There are no bus timetables on Antigua. They come when they come; sometimes two at once, sometimes with yawning gaps between services. It rather says something about this sleepy island nation, in the cricket-loving West Indies.
Perhaps as a result of the dawdling passing of time, the past is everywhere – in the crumbling sugar mills that dot the rocky landscape and in the smart, neatly maintained colonial-era architecture. Equally though, it’s a rapidly developing and forward-looking destination, with a growing abundance of tourist-friendly activities, suitably plush resorts and a buoyant restaurant scene.
Having sidestepped the worst ravages of Covid-19, it has consistently ranked as one of the safest international destinations for travellers – an almost permanent fixture on the UK’s former green list. We look then, at why now is a terrific time to discover, or rediscover, this charming pocket paradise.
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A spotlight on history
The discovery this summer of what’s believed to be the wreck of a monumentally important, 18th century French merchant ship (in English Harbour, at the south of the island) has reinvigorated interest in Antigua’s vibrant history.
A former sugar colony and regional centre of trade, the island has long played host to icons of the past: visited by Christopher Columbus and a station for Lord Nelson, for whom the Unesco World Heritage dockyard is named.
This dockyard, with its finely restored buildings, is now one of the island’s top attractions, from which a web of hiking trails extends into the surrounding national park. At a 490ft elevation, the nearby Shirley Heights is a repaired military lookout that offers outrageously impressive panoramic views down to the sweeping harbour where tall ships once clustered and, on a clear day, across ebbing cyan waters to the islands of Montserrat and Guadeloupe.
Cracking resorts, old and new
Antigua isn’t quite as flush with stays as some of its Caribbean siblings, but the arguably more sensitive and less compact development plays to its favour, with properties that run the gamut from elevated mid-market to ultra-extravagance.
The likes of Curtain Bluff and Hermitage Bay are among the more luxurious – both beach-hugging resorts with lots of quintessential breeze-swaying white drapery, rattan and looming palms – while at the top of the extravagance pile is Jumby Bay. A 300-acre, villa-peppered private island retreat (with its own catamaran to ferry guests from the mainland), it’s where Paul McCartney, Mariah Carey and Lionel Messi have famously left their footprints in the sands.
For something plush but, perhaps, a little more accessible, Tamarind Hills is among Antigua’s newest stays. On the sunset-facing west coast, it features handsome, contemporary interiors, grand views from its hillside perch and direct access to one of the island’s quaintest beaches.
One might describe Antigua as more of a “toes out” than a “dress up” kind of a destination, and while the particularly rarefied resorts dabble in starched fine dining, generally speaking hospitality is of the low-key, convivial variety.
Spots like the chic Catherine’s Café, on Pigeon Beach, and Sheer Rocks, adjacent to the much-Instagrammed Cocobay Resort, lead the pack on style. Both are owned by Englishman Alex Grimley, who has rather cornered the market on easy elegance – Catherine’s specialising in high-quality French dishes for the linen-clad, bespoke panama set; while Sheer Rocks leans slightly younger, a spectacular all-day destination popular with couples, set on a cliff edge and serving accomplished small plates and the best cocktails on the island.
For more classic, come-as-you-are surrounds, OJ’s Beach Bar, Jackie O’s Beach House and Beachlimerz deal in superb seafood and Antiguan national dishes, each featuring a beachside location and their own spin on the archetypal rum punch.
There’s plenty to do
Though a Caribbean sojourn may be, for many, an opportunity to do very little – save taking up space on a stretch of sedate beach or lingering by a pool – for those that wish to mix downtime with active time, Antigua is a prize.
You can hone your sailing skills or learn the basics with classes at the National Sailing Academy, spotting large turtles and occasionally dolphins in the waters of Falmouth Harbour while tacking; or let someone else captain the ship on a high-octane, wave-riding “extreme” circumnavigation of the island, with Adventure Antigua.
To enjoy the nautical spirit with feet firmly on dry land, visit during the island’s celebrated Sailing Week (usually the tail end of April and into May), as more than 100 yachts squeeze into English Harbour and the surrounding seas. It’s one of the world’s most prestigious regattas, attracting participants from across the globe, alongside thousands of spectators.
Getting there is a doddle
As a hub for the wider Caribbean, Antigua and Barbuda is one of the most accessible nations in the region, boasting multiple direct flights from the UK – including the newly introduced British Airways route from London Gatwick (with connections to most regional airports), as well as options from London Heathrow with both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.
Factoring in the time difference (GMT-4), it’s possible then to take off from a sullen Great Britain in the morning and, by afternoon, be ankle deep in lukewarm sea, rum punch in hand and the faint sound of calypso carrying on the wind.
It’s Covid secure
While, like most destinations, Covid restrictions wax and wane, the government of Antigua has taken a proactive approach throughout the pandemic – credited with keeping case numbers low and the island a safe, responsible proposition for foreign visitors.
As such, evidence of a negative, pre-departure PCR test is mandatory for all arrivals while, locally, masks must be worn when in public and a curfew remains in place that requires tourists to stay in their resorts between 11pm and 5am.
So, though the latter may put paid to any late-night escapades on the streets of the capital, Saint John’s, or in the independent bars and restaurants, in reality it’s a negligible constraint when eating and drinking venues within resorts are unaffected.
For more information see visitantiguabarbuda.com
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