If there was a place designed for long lazy afternoons sipping cocktails in the sunshine, this is it. The slow pace of life in southern Antigua matches the simmering heat and the gentle rhythm of the iridescent Caribbean Sea sifting fine white sand onto its sublime shores. The best way to get into the spirit of the place is to go with the flow, and the island has recently introduced a new beach bar trail inviting visitors to do just that. Here I pick out some of the best places in Antigua to spend a day between the bar and the beach...
Hitting the beach bar trail in Antigua
On a hot and hazy day, the Rum Bus appears like a mirage. A red London bus exactly like the one I used to get to school parked up beside a beach in southern Antigua? Maybe I've had too much rum punch already. But, no, this is a new bar offering shelter and refreshments on a supreme stretch of sand – a beach club centring on a red routemaster that's seemingly been washed up a long way from home.
It has inventive cocktails, casual pub fare and the perfect position. Drinks are ordered through the bus window, and anyone who's taken the bus in London will smile at the surrounding panel that customers are encouraged to tag in black marker.
The bar's dark wood and red interior with bus-style seating extends out onto a grassy area bordering the beach where rowing boats have been transformed into Jacuzzis, reed-sided huts act as cabanas, and beanbags, cushions and sunloungers cluster between hammocks. One for a more energetic ambience and louder music, it's probably a good place to pick up the pace before a jaunt to the sundown jump-up at Shirley Heights Lookout that happens every Sunday and Tuesday.
A classic Caribbean liming joint stacked like a chattel house on an elevated corner of Ffryes beach, Dennis Beach Bar and Restaurant has both local charm and a premium plot above one of the best beaches on the island. Ffryes beach is my favourite Antiguan bay for its unspoilt Caribbean vibe. Antiguans come here to picnic, play and swim, and the water is the perfect depth, temperature, colour and calmness for an idyllic dip.
The place is renowned for its faultless freshly cooked fish, goat curry and chicken salads, and it lays on light live music on the weekends too. It's the ideal spot to fill my belly with good food before an afternoon of alcohol consumption. Inspired by the sea's beautiful blue hue, one of Dennis' tropical house cocktails – a Beach Bum or a Blue Lagoon – goes down nicely after a long lunch and a cooling swim.
A short hop south of Ffryes, Darkwood beach almost glows with supernatural beauty. A long ribbon of sand separated from the mainland by an emerald lagoon, when the sun shines on the sea here – which is most of the time – you have to readjust your eyes to take in the mesmerizing electric blue. Undeveloped and secluded, the peach-tinged sand is edged with grass, and there's little shade, so Darkwood Beach Bar offers a welcome shelter out of the sun to grab some snacks and sip on a rum punch. For lunch, the bar offers traditional island fare such as spicy chicken, rice and salad, plus customers can also use the free Wi-Fi, use the changing rooms and hire basic watersports equipment such as masks, fins, snorkels and paddle-boards.
Pretty Jacqui O's Beach House is far from rustic but it's not flash either – it manages to be the epitome of barefoot boutique chic, particularly appealing to girls and romantic couples. Beyond the bleached wood, open-sided beach house, visitors can park up at picnic tables in the sand, hammocks strung beneath palms, and crisp domed cabanas facing the opalescent ocean.
The bar's name is deliberately ambiguous. Apparently Jacqui O spent a summer painting on the beach here the year after JFK was assassinated, and I can definitely see its soul-soothing appeal. But the last owner of the bar was also named Jacqui O (O'Reilly), and owner Lance likes to let visitors decide which explanation is right.
Its stylish atmosphere extends to its food and drink offering that includes fresh lobster and island dishes such as conch fritters given a gourmet twist. But the attentive hosts at Jacqui O's aim to give customers the film star treatment, so waiters and chefs will try to rustle up anything you fancy.
You can also ask them to surprise you with a special house cocktail. My Sensation was delivered straight to my cabana on the cleverly-rebranded Love Beach, formerly Crabb Hill Beach. Incidentally, renaming places is something of a craze in Antigua where new titles replace the old less-attractive ones – Boggy Peak has become Mount Obama and Mosquito Bay is now known as Jolly Beach.
Keeping it simple, Turners is a classic beach bar serving up fresh snacks, salads and lunch plates under a wide airy verandah rimmed by a white picket fence. The staff also know how to create the perfect example of traditional island rum punch spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. But the main attraction here is the view – the bar opens onto an idyllic scene of soft golden sand merging into the turquoise depths of Johnson's Point. You can find a shaded spot under the new vaulted roof to enjoy the sea breeze or plot up beneath one of the bar's wooden umbrellas dotted along the top of Turner's Beach.
After revelling in a Caribbean cliche – cocktail in hand as the sun sets the western skies ablaze – a day of sunshine, swimming and shorts is best ended with a visit to a gastro rum shack. Papa Zouks in the island capital St John's is perhaps the island's hottest spot for dinner and a drink in the evening. Along with a stellar collection of rums, the place is renowned for its bouillabaisse and killer cocktails. If you are very lucky, owner Bert might let you sample his special Fire Water fashioned from various rums that survived a blaze at the shack several years ago. My advice – book a taxi back to your hotel in advance or you'll never leave!