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Returning to Antigua after eight years away, Bridget van Dongen couldn’t wait to re-introduce herself to the island that made itself her home

  • Antigua map
  • Antigua’s Nelson’s Dockyard, a haven for sailing ships for centuries. Photo by DBimages/Alamy Stock Photo
  • The delicious view from Green Island. Photo by John King/Alamy Stock Photo
  • The Pillars of Hercules. Photo by Nikita Prokhorov
  • The Copper and Lumber Store, one of the historic buildings in Nelson’s Dockyard. Photo by Banana Pancake/Alamy Stock Photo
  • The view down to English Harbour. Photo by mbrand85/Shutterstock.com

Eight years ago, I took a chance, and moved with my family from Antigua to Trinidad. Two months ago, we came back home. While I wasn’t born in Antigua, I lived here for twelve years from the age of twenty-four. I met my husband here, and our daughter was born in Antigua. I became a naturalised citizen. We had a mostly good life with problems here and there.

So why did I leave? This magazine is one reason — during my eight years in Trinidad I was part of the editorial team for Caribbean Beat. But I never stopped thinking of Antigua as home — and, eventually, I decided the life I wanted for my family was here. The very day we returned, I knew we’d made the right decision. Since being back, we’ve won a pub quiz, had a curry lime for old friends, and I had the chance to play tourist with my friend Nikita, visiting from New York, which helped me to re-acquaint myself with my home.

On Nikita’s first day here, we started with a drive around the island. Starting from Halcyon Heights, on the hill above Dickenson Bay, we drove through the outskirts of St John’s, the capital, down to Jolly Harbour, on the west coast. Antigua’s recently had a lot of rain, according to my friends, so the countryside is lovely and green, with thousands of pale yellow butterflies everywhere. At Jolly Harbour we stopped for our first dip in the sea. The colour of the sea on that side of the island ranges from bright turquoise blue to a milky teal colour when the groundswells stir up the powder-white sand. Nikita wanted to stop and relax, and it was tempting, but I was on a mission. I wanted to get to Falmouth Harbour by lunchtime, as there was a specific place I’d been dying to visit.

But first there was the drive around the south end of Antigua. We drove past Darkwood Beach and remarked that we had to come back to try the Swash Inflatable Water Park, anchored just offshore. Then we turned through Urlings and Old Road, stopping to purchase some bananas and what is still, to me, the sweetest pineapple in the world, the Antiguan Black. Old Road joins the main road to English Harbour at Swetes, right in front of the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Hope — painted Pepto-Bismol pink, an unmissable landmark.

Cresting Horsford Hill, we finally saw the magnificent vista of Falmouth Harbour with its yachts at anchor, a sight I’d really missed. As we descended to the coast, I told Nikita about the time, many years ago, when a hurricane caused a landslide on that very hill, which everyone around pitched in to help clear — including my friend Caroline and me. A few years ago, Caroline and her husband Simon opened Papa’s by the Sea in Falmouth, with a beautiful setting right on the water. The beer was ice-cold and our lunch was delicious. When I remarked on the irony of a New Yorker ordering a roti from a British chef in Antigua, Nikita just kept chewing.

Leaving Falmouth, we drove past Willoughby Bay, through Bethesda. Apparently eight years away means misremembering certain roads, as I’d intended to navigate us to Devil’s Bridge, but we ended up instead on the road past Potswork Dam, the largest water catchment in Antigua. When I realised we’d taken a wrong turn, I rang my friend who runs PAAWS, an animal rescue organisation, in Parham — a village with a history as Antigua’s first British colonial capital, founded in 1632. Nikita loves animals, and PAAWS allows visitors to the island the opportunity to play with the rescues. We spent a bittersweet half hour playing with puppies and dogs, and lamenting that we couldn’t take them all home with us.

On our way home, we hit up Dickenson Bay — which, since I left, has become even more commercialised, with nearly every inch covered in beach chairs to rent. But that doesn’t take away from the loveliness of the water. So while Nikita enjoyed himself on a jet-ski and paddle board, I took a swim: the way every day in Antigua ought to end.

The next day was dive day. Nikita is an avid scuba diver. He’s dived all over the Caribbean, from Mexico to the Dominican Republic to Tobago — so there’s no way he would have missed out on Antigua.

We booked a dive with Indigo Divers in Jolly Harbour. Don McIntosh is an old friend, and he invited me to join them on a two-tank dive on Cades Reef, off the southwest coast. The last time I’d dived was in Tobago, where I was a little disappointed with the day’s murky conditions. Cades Reef was a different story: the water clarity was amazing, and we saw a wide variety of fish and coral. I thought we’d spot more lionfish, but we glimpsed only one, which our divemaster tried to spear, but just missed. She told us that because divers often kill the lionfish — a harmful invasive species — and leave them for other fish to eat, there are often black-tipped sharks hanging around the dive sites, but we weren’t lucky enough to see one. I did, however, manage to brush up against some fire coral. In all my years of living in the Caribbean and exploring its waters, I’d successfully avoided a close encounter with fire coral, and I’m glad — because weeks later my arm was still enflamed and itching.

The next few days were beach days, including that promised visit to the Swash Water Park. It’s a great way to tire out over-energetic kids (and adults). I was exhausted within fifteen minutes, but my daughter and Nikita had a blast for a full hour.

We also hosted a housewarming curry lime for a few friends, with lots of beer, rum, and laughter — and, of course, a Trinidadian chicken curry cooked by my husband. In true small-island fashion, I’d contacted someone on Facebook for something totally unrelated, and when I mentioned we’d be visiting Roti King in St John’s for the dhalpuri, this total stranger mentioned that his Guyanese mother made roti also. While it wasn’t quite as good as the ones from Ali’s in St James in Trinidad — sorry, mom! — it still mopped up that delicious curry and everyone loved the meal.

Two days before Nikita flew back to New York, we took another trip around the island, this time by sea. Adventure Antigua offers various boat tours, but my favourite has always been the Xtreme Circumnav. The staff on the boat were super-friendly, though the day started overcast and slightly chilly. All along the way, our guides pointed out areas of interest on the mainland, sharing tidbits of history.

The sun was peeking out by the time we stopped for lunch at Green Island. The menu was simple but delectable: barbequed chicken and pasta with salad, plus, I’m told, the best banana bread in Antigua. After lunch came a fast run down the east coast and into English Harbour — Antigua’s most celebrated historical site, and one of only a handful of working Georgian dockyards left in the world, a safe haven from storms for centuries. Named for the Royal Navy’s Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was stationed here from 1784 to 1787, Nelson’s Dockyard has a fascinating history, with well-preserved heritage buildings and a museum.

After a brief history lesson, we moored off the Pillars of Hercules, an unusual natural limestone formation at the mouth of English Harbour. It was time for some snorkelling. By now the sun had fully emerged and the water had warmed up, so we all stayed in as long as we could. Our last stop before home was Rendezvous Bay, for rum punch (delicious and quite strong), and then a run around the southwest coast, back up to Dickenson Bay. Along the way, we kept count of superyachts and multi-million-dollar homes on the shore, pretending they belonged to us. Doesn’t hurt to dream, right?

While it was a lot of fun playing tourist, by the time you read this, I’ll have started a new job (or begged for my old job back at the magazine). My mini-vacation was a great reminder why so many people come to Antigua to enjoy the tourist lifestyle. But when I sip my coffee each morning and look out at the incredible view from my balcony, I know the decision to move back to Antigua may have taken a while to make — but it’s one I won’t regret.

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