"It’s one of the sweetest spots in the entire Caribbean."
Says Speedy as we scud across the waves in his motorboat beside an immense platinum sand bar fringed in shellac pink.
We are bound for Cedar Tree Point at the very north-eastern tip of Barbuda where the shoreline is permanently streaked in cotton candy pink from thousands-upon-thousands of tiny iridescent shells produced by the thriving offshore reef. Next to the dusky blue sky the calm water has a distinctly teal tone and I just can't wait to get in, while my companion and photographer Jana Crowne is relishing capturing this splendid place on camera.
Speedy – our affable guide and manager at the luxury Barbuda Belle hideaway – points to a large mound of sand on the beach and says:
"Look. A turtle made a nest last night."
As I hop out of the boat, a baby shark appears, slaloming through the shallows. We choose to swim further north along the endless beach away from the potential currents of the point and spot half a dozen perfect Queen Conch shells atop a sandy knoll. Speedy tells me to take one and I'm pretty chuffed. It will be the crowning glory in my shell collection – I‘ve only wanted to find one for most of my life!
Nature's riches are certainly bountiful in Barbuda, a twin but far from identical to its bigger sister Antigua. Much flatter and dryer than Antigua with a mangrove-lined lagoon to the west that envelopes around a quarter of its area, it is basically a coral shelf risen from the ocean with low limestone cliffs on the windward side overlooking the fierce breaks of the Atlantic.
It's almost completely undeveloped and has just three hotels including the cottages of North Beach, luxury Coco Point and the boutique Barbuda Belle. A fourth resort – the K Club – once frequented by Princess Diana – is reportedly being revamped by Robert de Niro.
Earlier that day, Speedy had taken us to visit another of Barbuda's natural attractions. Aboard a shallow skiff, we weaved our way into Codrington Lagoon Park's Bird Sanctuary – a tangle of twisted bushy mangroves protruding from the metre-deep water. It is home to an enormous colony of primordial-looking magnificent frigate birds and harbours more than 25,000 mating pairs, not to mention other species such as brown boobies. As the boat eases close to the thick plumes of green mangrove, I can literally smell the density of the seabird colony and see countless nests packed with mature birds and weighty fledglings bleating to be fed.
In the clear sky above, the dark shapes of magnificent frigates wheel across the sky like miniature pterodactyls, their hooked wings spanning up to six feet. The males are famous for their large pink inflating pouches that they display in mating season, and the birds are known to travel an unbelievable 5,000 miles to world biodiversity hotspot – the Galapagos Islands. The magnificent frigates have also earned the local nickname "robber birds" and, as if to demonstrate, I see one dive into the languid warm water beside a small fishing boat to snatch a potential catch. There's no shortage of food, though, in Codrington lagoon where the mangroves act as a nursery for all kinds of marine life. Even a cursory look over the side of the skiff reveals silvery fish swimming about in the brackish water. Apparently this is a good spot for lobster too.
It's surprisingly easy to reach this little-explored island in the West Indies and the view from the window of ABM Air's tiny eight-seater plane that makes the short journey from Antigua's airport to Barbuda each morning is nothing short of a fantasy. Fading into view, a dreamlike vision of circular cream brushstrokes blended into solid green and bathed in a bright halo of turquoise blue. I can scarcely believe my eyes as a rainbow completes the picture, arching down from the clouds towards the cobalt waves below. I'm feeling lucky today.
Barbuda's airport in the south-west of the island consists of a small airstrip and a single-storey block where the check-in, security and departure gate is practically all in one room. It's right next to island capital Codrington, which was the first settlement, named after British sugar baron Codrington whose family controlled Barbuda for almost 200 years.
Today the little easygoing town of wooden chattel houses is the warm heart of Barbuda. It's clearly uncommercialized and has a simple smattering of shops selling fresh fruit and veg, a supermarket and the smallish Madison Square where locals gather for practically any occasion, enjoying barbecues and street parties on weekends and celebrating the annual carnival. Having left our hotel in Antigua at 5am that morning , we are keen to stop at a cafe and try the favourite local breakfast – a large brioche-style sweet roll warmed up with kraft cheese in the middle. I don't like the sound of it at first but the roll is surprisingly tasty.
I spot a sign on a small building "Rockstones Jazz Cafe", but disappointingly it's not open. There's a small but fascinating museum, like a curiosity shop stuffed with artefacts including Arawak and Carib Indian tools, an ancient skeleton discovered during excavations, and bottles, bowls and musket balls from the days of buccaneers and explorers. The island's sole primary school is in Codrington but the secondary was closed, so now older kids have to catch a daily ferry to St Johns in Antigua. Most of Barbuda's population of around 1,700 people live in and around Codrington but overall this is probably one of the sleepiest island capitals I've ever visited.
