The colorful downtown St. John, Antigua. photos by Jean M. Spoljaric.
Antigua: British Colonial Charm and Outdoor Adventures
Although Antigua, a former British colony, is now an independent nation, the island still retains many English traditions. The capital, St. John's, is dotted with colorful weathered plantation style houses with corrugated iron roofs and louvered verandas. Beaches, resorts and dramatic scenery attract visitors just north of the capital, while the historic harbors of the southern coast bear vestiges of the country’s glory days as a strategic naval port.
During my short time on this Leeward Island, I managed to pack in some serious fun. I snorkeled amongst the many colorful fish and some of the most pristine reefs in all of the West Indies. I had fun sailing on a little Hobie Cat and I zip-lined through the rain forest. I explored Devil’s Bridge, where years ago the enslaved Arawak Indians would throw themselves into the sea.
And, I visited Betty’s Hope, a former sugar plantation with stone windmill towers that seemed to reach the clouds. I don’t know if it was good luck or if it was divine intervention, but it just happened to be ‘sailing week’ in Antigua.
Naturally, the sailor girl in me was drawn to the docks where I danced the night away drinking local rum with some sailors in English Harbor. It was here that I even managed to fall in love with a donkey!
As I prepared for my very first trip to Antigua, the emphasis was on taking up residence at an all inclusive resort that was conveniently located for a full exploration
A waterview room at the Grand Pineapple Resort on Antiqua.
of the island. I found just the spot in the Grand Pineapple Beach Resort midway on the north shore of this island that claims 365 turquoise water and sugar white sandy beaches.
Although my five-day jaunt wasn’t long enough to count them all, the ones I was lucky enough to see were glorious and as advertised. The very first thing that hits you when you arrive at the Grand Pineapple is the brilliant, white curve of beach that sweeps along 1,600 feet of stunning waterfront.
Lapped by water so clear and gemlike that it glistens like liquid sapphire, this resort totally embodies the ultimate Caribbean experience. And, it’s the best kept secret because you won’t find a better bargain. And, as they cater to honeymooners and families, I traveled family style for this trip. We were not disappointed!
Location is Key
Antigua (pronounced An-tee'ga) and its sister island, Barbuda, are located in the middle of the Leeward Islands in the Eastern Caribbean, roughly 17 degrees north of the equator. To the south are the islands of Montserrat and Guadeloupe, and to the north and west are Nevis, St. Kitts, St. Barts, and St. Martin.
Devil's Bridge at Indian Town National Park.
Antigua, the largest of the English-speaking Leewards, is about 14 miles long and 11 miles wide, encompassing 108 square miles. As far as getting around goes, you’ll need to rent a car or take a taxi. English is widely spoken and the US dollar is accepted, although EC (Eastern Caribbean) is the main money exchange.
Great for Brits and Yanks
This makes it a comfortable place to go for both British and American travelers. New York airports now offer reasonably priced non-stop, four hour flights to Antigua, so it makes it’s a no brainer if you’re looking for a quick getaway to escape the winter doldrums or the hectic lifestyle of everyday living.
Indian Town National Park and Devil’s Bridge Indian Town Point are located on the eastern extremity of the island. It’s thought to have been an Arawak campsite prior to the arrival of the European colonists. Island rumor has it that many slaves took their own lives by jumping off Devil’s Bridge and into the watery grave below to escape the tortures of bondage.
Windmill at Betty's Hope Sugar Plantation.
This large, naturally carved limestone arch on the shoreline overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and it offers one of the most spectacular sights on the island. At high tide, the rougher waves force enormous geysers of water through boreholes in the slippery rocks near the bridge. These ‘blow holes’ can catch you off guard as the water explodes through them.
Guided tours of the site are available, but you can tell any taxi driver to take you there and explore the area on your own. Birders love the park for its 36 different species. Whether you pack a picnic lunch and spend the afternoon or just a short time relaxing next to the crashing surf, its stunning natural beauty will almost certainly awe you.
Betty’s Hope Sugar Plantation
In 1674, Sir Christopher Codrington came to Antigua from Barbados, built a sugar plantation, and named it after his daughter, Betty. Betty's Hope was the first large sugar plantation on Antigua and its success led to the island's rapid development of large-scale sugar production. Although the only surviving structures
are two stone sugar mills and what remains of the still-house, the site's importance in Antigen history has prompted the government to begin developing it as an open air museum.
Zipping along the zipline.
If you drive around the island, you will notice about a hundred or so stone windmill towers that are a part of the Antiguan landscape, but the two restored examples at Betty's Hope provide a dramatic sense of the way these mills must have dominated the island during the years that sugar production was the dominant industry.
I recommend visiting Betty’s Hope after Devil’s Bridge as the two sites are only a short distance away from each other and each can be seen in a short amount of time.
Zip-Line Through The Rain Forest
Antigua's most picturesque drive meanders from the low central plain of the island up into the ancient volcanic hills of the Parish of Saint Mary on the island's southwest quarter. The bumpy roads pass through areas of lush vegetation and rainforest and rise to the steep farmlands around Fig Tree Hill (figs are what Antiguans call bananas) before descending to the coastline again.
