With 365 paragons of sandy virtue, it's little surprise that all paths lead to the beach on the diminutive Caribbean island of Antigua. But that doesn't stop visitors mixing it up abit with a boat tour, snorkelling trip or a tropical hike.
In the sailing capital of the Caribbean, it seems only fitting to head out onto the waves. So we find ourselves dockside on a hot Tuesday morning waiting to board Tropical Adventures' catamaran Excellence at the quaint Redcliffe Quay of Antigua's capital St John's.
Official trip photographer and my travel buddy Jana Crowne snaps a photo of the crew, headed by Captain Cleveland, who greet us as we board the large white beast for a complete day tour of the island's coastline.
Moving away from the brightly painted colonial-style buildings at this west coast waterside, the catamaran flanks a headland where 17th-century Fort St James' still-visible cannons once guarded the entrance to the harbour.
Sailing north into the calm Caribbean Sea to a soft reggae soundtrack, we scout out hidden deserted beaches and stop by a particularly stunning ribbon of white sand and turquoise water at Dickenson Bay, its beauty thankfully undiminished by the bold Sandals branding.
"Antigua has a curly coast."
Says our indispensible island guide. No, not Lonely Planet but something much better – islander Shamoi Richards who has a deep passion for the place and always puts a fine point on things. He has joined us for the circumnavigation trip, and we are gazing out from the captain's deck, squinting in the glaring sunshine and stiff breeze as the headlands, deeply curved bays and islets of Antigua's spectacular shores flash past.
From out here on the water it is clear that Antigua has much less development than similar Caribbean beach meccas like Barbados. Beyond Sandals, for instance, an unspoilt green promontory is indented with secret sugar-sand beaches. It's strange and pleasing to see so many Caribbean beaches as-yet unclaimed by resorts. In fact, Antigua's much-loved first president Sir V.C. Bird tried to limit hotel development to protect the island's natural environment, though there are now more than 60 resorts in the country.
Island of two halves
It's this special coastline that first caught the world's attention – a place where ancient mariners could find safe harbour, that became central to British naval operations in the Caribbean, and today is the region's sailing capital. For the most part, it's a smooth voyage as the catamaran deftly navigates through the shallow reef-protected waters and break-away isles. To the north we pass tiny Prickly Pear Island that's popular for weekend picnics, exclusive Long Island monopolized by the impossibly luxurious Jumby Bay Resort, and Bird Island, part of the North Sound National Park and the last refuge of the endemic Antiguan racer snake. One of the largest islets – Guiana Island – is currently tied up in a controversial development deal with Chinese firm Yida International.
"I have no real insight on the matter, but in any development it is important that we respect the environment... It is what makes us a paradise."
Comments Shamoi when I ask him about local protests against the project due to the ripping up of precious mangroves. These habitats are vital for a healthy marine eco-system, and islanders are rightly worried about short-sighted and profit-hungry international business riding roughshod over Antigua's exceptional natural bounty.
On the north coast's main shore there are some small hotels such as Ocean Point or the soon-to-open Hodge's Bay Club spaced out between little beaches of the purest white. The most alluring sight is the thin sliver of pale sand backed by nothing but sea grape and palms, known as Jabberwock Beach. As we round the north-east of the island the boat briefly breaks cover from sheltered water and the powerful Atlantic swell rocks and sprays the boat like a theme park galleon ride.
My skin and notebook are splattered with brine and thrilled yelps go up across the boat. One passenger becomes sea sick and is instantly seen to by the caring crew. As we cruise past the flatter, dryer side of Antigua, Shamoi explains that it formed from a coral shelf that emerged from the ocean thousands of years ago.
"The island has two halves."
Explains Shamoi when I ask him about Antigua's varied landscape. He also commented:
"The other half is much hillier because it was formed from volcanoes, and greener because the hills trap the rain and the soil is richer. There's actually a clay ridge running diagonally across the island from around Half Moon Bay to just south of St John's, where the two sides meet."
I listed and watch this real geography lesson come to life as we round the island and the landscape turns increasingly more verdant and vertiginous. In fact, this small but vital bit of info on Antigua helps me make sense of the land as I travel around, from the mysterious clay deposits at Half Moon Bay to the little black sand beach beside Rendezvous Bay.
