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Caribbean Beat Magazine

My Blue Heaven: Antigua & Barbuda

It’s the colour of the water that hits you first as the plane prepares for landing: turquoise and aquamarine and ultramarine and lapis and just about any lovely shade of blue you can imagine. You pinch yourself. Blink. And wonder: could that sand really be so white? Welcome to Antigua. Lisa Allen-Agostini succumbs to the charms of one of the Caribbean’s premier vacation spots

  • Palmetto Beach Hotel, Barbuda. Photograph by Sean Drakes/ Blue Mango
  • Janet's Place. Photograph by Allan Aflak
  • Barbuda's exclusive K Club. Photograph by Sean Drakes/ Blue Mango
  • Black bar soldier fish. Photograph by Allan Aflak
  • Past and present: the Copper and Lumber Store Hotel at Nelson's Dockyard. Photograph by Allan Aflak
  • Cricket at Antigua Recreational Ground. Photograph by Allan Aflak
  • Redcliffe Quay. Photograph by Allan Aflak
  • Jolly Beach Hotel. Photograph by Allan Aflak
  • Jolly Beach Hotel. Photograph by Allan Aflak
  • Jolly Harbour. Photograph by Allan Aflak
  • Beach near Fryes Point. Photograph by Allan Aflak
  • St John's Anglican Cathedral. Photograph by Allan Aflak

Say it slow, with an island drawl: An-tee-ga. With a soft, quick start, a lazy stress on the middle, and a sweet sighing end. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right all at once. There’s lots of time to practice while you’re lying on that lovely white sand.

Antigua, often called the heart of the Caribbean due to its location at the halfway-point of the Caribbean archipelago, is one of the region’s leading tourist destinations. A small, hilly island set slightly back from the Eastern Caribbean chain, it is washed on its western coast by the Caribbean Sea, and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean. It claims to have 365 beaches, one for every day of the year, each more beautiful than the last. The island, and its small sister Barbuda, have rich historic sites, including spots where ancient Amerindian artifacts have been found, and some 40 battle forts.

First used by the colonists for growing tobacco, Antigua eventually became a sugar colony. This heritage is still plain, as the landscape is dotted with stone mills, once used to grind the sugar cane to make the juice from which sugar is extracted.

The mills still stand; the cane does not. After hundreds of years of making money for the British plantation owners (there were more than 160 sugar plantations in Antigua by one early 19th century estimate), sugar was abandoned in the island after a gradual decline in prices forced owner after owner out of business. By the mid-1940s, nearly all the arable land was in the hands of a single owner.

When the US established military bases on the island around that time, the farmers had a chance to learn new trades, and to glimpse new possibilities. No longer tied to the land, they abandoned sugar for good. (With some exceptions: the island still produces a smooth red rum named Cavalier. It is a mellow blend with a mighty kick, as you’re almost certain to find out.)

Driving along the roads in Antigua, you’re struck by two things. First, there are no road signs anywhere outside of the capital, St John’s. Second, the endless, nameless roads are bordered by a thorny shrub with fine, light-coloured leaves. The lack of signage is easily explained by the fact that, by and large, everybody who wants to get somewhere in Antigua knows how to get there. Roads are named for their destinations: Shirley Heights Road goes to Shirley Heights; Airport Road goes . . . The thorny shrubs, called “cassie” by Antiguans, are acacia trees, and they’re not quite so easy to explain. They just sprung up where the cane used to grow, said my guide, Annette.

Yes, but where did they come from?

She shrugs. Such things, the shrug implied, don’t matter. Why you want to know that for? The cassie just is.

There are 73,000 people in Antigua and Barbuda. Most of the national income — about 70 per cent — derives from tourism. Slip into the silken sea and it all becomes clear how the country does its thing.

There are beaches and there are beaches. Antiguan beaches are things of beauty, the kind of experience you write home about. Take Jolly Beach, for example. A mile-and-a-half stretch of white sand and perfect, lapping turquoise waves, Jolly Beach sits snugly on the western coast. It is home to an all-inclusive resort but, like the country’s other beaches, it is public property and open to all. If you’ve booked a room at the Jolly Beach Resort, however, a perfect beach just gets better, since with the room come perks like free sailing and windsurfing lessons. And should you feel at all intimidated by the small catamarans and windsurfing boards, never fear. The short lessons are comprehensive. If all fails, you can ask to be taken out for a sail, and people like Classic, one of the sailing teachers, will be happy to oblige.