Along the way are banana, mango, and coconut groves, as well as a number of old sugar mills and pleasant little churches. It’s not uncommon to see a few cows tied to a stake on the side of the road.
During my visit, I checked out Antigua’s Rainforest Canopy Zip-Line Tour. It’s a fantastic adventure nestled in this hidden tropical zone, complete with an Indiana Jones style suspension bridge and 12 super exciting double zip-lines.
The longest is suspended 328 feet over a gorge of fig trees tucked in Antigua's countryside. My two-hour tour was exciting and I felt very safely attached to the state of the art double latched zip line. I zipped from tree house to tree house with my thirteen-year-old daughter and, although the tree houses seemed a bit rickety at times, we were all smiles.
My favorite area was the fifteen square miles of Nelson’s Dockyard National Park in Antigua's graceful and evocative historic district. Developed as a base for the British Navy back in the great age of sail, the harbor served as the headquarters for the fleet of the Leeward Islands during the turbulent years of the late 18th century.
Sailboats in the harbor during race week on Antigua.
Although the dockyard was greatly expanded at that time by Horatio Nelson, it was gradually abandoned in the nineteenth century and was closed in 1889. Today Nelson's Dockyard has been completely restored and is now the only Georgian Style dockyard in the world. Aside from all that history, the English Harbor area is by far the most fun spot to go on the island for night life, sailing week or not.
I danced the night away at the Mad Mongoose--check out Abracadabra for some homemade limoncello. I never made it to the Yacht Club, but I here that’s a fun spot, too. Don’t go too early, as most of the fun starts after 10 pm.
In Love with an Ass
Undoubtedly, every place I travel I seem to fall in love with the animals. In Thailand, it was the elephants and in Spain, the bulls. So, it was no shock that in Antigua I fell in love with the donkeys. One in particular found a special place in my heart. I don’t know the donkey’s name but Jacko is his owner, I’ll always remember his soft fur, big brown eyes and gentle way.
The animal is owned by a local rasta man who hangs out nightly in English Harbor and, for the cost of a beer, you can pose and snap a picture with the donkey. Normally, I stay away from situations such as this, but my heart was drawn to this little guy.
Donkeys have become a bit of a problem in Antigua. In the 1960’s, the economic focus in Antigua began shifting from agriculture to tourism and the donkeys’ usefulness began to decline. Many were turned out to fend for themselves and, of course, have reproduced at will. This has resulted in a very large population of stray and roaming animals.
Jacko and his donkey.
While most of us appreciate the donkeys and their past importance to the nation, the fact remains that when allowed to wander at will, they invade farming plots and resident gardens and eat down the vegetation. They also present a risk on the roads, especially at night, and they need to be controlled.
Antigua’s Humane Society has recognized the problem at hand and have set up a donkey sanctuary located near Bethesda.
The Donkey Sanctuarywelcomes visitors to see and pet their 150 donkeys and is favorite stop for children and adults alike. It offers families a wonderful alternative to another day on the beach. Sadly, I learned about this place on my last day of vacation, a Sunday, and, like most places on Antigua on Sunday, it was closed. So, be sure to visit Monday through Saturday from 10-4 so you don’t get locked out.
Antigua; Caribbean Treasure
Antigua’s retention of much of its British heritage seems to be a comfortable fit for many visitors, especially the British. The equatorial winds make it a world class sailing venue and one has the choice of beautiful beaches; open or secluded. It’s not overly commercialized and Antiguan’s believe it is the center of the Universe. It remains a true treasure of the Caribbean.
More Helpful Information
My base of operations at the Grand Pineapple was a home away from home. The Sandals Resorts recently assumed operations at the all inclusive resort and refurbishments are underway in re-branding the resort. Many of the hotel’s guests, especially the British, are repeat customers, and, why not? It’s the best bargain in the Leewards, any place you go is within 30 minutes travel, and it’s small size, where the staff knows your name, lends a warm intimacy. We were always busy with activites on the beach and in the water; sailing, snorkeling, kayaking, playing games, and rejuvenating our souls. And, food and drink whenever you wanted it!
From piquant Mexican food and rich Italian pastas to savory Caribbean barbecue and overflowing buffet spreads, your hunger will have met its match. From the beach, walk up the hill and dine at the funky and famous Outhouse, operated by 85-year-old Miss Mary. This eccentric eatery is perched atop a cliff with a stunning panoramic view of the ocean. When you go, have the BBQ and a Wadadli beer and, bring a ‘sharpie’ marker, to leave your mark!
Getting to Antiqua
I flew American Airlines non-stop from JFK International Airport to the beautiful Island of Antigua, a short 4 hour flight and viola, rum punch in hand, I was in paradise! To book your flight to Antigua today contact American Airlines.
For more Information on Antigua and Barbuda
Other Cool Stuff
Check this web site out for great ideas and everything Antigua
Caribbean Adventures Tours by Island Routes
Jean M. Spoljaric is a regular contributor to GoNOMAD. Visit her GoNOMAD page to see all of her stories. She lives in NY State's Ulster County.