There are the laid-back Caribbean vacations that involve nothing more than a beach chair and a tropical drink. But Irvina Lew traveled to the island of Antigua in search of more active adventures on both land and sea.
Want more tips on planning your Caribbean adventures? Check out PeterGreenberg and Michelin’s guide to The Caribbean: Like a Local.
On Antigua, where protected harbors have lured sailors for centuries, most adventures are linked to the Caribbean Sea and involve sailing, scuba dives, snorkeling and surfboarding if not dolphin and stingrays.
In recent years, land-based adventures have developed. Driving cross-country, rural roads pass hiking trails in a tropical rain forest, the zip-line above the trees and the shooting range where clay pigeons are prey.
En route to English Harbor, my driver pointed out the cruise ship port of Saint John, the capital city. Here, the Anglican Cathedral towers soar over the 18th century Court House and surrounding corrugated iron rooftops. She passed some of the 109 sugar mill towers that are privy to adventures dating from the 17th century as well as cyclists racing toward the coast. They are creating 21st-century memories complete with crews and friends cheering them on to the finish line.
On the south-east coast, the meticulously restored historic district abutting English harbor includes 15 square miles of Nelson’s Dockyard National Park which has been in use since the 16th century. The British commissioned it in 1755 to protect it from competing French, Dutch and Spanish fleets. From 1784-1787, it served as headquarters of the British fleet in the Leeward Islands and British hero Horatio Nelson used the facility to repair English Royal Navy ships. Modern-day feats still take place there every spring; Nelson’s Dockyard is the HQ for Antigua Sailing Week.
Inside its original walls, this landmark is still a working dockyard, an active marina as well as a destination for visitors to its restored 18th century Georgian buildings. These house the Dockyard Museum (within the former Admiral’s House), Joiner’s Loft, (restaurant within the 18-room Admiral’s Inn), the Copper and Lumber Store Hotel (a 14-suite, five-star hotel) and shops.
A hike to Shirley Heights, above the dockyard, reaches the partially restored 18th century colonial naval fortifications. Today, this former military observation post is where folks climb for the expansive view over the ridge. Many attend the Sunday afternoon dance party and enjoy the steel band, barbecue and sunset.
Jolly Harbour, on the island’s west coast, is another boat-studded, deep-water harbor where sailing, snorkeling, cruising and diving vessels dock and moor. It’s home to a sailing school, yacht club (the golf club is nearby) and festivals at which food stands sell local (cooked) lobster, Johnny cakes and scones. It’s also home to a fleet of boats devoted to eco-tourism adventures.
Among the vessels, the 55-foot motor-catamaran, Adventure Antigua, hosts guests on a day-long eco-cruise. The crew, naturalists all, pointed out the marine life and the mangroves. They talked about the Hawksville Turtle Project an environmental endeavor working to preserve an endangered species that nests on Pasture Bay beach.
Locals claim there are as many beaches on Antigua as there are days of the year. They edge the perimeter of the 108-square-mile island like a frilly lace border on a bright green skirt. Their sheer number intrigued one recent transplant so much that she embarked on a personal quest: to visit each one.
Visitors flock to the beaches for their own adventures: launching kayaks, skiffs and sailboats. They sunbath, swim, surf and snorkel or simply stroll on the silky sand around curved coves or on long stretches. Some roadside beaches offer beach bars. At Gibson’s, in Crabbe Hill Village, the barman makes chilled cocktails, serves freshly caught fish and then, dances atop the bar facing guests, palm trees, the sandy shore and the sea.
Sugar Ridge, the 2-year young hotel where I stayed, has a complimentary shuttle service to Gibson’s and other nearby beaches. The main lodge of the 60 room, family owned property houses an open-air dining room above a five-treatment room Aveda spa, a fitness facility and pool. This architectural statement faces hotel shops, including an art gallery, and the lobby lounge. From there, a golf-cart-sized road leads upwards to 15 two-story buildings which each contain four comfy suites, some with private plunge pools. The road spirals up the hilltop towards Carmichael’s– a Caribbean fusion restaurant where the chef prides himself on incorporating locally grown ingredients into his dishes. The hilltop restaurant, a second pool and a patio offer incredible views that extend beyond the coast to Nevis and St. Kitts and a Sunday brunch that attracts guests from all over the island.
My favorite island adventure was a morning walk with the hotel’s resident naturalist. While church bells chimed, he led three of us past sugar cane and hibiscus bordered paths towards a tiny local community with lemon and lime colored cottages, turquoise bungalows and both needy shacks and grand white villas. We four meandered through his friend’s garden and watched a mom hanging school uniforms on the porch; I chatted about growing vegetables with a lady shelling beans in her yard.
Lions and tigers and bears? Oh no! Here, there are chickens, dogs and goats—even a lonely mule—grazing, I gratefully accepted a gift of a freshly picked loofah and a sip of home-made rum from his pal’s shop. For me, meeting locals added to the experience of being in a small hotel.
In Antigua, the variety of lodgings span the price categories and include all-inclusive, B&B or a la carte rates. Among the choices, there are self-service apartments (Jolly Harbour), sprawling seafront resorts with more than 100 lodgings (St. James Club and The Verandah Resort & Spa), and an exclusive retreat (Jumby Bay, a Rosewood Resort on a private island).
Adventures in Antigua? You bet!
For more Caribbean adventures, check out:
- Cuba Travel Update: Renewed Licenses for People to People Operators
- Tulum Uncovered Beyond Mexico’s All-Inclusive Track
- Off-Season Island Travel: Forget the Crowds and Save
- Hidden Gems: Turks & Caicos–Complete Island Adventures
By Irvina Lew for PeterGreenberg.com. Irvina Lew is a writer who specializes in travel and spas. She is also the author of Romantic Weekends In and Around New York. Visit her online at IrvinaLew.com.