Classic took me out on one of the little catamarans, along with a honeymooning couple who trailed their hands over the edge of the boat as he tacked and did other mysterious things with the sail that I had no wish to learn about. All I wanted to know was that the strong breeze was pushing us, and Classic’s sure hand was guiding us. Under a cloudless blue sky, he took us around a small point, showing us the neighbouring sandy bay, Valley Church Beach. Private, he pointed out — not that it wasn’t public access like all the other beaches, simply hardly frequented. Hint, hint, nudge, nudge. I saw the honeymooners taking note.

Jolly Beach has three restaurants, one for whatever mood you’re in. There’s sit-down, formal dining at Olive’s, with a Greek menu; casual buffet, salad bar and barbecue at Hemisphere; and hyper-casual beach-side dining at Lydia’s. Having eaten three desserts (Hemisphere does an amazing coconut crème cake at dinner), you waddle back to your room and soothe your by now sun-kissed (or -crisped) skin with aloe vera gel, sip a Cavalier rum punch and wait for sleep to take you until the next sunrise calls you back for round two vs. the fierce West Indian sun.

Given Antigua’s abundance of magnificent beaches, it would be almost sinful to limit yourself to just one. Try Runaway Beach, a favourite with Antiguans; and Dickenson Bay, where former West Indies cricket captain Richie Richardson has established a resort. They’re both quite close to St John’s. In the same vicinity is Fort James, where you can find Millers-by-the-Sea, one of a handful of restaurants offering authentic Antiguan cuisine. If you’re there and they happen to be serving bullfoot soup, don’t think twice about ordering this spicy stew of gelatinous cow’s feet, kidney beans and vegetables. Other local favourites include chop-up (stewed spinach and okra), fungee (cornmeal polenta with okra), and crab backs (seasoned crab meat in the shell).
If you’re travelling with small children and need advice on kid-friendly beaches, a good rule to follow is that the Caribbean shores have milder waves than the Atlantic shores. Not all the beaches are shallow, though. Ask a guide for which is your best bet. Another note: Antiguans will tell you the water gets cold after 4 p.m. It does, but only relatively speaking. It’s hardly a bracing winter chill, but the temperature can seem low compared to the extremely hot sun. If you can take it, jump right in.

Make a point of going to St John’s, the capital. Thirty thousand people live in this small city, perched between tradition and modernity. By day, it’s a manageable shopper’s paradise, with many great shops, selling jewellery, clothing and cosmetics you’ll recognise from the pages of glossy, upwardly mobile magazines the world over. There are also terrific local finds, like craft and souvenir stalls in Heritage Quay, and on neighbouring Redcliffe Quay. The latter is a restored warehouse district; the brick buildings have been turned into tiny, cool and très chic stores and restaurants. Noreen Phillips, a local designer, occupies one of these stores, with her spangled, dazzling ladies’ clothing hanging elegantly beside fantastic, elaborate hats.

By night, St John’s becomes a party animal’s dream. There are floor shows most nights, with acts ranging from reggae to calypso and jazz, at a number of spots. There are also a few good clubs, like the recently-opened Traffic and 18 Karat. Those with more leisurely tastes will enjoy sitting in the bandstand on Heritage Quay, eating jerk chicken sandwiches and sipping goat water (a rich mutton broth heavy with vegetables and savoury dumplings) bought from a roadside vendor. Here, you can watch the people pass by on their way to the aforementioned clubs and floorshows.
When that gets too taxing, you can do as I did, change five dollars into quarters and lose a couple of hours in one of the casinos downtown. Kings, where I went, is a flashing, whirring, clanging, ca-chinging Las Vegas fantasy, albeit in miniature. It closed up shop at 2 a.m., just before I dropped another five bucks into the hungry mouths of the electronic poker games.

St John’s is half-full of the brightly painted wooden buildings characteristic of Antigua, though everywhere these are making way for less interesting concrete structures. The traditional buildings resemble the chattel houses — small, wooden houses set on blocks three feet off the ground — that are still found throughout Antigua. These inexpensive houses were the dwellings of choice for working people on the island after emancipation, and you can still see them all over the place, bright green, red, blue, pink and tan, outstanding in the bright sunlight and for the most part well-maintained. There is a movement afoot in St John’s to preserve these wooden plank buildings, with their festively-coloured exteriors and contrasting trim, so perhaps they will linger a few years yet.