Aside from its practical benefits to seafarers, Antigua's indented coast has provided the perfect conditions for countless idyllic tropical beaches to take shape, which are among the most picturesque in the world. Some people on the 360-degree catamaran tour try to keep count to see if the island's famous claim to have 365, one for every day of the year, is true. But it soon becomes clear that streaks of powdery peach and platinum sand are two-a-penny here, and as we drop anchor in a sublime bay of Green Island to the east of Antigua, all thoughts of facts and figures melt away.
Someone has sighted a couple of sea turtles, and I hurry to grab my snorkelling gear and get in the water.
After a quick safety briefing, the crew leads two small groups out into the clear water for a guided snorkelling tour of the bay's reef-encrusted shores and sand flats. As we set off I notice our guide Lincoln is trailing a bag full of white stuff in the water. I ask:
And begins to sprinkle bread near outcrops blooming with brain corals, anemones and sponges, attracting squirrel fish, sergeant majors, angelfish, butterfly fish and other fluorescent fellows. A chorus of "Mine, mine, mine!" goes up over the water as a few seagulls hover in to try and get a piece of the bait. It's a surreal moment to be floating among the remote reefs with an international group of strangers all quoting Finding Nemo in unison.
Suddenly Lincoln disappears beneath the surface and re-emerges with a large circular sea urchin placed in his palm.
"This is a white urchin. The spines don't pierce the skin. Try it."
And he slides it into my hand. In fact, it's an odd sensation like a nylon brush moving of its own accord across my skin. In sharp contrast to the black longspine, this urchin is almost cuddly. Lincoln dives down again and comes back up with a delicate pitted white oval shell that beachcombers often collect.
"This is its skeleton."
He says. And the group, comfortably treading water with their fins, pass the specimens around. I'm enjoying this aquatic lesson immensely and proceed to have a long conversation with Lincoln, all the while bobbing in the ocean. It's not the first time on this trip that I've made an aquatic acquaintance. It reminds me a little of the friendly interactions on country paths where it's almost impolite to pass another walker without greeting them.
The crash of white water on the horizon marks Conk Point and the edge of the sheltering reef. I'm drawn towards it like a moth to flame. Lincoln notices me staring and says:
"I know that look, you want to go out there don't you?"
I do, but I'm also in awe of the power of the Atlantic, and don't want the day to end in peril – save that for another time. Instead we move towards the sleepy sand flats of the bay where we have the best chance of spotting roaming rays and turtles. I lag behind the group hoping to get my own audience with a turtle, when I glance a stingray rippling across the bottom like a black shadow in the blue. I follow it and a short time later I catch sight of a turtle. Swimming down with it, I'm so excited that I almost forget to come up for air, though the ungainly safety float around my waist (compulsory) ensures I resurface rapidly.
Back on the boat, Jana brings me a gift. Earlier she went with Shamoi to take pictures of Green Island and do some beach combing, collecting three perfect white urchin shells on that same shore where Lincoln had given us a demonstration. The shells will make a delicate and lovely addition to my shell collection, though they are so fragile that Jana very sweetly puts them in bubble wrap to preserve them for the journey home.
She tells me that her and Shamoi laughed when they heard the calls of "Mine!" echoing off the bay, instantly recognising the seagull's line from Finding Nemo. While we were snorkelling they rounded the bay and discovered a private cabana set up by the uber exclusive member's-only resort, the Mill Reef Club, which owns the island and famously denied entry to Donald Trump.
Ode to the Big Sea
After feeding the fish their lunch, I've worked up quite an appetite myself and happily tuck into a cooked meal of barbecued chicken, salad, rice and beans served up by the crew. After a fellow traveller tells me the popular Antiguan food of battered fried conch is:
"Delicious, melts in your mouth."
I decide to try some. He announces he was joking, he's never tried it, but it's too late as I'm already eating it. Actually it tastes abit like the battered flying fish favoured in Barbados, and it's surprisingly tasty for a mollusc.
On the map, Green Island has the pointed ears, legs and tail of a cat providing plenty of protected waters inbetween for sea creatures and, of course, snorkelers. I jump in for a final dip before continuing our voyage but unfortunately my goggles are on top of my head and I lose them in the water. A game of spot-the-goggles ensues, with the kind boat crew attempting to locate them using snorkel masks.
