history to life. From every new vista seems to spring an interesting fact or historical anecdote. As we round the edge of giant Willoughby Bay – Antigua's largest – Kenrick says that it was once the site of the first town established by freed slaves in Antigua – Bridgetown – which disappeared when a major earthquake created the bay in 1843. Hard to believe today, but Antigua does actually sit within one of the Caribbean's most seismically active zones. The next-door smoking volcanic island of Monserrat is the most recent manifestation.

We stop at Betty's Hope, a restored 17th-century stone sugar mill atop a balding sun-baked slope dotted with a few mature trees, with sweeping views over the now-overgrown plantation fields and a museum housed in the old out-buildings. The place is tinged with a sad history but still there is a desolate beauty about it. Kenrick lightens the atmosphere by telling Jana and I that sugar used to be measured in Hogsheads. Thankfully not actual hogsheads, but it does make you wonder about the origins of the peculiar name. It was once the centre of one of Antigua's biggest sugar plantations and is said to be named after the daughter of Codrington, a British colonial plantation owner with much influence in the region. The British government even leased sister-island Barbuda to Codrington in exchange for "one fat sheep a year if requested". The island's capital still bears his name.

When I ask Kenrick how he knows so much he says simply:

"I'm a professional."

And credits his grandmother who raised him and oral island history as much as reading and traditional learning. He sure knows lots of people too, as shown by the frequent beeps and greetings as we tour around the island. It seems the story of Antigua's ancestors has been very much kept alive in the public consciousness but there is little bitterness and resentment, more a kind of pride that these people survived such adversity and eventually thrived. There are stories of extreme brutality but of hope and brave resistance too.

There are still places that are yet to be uncovered, such as the Montpelier sugar factory, off the beaten track in the south-east, where the 19th-century steam engine, machinery, windmill tower and work buildings are stood decaying amid the lush undergrowth. The factory used to make muscovado sugar but was decommissioned – or from the looks of things abandoned – in the 1950s. We find a security guard in the shade of the old estate house and he's happy for us to wander around the atmospheric grounds. He offers to show us a cave where he discovered piles of shackles and a mass slave grave, and for a minute we are torn between horror and curiosity, but Kenrick finally decides we must be on our way.

We pass through the town of Bethesda, which has a donkey sanctuary, and stop to let some kids in classic catholic school uniforms of white blouses and pleated skirts cross the road. Kenrick tells me that Bethesda actually had the first school in the West Indies established by Christian missionaries in 1830 to give the children of slaves an education. Locals lull under a wide canopied old tamarind tree and we linger to see the monument to the striking sugar cane cutters who met beneath the tree in 1951 to discuss terms for better wages and working conditions. They were led by then-future first president V.C. Bird, who seems very much loved and respected in Antigua. According to Kenrick, the plantation managers had got away with paying workers barely enough to exist since the abolition of slavery. When the workers finally decided to strike the sugar barons said they would starve them into submission, but the workers stood strong, foraging for widdy-widdy and cockles to stave off hunger until a settlement was finally reached.

Rounding a bend of a hill we slow to give way to a thin old rasta riding a handsome grey donkey. Jana hops out to get a picture while I can't help but go up and stroke the donkey's nose. The man's a little sozzled but friendly, asking me if I'm married and telling me his donkey is named "Selassie" after the Rastafarian messiah. I'm not sure it's right to be riding the donkey but the man surely weighs less than a plump child. Kenrick says the man is basically your harmless old village crank but he takes good care of his pet donkey.

National treasure

After the capital St John's, English Harbour in the south of the island, is probably the second most important place in Antigua. Today it forms a trendy yachting hub together with more modern Falmouth Harbour, but it's been the focal point of activity for centuries. Around its edges, the remnants of British colonial fortifications and lookout posts are strewn across the green humped hills of Nelson's Dockyard National Park, named after the little Georgian dockyard that sits at its naval. We circle the hills that roll down to English Harbour scarred by the ruins of 17th-century munitions stores, officers quarters and forts, taking in the serene view from the Blockhouse and Shirley Heights where the restored lookout is now a bar and eatery. Beyond the springy lawns that slope downhill, you can apparently hike along the Lookout Trail to Nelson's Dockyard, which I intend to explore on another trip. In fact, according to website there are a few scenic walking trails to try in the area.