One of the people lobbying for preservation is Michele Henry, executive director of the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda. The Museum, in downtown St John’s, is in a restored Georgian building that used to house the old courthouse. The day I met her, she was excited over the museum’s republication of Heritage Landmarks, a comprehensive book on the country’s historically significant sites. It was written by the museum’s founder, Desmond “Dizzy” Nicholson, a salty, flirtatious old sailor who first came to Antigua with his parents more than 50 years ago. At 76, he still comes into the museum at least once a week to fuss over his collection of artifacts, which includes Amerindian relics, cane mill parts, an account of a slave rebellion gone wrong, and of course, the bat and ball with which Antigua’s favourite son, Sir Vivian Richards, made cricket history.

No account of Antigua is complete without mention of Sir Viv. He’s practically a god here. There’s a street named in his honour; his name is whispered in reverential tones anywhere you go. On his birthday, March 7, he was the subject of entire radio programmes. Tim Hector, a prominent local historian, politician and social commentator, was loudly extolling his virtues that afternoon on ZDK, a national radio station. Hector spent long minutes (or was it hours?) talking about the significance of the cricket great’s record-breaking century (the fastest in history) during the 1986 Test against England at the Antigua Recreation Ground (known locally as the “ARG”). A mere 56 balls brought him the century, and the undying respect of his peers. The staunch devotion of the Antiguan people, as well as a knighthood, followed.

Cricket is not just something Antiguans talk about and follow passionately. They also play it avidly, at the ARG and on less splendid playing fields all over the island. I was told that anybody’s welcome to sit and watch the boys working out in their pristine whites. Pull up a bleacher seat, crack open a Wadadli beer, and you’re all set. It’s a great way to spend a lazy afternoon. (Lazy for you, that is: not so for the cricketers bowling and whacking the ball around in the blazing sun.)
And the sun in Antigua and Barbuda is very often blazing. Average temperatures are lowest (between 70-80 degrees) between December to February, and highest (80-89 degrees) from August to October. The heat isn’t unbearable, however. Strong breezes blow over the island, and humidity is low, as the island experiences little rainfall and isn’t heavily forested. Average rainfall is around 45 inches a year, which is pretty dry, a fact that won’t escape you as you’re winding your way up to Shirley Heights, the impressive colonial fortifications on the south coast, overlooking the wonderful English Harbour and Nelson’s Dockyard. The landscape is dotted with flat, oval-bladed prickly pear cacti (also called cassie), long, cylindrical organ-pipe cacti, and agave, spiky low bushes with spear-like blades.
Agave is the national plant; it’s also called “dagger” by Antiguans, and produces a fiber used for various applications. If you’re lucky you’ll see it in flower, with a tall, thick stem rising up to 20 feet from its centre, topped with golden brown blossoms.

The perfect vacation deserves planning and coordination. That’s what’s required for a day trip to Barbuda. Though they are one nation, these two islands couldn’t be more distinct from each other. Barbuda is about two-thirds the size of Antigua, but has only 1,400 inhabitants. It’s even drier than Antigua, but has ground water because it’s a coral island and very porous.

Historically, Barbuda wasn’t a sugar colony, but a farming island and hunting preserve. One colonial governor of the Leewards, Christopher Codrington, leased the island from the British government for the price of “one fat sheep” for 200 years, which sounds like a pretty good deal. He was a charming guy, Codrington: he was not above enticing passing ships onto the island’s reefs, thus leaving today’s divers some excellent scuba-diving sites. It’s much safer to get to the island today, with Carib Aviation flying several times daily from Antigua. After a 15-minute flight, you land on an island even native Barbudans call “the land that time forgot”.

In Barbuda’s low, desert scrub lurk wild horses, donkeys, cattle, goats, deer, land turtles, guinea hens and iguanas. “Everything is wild except for the people,” joked Barbuda Tourism Co-ordinator, Calvin Gore. It’s really something to see, driving along the narrow white marl roads criss-crossing the island and coming face-to-face with a family of wild donkeys. I fell in love with their shaggy grey coats, mildly enquiring eyes and soft white muzzles. They’d look up from their grazing, chew contemplatively and studiously ignore the passing vehicles churning up dust from the road.