Although the sea is clear, I find only a silver fork glinting half-concealed in the sand so we are forced to leave without them. The crew of the catamaran including Miguel, Lincoln and Sausage (his real name is something like Saucia so the crew call him sausage – everyone has nicknames in Antigua) are fun, friendly and professional, displaying expert sea skills in and out of the water, and even offering a sort of waiter service of fruit punch, rum punch and water to everyone aboard.
Setting off again, still travelling clockwise around the island, we sail past the famous coastal rock formation at Devil's Bridge where the Atlantic surf has pummelled the limestone into a bridge-like structure with waves crashing beneath it. Rounding the south of the island the coastal topography begins to change, becoming steeper and greener, gradually building towards the slopes around Fig Tree Hill and Mount Obama.
First we cross the mouth of enormous Willoughby Bay, said to have been reclaimed by the sea in an earthquake, before skirting the deep inlets of Indian Creek and historic English Harbour and Nelson's Dockyard with the accompanying hilltop lookouts of Dow's Hill and Shirley Heights. At the entrance to English Harbour, Shamoi points out some striking stratified rock formations, the Pillars of Hercules, within the cliffs. Natural erosion has moulded curved columns into the sedimentary rock and on a recent day off with his cousins, Shamoi says he managed to climb down to the base.
The south of the island is the home of Antigua's maritime history and modern sailing industry where Lord Admiral Nelson once lived and worked. Today it's the centre for international regattas as well as the renowned Antigua Sailing Week. The newer Falmouth Harbour is a deep and modern harbour designed for larger yachts and boats, where the mega superyacht Ice dominates the port like an almighty Smeg fridge in a cottage kitchen.
With the wind behind us we speed westwards and are joined by a pair of magnificent flyers. Two black-headed gulls keep level with the boat for a good five minutes, for fun or food it's difficult to know, but sadly we have run out of bread to reward their efforts.
Here in the southern waters we have a spectacular view of Antigua's most alluring beaches, which scud past like clouds in quick succession.
There's unspoilt Rendezvous Bay, which we will visit tomorrow on foot, Carlisle Bay, Curtain Bluff and Morris Bay, which we drove past on Bank Holiday Monday.
I adjust my eyes to take in the vivid opalescent waters of Darkwood, Ffryes beach where I visited Dennis Beach Bar, Valley Church Bay, Jolly Beach and Hermitage Bay backed by high green slopes and home to one of the island's most pleasant eco-resorts. As we sail back towards St John's to complete the circle, the sand-indented headlands and resort-studded Five Islands area completes the picture of Antigua's curly coast.
Returning from our 360-degree tour, I'm fortunate to find the help-yourself tea, coffee and snack area, and Tranquility Spa tucked away to the left-hand side of the Verandah Resort's central building.
Choosing a half-hour Wellbeing Massage from the spa's pampering menu, I drift off on the bed as soothing hands soften my muscles and knead away all knots. After a day at sea I still feel like I'm floating up and down on the waves and the crystallized salt on my skin acts with the massage oil as an extra exfoliant, so that after a frothy shower I feel as if I've been to a Turkish hammam.
An unseen tree-frog chorus plays all night on these green tracts of coastline, creating a chirpy backing track as I stroll up to Nicole's restaurant to try its Italian, French and Creole inspired food. Lamp lighting, candles and dashes of deep purple and red create a romantic aura in the elegant but relaxed and airy dining room, with wide shuttered windows propped open and wooden propellers whipping around below the vaulted ceiling.
The warm and courteous waitresses bring us a sampler of smooth pumpkin soup with a delicious subtle flavour before serving up stuffed portobello mushrooms followed by a spinach and ricotta raviolini. It's a hot and humid night, so we savour a bowl of refreshing vanilla and mango ice cream before following the sound of steel pan to the bar patio below, where a lean and muscular bendy man is doing an impressively low limbo in front of a crowd of guests. Following a swift rum night cap it's off to bed for a good night's rest in preparation for an exciting hike through rainforest to Wallings Dam, Signal Hill and Rendezvous Bay the next day.
To read more about Jana and I's adventures in Antigua, look out for First Impressions of Antigua Part III.