As we head east along Route 1 out of Codrington to Two Foot Bay National Park it seems the rest of the island is totally given over to nature. We spot guinea fowl and donkeys roaming free in the flat green scrublands, and dagger-like agaves shoot skyward sprouting marigold coloured blossom. As we edge closer to the wild and isolated east coast, the road becomes increasingly potholed and bumpy.
As the horizon turns cobalt blue I see that Barbuda is rimmed by a protective barrier reef, much like Antigua, and as I stare out at the mighty white waves, our guide says humpbacks and killer whales are sometimes spotted surfacing from the deeper waters. Unsurprisingly the coast is said to be littered with the skeletons of forgotten shipwrecks that foundered on the reef long ago. I imagine the ancient mariners who may have strayed this way, when the remote landscape would have been little different from today.
Near Two Foot Bay we find the stone remains of an old colonial lookout post with both lizards and crabs lurking in its crevices and fossilized brain coral mixing with the limestone debris. We approach a cave in a cliff face overlooking the sea and our guide leads us inside. I expect it to be a smuggler's type cave with little to be found but a dead-end but to my delight this is something out of Indiana Jones complete with menacing-faced entrance to a dark natural chamber. We crouch low and shuffle into a low wide passage to see mind-bogglingly ancient Indian petroglyphs decorating part of the cave wall – some kind of resin imprinted with little heads – noses, mouths and eyes staring back at me across the millennia. Our guide says this primitive artwork used to decorate the entire length of the wall but over the years people have chipped away pieces as souvenirs, which we both agree is a huge shame. I shine my torch onto the floor and notice dozens of tiny animal bones set into the dirt.
Beyond the low tunnel the cave opens up again into a dome-like space with part of the roof collapsed in. Vines and brambles tumble down into the cave, and in an almost mythical scene there in the centre a tree reaches up to the light, its roots wrapped around boulders. Another low tunnel, its floor covered in rubble, escapes off to the left, and there in the damp dark, hermit crabs sleep or waddle slowly about in their adopted seashells.
We hop in the four-by-four to travel alongside the high limestone shelf to another set of caves above the dramatic windswept white sands of Two Foot Bay. The remote curve of coralline sand strewn with broken branches, seaweed and other natural flotsam and jetsam shelves into clear cerulean-hued water in an enclave sheltered from the full force of the ocean. It's a true Robinson Crusoe beach if ever I found one.
Stranded seafarers and pirates would naturally have sought shelter in the caves, we've already found evidence that the Arawak Indians did. Our guide leads us up a steep rocky path between large aloe vera, sea grapes and bright pink blooms to the elevated entrance beneath a wide overhang. In the shade beneath the cave entrance there's a perfect view of the crescent bay below.
As we climb the sloped floor between stone columns and rubble, stalagmites drip down like melting candle wax and the walls are stained peach, green and white with mineral deposits. The roof closes in and I see light streaming in from above.
Very conveniently, the cave leads to a great lookout spot, a high weathered stone plateau above the bay. The russet ground is dotted with foliage including a wiry shrub studded with little blue flowers. We rest there for a moment on the edge, with no sign of civilization in all four directions, just the open blue sky and sea, and mile-upon-mile of wilderness.
"Why is it called Two Foot Bay?"
I ask our island guide and she answers:
"It's named after a slave who escaped a plantation by wearing his shoes backwards to confuse them about what direction he was going."
A simple yet brilliant act of resistance allowed Two Foot to outsmart his captors, and I love that the locals saw fit to honour it.
Ghosts of the past
The history of sugar production in the Caribbean is inescapably shocking, but I had been astonished when, back in Antigua, island guide Kenrick told me that Codrington is rumoured to have used Barbuda as a sort of breeding colony for slaves. He said that people captured in Sierra Leone were the tallest and strongest, so they would be sent to Antigua and told to procreate. Evidence from Codrington's accounts at the time suggest the rumour to be true as the slave population rapidly swelled on the island despite the lack of need for a large workforce. It was used mostly as pastoral land and subsistence farming and was not cultivated for sugar.
We visit the ruins of Codrington's main plantation pad called Highland House for its elevated position on a limestone plateau with panoramic views of the tawny countryside rolling out towards the sea. The crumbling structures have been reclaimed by nature, with cacti clinging to the tops of thick stone walls, sprouting window frames and steps hidden amid the undergrowth. I tread between the ruins tracing the layout of the rooms. The kitchen with an old stone baking hearth and carved limestone sink complete with a stone half pipe that would have presumably carried in water from a container on the other side of the wall, is the only place that shows signs of its former life.
A little wide stairway leads to collapsed masonry, framing the giant aloe vera at its centre and making it look almost regal emerging from the ruins like a spiky green crown. As we pick our way across the plateau, my guide points out the Cyackle tongue plant and shows me its iodine-like sap that's used by locals as an antiseptic, for insect bites and to stop bleeding. She says its fragrant leaves are also sometimes used to make tea. Like my Antiguan guides, she has a proud and useful knowledge of her environment that has been handed down through the generations.