Barbuda’s most prominent attraction is its large saltwater lagoon, seven by two-and-a-half miles. It is one of the largest in the world, and one of the few nesting sites of the Magnificent Frigatebird, or Man-o-War. These black birds have tiny feet and bodies the size of chickens, but their wing-span is around six feet. They soar on the air currents above their mangrove nesting grounds, swooping into the water to spear live fish. The males show off by blowing up a bright-red, balloon-sized pouch under the neck and warbling loudly until a female is impressed enough to mate. Once the single egg is laid, the male sits on it until the chick is hatched, and stays long enough for it to start to fly. Then he’s off to another nesting site on the other side of the world, leaving mate and chick behind.

The shallow lagoon (only about 14 feet at its deepest point) has some lovely beaches, including the isolated North Beach, which has two family guest cabanas and a kitchen. Carol and Henson Lewis live there for part of the year. On a glorious day, relentlessly bright and hot, Carol broke out the obligatory Wadadlis while Henson and Gore regaled me with outrageous fish stories.

Henson swears the red snappers living among the lagoon’s mangrove roots sit around just waiting to be speared in the traditional method (called “graining” in these parts). Lobsters, according to Henson, which are something of a national dish in Barbuda since they’re so plentiful, pretty much wave their claws at you, shouting, “Yoo hoo! Pick me up!” And so on. Speedy, my guide and the pilot of the speedboat that took me around the lagoon, confirmed the stories. Uh huh. (You can make North Beach bookings at (268) 727-5083.)

Speedy also took me out to the most perfect beach I’ve ever seen, a flat pink meeting expanse called Louis Beach, which was swept clean of mangrove by Hurricane Luis in 1995. A far too short swim under the amused gaze of Speedy and Co., and I was off into the wilds of Barbuda again.

I ended up sipping sea moss (a satiny milk drink made with seaweed and flavoured with vanilla) in a cave near the coast. Two Foot Bay’s waves were slapping white sand below me, but in the quiet of the cave it was just me and the lobster salad from Palm Tree Restaurant. I was one with the world and all was well.

Though Antigua and Barbuda are small islands, it’s hard to imagine a better vacation destination. If I had one complaint to make, it was that there was so much beauty I nearly began to get used to it. Oh no, not another exquisite beach! Not another soul-stirring vista!

On my way home, I touched the airplane window as the azure of the sky replaced the bluest water in the world. It was real, wasn’t it?


Antiguans call themselves “garrets”. (Another of those things you ask about and get a shrug in reply. Like the cassie, it just is.) Native Antiguans talk with an accent that I’m strongly tempted to say sounds like Jamaican. They have a whole compendium of sayings and saws, like: “Raben ratta never fatter” (greedy people are never satisfied, much like greedy rats are never fat enough for their liking). Or: “Stone under water no feel the heat of day” (when you’re comfortable you can’t feel anybody else’s pain). Or my favourite: “Pickney no hear what mumma say, drink pepper water, lime and salt” (a stubborn child who doesn’t listen to his mother will suffer painful consequences). However, unless you get out among the people, you’ll hardly hear such colourful talk. Most Antiguans who interact with tourists tend to keep their local sayings under cover.


1 Dr The Rt. Hon. VC Bird Day (Public Holiday)
1-3 Antigua Yacht Club’s Barbuda Cruise Race
6-7 Spring Hill Riding School Show Jumping Competition
13-14 Antigua Yacht Club: Green Island Weekend
27-6 Antigua Carnival Celebrations
27 Opening of 45th Carnival Competition
28 Junior Carnival Competition and Calypso Competition
29 Female Calypso Finals
30 Mr and Miss Teenage Pageant
31 Queen of Carnival Pageant

1-6 Carnival continues
1 Panorama Competition, Antigua Recreation Ground
5-6 Carnival Monday and Tuesday

1 Royal Antigua and Barbuda Police Force Week of Activities

12-13 Jolly Harbour Yacht Club Annual Regatta
18 Antigua Yacht Club Ladies Laser Open
19-20 Antigua Yacht Club Caribbean Laser Team Racing Championship
1-30 National Warri Festival
26 Spring Gardens Moravian Independence Food Fair
31 Heritage Day