Driving round the high ridge to Archibald Dow's Hill fort we catch a glimpse of the enormous receiver dish on the Signal Station that Kenrick says was the first place to capture astronaut Neil Armstrong's message back from the moon and transmit it to the rest of the world – not a bad claim to fame. Part of Dow's Hill fortifications have been transformed into Antigua's Interpretation Centre, which offers a 15-minute animatronic show with the rather lovely name Reflections of the Sun. Inside the cool air-conditioned building we are plunged into darkness before a audio-visual spotlight show takes us through the history of Antigua from the non-partisan sun's viewpoint, as the voice of a child asks it questions. It's simplistic and easy enough for kids to understand but also quite clever. Emerging back out into the dazzling sunshine I feel I have a clearer sense of place.

Approaching the entrance to Nelson's Dockyard I have the odd impression of arriving at a quaint Cornish seaside village, all little lanes and lamps and rambling buildings with low-slung roofs and wooden beams. Famously named after Lord Admiral Nelson who served on the island early in his career, it was once a bustling boatyard servicing the empire's Caribbean expeditions and incursions but today it's the perfect picture postcard of peace and tranquillity. This living museum is the oldest preserved Georgian dockyard in the world and it's soon to become a world heritage site. Strolling along its manicured lanes to the museum, quaint shops and eateries tucked away in cute shuttered stone brick cottages and former storehouses, there is a distinct nautical antique feel to the place.

We spend a few moments perched on anchorage stumps at the languid sun-flooded dockside, trying to catch the breeze and listening to the sound of the radio drifting out through a yacht's open porthole as a white scotty dog surveys us from the deck. Beside us a gigantic antique anchor lays on the neat lawn, and beyond that the fat rounded stone pillars of the former boathouse look like the columns of an ancient temple. They now form the backdrop of the Pillars restaurant, part of Admiral's Inn hotel that's housed in one of Nelson's Dockyard's attractive heritage buildings. We head for its cool stone interiors where we end the afternoon with PR Charlotte Williams browsing its awesome exhibition "Antigua" that showcases large-scale artistic aerial images of the island taken by British photographer Tommy Clarke while dangling head-first out of a helicopter.

Happy hours

I originally intended to get an early night before catching the dawn flight to sister-island Barbuda tomorrow, but our venue for dinner – Papa Zouk – is not the sort of place you would ever want to leave in a hurry. At the ultra deluxe rum shack on the outskirts of St John's, the clock-watching stops around half-way through our first house rum cocktail – the Ti punch – that delivers quite a kick. In terms of quality of food and mind-blowing variety of rums, the place is positively gourmet. The atmosphere is happy, easy, rustic, authentic and colourful exactly as owner Bert intended, who opened the place to honour his dear departed friend Papa Zouk. He wanted the place to channel the spirit of carefree happiness that Papa Zouk taught Bert when he first came to the Caribbean. Joining me at the table, Bert tells me that Papa Zouk was an old deaf and dumb man who worked at a hotel in Dominica and slept in the storeroom. For all his misfortune he was always smiling and happy, and whenever he felt the vibrations of French-Creole Zouk music he would begin to dance.

Everyone says we have to try the house "bouillabaisse", a sort of French-Creole seafood gumbo. I'm not a massive seafood lover so I approach it with caution, but it is actually one of the most mouth-wateringly delicious dishes I have ever tasted; the sort of food that makes you salivate just thinking about. Bert tells me that it takes two days and lots of onions to get the rich deep flavour. It's served topped with large cheese crutons much like French onion soup. We share a selection of tapas-style starters including yummy conch fritters, before a main course of pan-fried snapper. Bert tells me that when Robert de Niro dropped in for dinner he said the snapper was the best he'd ever had. I'm guessing that's quite a compliment considering his penchant for fine dining and stake in Nobu.

After dinner I ask Bert about Papa Zouk's magnificent rum collection – row-upon-row of rums from all around the world. He says that in fact much of his original collection was lost when Papa Zouk's burned down more than a year ago and was swiftly resurrected. Ever the optimists, Bert's friend suggested they pour the surviving rums from their blackened bottles into a barrel to create a unique Papa Zouk rum. I'm chuffed when he asks if we would like to try it. I happily quaff the richly-layered smoky yet smooth liquorice-like rum, probably the best I've ever tasted, and float off blissfully into the night. This might just be one of the best liming spots in Antigua, and with Bert around for an interesting and animated conversation, it's easily one of our best night's out on the island.

To read more about my experiences in Antigua, look out for my final instalment on this trip: Lasting Impressions of Antigua.

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Sasha Wood

Travel Muse

An assorted adventurer, nature lover, wildlife enthusiast, culture vulture, and beach buff - my...

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