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Safari so good - a four-by-four tour of Antigua

Shaped like a hibiscus flower on the map, with rag-edged petals of land unfurling into the ocean, Antigua's parallels with the tropical plant don't stop there. Travelling around, the island is magenta-bright with paint and sunshine, sweet and unmistakably exotic; and like hibiscus, most of the landscape is edible. You can also find hibiscus blooms everywhere in Antigua from hedges to hotel rooms, so that I've come to think of it as an unofficial emblem.

Antigua's island safari

The Caribbean island feels at its most lush and tropical between the soft emerald peaks of southern Antigua, largely untouched and traced out by just a few undulating roads. The valleys and slopes are festooned in rich vegetation both wild and cultivated. Rows of spiky black pineapples - said to be the sweetest of their kind - sprout from bushes beneath Boggy Peak, herds of glossy goats graze the roadside, and everywhere there are boughs of strange overhanging fruit - nonis and soursop and golden apples.

Antigua's island safari

Jumping on the back of an open-sided jeep for a day-long island safari, I watched the green hills close in around us as we sped up the aptly-named Fig Tree Drive. Beside the road I spotted more familiar tropical fruits - mangos, papayas, lemons and the distinctive fringed fronds of the banana plants (known as fig trees in Antigua) that give this winding road its name.

Antigua's island safari - Fig Tree Art Gallery

We passed a deep ravine strung with zip lines and the charming Fig Tree Art Gallery, whose resident owner Sallie Harker I met in her garden beneath the enormous Antiguan Tree of Life on a previous trip. Said to have magical properties, the tree had created a spellbinding scene, blanketing the garden, wooden veranda and even the family's washing with pollen that appeared to be snow.

Sweet spots

Antigua's island safari

But despite measuring just 14 by 11 miles, not all Antigua is so steep and jungle-esque, in fact its topography is pretty diverse. My safari took me north and east through colourful timber villages to the other half of the island where the land levels out into grassy plains and shelf-like shores fashioned from ancient reefs.

Antigua's island safari - Betty's Hope

Close to Pares in the north-east, the fields used to be filled with the sugar that once defined the island. I visited the twin mills of Betty's Hope, a 17th-century sugar plantation that was the centre of the trade that saw thousands of people captured and forced to work in the cane fields in order to fill the British Empire's coffers. Today, the serene grassy knoll is a local meeting place as well as a sightseeing spot. On a Saturday, there was a large congregation sat beneath a tree listening to a sermon and a sound-system piled on a parked car ready for the party later.

Antigua's island safari - Betty's Hope

As if to prove his affinity with the island, my guide pointed out the flaming flowers of the flamboyant tree, then picked some tamarind leaves, rolled them in his hand, and told me to chew them for their subtle curry flavour. Nearby, we drove through the old Antiguan town of Bethesda, where the strike to end slave labour and the subsequent fight for fair wages is memorialized beneath the wide canopy of the Bethesda tree.

Animal attractions

Antigua's island safari - lizard

The animals are not shy in Antigua, and live side-by-side with humans, whether it's a banana-quit bird nipping into a bar for a quick sip of liqueur, or a southern ray gliding in for a squid supper at Stingray City. My resort at Carlisle Bay has its own little ecosystem that includes lizards of all shapes and sizes, tree frogs that supplement the soundtrack at night, little exotic birds who think nothing of popping into the bars and rooms for a visit, and hermit crabs who roam the resort after dark. The resort has even integrated them into the programme with a lizard-spotting hunt aimed at kids, and snorkelling and kayaking trips to discover the aquatic creatures that inhabit the bay.

Antigua's island safari - Stevie Wonder donkey

Near Bethesda, the islanders have set up a sanctuary to house the hundreds of donkeys that roam wild. A 35-acre enclosure currently provides a safe haven with food, water and shelter for more than 150 donkeys, including a very pregnant-looking one and "Stevie Wonder," a friendly blind donkey. When I visited at the end of my island tour, they were gathered munching hay and looked to be in good shape. Visitors are encouraged to interact with them and give them a brush down. Although the sanctuary is free to visit, it survives on donations.

Antigua's island safari - donkey sanctuary

From furry quadrupeds to the puppy dogs of the sea, the islanders have cultivated a relationship with the local stingrays of Mercers Creek Bay to create a visitor attraction that's accessible as an add-on to the island safari. From their base at the edge of the bay, Stingray City's Scooby took me out in a skiff to the offshore platform planted on a shallow sand bar. On the way I spotted magnificent frigate birds hunting in the mangroves like miniature pterodactyls and giant pelicans diving for fish.

Antigua's island safari - stingray city

The viewing area is like an open water aquarium where visitors immerse themselves waist-deep in crystal-clear water and wait for the enormous dark shapes to appear beneath the water. A little unnerving at first, the rays are friendly and docile. They seemingly like to be stroked and are clearly happy to be fed little squids. Unsurprisingly, it's a selfie-fest, with visitors encouraged by the crew to be pictured holding the rays. Equipped with a mask and snorkel, I spotted other underwater life lurking in the fringing coral heads - pretty angelfish, pink squirrelfish and bulky napoleonfish.

Antigua's island safari - stingray city

Instant immersion

Returning to Carlisle Bay at the end of the day with a head full of stingrays, donkeys, sugar and noni fruit mixed with a little rum punch, a clear impression of the island had taken shape in my mind. A jeep safari around Antigua must be the single best way to get to know its landscape and inhabitants - offering glimpses of local life and heritage, and an overview of its diverse beauty.

Antigua's island safari

It would be impossible to see all Antigua's attractions in one day, but Island Safari offers different itineraries and tailor-made trips. If you've just arrived on the island, you can orientate yourself immediately. For me, having grown fond of the island last year, it was a particular relief to see no sign of damage from the storms that ripped through the Caribbean in September.


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From £ 1139 per person
Discover dreamy Caribbean beaches, exotic nature and historical Antiguan harbours

Discover dreamy Caribbean beaches, exotic nature and historical Antiguan harbours

This stunning Antiguan adventure will take your breath away

Type: Tour
Sasha Wood

Sasha Wood

Travel Muse

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

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