1 National Warri Festival concludes
1 Independence Day (Public Holiday)
1-3 Annual Independence Bridge Tournament
3 Antigua Yacht Club Independence Day Race Queen’s Cup
9-10 Antiguan Open Golf Tournament
10 Antigua Art Exhibition

4-10 Nicholson’s Annual Boat Show and Marine Trade Fair
8 Exhibition at Harmony Hall featuring Graham Davis
25 Christmas Day
26 Boxing Day


Inhabited on and off for 4,000 years, Antigua and Barbuda have been home to at least three Amerindian groups: Ciboney, Arawaks and Caribs. The first were nomads who probably used Antigua as a pit stop en route to other islands in the chain. The second group, a farming people, are thought to have stayed about 1,200 years before they left for other islands, either on their own or at the none-too-subtle encouragement of the more aggressive Caribs.

There is no conclusive evidence that the Caribs actually occupied Antigua and Barbuda for more than short periods, but it is their name for the islands that lives on. Waladli (immortalised in its corrupted form as Wadadli, the name of Antigua’s crisp, refreshing lager) and Wa’omoni, as they were known, fell into European hands in 1493 when Columbus made his second voyage. The Genoese explorer named Antigua after a cathedral in Seville, but only in passing; it remained almost uninhabited by Europeans for a further 130 years. When finally a permanent British settlement was set up in the south of Antigua in 1632, it marked the start of an almost uninterrupted colonisation that lasted until independence.

Beautiful as they are, the beaches aren’t the be all and end all of Antigua. Nelson’s Dockyard National Park, set in the pretty village of English Harbour, is the only functioning Georgian dockyard in the world. You shouldn’t pass up the chance to visit the place where a young naval captain called Horatio Nelson was stationed in 1784. At the time, Nelson was commander of the Northern Division of the Leeward Islands Station. One of his jobs was to ensure that sanctions against England’s enemies were upheld; the settlers were not impressed by how well he did this job, for they preferred to trade freely, and he was, therefore, not a popular man on the island. (Of course he went on to greater glories as Admiral Lord Nelson.)

There’s a small admission fee to the park, which includes the dockyard and Shirley Heights, a derelict fort at the top of a hill on the southern side of the island. The fee is worth it, particularly if you have history buff tendencies like I do. Tashena, my guide to the dockyard, was full of quirky information about the 18th-century stone-and-brick buildings, constructed with ballast from the ships that came to the island for barrels of raw sugar. The ballast has stood the test of time, so much so that the whole dockyard now is a thriving business concern, with three inns and a small shopping mall.

One of the inns is the Admiral’s Inn Hotel. According to Tashena, it used to be the sick house for the station. “Only one medication was served in there and it was rum,” she said with a little smile. “There was no guarantee you would come out alive.” Also pretty dangerous was the guardhouse, now home to Antigua Charter Services. There used to be a sign warning off strangers, women and people smoking tobacco, Tashena said. Violators would be shot first and questioned later. A little further back, close to the wooden house of the Admiral himself (still standing and in fine shape — the house, that is, not the Admiral), is a sandbox tree said to be over 200 years old. It’s just as well that it no longer bears the pods which gentlemen used to fill with sand and use as ink blotters. (There are few ink pens these days, and, some would say, fewer gentlemen.)

Tear yourself away from Nelson’s Dockyard and its marina full of yachts with their colourful sails whipping in the brisk wind, and visit Shirley Heights. Up a winding, bumpy road, the old fort commands a spectacular view of the southern part of the island and the surrounding waters. On a clear day you can see Guadeloupe and Montserrat. Just to the east, Half Moon Bay is a scimitar of sand that just seems to call your name.

But up at Shirley Heights there isn’t just a great view. A stone’s throw away, in a reconditioned out-building, you can relax with a Wadadli (the beer, not the island), and eat mouth-watering barbecue a couple of times a week. Sundays from about 5 p.m. there are live bands playing steel pan and reggae. Brave the bad roads, because the barbecue smells like heaven and its flavour doesn’t disappoint.


part from the beaches, Antigua’s natural attractions include the Antiguan Racer, a slow-moving brown snake that is found only on Bird Island, one of the many tiny islands off the coast. How do you catch a glimpse of this creature (if you’re into such things)? Aah. Therein lies another adventure.

