It's a white hot day at Antigua's Half Moon Bay and I'm standing on the northern point slathering myself in the mineral-rich marine clay as deep indigo Atlantic waves crash against the blonde rock shelf, spraying me with a cool mist.
According to locals, the grey-green mud mixed with sea water is something like a Dead Sea mud mask or that uber-expensive skin cream "Creme de la Mer", so I want to make the most of this natural spa. After rounding the cliff onto Exchange Bay, I double back towards Half Moon's white powdery sands and let the mud wash away in the sheltered shallows tucked behind the curve of the bay, leaving just a little on my slightly burnt nose to shield it from the tropic sun. My skin actually does feel soothed and silky smooth like the claims of so many adverts.
This is Half Moon Bay's hidden bonus, an anomaly that could be the result of a clay ridge running diagonally across the island where its two geologic halves – volcanic and limestone – meet. But most people come to this remote beach in south-east Antigua for its unspoilt natural beauty. It's been cited as one of the world's best beaches and from the head of the peaceful green hillside it is a heavenly half-circle of turquoise-and-platinum perfection.
For the time being the only development beside the beach has been deserted since a hurricane more than two decades ago; a hotel mostly masked by thick foliage. But the word is that Replay Resorts have bought it and plan to redevelop the site.
Earlier that morning photographer Jana Crowne and I found ourselves in the village-like quarter of Redcliffe Quay, the heritage dockside of St Johns, sipping a decent cup of tea on the porch of Napoleon's Cafe. Visiting the charming island capital, where most Antiguans live and work, is an absolute must to get properly orientated.
Though not as manicured as some Caribbean capitals, it has a certain natural authenticity and plenty of attractive buildings. Situated in the west of the island on a large natural harbour, it's a visitor-friendly town, small enough to explore on foot and with plenty of shops, places to eat, a few key landmarks and a decent national museum.
Redcliffe Quay is the most atmospheric part of the town, deliberately kept as it was 100 years ago. The cluster of stone and candy-coloured clapboard buildings is divided by little lanes, lawns and a square dotted with mature palms, jacaranda and shak-shak trees. Tell-tale red telephone boxes signify its British colonial past, but the buildings are now filled with little boutiques selling local arts and crafts, beach bags and textiles, gourmet island produce such as hot sauces and chutneys and Fred's Ice Cream Shop with all sorts of home-made fruity flavours.
Just to the north, the larger Heritage Quay welcomes cruise ships in high season, but the wide red painted road that stretches from the main dock into the town is quiet today. This is also a traffic-free zone and the tourist board's information centre is just opposite the dock. We take a leisurely stroll past duty-free shops selling watches, jewellery, perfumes and cosmetics from lots of global brands and pop into the shopping centre stuffed with stalls and shops offering colourful Antiguan souvenirs.
Walking away from this modern area there are some aging colonial buildings with wooden eaves and latticework decaying in the salty tropic air. Over my head a ragtag of wires is strung from post to post revealing Antigua's slightly antiquated communications and electric system.
The skyline is pierced by the high twin domes of St John the Divine Cathedral, which lends the town an established air. Currently undergoing renovations, I can only skirt the perimeter and wander around the sloping garden studded by old tombs and gravestones, some embossed with marble and belonging to the 19th-century colonial set.
The National Museum is housed in an old municipal building surrounded by railings with the green locomotive from Betty's Hope sugar mill on display by the front steps of the grand arched entrance. I venture inside and pay a small fee to view the curious dusty archive of island history. There are hand-made displays explaining the significance of ancient artefacts linked to the Amerindians, who gave Antigua its original name, Wadadli. It's still in use today, and the national beer is named Wadadli among other things. There are exhibits on the island's rich ecology and coastal habitats, its sugar plantation days and even a life-size statue of national cricketing hero Sir Vivian Richards. Although low-tech, it offers a fascinating overview of the island, and I leave feeling that I've put more pieces of the Antiguan puzzle together.
After taking the road from St Johns across the island to Half Moon Bay, we visit another of Antigua's stand-out coastal features. Devil's Bridge is a narrow rock bridge across the side of a limestone karst plateau on the eastern edge of the island where fierce Atlantic waves slam against stone and blow up through the gap. It's an awe-inspiring and fun place where you can stand and wait for the Atlantic spray to soak you in the heat, but there's a disquieting air too, not just because of the raw power of the ocean but because of the stories of slaves who came here so desperate to escape a life of brutal servitude that they jumped to their deaths.
Our guide Kenrick takes us to the Roadhouse Cafe by Newfield village in a slightly elevated position east of Willoughby Bay where the Hardcore Reggae Band is practising for the Sunday jam. The band's lead guitarist is also Roadhouse's owner Zukai and they've won the island-wide calypso competition three times. The cafe is nearly empty so it's almost as if we have a private audience as Jana sips on a Wadadli beer, Kenrick enjoys a can of Ting, and I opt for the house rum punch. Lovely Lorna the chef cooks us delicious tender BBQ jerk chicken and yummy spinach rice and makes us feel right at home. She warns me not to overdo it with Susie's hot sauce as it has quite a kick. The band surprises us with a sublime reggae version of Ed Sheeran's Thinking Out Loud that's far less cheesy than the original.
