Everyone knows that the weather is great, the locals are friendly and you’re never far from a rum punch. But here are five more compelling reasons to visit the jewel of the Leeward Islands
The Antiguans claim that their island is the best in the Caribbean for sailing. The topography creates a huge variety of sailing conditions, they say, and the tiny bays and inlets offer plenty of places to shelter safely and swim in the clear blue seas.
Sailing Week, held at the end of April, is one of the top regattas in the world. Hundreds of yachts descending on Falmouth Harbour to take part in races and celebrate with numerous events and parties, culminating in the legendary Lord Nelson’s Ball.
If you’re new to sailing, local companies like Ondeck offer a variety of accredited sailing courses. As well as learning the difference between jibing and tacking, you’ll take control of the boat as you sail out of Falmouth Bay and head towards English Harbour. The entrance to the harbour is tricky to spot from sea and it's easy to see how French warships sailed right by without seeing it. Look for the Pillars of Hercules, a fluted rock formation that marks the entrance.
Make sure you drop by the National Sailing Academy. Run by Elizabeth Jordan, it’s a charity based in Falmouth Bay, dedicated to teaching kids who wouldn’t normally get the chance to sail. You’ll see them darting around the harbour in tiny Lasers, under the careful eye of Sylvester Thomas, the senior instructor. There’s a pool for teaching kids to swim too – it is estimated that about 80% can’t swim in deep water.
Stay for lunch at the opened-sided restaurant in the grounds, offering delicious local food and spectacular views across the harbour. If you’re lucky, Elizabeth’s husband, Peter will join you for a beer and regale you with tales about the time he rowed across the Atlantic.
Hiking in Antigua is a real treat. The size of the island means that you’re never far from civilisation, but equally, it’s just as easy to feel like civilisation isn’t there. Many of the hikes end at a deserted beach where you’ll get a sugar white stretch of sand pretty much to yourself.
The hike to the island’s highest point, Mount Obama, is a moderate walk that takes between 1-3 hours. It was renamed Mount Obama in 2009 in the hope that the former president would visit the island to climb his topographic namesake. He hasn’t yet, and many locals have reverted to calling it by its former name, Boggy Peak.
For those who like a little learning with their walking, Hike Caribbean offer a number of walks guided by local legend, Vorn Johnson. A lanky Rasta who once hung out with Grandmaster Flash in New York, Vorn is a man with a million stories. Schooled by his strong-willed grandmother, he is a walking encyclopaedia on the island’s flora and fauna and a veritable pharmacist on which plants will best cure what ails you. The walk ends on the gorgeous Valley Church beach, where you can feast on the mangoes Vorn picks along the way.
Vorn also guides walks through a local village near Jolly Harbour where you’ll learn about the local history and legends, including Vorn’s close encounter with a jumbie, the evil spirits found in these parts. Vorn will take you into his friend’s houses as well, giving you a rare insight into local life. You can book Vorn through Sugar Ridge Resort or visit the Hike Caribbean website.
The topography that makes Antigua such a great sailing destination makes it a first class kayaking destination too. A series of sparkling seas and calm bays await, as well as more challenging routes through mangrove swamps.
The mangrove swamps on the southwestern side of the island are the most interesting. Here you’ll find an intricate labyrinth of channels through a canopy of mangroves, with rustic signs strategically placed to point you in the right direction. The only sounds are the lapping water, the wing beat of a startled heron or a fish breaking the water.
Snorkelling is excellent on Antigua too. Great Bird Island and Maiden Island in the north east of Antigua, are popular spots and there’s a wreck in Deep Bay, reachable by boat. Cades Reef, in the south east, is a a two and a half mile-long barrier reef and part of a designated underwater park.
Of course, there is always the opportunity to do both. South Coast Horizons offers a combined kayak and snorkelling trip that will see you kayaking through the mangroves to a deserted beach where a boat awaits to take you out to Cades Reef and a collection of sea urchins, starfish tropical reef fish and Hawksbill turtles.
Antiguans are proud of their beaches and rightly so. They are picture-postcard stretches of sugar white sand and startling blue water. There are 365 they say, one for each day of the year, and most of them are empty.
Valley Church beach, near Jolly Harbour is one of the most beautiful. It can get a little busy when the cruise ships are in port (we’re speaking relatively here) but for most of the year you’ll have it pretty much to yourself, bar a local stretched on the sand, letting the water lap over themselves, or the odd couple smooching in the waves.
Of course, there’s more to Antiguan beaches than sun and sand. It’s here you’ll find the island’s legendary beach shacks. Colourful and rustic, they are the perfect place to watch the horizon, rum punch in hand, and can be found on beaches across the island. In the south, Turner’s Beach Bar is famous for its conch fritters and baby back ribs. For something a little more sophisticated and contemporary, try Ana’s Restauarant and Art Gallery. As the sun sets and the fairy lights twinkle, it is truly magical.
Antigua is awash with music. It blares from the market stalls in St John’s and provides a sophisticated soundtrack in restaurants and resorts across the country. At the famous Shirley Heights Sunset Party, held every Sunday, a steel drum plays as the rum flows, the BBQ sizzles and the sun sets slowly in the west. Reggae bands play here too.
A lot of the resorts have bands playing, including Spirited, a band that features ex-cricketers Curtly Ambrose and Ritchie Richardson on bass and rhythm guitar respectively. Burning Flames, probably the best known band on the island, have a residency on the stunning deck/restaurant at South Point on Falmouth Bay during Sailing Week. The Antigua Nice website has a section on upcoming gigs.
Carnival is the best time to hear the current soca sounds sweeping the Caribbean. Whether you like your soca jumpy or groovy (ask a local to explain the difference) you’ll find a sound system on a corner somewhere blaring out the latest tunes.
Buying something to take home is a little trickier. Progress Records in Heritage Quay in St Johns sells steel drum CDs aimed squarely at the cruise ship market, but the owner, the eponymous Mr P, will happily fill you in on the acts that are currently popular so you can seek them out on Youtube. He'll also point you towards whatever street corner the local bootlegger has set up for the day, selling CDRs of the latest hits. The quality is surprisingly good - the seller claims the artists send him the files directly.