Pack a swimsuit and some sunscreen and head for Seatons, a small fishing village on the east coast. In a renovated fisherman’s cabin, Jennie and Conrad LaBarrie have set up Antigua Paddles, specialising in kayak and snorkelling tours. The name of the business says it all. They have four 25-foot Carolina skiffs, flat-bottomed boats that easily navigate the reefs and shallows around that side of the island, taking 30-person groups out on kayaking adventures. And boy, did I have an adventure.

I have discovered, to my everlasting shame, that I can’t paddle my own canoe. (Or kayak — whatever.) I turned over four times in one hot, wet half-hour. But in spite of the shame, I had so much fun I’d do it again. Anthony, my guide, was patient but firm, tying my plastic, single kayak to the stern (do kayaks have sterns?) of his own catamaran-styled vessel and pulling me along. The red, white and black mangrove, he explained, is integral to the ecosystem, and plays host to fish and birds alike.

Then, having victoriously paddled (okay, been towed) around an islet and oohed and ahhed over starfish — as large as a child’s head — clinging to the visible roots of the mangrove, I climbed back into the skiff for the rest of the trip to Bird Island. There, I managed not to see any Racers, but did take the short hike to the top of the rocky outcrop, to ooh and aah some more over the truly wonderful view of the surrounding islands and the craggy coast of the mainland. On my way back to the boat, I slipped into the cool and crystal clear water once more, this time not coming up feeling sheepish and trying to right a reluctant kayak.

The LaBarries sell these trips as three tours in one, since they also carry snorkelling gear in the skiffs for those who want to watch colourful parrot fish, yellow tail barracudas and heart fish swimming in the shallows off Bird Island. Luckier people than I have seen dolphins, Hawksbill sea turtles and even the occasional whale in this stretch of open Atlantic. I was happy enough with my kayaking prowess, but happier still when Jennie LaBarrie greeted me with icy cold, cologne-soaked face cloths. (I swear I heard my skin smile.) These tours must be booked in advance; if you do it online (antiguapaddles.com) they’ll give you a discount.

How to get there

BWIA flies to Antigua from Miami, Washington, New York, Toronto, London and Caribbean destinations. V.C. Bird International Airport is five miles (8 km) from the capital, St John’s. There is an airport departure tax of EC$25 for Antiguan citizens; EC$35 for CARICOM nationals; EC$50 for non-CARICOM citizens.


• Area: Antigua 108 square miles/442 sq. km., Barbuda 62 square miles/161sq. km.
• Highest point: Boggy Peak, 1,330ft/399m
• Population: 67,000
• Religion: Protestant 74%, Catholic 11%
• Currency: East Caribbean dollar (EC$, 2.7 to the US$)
• Language: English
• Time: Atlantic Standard Time (EST+1, GMT-4)
• Climate: tropical; temperature range 23-30°C; rainfall 45 inches per year, mostly September to November
• Electricity: 110 and 220v

• Settled by Ciboney c.2400BC, Arawaks 35-1100AD, Caribs. Prospective Spanish and French settlers deterred by lack of water and Carib attacks. Successful English settlement 1632. First major plantation 1674. Administered as part of Leeward Islands until 1959. British Associated State 1967, independent 1981

Travel tips
• Driving On the left. A local permit costs US$20
• Food and drink Local favourites include saltfish, pepperpot, goat water, shellfish, conch stew, chicken and rice. Fresh fruit includes the local black pineapple; there are good fruit juices, coconut milk, rum and rum punches, and local Wadadli beer.
• Entertainment Great music, nightclubs, casino gambling
• Shopping In St John’s: Heritage Quay, Redcliffe Quay, downtown (especially St Mary’s Street). Woods Centre on the outskirts of town (Friars Hill Road). Duty-free items, fashions, crafts, paintings and rum are among the best buys
• Watersports Deep sea and sport fishing, cocktail and barbecue cruises, reef tours in glass-bottom boats, sailing, waterskiing, windsurfing, kayaking, parasailing, snorkelling, catamaran trips, cruises to offshore islands
• Other sports Cricket, cycling, tennis, golf, horseback riding, drag racing, hiking