In fact, a few days later in Antigua I scrape my big toe on a rough rock and ask our guide if he can identify me some cyackle. Sure enough he finds some at the roadside. I break a stem, cover my cut in the sap and it miraculously stops bleeding. Not only that, but it doesn't sting and it heals up really quickly. On the phone my encyclopaedic dad tells me I shouldn't be so surprised. He explains:
"You know aspirin comes from willow bark."
Well actually dad I didn't know that either, but now I can take a leaf out of Antigua and Barbuda's book and hand that knowledge down through our family generations. It might even come in useful next time I get a headache way out in the wilderness!
Belle of the ball
Our base on the island is the wonderful Barbuda Belle boutique hotel. One of only three hotels in Barbuda, it's a rare discovery. Meeting Speedy at Codrington Lagoon's dock, we are whisked away in his boat north across the water to this soul-soothing sanctuary on the north-western fringe. Perched on stilts above an immaculate desert beach of velvety soft sand, we are welcomed into the airy long house with delicious strawberry iced drinks and cold scented face towels.
Fashioned from natural materials such as cedar and bamboo, the architecture is grand yet understated with a pinch of Hawaiian Tiki, rustic Thailand and of course the Caribbean. It's the focal point of the hotel containing a French gourmet restaurant and bar with high vaulted ceiling and even a boutique shop in case you fancy a new bikini, some stylish beachwear or just some more suncream. The chic rustic interiors are to die for – I'm particularly taken with the tree-trunk cross section tables and the oval wedge of limestone carved into a bathroom sink.
Spaced alongside the main house between the sea grapes, cedars and grasses, six individual villa suites built in a similar style provide luxury accommodation that oozes barefoot elegance. The au-natural interiors belie the sophistication of the rooms. Each bed canopy, for instance, conceals a silent state-of-the-art Dutch dehumidifier that gently cools the area and each bathroom has a walk-in rain shower and oodles of L'Occitane products. The eco-hotel is completely off the grid with its own water desalination, sewage processing and electricity generation, and yet amazingly, you could want for nothing here.
If you prefer exploring to lounging on the beach, the hotel's dynamic staff have a clear appreciation for their locale and can take you scuba diving or fishing, hobie-cat sailing, on tours of the bird sanctuary, kayaking in the mangroves, turtle-watching or even to collect natural rock salt in the pans. They offer a completely bespoke service to everyone staying here. Teamed with the spectacular beauty of the location, I think the Barbuda Belle has nailed the notion of desert island paradise for me.
Fortunately, if you are visiting Barbuda for the day you can also make a reservation for lunch or dinner to stop by and sample the place for a few hours. At the bar sipping freshly-made juice I meet the owner of Coco Point who has just popped in for a drink. A fine cool mist issuing forth from a nifty machine tucked under the rafters allows us to comfortably sit out on the verandah in the midday heat and tuck into a hearty gourmet lunch. The hotel's French chef rustles up freshly baked bread, delicious cool gazpacho with crutons and herby perfectly-cooked rack of lamb with sauteed sides. It feels strange and deliciously indulgent to be eating such a masterly meal in such a remote location.
I'm delighted to finally spot an emerald hummingbird. It flits around our table then makes a fatal mistake, zooming straight into the window shutters and shattering my illusion of paradise as his little life is snuffed out in a heartbeat. We take a break from the table to bury him under a tree on the beach: in a true idyll such fragile beauty could never meet such a sudden end. Speedy revives my spirits by offering me a taste of Barbudan nectar – rich, sweet and smooth Wa'omoni honey sourced from the local cedar trees and called after the original Amerindian name for Barbuda.
Fit for a princess
One of the plus-points of a place this small is flexibility. We are so reluctant to leave the Barbuda Belle that Speedy rings the airport to tell them we may be cutting it abit fine. We are handed goodbye presents – small clear bags of pink sand as souvenirs of the trip – before zipping off in a boat around the coast and across the lagoon to the dockside at Codrington.
The other three passengers are still waiting to board the toy-like plane when we arrive at the solitary airport block. Jana and I are not accustomed to swanning around in speed boats and tiny aircraft. It all seems very glamorous and James Bond-esque. But a couple of local girls also catching the ABM flight find our excitement astonishing. I guess this is just par for the course in these parts! I'm not sure a foreigner visiting London would be quite so excited to catch the tube for the first time.
In Barbuda I found a side of the Caribbean that I wasn't sure still existed. Unspoilt and utterly beautiful with a distinctly remote feel, I can totally understand why a privacy-seeking Princess Di chose this island as her favourite hideaway. I could easily spend months, if not a lifetime, as a Crusoe-luxe castaway in Barbuda.