This feels like an ideal liming spot and Kenrick says that on Sunday afternoons late into the night this place is a more authentic place to hang out than Shirley Heights, drawing mostly locals between 4pm and 1.30am with local food, the ubiquitous rum and a friendly atmosphere. They also have a special lime on Friday evenings where it is just $5 for food and a drink.
Back at my rather lavish base camp – St James' Club and Villas – I decide to spend the rest of the afternoon sampling its extensive facilities. I've booked a reflexology massage at the Tranquility Spa so I set out along the undulating path that winds between the two-storey villas on the hillside to find the spa centre. Perched on a veranda high above the ocean, catching a gentle sea breeze, the al fresco massage deck is a heavenly setting for a relaxing treatment. For an hour I lie motionless as my talented masseuse Jocelyn deftly works out all traces of knots or tension in my shoulders and back. Afterwards I feel light and giddy, like a weight has literally been lifted from my shoulders.
I pop into the Mamora Bay Bar down below and collect a cup of tea to consume on a sunlounger beneath the palms along the beach that fringes wide Mamora Bay. I wallow in the part-submersed water beds and pad along the floury sand to the watersports centre to borrow a mask and snorkel. Strangely, the visibility in Mamora Bay is about as clear as a sandstorm so nothing to see here, but over at the windward Coco Beach on the opposite side of this thin peninsula, the water is clearer and I spot a few fish weaving among the sea grass.
I decide to try paddle boarding instead and the friendly staff at St James' watersports centre are only too happy to give me a quick tutorial. I find my balance, the instructor shows me the paddling technique and he mentions something about wind beyond the jetty. I have to wear a life jacket and the bay seems so calm that I have no reservations paddling out into the distance on the flat water, gazing at the brilliant blue and the undulating shore and feeling a deep sense of peace.
My zen moment is interrupted, however, by the sensation that something else has taken control of my paddleboard and I'm being steadily pushed towards the far shore. I try to turn around and start back for base but I'm fighting a losing battle against the invisible current beneath. Then I remember the instructor's comment about a wind tunnel and I notice I am now directly opposite the mouth of the bay where white-tipped surf is crashing on the reef. I try to paddle sideways out of the stream but I'm still being pushed back so I concede and sit down for a minute on my board, letting it drift towards a deserted beach. I figure I can beach myself and drag my board through the shallows all the way back to the resort if need be.
Just then I spot a speed boat headed in my direction and as it gets closer I see it's the guy from the watersports centre. He gestures me over to the boat:
"I saw you out here and thought you might have got caught in the wind tunnel."
I laugh, and say:
"I'm sorry I should've listened to my instructor!"
At least I've learned a valuable lesson. He gives me a lift back to the protected part of the bay. Drying off in the sun after a swim, I watch a group of three paddle boarders stray out into the middle of the bay and get stuck in the same tricky spot. I fully empathise but it's a comical scene – they struggle against the current for more than half an hour as if on a watery tread mill, one falls into the water and is carried away to the far shore. Eventually two manage to break free, while the third has to be rescued.
It's our last night at the resort and we are fortunate to be there for the bi-monthly full moon party. After dark, Mamora Beach has been transformed with carnival girls and strings of lights leading us onto the sand where a roaring fire reflects on the gently lapping water. There are rows of picnic tables and a fabulous spread of live cooking stations and buffet sides, an ice cream stand and dessert stall decorated with Thai-style carved fruit formations. Rum and fruit punches are flowing freely, and there's a sound system playing loud laid-back hits before a steel pan band treats us to some local rhythms.
After the feast, more live entertainment takes to the stage. It's the band from Sunday nights at Shirley Heights playing catchy reggae, soca and calypso alongside covers of famous tracks given the local treatment – the band's version of Bieber's Sorry is far superior. Even though this is a resort, they have successfully ushered in the Caribbean spirit. The atmosphere is light and jovial, lots of guests young and old are letting their hair down and dancing barefoot in the sand. It's a lovely final evening at St James Club.
Salt in the blood
Antigua and Barbuda's near-perfect curly coastline, the surprising variety of patinas, the marine life and the mariners and the sweet salty smell that pervades the island makes me feel quite besotted. My individual experiences have been amazing – floating in still opalescent waters, smothering my skin in miracle marine clay, snorkelling with green turtles, feeding sting rays in sandy shallows, beach-combing on a deserted pink and platinum shore, chopping across cobalt waves in a catamaran or zipping through mangroves in a speedboat – but I think there's more to it than that. US president John F. Kennedy once made a nice observation:
"It is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back from whence we came."
Beyond its status as the sailing capital of the Caribbean, Antigua is possibly one of the most beautiful places on the planet to reconnect with the ocean and get immersed in its wonders. One thing's for sure, I'll be going back from whence I came as soon as possible.