Warm steady breezes, hundreds of safe anchorages and a nearly unbroken protective reef attracted the first visitors to Antigua – the British navy. Today these same enticing characteristics attract divers to the underwater wonders of the reef system and all of the rest of us to sandy beaches on quiet, protected harbours.
Ah, the beaches. The islands boast 365 of them, claiming one for every day of the year, and all open to the public. On the northwest coast, Dickenson Bay and Runaway Bay, are the place to go for the fully-loaded resort beach experience. Near St. John’s, Fort James is popular with the locals. Galley Bay attracts surfers during the winter months and joggers during the evening, while the four crescent beaches at Hawksbill are also popular; one is nudist.
Heading south, from St. John’s, the road winds along past Fryes Bay, Darkwood Beach, and the beaches around Johnsons Point. Pigeon Point, near English Harbour Town, is a a great place to rest after a day at Nelson's Dockyard.
On the southeast corner of Antigua, Half Moon Bay is a National Park and a good choice for a family outing. Long Bay, on the easternmost point of the island, is another good choice for families, as it is completely protected by its reef.
So Much MoreWhile the beaches are a very good reason to come here, there is so much more to see and do. The islands boast a collection of sites that chronicle their naval history and plantation culture and showcase local natural wonders.
Clarence House was built for the future King William IV (1765-1837) when he served under Nelson as captain of the H.M.S. Pegasus. Above the harbour, at Shirley Heights, are the partially-restored fortifications of the harbour’s colonial observation post; the view from Shirley Heights extends out over the harbour and far across the Caribbean to Montserrat and Guadaloupe. On Sundays the view is enhanced by barbecue and live music at the bar there.
Lookout Trail is a nature walk that rises from the harbour through a forest to Shirley Heights. Dow’s Hill Interpretation Center, along the Trail, is where visitors can see a multimedia presentation of Antigua’s history, from its initial settlement to independence.
Fort James is also a part of the islands’ naval past, built to guard St. John’s Harbour. The walls remain in excellent condition, and a few of the cannons are still intact, but the main attraction is the excellent view of the surrounding harbour. Nearby is Heritage Quay, with a hotel, duty-free shops, restaurants and a casino.
Plantation culture is preserved at Betty’s Hope Sugar Plantation. Built by Sir Christopher Codrington in the late 17th century and named after his daughter, Betty’s Hope was the first large sugar plantation on Antigua, and the catalyst for the rapid development of sugar production on the island. Today two stone sugar mills and the remains of the still house are all that’s left.
The Museum of Antigua and Barbuda is the place to find the complete history of Antigua and Barbuda from pre-historic times, through indigenous cultures and the country’s passion for cricket.
Heading inland, a drive along Fig Tree Drive is one of the best ways to see the interior of Antigua. The route passes through rainforest, banana, mango and coconut groves and by old sugar mills and little churches. Green Castle Hill, south of St. John’s, also offers up magnificent views of the interior plain. Back on the coast, Indian Town National Park, on the eastern side, is thought to have been an Arawak campsite at one time. The Devil’s Bridge is a huge limestone arch. At high tide, geysers of water shoot through boreholes in the rocks in a spectacular display.
BarbudaAntigua’s sister island, Barbuda, could just be one of the best-kept secrets in the Caribbean. A quick 15-minute flight from Antigua, or a more leisurely 90-minute ferry boat crossing, Barbuda offers miles of spectacular beaches and photographic, crystal clear turquoise waters. A sparse population, limited visitors, a simple infrastructure and rich tropical wildlife allow this island to remain one of the few untouched Caribbean destinations perfect for those seeking an “unplugged” getaway.
Diving, snorkeling, fishing, bird watching, caving and beachcombing are the activities of choice. Surrounded by coral reefs, Barbuda is home to a remarkable variety of marine life and several centuries worth of shipwrecks. In fact, there are more than 200 documented wrecks to entice divers to explore the maritime treasures.
Barbuda’s Frigate Bird Sanctuary is in the island’s northwestern lagoon and is accessible only by boat. The sanctuary houses over 170 species of birds as well as 5,000 frigate birds, also known as the man o’ war bird. The male frigate is marked by its red throat pouch, which it can inflates as part of its courtship behaviour and as a defensive display. Courting takes place in the fall, and chicks hatch late in the year.