The twin islands of Antigua and Barbuda struck me as representing the timeless Caribbean on my first visit – a tropical archipelago of peaceful seaside settlements, friendly folk and sloping green platinum-dusted shores, in a region where overdevelopment and package tourism can sometimes smother natural beauty.
With a different stretch of sand for every day of the year, it was born to be a beach holiday destination but has managed its natural assets carefully. For me it offers a simple escape – a place that gently nudges you to relax, to get immersed in the great outdoors, swim and explore under the sun all day, and chill out with a muddled rum and live music under the stars at night.
With such fond memories of my last experiences there, I was alarmed to hear about Hurricane Irma swirling ever-closer to the islands recently. Fortunately, Antigua came through the storm and is reportedly in wonderful shape with infrastructure undamaged, hotels open for business and beaches pristine as always. But it’s difficult to believe that the Barbuda I knew is gone – for the first time in more than 300 years there is no-one living there – and I wondered if there was any way I could help (see more below).
Actually, one of the best things anyone can do for the twin-island nation is to visit Antigua now. I’m jetting off next month, and here are five really good reasons why...
Go to Antigua now
Although the Caribbean has had a really rough ride this storm season, Antigua has remained miraculously intact. Holidaymakers returning to the island this month report little sign of the hurricane. But sadly sister-isle Barbuda was shocked to its core by a direct hit from Hurricane Irma, which was the largest Atlantic storm in recorded history. As it begins the path to recovery, Antigua is keener than ever to welcome travellers to bolster the coffers and raise the funds needed to rebuild Barbuda. Staying away from the island during this winter would certainly do more harm than good.
Travellers who wish to help in recovery efforts can put themselves to good use at Antigua and Barbuda Red Cross, which is coordinating relief for Barbuda. You can donate money via the website too. To find out more, visit their site.
You can have a particularly ethical stay at Antiguan resort Carlisle Bay, which has introduced a program for guests who want to volunteer at the Red Cross during their holiday. Elsewhere, Elite Island Resorts has promised to match public donations to its Barbuda relief fund at GoFundMe.
Tempting island tours
I’ve heard about some alternative tours I’d like to try on my next visit. Like many islands in the Caribbean, rum shacks are as common in Antigua as pubs are in London, and there’s a new tour that will take you on a crawl of the best. A trip around the island’s tipple stops wouldn’t be complete without dropping into Papa Zouk’s rum shack in capital St Johns. Last time I was there I got to try the amazing house bouillabaisse, Ti'Punch, and sampled proprietor Bert’s unique firewater made from the remains of the shack’s previous rum collection, which burned in a fire a few years ago. I’m very much looking forward to round two.
Alongside Barbuda, more distant Redonda and nearby Montserrat, Antigua appears as part of an archipelago more than an isolated island, with deeply indented shores and dozens of islets sprinkled in a halo of light blue created by the islands’ encircling coral reefs. These curious largely-uninhabited islets with rare species, castaway beaches and pristine reefs – some of which are part of the North Sound National Park – make Antigua a great place for an island-hopping tour.
To the north, breakaway islets offer a private escape, with Jumby Island home to one of the Caribbean’s most exclusive properties. Tiny Prickly Pear island is popular for picnics, while Bird Island – named for its shape rather than its inhabitants – is within the bounds of North Sound National Park and is the nesting spot for the world’s second rarest snake, the Antiguan racer. Apparently there are caves to be explored on York Island, while a stop at untouched Green Island is a chance to snorkel the offshore reefs and spot spectacular aquatic animals like turtles and rays. As a bonus, some sailing tours include a snorkel around Antigua’s giant Cades Reef that creates a natural barrier around the south of the island and harbours an extraordinary range of colourful sea creatures.
Antiguans have a particularly strong sense of their history and surroundings, and a new tour takes travellers to visit the island’s oldest settlements where you can see good examples of this old "skirt and blouse" architecture, named for its stone first story and wooden top. Traditional West Indian architecture – a blend of Amerindian, African and European influences – has fascinating adaptations to the climate that include wide shady verandahs and high sloping roofs, taking account of the windward side of the house and position of the sun. As part of the tour, you can meet local elders and learn about native natural remedies, old customs and heritage stories handed down from generation to generation.
Escaping the onset of winter
Nine hours flying due south across the Atlantic and you can magically roll back the seasons to mid-summer. Antigua’s temperature hovers around 30 degrees Celsius in the winter with blue skies and blinding sunshine only occasionally interrupted by a tropical downpour. When you’re liming at Shirley Heights Lookout with a rum punch in your hand, live reggae in your ears and a sublime view over English Harbour, the dark grey days and leafless trees of the UK will seem a million miles away.
This ex-British colonial Caribbean enclave can sometimes feel at once strange and familiar – renowned travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor described part of the interior as like an undulating English heath – and I plan to harness that feeling on the walking trails around English Harbour. Leading along steep green hillsides that unfurl into the ocean, two paths converge on cottagey Nelson’s Dockyard, which could easily double for a Cornish dockside on an unusually hot summer’s day.
A deeper look at history
On my first visit to Antigua I scratched the surface of its history as a British-controlled naval base and sugar colony, but I’m looking forward to delving deeper on my next trip. Travel author Patrick Leigh Fermor detailed his journey through the Caribbean during the 1950s in his book The Traveller’s Tree, so I thought it would be fun to follow in his footsteps in Antigua and compare his recollections with the scene 60 years later. In the book he visits St John’s Cathedral and a once-dilapidated, now UNESCO-listed Nelson’s Dockyard:
“All over the flat promontory that jutted into English Harbour stood the crumbling impedimenta of an eighteenth-century naval base.”
And takes a tour of Lord Admiral Nelson’s old quarters. He also seeks out an old reservoir nearby where Nelson is said to have engraved his initials beside numerous other old mariners.
A bounty of beaches
Tropical island clichés be damned – Antigua is the stuff Caribbean dreams are made on with palm-tufted white sand beaches aplenty. Although I enjoy searching for uncrowded off-road beaches, it’s impossible not to stumble upon hundreds on Antigua’s coast.
A cursory glance in any direction reveals a glistening beach, and they all come in different flavours and colours – pink, peach, white and black sands with resorts, beach bars and facilities or nothing but forested hills. Ffryes Beach in the south-west is one of my favourites for Dennis Beach Bar and Restaurant perched in the corner, wide platinum sands, phosphorescent blue waters and a local feel. Half Moon Bay is particularly special owing to its S-shaped bay and low cliffs with clay mineral deposits you can slather onto your skin.
On my last trip I only glimpsed the idyllic iridescent hues of Jabberwock Bay from the boat and would like to spend at least an hour or two swimming from its sea grape and palm-backed beach during this visit.
Antigua, again and again
Antigua is definitely a go-to place for a strong dose of tropical island bliss. And with the twin-island nation more in need of our support than ever, the UK winter setting in, plus so much to explore on this little island, I’m delighted to be visiting again now, and many more times in the future.